Insourcing Education: A Foolish Approach to Learning and Development

Roger Friedman

Once upon a time, The Motley Fool spent tens of thousands of dollars every year to send employees to external sources for learning and development. While many of our selected providers offered courses that were valuable and effective at, say, training new managers, we found in our experiences three primary problems with that approach:
  1. The courses were very rarely inexpensive.
  2. The instructors were decidedly hit-or-miss—some classes were taught by inspirational, transformative teachers, but just as many were led by people who simply read the training workbook.
  3. None of them taught specifically for the business or the culture of The Motley Fool.
Although we are a tad more buttoned-down now than we were back in the early days of the company, we are still proud to possess a culture that is far from the mainstream. It remains a differentiator for us and it influences all we do as a company. We still have beanbags in some of our open spaces. Our game room is not only awesome; it is used on a regular basis. Our CEO has rolled around a snack cart on more than one occasion. And my boss wears flip-flops.

As we began developing our corporate university about a year ago, we quickly learned that the people best equipped to teach our employees about the ways and workings of the Fool were Fools (and in our parlance, a Fool is a compliment, derived from Shakespearean times when the Fool—the jester—was was the only one who could speak the truth to the king without fear of losing his head). We found that even the most skilled external teacher couldn't prepare our employees for the transparency expected by and espoused by our CFO, for example; didn't demonstrate that every company-wide email, sent by everyone from our CEO to the guy who welcomes visitors, should not only inform, but also amuse; and didn't let our employees know that showing up promptly for a meeting only served to identify you as a newbie.

We decided to put essentially all of our learning and development opportunities in the hands of Fools.

But while we saved money and provided a more customized learning experience—teaching Fools exactly what we want them to know about our business—the insourcing of education was not without peril. It turns out that even though the people we selected to stand (or, more often, sit) at the front of our classrooms were without exception stellar at their jobs, that didn't exactly qualify them as expert teachers. We had shy teachers. We had teachers who thought reading PowerPoint slides was an appropriate instruction method. We had more than a few teachers who felt comfortable winging it. And we had a few of the dreaded lecturers, people who forgot how quickly minds can wander.

Nowadays, a key job of our Learning & Development team is to teach the teachers, combining their subject matter expertise with tried-and-true methods to inspire interactivity, practical applicability, and general awesomeness. Every teacher is now required to meet with the dean before he or she is allowed to step to the front of a classroom. They need to walk through their material to show exactly what they're going to do to start an engaging discussion, how they are going to tie their presentation to real-life business goals, and what's going to get students recommending the course to their friends afterward.

And because we simply don't have time for learning for learning's sake, we make them figure out the goal before they consider anything else. As expressed in The Motley Fool's Non-Teachers' Guide to Teaching:

"As you begin the process of determining what and how you want to teach, you should first force yourself to fill in the blank in the following sentence: At the end of my course, my students should be able to ____________. If you are teaching a multi-session course, fill in that blank for each class session, as well as for the overall objective of the course. Don't worry yet about how to get them there, just get clear in your head where you want them to be. As The Flying Karamazov Brothers said nightly in their juggling/comedy routine, 'It doesn't matter how you get there if you don't know where you're going.'"

The results haven't been perfect—not everyone is a natural-born orator, for example, and not everyone sticks to the plan—but I would gladly put our home-grown faculty up against any external training and development provider... if only because we know better than them what's important to The Motley Fool. And we happen to be saving tens of thousands of dollars on external training, proving that a Fool and his money don't have to part.

We're still early in developing this culture of learning, in which students and teachers alike strive to share knowledge about the key areas of our company. But we think that with a clear strategy toward internalization and thorough and effective teaching of the teachers, we are providing learning and development for Fools that no one outside of our doors could match.

Authors Note: Feel free to email me at for a copy of The Motley Fool's five-page Non-Teachers' Guide to Teaching