From contractors to boutiques

Saul Carliner and Margaret Driscoll on the many types of external training providers.

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Although the majority of training and development professionals work internally, a large and growing number work externally. They work for organisations called service providers that provide training and development services.

The most common service provided by these organisations is developing or delivering instructional programmes commissioned by clients. But some provide temporary workers, and others produce courses for sale and provide consulting services.

These service providers range in size from one person to several hundred workers. Given the number of services and products they offer, a variety of service providers exist.

This article surveys the most common, then suggests the advantages and disadvantages of working externally.


Owned by a single training and development professional who provides services to other organisations.

The most common services offered by sole proprietorships include designing and developing materials; delivering instructional programmes; and providing specialised consulting services, such as expertise in learning technology or evaluation.

Although called a sole proprietorship because only one person owns the firm, this type of organisation can employ several people.

Boutique firms are often hired because they are skilled at more complex training methods

People working for a sole proprietorship often work at their own location, but some work part- or full-time at the client’s site.

Contracting agency

A type of company that hires and oversees staff that assist organisations with short- and medium-term projects lasting as many as 12 months.

The contracts usually pertain to designing and developing materials, setting up and maintaining technology for learning, or delivering a series of training programmes.

People working for contracting agencies either work on contract or as full-time employees of the agency.

Some of these people work at the sponsor’s location; some work at the location of the contracting agency; and some work at their homes.

Services firm (sometimes called a boutique firm)

An organisation that handles projects for other organisations. The services provided usually involve designing and developing materials for programmes that typically have high visibility within the sponsors’ organisation.

Boutique firms are often hired because they are skilled at more complex training methods.

Similar to people working for contracting agencies, people working for services firms either work on contract or as full-time employees of the agency. They either work at the firm’s location or at their homes.

Product company

An organisation that develops and markets training programmes that organisations use off-the shelf.

An organisation that purchases these programmes either uses them as-is or customises them by adding material that explains how to apply the generic skills covered in the programme within the organisation.

Most people working for product companies work as regular employees and at the product company’s location.

Two more points about external training groups

The main advantage of working for an external organisation is flexibility. Some of the flexibility pertains to the work scheduling: in theory, people working externally have the flexibility to set their own hours and can choose to stop working for a period of time for a self-funded sabbatical.

Some of the flexibility pertains to work location: many external positions enable training and development professionals to work at home.



Some of the flexibility pertains to subject matter: people working in services firms often change projects frequently, and the projects cover a wide range of material – a much wider range than that available to many internal professionals.

The main disadvantage to working in an external training and development group is, well, that it’s external.

For example, although an external provider might have a strong interest in learning about the return on investment a client received from a project, the reality is the client would not provide the external provider with access to the performance data that would provide evidence.

Even if the client organisation did, the project would have been officially ended and the external provider would not be paid for the evaluation unless the client specifically contracted for the service.


About the authors

Saul Carliner is a professor of educational technology at Concordia University in Montreal.

Margaret Driscoll is a Boston-based senior manager with a Fortune 100 corporation.

Together, they wrote An Overview of Training and Development: Why Training Matters


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