Lifelong Learning Benefits Both Businesses and Workforce
By Norris Tangen
With 52 million+ learners, 196,000+ courses and 712 million+ course enrollments in over 75 languages, Udemy is a global learning company that empowers organizations and individuals with flexible and effective skill development. This past year, Udemy launched in the expansive China market. Udemy’s President of New Ventures and Head of China, Rich Qiu, spoke to AmCham China Quarterly about building Udemy’s presence in China, market differences and similarities, and his preferences for “desert island” courses.
Rich Qiu is the President of New Ventures at Udemy, the largest global online learning and teaching platform. Since joining Udemy in 2014, Rich has been driving and managing strategic partnerships between Udemy and organizations around the world, as well as launching new businesses including Udemy Government. He’s responsible for the company’s initiatives to expand into new international markets and plays a critical role in advancing company’s leadership position in the markets. He is an advisor at Asian Development Bank for Digital Transformation in Education . Rich also heads Udemy China.
Rich is very passionate about leveraging technology, content and community to help individuals and organizations globally for upskilling and reskilling at scale to meet the needs of the transformations that the global economic landscape is undergoing. Rich previously held leadership roles at several technology companies in Silicon Valley and was a management consultant at McKinsey. Rich earned an MBA from University of Chicago, a PhD in Engineering from Vanderbilt University and a BS from Zhejiang University.
Photo courtesy of Udemy China
The game “Desert Island Discs” is simple. One imagines being marooned on a desert island with the choice of only three albums to listen to. In our conversation with Udemy’s President of New Ventures and Head of China, Rich Qiu, we posed this same question with a twist: “What would be your three ‘desert island’ Udemy courses?” Given that the online learning and teaching platform offers more than 196,000 courses, it’s a tall order to choose just three. Rich, who prefers to go by his first name, prefaces his first choice humorously, “I’m a bit of a nerdy guy!” He goes on, “A colleague of mine, who was always dressed well, ended up developing a course on how to dress. I took his course and loved it, I learned to keep it simple and focus on fit.” Beyond fashion, Rich says he’s honed in on power skills and leveraged Udemy’s courses on body language and emotional intelligence. “Controlling your emotions is always critical at work and in life. It powers you through all the difficulties and brings you where you want to be eventually,” he explained.
Udemy offers two similar yet notably different offerings. On one side, there is the B2C-based curriculum, the Udemy marketplace, which provides the tools learners and instructors need to achieve their goals and reach their full potential. This is probably what comes to mind when one hears the term MOOC — a huge, seemingly endless library of online courses with fresh and diverse content on almost every subject imaginable. Each of these courses are created, owned and managed by 68,000+ instructors who are well incentivized to create high-quality, engaging content. The other side is the B2B solution, Udemy Business. Udemy Business is an employee training and development platform which offers specialized courses designed to help scale learning across an organization. To date, more than 11,600 businesses have utilized Udemy Business to upskill and reskill their workforce.
Udemy officially entered China in February 2022 and closed the first Udemy Business deals in partnership with Sanjieke, a leading enterprise training provider in China. Rich explains that expansion into China was an essential move to be a truly global player, saying “One could make the argument that if you combine the education budget and the number of people engaged in learning, China is probably one of those markets that could equate to 20, 30 – even 50 countries combined.” In fact, he says the company has long earmarked China for expansion, and they prepared for over a year before entering the “large and multifaceted market”. In particular, Rich notes that Udemy Business’ corporate trainings are very much in line with China’s current national policy and priorities, making it an especially opportune moment for market entry.
As far as launching the full Udemy marketplace in China, Rich says, “Different markets require different strategies. In China, we feel a curated learning program with more guided learning paths will better serve consumers.” Currently, Udemy Business has curated learning developed with organizations in mind. Udemy doesn’t have a specific timeline but aims to gradually open up their marketplace range to the Chinese consumer as market needs grow and mature.
“Different markets require different strategies. In China, a curated learning program with more guided learning paths will better serve consumers.”
Investing in Partnerships
Udemy understands the value of strong partnerships. This is especially true when entering a new market, where creating high-quality courses, developing content in local languages, and localizing interfaces requires working with partners and third-party instructors. To achieve success in China, particularly for a western learning company, Rich says the company knew a local partnership would be essential. He says they learned from two market entry strategies in China: Companies who have attempted to build independently from the ground up contrasted with those organizations that acquired a Chinese company to function as a pitcher. Rich explains that while these two strategies are at opposite ends of the spectrum, they often reap similarly unsuccessful results.
Rich says, the focus was to identify a company that aligned with Udemy on size, talent, and culture in terms of how to most effectively go to market and build a local presence. The company ultimately found this alignment with Sanjieke, China’s leading digital talent solution provider. Rich explains the depth of the partnership, “Just a commercial partnership does not get you where you want to be. We also made an investment.” In his view, “Investment plus partnership provides a stronger foundation for the commercial working relationship”. This relationship ensures that he is able to help guide overall strategy by sharing Udemy’s culture and brand. Fundamentally, Rich says, Sanjieke provides two essential pieces of the puzzle. “They help us improve sourcing and testing local content, provide feedback on product market fit, and help to fine tune the user experience. And, they are helping us build strong marketing for the local audience with their superior understanding of cultural nuances.” Rich attributes the combination of Sanjieke’s strong support in localization and marketing strategy, along with Udemy’s technology and product, in giving the company an edge in the local market, remarking “Our early growth here really proves that point.”
In the US, the value of enterprise learning is widely accepted. In China, Rich says, the goal and approach of enterprise learning are quite different. “In the past, for a learner in China, there was often a quick cost-benefit analysis. For example, if I invest three months of my time and money to take courses, will I get a promotion? Will I gain hard skills? These are results-driven approaches. While focusing on immediate results is fine, we also want to encourage people to view learning as a life-long investment that can be personalized, remote, and affordable.”
Overall, Rich sees more likeness than differences between the US and China markets. He says that as Chinese companies have been especially focused on technology innovation, adding that this is an area where Udemy is helping enterprises worldwide keep their employees up-to-date with the rapid rate of development.
Remote is First, but not Forever
One of the largest impacts of COVID-19 has been the reevaluation of work-life balance. As thousands made the shift to online work during the pandemic, many found they enjoyed the flexibility remote work. Now, post-pandemic, the “remote-first” approach is gaining momentum.
So, should we expect remote-first to become a permanent fixture? Rich says yes and no. “Today a lot of people work remotely, including myself. We were forced to in the past, but now it allows me to travel back and forth between Asia and the US. I am starting to both go back to the office and travel more often again.” At the end of the day, Rich says, people are people, and people love human interaction. “When I am negotiating a business partnership, I want to be there in-person to shake hands, look them in the eye, and understand their motivations. Sometimes video calls just can’t give you that.” Instead of a shift to purely remote-first, Rich predicts hybrid work will become more widely accepted. It’s an option Udemy is now offering employees, he says, “You can work a few days in the office, a few days remote. This balances the productivity you need with the flexibility many people cherish.”
Rich recognizes that the first and foremost reason companies invest in Udemy Business is because they are running a business centered around a learning culture. As he says, they ask, “Will Udemy Business help my employees upskill to advance and excel in their jobs?” Most companies, Rich says, prefer to upskill and promote existing talent rather than solely searching for outside hires. He observes that while this is very possible, it means investing in employees’ growth from early stages is essential. “Upskilling and reskilling should always be part of the plan.” Rich points out that this serves the dual purpose of not only upskilling and promoting from within, but also increasing employee happiness and development. According to Deloitte, organizations that foster a learning culture are 92 percent more likely to be innovative, 17% more profitable, and have as high as 50% greater employee engagement and retention rates than their peers. Rich puts it simply: “Offering employees growth opportunities helps organizations strengthen their business capabilities because talent improves and they retain workers because employees have the opportunity to develop.” Rich says Udemy Business’ customer retention rate of 120% is due to companies continuing to invest in their employees and expand their scope of service.
Digital Transformation Enables Success
Another byproduct of the pandemic was the acceleration of digital transformation. However, Rich notes that this shift towards effective digital solutions began well before the pandemic. He says, “A lot of processes used to be people-driven. Today, it’s about efficiency. For example, now we use DocuSign rather than emailing contracts back and forth.” He asks, “Why wouldn’t you want to adopt technologies that are simple, easy, and efficient?” Rich says these technologies can also provide faster feedback on what works. “After college, your career progression will take time, and you’re not typically providing real-time feedback to your university, it will take years for that to reach them.” Rich provides an example of how digital transformation facilitates superior feedback, sharing that Udemy has been working with several local governments in Asia for many years, providing training for public servants. Rich recounts a conversation he had with one of the officials, “If we’re seeing talent move up, that’s exciting. We don’t need to wait years for feedback, we’re seeing results in real-time. It’s bottom-up.” If organizations are willing to take the leap to fully embrace digital transformation in their daily workflows, Rich promises they will not regret it. “They see benefits and realize the capabilities, and then find themselves saying, ‘We need to do more.’”