When Airbnb was founded nearly a decade ago, hosts were on their own. The company offered a platform where hosts could rent out their spare rooms and homes and where guests could find a space. Overtime, largely due to the liabilities involved in home letting, Airbnb has become increasingly involved in supporting hosts. At first, this meant initiating host “meet ups” in various locations, so hosts could meet each other and meet an Airbnb employee in person. More recently, this has evolved into host-focused education. How Airbnb uses eLearning to support hosts not only offers insight into Airbnb but also the key role eLearning plays in the sharing economy.
Extended Enterprise eLearning
It is important to appreciate that Airbnb’s decision to adopt eLearning for hosts is not necessarily unique but rather part of a broader trend known as extended enterprise eLearning. In a nutshell, extended enterprise learning is any type of learning that targets non-employees. This could include people in one’s supply-chain channel or local sales representatives, service technicians and even customers. For example, a local safety equipment dealer might offer access to free safety training videos. The logic is that the local farmers, contractors and heavy equipment operators who view these materials will become increasingly aware of the need to both buy and replace their safety gear on a regular basis. In turn, the dealer who is providing the free training to his or her customers will build stronger relationships with local businesses and drive up sales as potential clients realize the need for safety gear in the workplace. Extended enterprise learning, however, plays an especially important role in the sharing economy.
Extended Enterprise eLearning in the Sharing Economy
In the sharing economy, extended enterprise learning plays a similar role but with one notable difference. Rather than targeting potential customers or people in one’s supply chain, in the sharing economy, extended enterprise eLearning targets a platform’s users (on Airbnb, this means hosts and guests). This arguably also makes extended enterprise eLearning especially essential. While Airbnb ultimately leaves hosts on their own to make essential decisions (e.g., to use stained old towels or new ones), too many hosts making poor decisions holds the potential to compromise the entire platform. Why? It all comes down to trust.
In a recent interview with the MIT Sloan Management Review, Dr. Arun Sundarajan, a Professor of Business at New York University and the author of The Sharing Economy: The End of Employment and the Rise of Crowd-Based Capitalism, explained how trust drives the sharing economy: “A factor that has led to the emergence of crowd-based capitalism today is a maturing of the trust infrastructure that facilitates peer-to-peer exchange. eBay always had its own trust infrastructure — a reputation system where you would learn from the experiences of others and therefore be able to trust an anonymous seller. And the nature of exchange on eBay was relatively low-stakes, because the kinds of things that could go wrong were relatively modest…If you contrast that with the kinds of activities that we’re engaging in today — getting into a stranger’s car and asking to be driven to another city or letting someone you don’t know sleep in your spare bedroom — the stakes are a lot higher, so the level of trust also needs to be a lot higher in order to make this kind of activity viable at scale.”
Simply put, economics and trust go hand-and-hand and for digital platforms to work well, users need to trust each other and the platform itself. Since companies like Airbnb make more money when there are more users (hosts and guests) using the platform, driving up revenue requires promoting trust between its users and in the entire platform, and this is where its host education program plays a critical role.
To be clear, Airbnb doesn’t really need to train its hosts to be great hosts. Whether they put guests up in a tree house with a sleeping bag or a mansion is not their concern, but building trust is. One way to do this is to ensure that guests feel more or less assured that they are going to get what they are paying for when they show up whether it’s a cot in a guest room, a tent, or upscale beach house. In 2015, Airbnb partnered with Bonfire Labs to launch an eLearning hub where hosts can download videos to get ideas and inspiration on everything from how to greet guests to how to create a cozy room to safety and security issues. As Airbnb responds to discrimination issues (specifically, hosts rejected potential guests based on their race), it is also using its online learning platform to address issues related to bias in one’s guest choice. Like extended enterprise eLearning in most other contexts, Airbnb’s eLearning is optional. After all, no host is an employee. Nevertheless, the company’s host education program is critical to the company’s ongoing mission to build trust and keep its hosts and guests actively engaged in the platform over time. After all, when hosts are in compliance with the company’s policies and going the extra mile to make the Airbnb experience great, users gain trust in the platform and this in turn drives profits.