Based on input from our ongoing research and original corporate roundtables, Fosway analysts created this useful top ten lessons list full of tips for implementing e-learning successfully. Written in 2002, it provides real pause for thought. Has much changed? We feel much of this advice is still relevant for organisations today – 14 years later.
Don’t you just love the e-learning market? First of all, e-learning was going to replace all those expensive instructor-led classes. Then, you seemingly couldn’t do anything unless you implemented a Learning Management System (LMS) first. Then suddenly everything was ‘blended’. Now the e-learning companies are struggling – despite a real growth in the underlying usage of e-learning within their corporate customers. So what’s the reality of corporate e-learning and what are some of the key lessons from large companies that have already navigated the waters of e-learning spin and market hype?
As part of ongoing research into best practice and the realities of corporate e-learning, Fosway hosted a corporate roundtable discussion in February 2002, attended by a number of senior managers with responsibility for their organisations’ e-learning activity. All the organisations have been actively involved with e-learning for a number of years and are committed to expanding their use of e-learning. But they all have some scars to show for their experiences to date.
So what were the common elements of all the organisations? All of them were focused on developing a strategic e-learning capability within their organisations including:
- Online access to corporate learning through a learning portal or similar
- Online management and tracking of access to learning
- Online courses to supplement existing training methods
- Use of generic external/third party online learning programmes
In addition, most of them were actively engaged in projects to:
- Provide additional online delivery support including online instruction or assessment
- Develop new custom online programmes to supplement external learning content
So what were the key lessons learnt by these organisations? The following is an analysis of the top ten lessons for corporate e-learning, based on the discussions from the roundtable plus associated research from Fosway. These are presented in logical order rather than order of precedence.
Lesson 1 – Don’t believe the hype (or the bluff)
Experience has clearly demonstrated that making e-learning successful isn’t as easy as portrayed by the industry. E-learning products don’t work as you want them to out of the box, users have problems successfully accessing and engaging with on-line solutions and acceptance and usage isn’t as automatic as the vendors indicate. As well as avoiding being taken in by the hype, you should also not allow yourself to be taken in by the bluff – particularly the technology bluff. Whether it’s the vendor telling you that ‘all you need is a web browser’ or your corporate IS people telling you how impossible it will be, you need to drill beneath the superficial to understand what the issues really are.
Lesson 2 – You need your own technical capability
With the realisation that successful e-learning involves successful use of technology, you need to be able to manage your technology risk associated with e-learning solutions. This is best done using some of your own technical resources who can liase with external suppliers and internal IS resources to help ensure the viability of the solution. “With some of your own technical resources, you are not dependent on the vested interests to interpret for you.” said Kevin Crane, Vice-President, Learning Technologies at Marconi. They can also be used to develop interim solutions as an alternative to expensive external products or applications. This can have significant benefits, particularly where funding a large project (e.g. a large LMS project) is difficult.
Lesson 3 – Access to learning is key
One of the largest challenges when deploying e-learning is often access for learners. Corporate intranets are not as universal and all-encompassing as imagined. Many users do not have Internet access either. Many learners, particularly blue-collar, don’t even have access to a PC during working hours. Any e-learning solution must take these constraints into account. Short-term you will have to work around them. Longer term, the case must be developed and funded for greater access to the underlying infrastructure to support e-learning. Often business cases underplay these costs significantly.
Lesson 4 – Building it, doesn’t mean they will come
In contradiction to Kevin Costner and the film ‘Field of Dreams’, just because you build it, doesn’t mean they will come and use it. There are many corporate e-learning portals where the reality of usage is a fraction of that envisaged. In most corporate cultures, training has been something that was done to you, not something you did yourself. The bulk of employees have no real concept of self-driven learning and struggle to engage with self-service learning access. You need to actively engage the organisation and individuals to drive and maintain uptake. As well as active marketing, you may also need incentives for learners and managers. Some organisations have created a sense of competition between departments and teams in order to foster a more positive attitude to learning.
Lesson 5 – Commercially, pay as you go
Typically, e-learning vendors price based on numbers of potential users, or site-wide licences. But the consequence of the previous lessons is that estimating demand is very difficult and therefore estimated user pricing may turn out to be very expensive – particularly when signed up over a number of years. Many business cases that looked compelling based on the total user population accessing many e-learning courses, look pretty sick in hindsight when the reality turns out to be a small fraction accessing only one course and not finishing it! The result, is a need to structure contracts into smaller durations and pay based on actual usage not potential users. Whilst unattractive for the suppliers, this may represent the only way they can go longer term.
Lesson 6 – Focus on the learner, not just on management
Whilst it would be surprising to find a project that does not consult the learners, it is still surprising how limited this turns out to be in practice. In particular, there is a tendency to focus more on their management, rather than on the learners themselves. Often e-learning content makes assumptions about learners and their motivation that turn out not to be valid. But because management agreed it was useful we want ahead with it anyway. “A lot of things don’t have a clear benefit to the end user”, said Gary Bellamy, Senior Manager e-Learning Development at the University for LloydsTSB in discussing why some courses are more obviously successful than others. “It’s all about the end user, let’s not ignore him”.
Lesson 7 – Learning management is important, LMS not necessarily so
There has been a lot of hype in the market over the past few years or so about learning management systems (LMS). More recently, some of this has turned negative, with a number of horror stories on the difficulties of large LMS projects, and an emerging counter-spin of whether LMS’s are good things or not. The reality is that “learning management” is critical in any large-scale e-learning provision, but that doesn’t necessarily mean a learning management “system”. In any significant level of scale, the processes for managing and tracking learning have to be automated, and longer term will need to be integrated into HR systems and data. Ultimately, doing this in a typical corporate will need ‘LMS’-level functionality, but in the short term it may not.
Some companies embarking on enterprise-wide LMS projects have stalled, either because of cost, complexity, or organisational politics. In most cases though, they have still had to do something, typically by developing their own cut-down LMS application. This can significantly accelerate and reduce the cost for them in the short-term. Longer term, I still expect them to implement an LMS, but by that stage it might just be the one already integrated into their HR system.
One of the contributors to the roundtable discussion was Kevin Crane, Vice-President Learning Technologies within the Marconi University. Having spent nearly 12 months going through an extensive review of requirements and most of the steps of a procurement cycle for an enterprise LMS, early last year they hit some big roadblocks. A shift in within HR to an Oracle-based HR management system and then the massive change in Marconi’s business prospects in mid-2001, rapidly killed off the possibility of a big LMS solution. But having successfully piloted use of e-learning based on a my.SmartForce solution with access to IT and soft skills courses, they had proven there was a demand. With the demise of the LMS project, they needed an alternative approach.
“We focused on trying to provide a 20% solution delivering 80% of what we really wanted. We were lucky we had technical skills and necessity was the mother of invention.” said Crane. “We had to work with what we had and we developed our own learning portal”. Launched in November with access for 25,000 staff, the portal provides access to a broad range of IT technical and user content, plus access to management and soft skills course materials.
“There is no user tracking and no management veto. Staff choose what they want to learn and are not cross-charged.” Said Crane. Funding is negotiated and held centrally, and management reports are generated showing aggregated information on usage and most popular courses, rather than which learners did which courses. This strategy of learner-driven demand has proved very successful, leading to big changes in the pattern of training and instructor-led delivery. “We believe individuals know best what they need to learn” said Crane. “They don’t need an elaborate needs analysis, often the lowest common denominator approach is simpler and seems better. Individuals worry about day to day use, management looks at the aggregate picture”.
Marconi’s in-house approach and open-access policy may have been linked to its’ broader business uncertainty, but it has proved a great success. Where is it leading? Contracts with content suppliers are being restructured to enable the more flexible, demand driven approach. And they are looking at introducing user tracking for longer term learning programmes. Longer term though, the portal is still likely to be upgraded with a full LMS.
Lesson 8 – Integration is a big issue
There are many different pieces to the e-learning technology puzzle. A complete platform might contain a learning portal including an LMS and hooks into HR, learning delivery tools such as virtual classrooms and assessment tools, and will access content inside and outside the firewall. Whether you are doing it all or only part of it, the relevant bits have to be integrated together – with each other and with HR systems, other intranet applications and knowledge management systems. History has shown that integration projects are risky, and larger ones are often very difficult and expensive. Integration ‘out of the box’ may be little more than simple one-way data-dumping, and that won’t give you automated and integrated processes for HR and learning.
Lesson 9 – Employee data records aren’t as clean as you think
One of the consistent bugbears, underlying the discussion of integration between e-learning systems is the poor quality of the information often held in the existing systems. Many LMS projects in particular, have struggled because the employee data transferred from the HR systems turns out to be seriously flawed, often out of date, and being incapable of being used with the learning system. This problem isn’t unique to e-learning, but often it is the e-learning systems that discover the extent of the problem!
This problem has been a challenge for Centrica in introducing e-learning systems as well as moving to self-service for HR. “We had old businesses come together, with old systems. There were different versions of systems and different data in the businesses”. Said Mark Andrews, Centrica’s Group Learning Development Manager. “I’m trying to find the common threads, processes and data around learning but we cannot tell which employee even belongs to which manager, so without a manual intervention from the manager, an employee cannot book on a course”. So much for self-service learning access!
Lesson 10 – This all needs to be facilitated centrally
And finally, working out a viable set of solutions to all of the above issues doesn’t happen easily or automatically. Training has historically been very fragmented in most companies with many different people or departments being involved in the provision of training. All of these different bits of training are already talking to vendors about learning solutions already involving e-learning, resulting in a massive compatibility problem waiting to happen. Corporate adoption of e-learning needs an integrated strategy, and a framework for technology, standards and best practice. Experience indicates that, given the diversity of the vested interests, this is best facilitated centrally, even if the actual provision is ultimately owned on a distributed basis.
It must be part of the British psyche to discuss problems. It’s always easy to generate lots of reasons for failure on projects, sometimes harder to focus on the lessons to be learnt. With a high degree of commonality of the key issues between organisations, in this case, the degree of consensus about the key lessons was very high. I wonder whether they will be to you too!
This article, written by Fosway’s CEO, David Wilson, first appeared in IT Training in March 2002.