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Making E-Learning More Than Pixie Dust

March 5, 2003
Related Topics: Training Technology, Featured Article, Training & Development
E-learning canbe a flexible and cost-effective alternative to classroom training, but it canalso be a colossal waste of time and money if not implemented correctly. Thereasons why some e-learning projects go down in flames while others flourish arevaried. There are those who attribute the problems to lack of employeemotivation. Others point to poor course marketing, or training timerestrictions, or the human fear of unfamiliar learning environments.

At some level these arguments are all relevant, says Jeff Marshall, strategicaccount director for DigitalThink, an e-learning solutions provider based in SanFrancisco. But they are only symptoms of a greater problem. When e-learninginitiatives fail, it is often because there is no connection between learningand defined business needs. "E-learning for the sake of e-learning isn’t appropriate,"he says. To be successful, it must be tied directly to tangible outcomes. "Youhave to know your reasons for getting into e-learning and what you expect it todo for the organization."

The content must be measurable and performance- based. If it isn’t, you’llhave no way of proving that it has strategic value, adds James Wheeler, seniorlearning consultant for Williams Leadership, Learning and Performance, anorganizational-development consultancy in Tulsa, Oklahoma. "People have toknow going in what they are expected to learn, how they are expected to applythat on the job, and how the experience will benefit them and the company," hesays. If these issues are defined, employees will prioritize learning, andmotivation will no longer be a problem.

To ensure that you make this critical connection between business need andcontent, do your research before you invest a dime in hardware or software, saysRick Maher, president of Maher and Maher, an HR consulting andorganizational-development firm in Neptune, New Jersey. Meet with departmentheads to discuss their short and long-term goals, performance problems, andlearning needs; gather historical data on past training initiatives; and reviewthe company’s five-year plan. The data you collect will help you define thecore objectives of your learning strategy.

"Work in concentric circles. Start small and buildup to the enterprise level--not the other way around."

It seems obvious, but most training departments do just the opposite whenthey implement e-learning, Maher says. They invest heavily in high-endlearning-management systems and content libraries without addressing thebusiness drivers or getting management buy-in.

Even with the right content, you need advocates with the clout andcredentials to back the project, says James Beeler, an instructional designer atLSI, Inc., an aerospace training and technical data development company inJacksonville, Florida. "Training is a management issue. We can developtraining until our office bulges, but if management does not enforce, encourage,or engage the students, training is a lot like pixie dust."

These corporate advocates can’t just sign off on the project, but mustactively promote it to managers and employees, adds Michele Cunningham, vicepresident of marketing for THINQ Learning Solutions, a provider of learningmanagement software based in Baltimore. "When you have a high-profile personcheerleading for you, people will see that e-learning isn’t just a humanresources initiative, it’s a strategic imperative," she says.

Once you have established clear business goals and secured managementsupport, you can purchase or produce content-and even then it’s best to startsmall, Maher says. "It’s important to have a long-term vision fore-learning, but you should implement it in small chunks."

The best courses to start with are those that fulfill a high-profile criticalneed for a core division. "Work in concentric circles. Start small and buildup to the enterprise level--not the other way around," Maher says. Forexample, deliver a course to a small segment of the manufacturing team on how toreduce product-cycle time, instead of a course on Microsoft Outlook for thewhole company. That way you build early high-profile successes with content thatis measurable and has a direct impact on the bottom line. "These earlysuccesses will create demand for more and establish e-learning as a valuablebusiness tool."

Workforce, March 2003, pp. 58-62 -- Subscribe Now!

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