Internationally, organisations are assessing, implementing or trying to figure out how best to use e-learning. An academic study suggests that while only 20 percent of corporate learning was online in 1999, this figure could double by 2003.
The claims of faster, better, cheaper, anytime, anywhere and at your own pace are, however, mixture of truth and hype. Faster may not mean better. Cheaper may be true, depending on audience numbers and development cost. Anywhere, anytime will depend on connectivity, network access and hours of support.
Though many organisations are exploring e-learning, learning online will not suit every organisation or every training topic. If e-learning is appropriate for the organisation, there is vast range of e-learning applications and approaches to choose from. To get the best out of e-learning, it is important to develop an e-learning strategy that sorts the truth from the trumpeting.
Developing an e-learning strategy
E-learning is not ‘one size fits all’ solution. Each organisation has unique business, human resource and technology environments. An e-learning strategy should assess the appropriateness of the process and the programme to the organisation. It should define how e-learning can enhance the business while integrating into HR and technology environments.
The strategy must help training stakeholders understand what e-learning will mean for the organisation and reach consensus on the best approach before implementation. This is important because to implement e-learning successfully requires the support of stakeholders across the organisation. Consensus amongst stakeholders also increases the chances of buy-in to e-learning. Moving to e-learning is change process and buy-in is critical to change.
Those with an organisational stake in the process include human resources, corporate, trainers, instructional designers, subject experts, line managers, users, web developers and IT/IS. There can also be stakeholders outside the organisation – third party training providers, application service providers, external subject experts, allied organisations, parent companies and so on.
How is e-learning different?
To answer this question it is important to understand the level at which the decision to implement e-learning is made. Conventional classroom training generally starts with business need. The need can be addressed in the business or with help from HR. Funding for training comes from the business unit or centralised training budget – simple.
Not so with e-learning. Though it is possible to tailor discreet e-learning solution to meet training need, it is more common for organisations to implement learning management system (LMS) to launch and track the use of e-learning content.
An advantage of e-learning is the high level of monitoring it provides. It is, for instance, possible to run reports on competence gaps, test results, time spent in courses and so on. These are functions of the LMS rather than the training content itself. An LMS is backend administration platform for e-learning.
Before meeting training need, it might pay to research, evaluate and purchase an LMS. An LMS is enterprise technology. It sits across, and can be accessed by, the whole organisation. Every user has an ID that the LMS recognises. An LMS should interoperate with other organisation-wide technologies like an employee database. E-learning is more than “putting training online”. It should include access to relevant corporate information. It should therefore be linked to knowledge management strategy, process and technology.
Even if the functions of an LMS are not needed, e-learning content is likely to be linked to the intranet. An e-learning strategy, therefore, needs to be developed at an enterprise-wide level. It should reflect organisation strategy and show how e-learning will interoperate with other enterprise technology.
A survey carried out in the US in September 2000 by e-learning expert Elliot Maisie of The Maisie Centre, showed that of organisations which have, or are developing, an e-learning strategy, 66 percent were developing their strategy at an enterprise level, 21 percent were developing it at departmental level and only 11 percent were developing it as training department plan.
Purchasing enterprise technology may include capital expenditure (capex) unlike paying for training from training budget – an operating expenditure item (opex). Making business case for capex is different to making case for opex. Most organisations have carefully planned programme of capital expenditure. E-learning technology capex needs to be prioritised relative to other items on the shopping list.
In addition to the capex and technology aspects of e-learning, there are organisational, training, legal, ethical and cultural issues that mean an e-learning strategy must be developed at an enterprise level.
Six-step strategy framework
The following six steps provide guideline for developing and implementing an e-learning strategy. It may be necessary to revise the strategy during stages one and two as all e-learning stakeholders contribute. There will be several iterations of the strategy draft. It is important that all training stakeholders are part of the consultation process.
Most organisations start researching e-learning at stage six by looking for an online training solution.
1. Assess the appropriateness of e-learning for the organisation
To establish the appropriateness of e-learning for the organisation, it is important to assess the following:
• The existence of corporate intranet / internet /extranet sites. Most online training technologies are web based.
• Location of target audiences. E-learning generally makes sense for organisations with geographically dispersed audience.
• Size of target audiences. For self-directed e-learning, the high cost of development makes sense when target audiences are large or have high turn-over rates.
• Training content. E-learning tends to suit knowledge-based training content though it can be used for other types of learning. If the organisation delivers lot of knowledge based training, e-learning can provide more efficient delivery.
• Technology literacy of staff. Tech literate staff find learning online easier.
2. Research and define the preferred approach to e-learning for the organisation
The best overall approach to e-learning for the organisation should define administrative process, instructional design, media, blend with face-to-face training, use of online collaboration, testing/monitoring requirements and so on.
This is one of the most important aspects of strategy. It is vital that choice of e-learning technology is determined by instructional needs of the organisation rather than the technology dictating how the organisation should deliver training content. By defining overall approach and determining the best technology to deliver it, it is possible to budget appropriately and procure the right technology solution.
3. Establish consensus on the best approach to e-learning amongst training stakeholders
This can be complex process. During this stage it is important to develop draft strategy document that stakeholders can comment on and contribute to. Below is guideline for topics to include in an e-learning strategy:
• Description of ownership and leadership of e-learning. At the outset it is important to establish leadership, sponsorship and project steering for e-learning. The project will need to be steered by people who have an overview of related projects and processes across the organisation.
• Business drivers behind e-learning. Like anything else, to make it fly, it needs to be linked to business driver. The top three business drivers for adopting e-learning according to research completed by The Maisie Centre are:
1. Cost reduction.
2. Globalisation of learning.
3. Reducing time away from the workplace.