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Ten quick wins in e-learning

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by Clive Shepherd
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When the going gets tough, training departments don't always get the time or the money they need to make long-term investments in order to obtain long-term returns. With competition for funding and senior management attention, trainers will often do better by focusing on those areas of the business where results will not only be visible but quick. In this article, Clive Shepherd captures the ideas of a panel of leading UK e-learning vendors and users, for quick wins in e-learning.

Contents
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When the going gets tough
1. Use what's on the shelf
2. Focus on the business
3. Make sure there's something for everyone
4. Obtain senior management involvement
5. Solve real problems
6. Use the full range of e-learning methods
7. Provide a gateway to learning
8. Look for a receptive audience
9. Use a hosted solution
10. Don't sacrifice the long term

When the going gets tough

You don't need me to tell you that we're experiencing a downturn, if not the beginnings of a full-blown recession. Some of you will be lucky enough to have never before worked through a recession as a member of the training department. The rest will know only too well that training is rarely top of the list of priorities when the going gets tough, and that resources are going to be harder to come by.

The arguments for training remain strong in a downturn - they may even improve. After all, training can play an important role in increasing competitiveness. And those responsible for e-learning can also present a convincing argument for reducing the cost of training. But arguments are just words and those words may be drowned out in the din of pleas from all sectors of the organisation. What really works in results.

Given time, e-learning can deliver results, perhaps even dramatic ones. But time may not be on your side. We gathered nine representatives of major e-learning vendors and users and asked them how best to obtain quick wins with e-learning, that will gain the confidence of senior managers and learners alike, and obtain you the support you need to implement your strategy in the long run.
Joining the round table were:

  • Nige Howarth, NETg
  • Martyn Sloman, CIPD
  • David Wilson eLearnity
  • Kevin O'Donnell, CISCO
  • Laura Overton, SmartForce
  • Jim Parrish, Centra
  • Adrian Snook, DigitalThink
  • Jenny Emby
  • Alenia Marconi
  • David Bullock
  • Herbert Smith.

Here are the actions recommended by the group as a way of securing early results from your e-learning strategy.
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1. Use what's on the shelf

One of the simpler ways of making a quick impact with e-learning is to make use of off-the-shelf courseware, as Adrian Snook of DigitalThink explains: "If you're a training manager, you'll be aware that a certain proportion of the training requirement in your business will be generic, a certain amount sector-specific and the rest business-specific. If we think about requirements in those terms, that will help us to address them. The idea is to look at ways in which the inefficiencies of the instructor-led approach may be inhibiting performance and see how we could remove those inefficiencies by strategically deploying catalogue courseware."

The use of generic courseware may even create opportunities for further wins, as Snook describes: "Having deployed this courseware, you could then re-task some of the people who had been employed in the 'trench warfare' to look very closely at the key performance indicators of the business and identify any cause and effect linkages with training. These linkages could then be further examined to see where training could have a significant impact within one year. You could then begin to look carefully at how you could deploy custom courseware to address the need."

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2. Focus on the business
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Jim Parrish of Centra was not so certain that generic courseware was always the right place to start: "The important issue is return on investment. It might be that, to obtain the required return, bespoke material may have to be developed or maybe existing material delivered more effectively. The best examples are often project-based, say the introduction of a new IT system or the launch of a new product. This is particularly true in financial services, where the return on investment comes in how quickly you can bring new products to market. If you can show that new training methods are bringing a return then this is much more important than where the courseware comes from."

Nige Howarth from NETg also believed that quick wind come from high-profile projects: "Training departments should almost be insisting that they get time with the CEO to make sure that they are aware of the key goals of the business. Too often trainers are disconnected from the business, whereas they should be searching out those people with the problems, where they can make the biggest contribution."

Laura Overton of SmartForce echoed this view: "It's critical to start with a business-driven project. The role of the training department is changing to the extent that it's vital that they are seen as delivering value and not just as a cost centre. Some of the most successful e-learning projects we have been involved in have been where the training department is working on issues that are central to the business or, it has to be said, are not involved at all."  

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3. Make sure there's something for everyone
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David Wilson of eLearnity explained how ideas for projects can be developed: "We do a lot of what we call 'opportunity workshops' where you get a lot of stakeholders in a room and brainstorm what could be done with e-learning. What often comes out are solutions that are easy to deliver but do not necessarily provide a great deal of value to the business. These solutions may show something but the question is 'what are they showing to whom?' The ideal is a project that is relatively easy to get off the ground but which maximises the benefits to a wide cross-section of the organisation. The IT department can see that e-learning does not produce technical problems for the network. The sales director can see that e-learning can impact on his sales. The training department can see that e-learning can deliver training that is educationally sound. There's something for everyone."

Laura Overton agreed, but felt we should not ignore the learner as a stakeholder: "As well as business results, we must look at providing a positive experience for the learner. It's important to bring learners with you - their positive reactions will make everyone feel more comfortable about e-learning as a solution."  

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4. Obtain senior management involvement
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Martyn Sloman of the CIPD was uncomfortable with the concept of 'quick wins': "We are no more than a few years in to what is effectively a 25 year process of change in our thinking of how we can use technology for learning. More important than quick wins is to demonstrate that you are working on real business issues and to be planning for the long term. To get commitment to your long-term strategy you need senior management buy-in. And one of the best ways of achieving that is to have them involved in the e-learning themselves."
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5. Solve real problems
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"Everyone agrees that the implementation of e-learning has got to be business-focused", says Cisco's Kevin O'Donnell, "indeed you'd have to be mad not to agree with this. Doing e-learning for the sake of it is clearly not the best way forward. One of the key factors in our success with e-learning at Cisco is that we have always acted in response to business issues and every project has a sponsor from out there in the field. The training function is a facilitator of the use of e-learning to solve real problems. It doesn't matter whether you are using e-learning technology to deliver structured courses or just business information, nor does it matter too much about quality and professionalism - what matters is that you're meeting a need."
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6. Use the full range of e-learning methods
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Quick wins can be achieved by using all the different aspects of e-learning, not just interactive self-study materials, as Laura Overton points out: "E-learning is so much broader than previous training technologies. It's our view that the 'e' in e-learning is the enabling of learning using technology. A customised learning solution no longer has to take the form of web-based training materials designed from scratch. It's more likely to be a blend of generic materials alongside methods such as virtual classrooms, online documents, discussion forums and PowerPoint presentations."

Using the full range of e-learning methods brings its own benefits. David Wilson: "The problem is that many people think that e-learning is just slapping content online, when there are so many options, many of them more economical and certainly quicker to implement than custom-built web-based training materials." Jim Parrish agrees: "E-learning content is all sorts of things. Training managers really need a better understanding of what is possible."
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7. Provide a gateway to learning
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One way of providing a positive benefit for staff and making an early impact with e-learning is to provide free access to an external portal containing a wide variety of learning resources. David Wilson: "Training managers should consider making use of Individual Learning Accounts. Provide Internet access to all staff, form an alliance with a portal such as LearnDirect and say 'here you go' - within the available allowance, buy whatever you wish."
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8. Look for a receptive audience
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Adrian Snook recommends that you focus your efforts on audiences that are naturally receptive: "Take the sales force, for example. They are used to working at a distance. A lot of the cultural barriers are already broken down." David Bullock of law firm Herbert Smith concurs: "We were looking for quick wins that would get people hooked on e-learning and we realised that it would be a slow process to convert long-standing members of staff who were more resistant to technology. We focused instead on new starters to the firm, people we thought would be eager e-learning sponges, or 'EELS' as we call them. With attracting and retaining staff a major issue, we wanted to create a good impression of the firm from day one, so we developed some quality e-learning products to go alongside our classroom training. We've been so pleased with the results that we're considering offering these courses over the Internet to people before they join, so they can hit the ground running."
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9. Use a hosted solution
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Another quick win would be to shortcut the long-drawn-out process of installing your own LMS and instead go for the ASP model. Adrian Snook: "It's possible that the e-learning agenda has to date been too vendor-driven. You hear people advocating that the starting point of anyone's e-learning strategy should be the implementation of a learning management system. To install an LMS on an organisation's own network could well take over a year and involve costs that are far higher than most training managers are used to dealing with. On the other hand, an externally hosted solution could be up and running within as little as six weeks.
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10. Don't sacrifice the long-term
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All members of the panel agreed that going for quick wins should not be at the expense of long-term strategy. At Herbert Smith, David Bullock has pulled together all parties to avoid everyone going off and simply doing their own thing. Says David: "We need to ensure that our various e-learning initiatives are compatible with each other. It's vital to start with a framework and some ground rules."

Before looking for quick wins, the training manager needs first to ensure that they fully understand the range of possibilities afforded by e-learning and then to work with all stakeholders to establish a strategy. As Jenny Emby of Alenia Marconi observes: "The very idea of a quick win makes me nervous. What would really be a quick win would be to have your long-term strategy together."
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