Making E-Learning More Than "Pixie Dust"

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E-learning can be a flexible and cost-effective alternative to classroom training, but it can also be a colossal waste of time and money if not implemented correctly. The reasons why some e-learning projects go down in flames while others flourish are varied. There are those who attribute the problems to lack of employee motivation. Others point to poor course marketing, or training time restrictions, or the human fear of unfamiliar learning environments.

At some level these arguments are all relevant, says Jeff Marshall, strategic account director for DigitalThink, an e-learning solutions provider based in San Francisco. But they are only symptoms of a greater problem. When e-learning initiatives fail, it is often because there is no connection between learning and 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. "You have to know your reasons for getting into e-learning and what you expect it to do for the organization."

The content must be measurable and performance-based. If it isn't, you'll have no way of proving that it has strategic value, adds James Wheeler, senior learning consultant for Williams Leadership, Learning and Performance, an organizational-development consultancy in Tulsa, Oklahoma. "People have to know going in what they are expected to learn, how they are expected to apply that on the job, and how the experience will benefit them and the company," he says. If these issues are defined, employees will prioritize learning, and motivation will no longer be a problem.

To ensure that you make this critical connection between business need and content, do your research before you invest a dime in hardware or software, says Rick Maher, president of Maher and Maher, an HR consulting and organizational-development firm in Neptune, New Jersey. Meet with department heads to discuss their shortand long-term goals, performance problems, and learning needs; gather historical data on past training initiatives; and review the company's five-year plan. The data you collect will help you define the core objectives of your learning strategy.

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

Even with the right content, you need advocates with the clout and credentials to back the project, says James Beeler, an instructional designer at LSI, Inc., an aerospace training and technical data development company in Jacksonville, Florida. "Training is a management issue. We can develop training 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 must actively promote it to managers and employees, adds Michele Cunningham, vice president of marketing for Thing Learning Solutions, a provider of learning management software based in Baltimore. "When you have a high-profile person cheerleading for you, people will see that e-learning isn't just a human resources initiative, it's a strategic imperative," she says.

Once you have established clear business goals and secured management support, you can purchase or produce content-and even then it's best to start small, Maher says. "It's important to have a long-term vision for e-learning, but you should implement it in small chunks."

The best courses to start with are those that fulfill a high-profile critical need for a core division. "Work in concentric circles. Start small and build up to the enterprise level-not the other way around," Maher says. For example, deliver a course to a small segment of the manufacturing team on how to reduce product-cycle time, instead of a course on Microsoft Outlook for the whole company. …