E-learning comes in ever-increasing varieties today: from simple online courses to high-end simulations and games, mobile learning to podcasts, virtual classrooms to webcasts, blogs and wikis to social networks, learning management systems (LMS) to learning content management systems (LCMS).
E-learning has made it possible for all organizations to enable, extend and enhance learning for dozens, hundreds, thousands and even tens of thousands of workers. And in doing so, it has been credited with producing measurable business results: from cost savings to increased profits, increased retention to lower turnover and improved compliance to reduced time to market.
But it’s really not the e-learning that has produced these results. To paraphrase President Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign slogan, “It’s the people, stupid!” The companies that get the best return on their e-learning investments — and are therefore the most successful — systematically engage and motivate their learners and their managers. And they strive to fully integrate e-learning into the very fabric of the organization.
Learning from History
It seems obvious. After all, it is people who learn, then change, then perform, not the e-learning itself. One would think we would heed these often-quoted words: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” But that does not seem to be the case.
A little more than 20 years ago, global corporations were spending $51 billion on a “modest insight” that had become a management fad called re-engineering.
“Forget all you know,” organizations were told. “Don’t automate — obliterate.” Managers were challenged to “think out of the box” and to leverage technology to transform their businesses to do what they had never been able to do before. Re-engineering promised cost savings and operational efficiencies, reduced time to market and exponentially accelerating profits. (It sounds a lot like the e-learning hype, doesn’t it?).
But just five years later, the re-engineering star was fading. The term “re-engineering” had become synonymous with restructuring and downsizing, layoffs and failed programs. More than half of early re-engineering projects failed to be completed or did not achieve bottom-line business results. How did this happen? What caused re-engineering to, in effect, fail?
The answer it turned out was very simple: people. People didn’t want to be re-engineered, nor did they want change done to them. The 1994 Computer Science Corp. Index, “State of Re-engineering Report,” confirmed this. More than 50 percent of the companies in the study reported the most difficult part of re-engineering was dealing with the fear and anxiety in their organization. In another post-mortem benchmarking study with 150 companies over 24 months, lack of effective change management was ranked in the top five key lessons.
Perhaps it was Mike Hammer, who was later echoed by many others, who best summarized this critical lesson: “The ‘soft stuff’ is really the ‘hard stuff.’”
From Installation to Integration
To ensure your success with e-learning, where do you begin? First, successful companies understand e-learning is something you must plan for and approach systematically. Following the development or selection of the specific e-learning solution, they apply a three-stage process:
1. Installation: This is the stage in which companies do whatever it takes to make sure the chosen e-learning solution truly works as designed. This means it not only technically works, but also that it makes sense.
2. Implementation: Following installation, these companies then focus on making sure the learners and their managers know what the e-learning solution is, why it has been selected and how to use it. This is the stage in which the majority of the communications and change management activities initially occur. Unfortunately, this is too often where all activity then stops, as well.
3. Integration: Truly successful companies put as much time and attention on the completion of this stage as they do on the other two combined. They don’t leave this critical stage to chance or for later — they recognize it is the difference between their e-learning being just a good answer or a truly effective solution. In this stage companies ensure their e-learning is absorbed into the very culture of the organization, and they know they’ve achieved this when no one talks about the e-learning specifically but rather as “just the way we do things around here.”
Getting the “Soft Stuff” Right
So what does it take get the “soft stuff” right? To engage learners, motivate managers and energize your organization? To really ensure success with e-learning? Successful companies develop a systems-based implementation strategy founded on principles of change management, consumer marketing and change communications. Then they follow a detailed implementation plan with defined activities, timetables and resources that is based on proven techniques and approaches drawn from these disciplines.
Change Management: Winning the Hearts and Minds
E-learning of any type represents a change. Even though it might be as simple as the replacement of an instructor-led class with an online course or an Excel-based spreadsheet with an LMS, it still is a change in the organization. Learners used to instructors often resent having to learn from a computer, and trainers who feel valued for their platform skills often feel threatened. Managers who have always controlled the access to training and information often feel undermined when learners can access learning resources anytime, anywhere. And the organization often experiences a perceived lack of participation, high dropout rates, and conflict between and among departments and staff, dooming many e-learning initiatives.
But organizations themselves do not change — people (learners, managers and colleagues) change, one at a time. Change management is the discipline of managing people through the transition that the change represents. It is about communication and exchange, dialogue and questions, attitudes and behaviors, leadership and support. It’s about winning the battle for the hearts and minds of the people whom the change affects.
There already exists a tremendous body of knowledge about change, transitions and change management. The following have proven to be particularly relevant to the development of effective change management strategies for e-learning:
Consumer Marketing: People Want to Buy, Not Be Sold
The purpose of consumer marketing is to attract and then retain customers. At its best, it is an ongoing process that builds mutually satisfying, long-term relationships. In recent years, building a brand and building relationships have been established as critical to this process.
Technically, a brand is the combination of symbols, words or designs that differentiate one company’s product from another’s. But branding is not about aesthetics — it’s about guiding perceptions, and it’s about answering the question, “Why should I do business with you?”
Why is branding important in e-learning? It’s what engages new learners initially and then keeps them coming back. It’s what reassures managers and energizes the organization. Bottom line: It’s about effectively communicating the value of the e-learning to create learner preference and generate management and organizational commitment. These are some excellent examples of the power of branding e-learning:
The standard marketing adage is that acquiring new customers is expensive, while keeping repeat customers is cheaper and more lucrative. This is also true of e-learning. You want your “customers” to not just come back but become fiercely loyal.
For e-learning, building this type of relationship can start with things as easy as single password sign-on, personalized reporting options just for learners and managers or proactive e-mail announcements of new offerings in subject areas recently accessed.
Change Communications: The Integration of Change Management, Consumer Marketing and More
Not all communications plans have the same purpose. Although often confused, there is a difference between change communications and marketing communications. Marketing communications focus on the creation and execution of messages and related media used to communicate with a market. They are information-based and very one-way, and they are too often experienced as an overwhelming flood. Change communications focus on the development of individual and organizational attitudes and behaviors. They are process-based, inclusive and two-way.
Change communications consist of three stages: inform, involve and integrate. But rather than having a start and an end, they reinforce a cycle of activities.
Companies as diverse as Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts, John Muir Health and Sheetz have applied these techniques and approaches to ensure their success with e-learning. Although they represent very different industries (hospitality, health care, convenience and food) they have in common an understanding that e-learning is not about the right content, right design or right technology — it’s about the people.
Lance Dublin is the chief solution architect and founder of Dublin Consulting, and he has worked in learning and change management strategy, design and implementation for more than 25 years. He can be reached at email@example.com.