Is Your Organization Ready for E-Learning? Seven key questions you need to answer
© 2000 The Communication Project, Inc.
As business cycle times compress, workers from the plant floor to the executive offices require new skills almost weekly. On-line learning is increasingly perceived as a source of competitive advantage for these companies, especially for multinational and geographically disparate organizations. Learners access information as needed, and new skills can be applied immediately, thus reducing delays and lost productivity. Remarkably, by 2003, it is estimated that half of corporate training is anticipated to be in the form of e-learning. With this much change in corporate training, is your organization prepared to make the leap towards e-learning? Answering the following seven questions and properly planning to embrace e-learning will help achieve near-term benefits and engage the workforce.
1. Do you understand the changes e-learning will bring to your organization?
Today, companies are stretching to provide their geographically distributed organization increased capabilities via training and education. More and more often, these groups are hoping that the promises of e-learning will fulfill their training needs. Many, however, are overlooking how implementing these new training technologies will affect both the organization and the individual. Lets consider what these new training methods will and will not do for the organization.
Implementing e-learning promises substantial benefits for organizations: it will potentially eliminate corporate training travel budgets, save 50% in training time (one to three weeks versus six months), and cut an estimated 40% to 60%  from conventional classroom training costs.  Furthermore, the printing of large training manuals is virtually eliminated, and because e-learning is infinitely flexible, courses can be completed during scheduled downtimes (which is, of course, important for a variety of industries.)Besides cost benefits, e-learning promises to increase employee retention by ensuring that employees always have the right knowledge and tools to work effectively.  The nature of the media allows for rapid course development and deployment, meaning that the key messages are always up-to-date. Learning can occur across borders and time zones with a continuity of message not ordinarily found in classic instructor-led training. On top of this, studies suggest that comprehension levels and retention rates derived from e-learning may be up to 250% better than traditional methods. 
E-learning is not without its detractors, however. Web-based training cannot be the only means of corporate training. E-learning addresses only some of the development needs of the organization. Without a comprehensive approach to employee development, the organization remains lacking in important competency development.
Resistance to E-Learning
The director of training services at one large national retailer recently determined that 85% of her employees wanted traditional instructor-led classes instead of Web-based learning. The organization has strived to make classes fun and interactive, so individuals were reluctant to lose this socialization. In order to ensure adoption, she must translate this aspect of training into their own unique version of e-learning. 
E-learning is susceptible to technological failures and barriers. Most online classes require substantial bandwidth and current browser versions. Instruction that includes video and audio may work well in one corporate location, but may be untenable from a dial-up connection. Until these barriers are eliminated, e-learning is unlikely to accommodate every employees natural learning style.
Finally, e-learning cannot be the "silver bullet" for all training needs. It is inappropriate for complex manufacturing tasks and instruction in which collaboration is integral to the learning experience. Also, trainers may find communicating with instructors and other students through electronic media difficult and intimidating, especially at first. Supporting the inherent flexibility of e-learning is costly, as well: corporations may not anticipate the investments required to operate e-learning and associated support systems on a 24/7 basis. 
[7 Key Questions]
2. Is e-learning part of your organizations integrated training strategy?
For decades, organizational development professionals have struggled to align training curricula with the corporate goals and objectives. It is common knowledge that corporate training fulfills several needs within the organization. E-learning is just one aspect of todays human resources development capabilities and should be considered as part of an overarching training strategy for the organization.
Most often, training is delivered in order to transfer some specific competencies to the individual employee. Presumably, these competencies are aligned with the overall goals of the organization and relate directly to providing an improved capability to the client. In many cases, unless the topics are highly technical or best understood by some collaborative experience, distance learning seems feasible.
Oftentimes, training provides other benefits for the organization. It can be validly used as a reward for good performance or "time off" from a stressful situation. Many new employee orientations have a primary goal of indoctrinating individuals into the organization. Classes may be one of only a few ways employees can socialize within the company or network to make important contacts. In the extreme, training can be a "rite of passage" for a group; that is, the organization uses a collective experience to cultivate loyalty and shared perspectives among employees. (Think of an "outward bound" adventure, as an example.) For these experiences, organizations rely on more traditional models of training in order to meet all of these disparate goals. Distance learning would be inappropriate as a primary medium, but may serve auxiliary purposes.
The challenge is to balance the learning experience to align both primary and secondary goals. When e-learning is implemented, and some aspects of the socialization and enculturation experience are forfeited, the organization needs to cultivate other opportunities outside of training to support these needs. This will lower resistance and facilitate the acceptance of Web-based distance learning as a viable, credible addition to the learning environment.
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3. Is there appropriate leadership throughout the organization to support e-learning?
The primary force behind all successful initiatives is undoubtedly leadership. Without the leadership providing visible and sustained support for new training implementation, organizational acceptance would be slow if not impossible.
What type of leader should sponsor the e-learning effort?
In the end, leaders will be responsible for helping employees embrace the changes in the organization: first through the development and use of performance incentives (change behavior), and later through the cultivation of buy-in and acceptance (sustain behavior).
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4. Are the organizational support systems in place to sustain the adoption of e-learning?
What can the organization do, then, to ensure the successful adoption of e-learning? Like any change management effort, large or small, there are three organizational levers that either facilitate or hinder acceptance of organizational change:
When these areas support each other and act in concert, organizational change becomes rapidly embedded throughout the organization and resistance is minimized.
Performance Management includes those activities related to the performance planning, measurement, and evaluation processes in place at both the individual and group level. It also includes formal and informal consequence systems that are key to influencing behavior in the individual. Organizational leadership needs to adjust the performance management system to account for and support the new behaviors required to successfully embrace e-learning.
At the highest level, organizational and group goals should be developed that relate to the implementation of the new training tools. Again, leaderships role is to recognize, reward, and reinforce behaviors through these formal and informal systems. For example, a division might choose to have every employee complete one Web-based course by the end of the first quarter and hold feedback sessions regarding their ideas and concerns. Tied to this goal should be concrete consequences at all levels. Individuals, teams, groups, and divisions that meet this goal should be recognized both formally and informally. Conversely, those that do not complete the required course should have meaningful negative consequences associated with their behavior.While many organizations are reluctant to re-organize to accommodate every management initiative (and others are too eager), the appropriateness of the current organizational design should be evaluated in light of the new learning processes. Even if no changes are to be made to the existing organization, insight into how the design both impedes and facilitates acceptance can help in the development of a comprehensive Change Management plan.
Case: Whom do I Call for Help?
A large telecommunications firm was thrilled to implement Web-based learning for the sales staff. The order fulfillment department provided the content for the training with assistance from an outside vendor and the regional sales department hosted the class on their server. When access to the information and bandwidth availability became problems for salespeople attempting to dial-up the training, no one knew who would help resolve the problem. The sales department passed the problem to the order fulfillment area, as they seemed to "own" the material. The order fulfillment personnel, however, did not have access to sales server and could not answer technical questions about the companys network. The internal computing and network group were too busy with "their own work" to prioritize the e-learning access problems to anyones satisfaction. Without organizational oversight, the companys departmental silos and lack of planning for just such a problem, caused this e-learning effort to die a quick and costly death. The salespeople were quickly disillusioned and frustrated and became weary of any new initiative from corporate.
For example, contractors, Employee Development, and Information Systems specialists may all have a role to play in the successful implementation of e-learning (see case Who Do I Call For Help?). The organizational design, however, may inhibit these groups from working seamlessly together, especially from the perspective of the individual learner. In this case, the company may draft a service level agreement between the disparate parities to agree on a single point of contact for the organization. In this way the organizational design is bridged in order to support the implementation of new technologies.
The knowledge and use of existing communication channels in the organization can add both credibility and urgency to messages regarding the implementation of Web-based distance learning. Furthermore, the establishment of feedback mechanisms regarding the new training will help predict employee concerns and pinpoint specific topics of resistance.
While this seems like an obvious tactic to ensure acceptance of e-learning, communication efforts usually require more planning and leadway than anticipated. Feedback, from emails, surveys, focus groups, etc. must be reviewed and responded to in order to be useful. Information is used to update implementation plans and tweak training strategies in the future. These efforts require a sense of purpose that is rarely the product of last-minute activities.
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5. Is your technology capable of delivering e-learning predictably and effectively?
Implementing e-learning requires a minimum technological platform: necessary hardware, adequate telecommunication capabilities, current browser versions, access to software, etc. As part of implementing this new learning technology, and in an effort to not create distrust and frustration in employees, the organization should ensure appropriate technological capability. The system should be completely tested and user problems anticipated and addressed.
Not only is it important to think of the internal equipment and software that deliver Web-based learning, but also to think of the end-users office and home PCs, portable PCs, printers, phones, and vendor technology. Again, while e-learning provides cross-platform flexibility, it also requires that astute consideration be given to all the possible permutations of equipment that may be used to complete on-line coursework.
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6. Are individual learners prepared for distance learning?
From the individuals perspective, Web-based learning will offer a significantly different experience from "traditional" training. Besides losing some of the collaborative or group experience, the most significant change for the individual will be the presumption of a pre-defined skill set around technology competency. In order to complete Web-based learning experiences and to participate fully, learners must have an existing facility and comfort with the Web technology.
Quite simply, a profile of required computer skills needs to be determined for implementing these new learning strategies. At a minimum, the employee needs intermediate Windows and Internet navigation skills, possibly including dial-up access to Web servers, and basic typing abilities. In the future, information may be captured and routed to local printers, so consideration will have to be given to these technological skills as e-learning capabilities are enhanced. All in all, the learner must feel comfortable enough with the technology to concentrate on the content of the training and operate efficiently with the interactive elements in the learning module.
Formal classroom training, on-the-job training, or self-paced tutorials can be rapidly deployed to bring everyone up to the same level of computer skills. PC skill training can be obtained competitively from the marketplace; there is no need to expend resources to develop these classes internally.
E-Learning on the Plant Floor
A large electronics manufacturer has recently installed on-demand learning at all of their manufacturing plants workstations. Not only do the machines deliver product changes and alters immediately to the production teams, but training is available on almost any subject at any time. For example, if an employee wants to know how to reduce static electricity transfer to the sensitive electronic equipment, he or she can search "all curricula" for "static" and find a quick 30 minute course to help him or her complete the job more effectively. There can be no more direct link between individual, task, and training than this type of employee-controlled on-demand training: employee acceptance is greatly enhanced. 
In addition, training should be complemented with either a Help Desk or resource center to address individual questions regarding technology. Learning aides, such as quick reference cards, can be obtained or developed to provide real-time help to the employees during the training session. Specialists can be enlisted across disparate work groups to provide more personal help in a highly fragmented organization. These individuals would be experts in the educational software and could serve as local "experts."
It is important to note that these efforts should not be considered one-time programs to level the skill sets of employees. New employees should be hired with these skills or rapidly trained in order to ensure the prolonged success of e-learning. Facility with the computer becomes a core requirement for success in the organization and is added to performance expectations.
Also, it is important that employees see the relationship between their work product and their learning efforts. Communication should be two-way, providing the individual worker adequate opportunity to voice concerns and ask questions to put the new training effort into perspective. Transitioning to new processes and procedures requires a change in behavior as well as rationalization and acceptance at the individual level.
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7. Do you have an overall Change Management plan in place to transition your organization to e-learning?
If you answer all the above questions positively and feel that your organization is indeed ready for e-learning, then why spend any time developing an overall Change Management plan? Quite simply, drafting even a high-level plan helps you identify and allocate resources for important tasks, allows for collaborative thought on critical issues for the e-learning implementation, uncovers potential roadblocks, and concretely defines the key steps required to ensure organizational acceptance. In addition, this type of formal planning guarantees that some of the more tedious logistical tasks, like communication drafting and dissemination, are completed.
Depending on the size of the organization moving towards Web-based distance learning, a complete change management planning effort should take two months to design and kick-off. (This assumes appropriate levels of leadership and cross-functional experts assigned to the team and an average of two to four hours per workday contributed.) Additionally, support personnel will be required to carry out some of the logistical aspects of an effective change management plan.
Ready to Take the Plunge?
Over $10 billion dollars will be spent on e-learning efforts by 2003;  however, not all organizations are really prepared for such a dramatic shift towards e-learning. No mater how dramatic a change e-learning may be for the organization, deliberate reflection and planning for implementation will focus your efforts, more effectively deploy your resources and enhance organizational acceptance.
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1. Gene Bylinsky, "Hot New Technologies for American Factories," Fortune (26 June 2000). Back
2. Diane Khirallah, "A New Way to Learn?" Information Week (22 May 2000). Back
3. Sandra Evans, "Net-based Training Goes the Distance; Employers Find E-learning Saves Costs, Time," The Washington Post (15 May 2000). Back
4. Sandra Evans, "Net-based Training Goes the Distance; Employers Find E-learning Saves Costs, Time," The Washington Post (15 May 2000). Back
5. Merrill Lynch, The Knowledge Web, (23 May 2000): 235. Back
6. Diane Khirallah, "A New Way to Learn?" Information Week (22 May 2000). Back
7. Jeffrey Young, "Distance Education Transforms Help Desks Into 24-7 Operations," The Chronicle of Higher Education (26 May 2000). Back
8. Gene Bylinsky, "Hot New Technologies for American Factories," Fortune (26 June 2000). Back
9. Merrill Lynch, The Knowledge Web, (23 May 2000): 233. Back
About the Author
Michele C. Minton has consulted in management, business, and information technologies for the past ten years. She has significant experience in developing and delivering large-scale transformation programs in complex organizations. She has specialized in process reengineering, with specific emphasis in organizational design, leadership development, and change management. Her background crosses many industries and sectors, including: pharmaceuticals, telecommunications, federal government, and systems integration. Ms. Minton holds an BA from The College of William & Mary and an MBA from the Darden Graduate School of Business at the University of Virginia.
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© 2000 The Communication Project, Inc. All rights reserved. Reproduction of this document in any form without prior written permission from The Communication Project, Inc. is forbidden.