Fleming has found some terrific resources over the years.
Several articles he returns to again and again:
Some of the books on his bookshelf:
First Things Fast: A Handbook for Performance Analysis. A. Rosset. 1998
Strategic Planning Plus: An Organizational Guide. R. Kaufman. 1992.
Technology-Based Training: The art and science of design, development, and delivery. K. Kruse, J. Keil. 1999.
Distance Training: How Innovative Organizations Are Using Technology to Maximize Learning and Meet Business Objectives. D. Schreiber, Z. Berge (eds). 1998.
Figuring Things Out: A Trainer's Guide to Task, Needs, and Organizational Analysis. R. Zemke, T Kramlinger (con.) 1998.
Websites he visits frequently:
The secret solution to getting my business is simple. This is what I want. This is what every company I know wants.
I want a scalable, interactive online learning environment, based on an open architecture that can interconnect with a variety of databases, and is hosted on a thin client. Through a secure learning portal, users can access a variety of competency-based, collaborative synchronous learning experiences which will positively impact the behavior exhibited at work and can be accessed 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, around the world. Users also have access to asynchronous computer-based training modules where they can target specific developmental needs, which can be completed online or offline. Testing and usability data is automatically recorded and archived on a series of stacked files, which is easily integrated with the enterprise resource planning (ERP) tool through a comprehensive and customized learning management system (LMS). Several performance support and knowledge management tools help engage users individually and collectively to reinforce desired behavioral changes through low bandwidth simulations and just in time, hi-touch coaching opportunities. And, to complement the off-the-shelf packaged solutions, I want something an end-to-end total service provider can easily modify and create new environments to satisfy immediate distance learning needs and show positive business results.
Got it? Uhh…yeah…okay. Now where is it?
I have seen this offered at many dog-and-pony shows from vendors I really had no time to talk to and probably won’t remember in two days, but I have yet to find a true sole-source provider. In times like these, I hold to the old adage, “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.” I don’t trust the hype of the newest technology vendor and strive not to get lost in the coolness of the newest interface.
To effectively play in the elearning world, corporations have to invest the time and thought to understand why they want to get involved, what they will get from this experience, and the resources they need to allocate. And hold true to our answers, should a dog or pony walk into our building.
At Capital One, we are in the middle of sorting out exactly what elearning has to offer us. We have invested a lot of time in understanding what constitutes successful professional development for all our associates and the role technology can play in making that happen. The group I work in concentrates mainly on developing so-called soft-skills across the entire enterprise. We target behavioral change through coaching, change management, and executive development programs. Our basic learning philosophy dictates that every product or service we offer includes each of the following components: information, skill building, reinforcement, and data collection. Technology can help in each area.
The problem is that most elearning solutions sell themselves as complete soup-to-nuts solutions, when they really only offer alternatives for one or two necessary components for our curriculum. Our key to success lies in integrating different best-of-breed packages to satisfy learning and business needs. That means more work (due diligence) for each of us as we piece together solid learning solutions. I have yet to find that magic pill. If you have, let me know. In the interim, here are the steps we’ve used to improve our results.
Step 1: Know thy (organizational) true self
Start with your culture. Our organizational culture has an interesting dichotomyI call it the “technophobic Internet generation.” The average age of employees in the company is mid-late 20s so people are hip to the Internet. But, with the increased pace of industry changes and the flexible nature of most jobs, success has traditionally required a huge commitment to hi-touch interaction. People know how to work the machines; they just don't trust them to have an impact in their own development. Without the deep commitment of the audience, no elearning tool will succeed.
Next, in order to make good decisions, you have to really understand true business focus for your particular group, your primary goals, and your basic philosophy about successful learning in your culture.
Do you provide individual/team skills training, competency development, or performance consulting?
Are you trying to increase reach, decrease costs, enhance quality, or improve operational efficiency?
What combinations of information, training, reinforcement, and measurement work best for you?
Finally, look at your IT infrastructure. What is it? What will it look like in the next 6-18 months? Are you ready to introduce and implement new applications or are you just frustrating yourself and your potential vendors? If you listen, you’ll learn that IT organizations rarely say they can't do something. Heck, they are mostly made up of engineers who love to make the impossible happen just for kicks (and they usually can). Your challenge is to find out their “hot” buttons in order to make elearning a possibility and a priority. For instance, is security a big concern? What kinds of network connections do you have? Is there a standard user configuration? How many resources are needed to implement and then to maintain (which is usually 2-3 times more than implementation) the chosen solution?
Be able to articulate why elearning, as a concept, will help the organization and let the IT staff handle the technological selections. The first few meetings you attend with your IT folks and the vendor’s technical people will seem like an aggressive spelling bee with NASA-like schematic support. But the more you can educate yourself about your IT infrastructure, the more leadership you can show in directing these vendor meetings towards solving your specific issues.
This ability to articulate the issues you are trying to solve is also very important for building support in the non-IT areas of the company. Take time to understand why you are looking at elearning. No magical phrase will de-mystify it, but a clear and concise explanation of the measurable problems or opportunities it can help solve can (and must) be done in less than one page of text. Make sure your business partners understand what is in it for them. If you hope to get their support and movement, you must excel at translating vendor-speak into terms that makes sense to your organization.
Step 2: Explore what is actually out there
Snoop the fringes and scan for depth: research. There is a lot out there. I have a folder of over 100 excellent websites about the concepts of elearning, and another 200 of companies who say they have the solutions. Ignorance is a curable social affliction. Educate yourself and then educate others in your organization.
To help muddle through all the information out there, I suggest selectively plugging into a few (and only a few) critical resources. If you go with too many, you become paralyzed from action. Personally, I recommend Brandon Hall’s reports and newslettersvery concise and informative, yet broad in topics. I also recommend Bill Communication’s TDFe-Net and Online Learning News. This free information arrives through email every once in a while and provides guidance from experts and peers to help you make decisions.
Next, pick one or two conferences to attend. You want to make sure they have both strong learning design theory workshops and a hands-on technical exposition. I recommend Online Learning and ASTD/SALT TechKnowledge but prepare for the vendor flood. After attending a few conferences, many more vendors will get your name and address. Cold calls will begin and your mailbox will overflow with reams of collateral. While helpful at first, it will become mundane and require hard work to filter out the garbage. After a while, courtesy call-backs will become dreaded, painful experiences. And the players keep changing their names. It is hard to keep track of who is who.
Here are some suggestions on how to deal with vendors:
1. Return the initial calls. Don't string them along. Be frank and honest about your intentions, timeframes, and processes. If you don't know, tell them.
2. Pick out the printed marketing materials with concepts that jump out at you, and then throw the rest away. If you didn't like what they had to say initially, you probably won't like it later either.
3.Keep a folder of websites and a list of contact names just in case your needs change.
4. If they lead with technology, take a long, hard look at the underlying learning principles. If they cannot articulate them in less than five minutes, they probably don’t have them very well thought out.
5. If they lead with the learning principles, ask for a wide variety of example implementations. Make sure they can prove (with succinct data points) at least three things:
The typical business problems they have actually helped to solve;
The types of business problems their solutions are not necessarily designed to solve;
And do participants like it? Do you like it? If you think the interface is boring, the text is dry, or the content too longit probably is).
6. Ask the vendors to help you build a business case for elearning. They do this for a living and should have lots of good material to help you. If they don't? Stay away from them.
Step 3: Marry steps 1 and 2
What kind of solutions do you need and will they work together at the curriculum level? You may find that you have very different needs, which require a combination of solutions and vendors. A solution for updating a sales force may be very different than satisfying legal regulations around employment law. Improving the level of managerial coaching is far different than improving skills around HTML coding. At some point, however, these solutions have to link together for you to analyze, report, manage, and maintain. This is where most companies break down and purchase something off-the-shelf that promises a total solution for all needs. Big mistake. This action allows the technological package to dictate your options. Eventually, unattended learning issues will burst through the seams and create more problems to band-aid (which usually costs more in the long run).
Other questions you have to ask yourself are: What role(s) are you and your group willing to play? Do you want the ability to develop new products or courses? Do you want the responsibility of hosting, administering, and maintaining users or content? Is measurement a nice to have or a need to have? The hidden implementation issues can bite you in the butt, so go forward with a clear understanding of what your core competency will be and what you need to complement it.
Step 4: Pick the vendor(s)
This is an theory as old as business: “If you want what they sell, you can get it cheap and fast (but it may or may not work for your culture). If you want something special or tailored: you’ll pay through the nose and expect delays.”
I have opinions about almost every vendor out there. If you’d like to know what I thinkreally thinkask. You can also learn about the vendors I have found helpful by following the links on the sidebar.
Step 5: Use measurement as the link for your solution(s)
The business push for results means you need to measure. If you don’t have a strong understanding and commitment to measuring impact before elearning, no one technological solution will solve it for you. If you collect a whole bunch of data around user pathways and clicking patterns, but don’t know how or why you will use this data, don’t collect it.
In order for any learning management system to work, you have to have the ability to integrate with good sources of data. Here a strong ERP system comes into play. If you know which ERP system your company uses, you can move forward. If you don’t, or if you are waiting to implement one, this becomes a more involved issue that includes many parts of the organization and is honestly beyond the scope of elearning.
Also realize that technology fails now and then. What is your backup plan for when servers are down, the Internet is slow, or your intranet is experiencing problems? Can users access information, training, or support tools online and offline? What implications does this have to your ability to track and measure impact? One company I have seen latelyExperient Technologiesseems to offer a possible solution. In addition, they claim to be able to integrate learning solutions through PDA technology, which is a very intriguing distribution model in this increasingly attention-driven economy.
Final analysis – eLearning vs. learning-e
After a while, you will see the pattern of innovation for the learning profession. The new technology is the new fad until people discover limitations. In the past, however, no learning tool has had the power of influencing the actual living environment as much as the computer and the Internet. eLearning is just a new iteration of innovation, initially focused on distribution, but growing to impact design, marketing and manufacturing areas of the industry’s value chain. We have only started to see the tip of the iceberg of how elearning can and will be integrated into corporate life to produce clear business advantage.
This mountain of promise has to be tempered with a measure of patience and an investment of understanding. A sound learning model, which relies on non-technological solutions, will always beat out across-the-board application of the newest technology proclaimed the holy grail of all learning situations. Stick to your selected pedagogical model for learning and development. See elearning as a tool intertwined in the learning process. Any elearning strategy will influence your designs and your actions, but don't let it dictate them.
One of the distance learning models I have found particularly powerful is that of City University in Seattle. It has a nice blend of multimedia distribution, instructional design, synchronous/asynchronous collaboration, and coaching. It uses Internet technology with CD-ROM multimedia distribution in order to circumvent bandwidth and connection issues. Very simple, yet effective.
What I’d like to see in the future is:
For training to address different learning styles within the same solution;
Solid integration between elearning and non-tech components;
Lower bandwidth multimedia (or better ways to overcome bandwidth limitations);
eLearning solutions that have the capability of learning within themselves (intelligent software for developing truly adaptable interactive simulations).
If you plan to really use elearning to make a difference in your organization, you will have to grapple with these issues. This work is not simple, easy, or as clear-cut as some vendors would like you to think. Just make sure you do not unknowingly abdicate your choices in the future with the decisions you make today.
Kirk Fleming is a Learning Innovation Consultant at Capital One. When not fending off vendors, he's building a world class-learning environment for Capital One's 17,000 employees. Currently, he is exploring new ways to inspire and harness collaborative creativity using technology within learning and development solutions. He welcomes your commentstried, true, or indifferent at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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