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(My) 7 guidelines for effective corporate e Learning

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1. The business world is not about learning, it’s about doing business.
So before doing training needs analysis – please, do go through a business needs analysis. It may not be the same as the strategic direction or vision statement of the company; it’s more complex. We are dealing with different goals and perspectives. What needs to be learnt varies from the point of view of the CXO, training manager, product manager/department head and the learner. Catering to all viewpoints is a daunting task, but, believe me, it’s the first and foremost task to do. Any shortcut is a pathway to doom’s loop. We can use 3 converging circles (inspired by Jim Collins) to formulate the business context analysis of learning needs.

2. First collaboration, then learning
Learning is a social event, and collective intelligence is the key for any organizational success. The #1 problem of corporate e Learning today is overemphasized focus on content. Content is scattered all over the organization in many forms and formats – slides, white papers, e-mails (!) etc. These may be not in most articulated or engaging format, and can obviously be improved drastically with rich media, but at least the content is there! What’s totally lacking in most organizations is collaboration, interaction and systematic process of capturing tacit knowledge scattered throughout the organization.

Since we were little, communicating has been about responding to one another. I say to my little daughter ‘Daddy’. She says ‘Dada’. And we go on for a while. That’s how she learns. A response calls forth another response, and a theme develops. It’s how we all learn – until we join organizations. Then we sit down and watch people give presentations; or worse – we put a voiceover on the slides, upload them to an LMS and name the process e Learning!

Ask workers where they learned how to do their jobs, and 80 percent of the time the answer is “at work.” Most learning takes place on the job, outside the purview of formal learning. When we do conduct formal training, 80 percent of it is wasted effort. – Jay Cross (Workflow Learning Gets Real)

Now for the million-dollar question: how do we establish a culture of knowledge sharing and a collaborative learning-working environment in an organization? The technology is here – both for synchronous (virtual classroom/meeting-room, virtual workplace) and asynchronous (blog, wiki, forum, folksonomy tools etc.). Collaborative knowledge sharing environments are a reality now, at least technically. But the hurdle is not technological; it’s mainly political and cultural. Our years of ranking and certification-based education has lent our outlook towards learning a ‘Darwinian’ perspective. And the same learning culture is carried forward by people into organizations after “warming the seat in the classroom”-type learning for 16+ years.

3. Off-the Shelf content is so yesterday, Courseware is dead.
In the movie “The Matrix,” there is a scene where Trinity and Neo, need to take over a military helicopter. When asked if she can fly it, Trinity immediately makes a call from her cell phone to obtain the necessary pilot training program. Moment’s later, all necessary information is implanted into her brain, and the she takes off with Neo.

Although this is fictional, successful organizational knowledge dissemination should follow the same path as in Matrix. Today’s knowledge workers don’t have time to sit through a 2-day workshop or 5 hours of e-Learning courseware. Think about the immense opportunity cost, or the ‘forget curve’ of knowledge before the theories get implemented in day-to-day work. Today’s knowledge workers need information-knowledge-intelligence quickly and at the precise time. The days of courseware are over. Period!

Also, by now, almost every sane organization has realized that off-the-shelf courseware is only effective in providing training on ‘workplace sexual harassment’ – type of subjects, and not for conducting core business training. For the same reason that you can’t buy your organizational strategy off-the-shelf, you can’t use off-the-shelf courseware to implement core training of the organization.

Moreover, the first-learn-then-work paradigm is out. We just don’t have enough time. We learn mostly when we work, and we work while we are still learning. Honestly – what do you do when you are trying out a new software? Do you search for a manual? Call 24/7 Helpdesk support? Or would you press F1 for help?

In adult learning, cognitive goals are always application oriented’ we don’t have any 3- hour exam to sit for – real life is our examination hall! We need both explicit and tacit knowledge when we need it – on demand.

4. It’s not about Technology – it’s about effectiveness and culture
During the first era of e Learning, we made an egregious mistake of treating e Learning in the same way as CRM, ERP or any other enterprise technology. We forgot that e Learning is about LEARNING and not about the ‘e’. It is about learning to be more effective in today’s complex knowledge economy – an ecosystem that is continuously changing and evolving. Learning is not a system, which can be installed be done with. The primary aims of learning organizations should be -

  1. Making explicit knowledge visible and accessible – on demand. The computer’s memory is much more efficient than ours. They, not us, should handle complicated explicit knowledge.
    Not convinced? Try this -
    13 x 21=?
    Reaching out for your calculator – aren’t you? Well that’s what I meant. Memorization is what you do in primary school, not in business.
  2. Capturing the complex changes of the business context as soon as possible. Tacit knowledge is hard to gather; there is no single magic trick, which can perform the task. My experience tells me that blended formal and informal tacit knowledge gathering works best.
  3. Disseminating the knowledge seamlessly. It’s not to make every bit of information available to all. Please don’t throw the drowning man another wave of information. Make relevant knowledge readily accessible for knowledge workers, knowledge that directly or indirectly affects their functional priorities.
  4. Implementing a culture of knowledge sharing and an atmosphere of continuous learning Admittedly the most important and daunting task of all.
    According to Senge: At the heart of a learning organization is a shift of mind –from seeing ourselves as separate from the world to connected to the world, from seeing problems as caused by someone or something ‘out there’ to seeing how our own actions create the problems we experience. A learning organization is a place where people are continually discovering how they create their reality. And how they can change it.

There is a lot of discussion about the importance of creating a learning organization. We recognize the importance in personal development of counting to engage in what Stephen Covey refers to as “sharpening the saw”. But in the application of those ideas to our business and personal lives, we often fail to make a distinction about two kinds of learning.

The first kind of learning, which is far more common and more easily achieved, is to deepen our knowledge within an existing mental model or discipline.

The second kind of learning is focused on new mental models and on shifting from one to another. It does not deepen knowledge in a specific model but rather looks at the world outside the model and adopts new models to make sense of this broader world. Sometimes we don’t need to merely “sharpen” the saw; we need to throw it out to pick up a power tool. If we only focused on sharpening, then we might not see the opportunity to apply new technology that can radically change the way we approach the task.

5. LMS / big rollouts are out – embrace small pieces loosely coupled
During the first era of e Learning, when a company decided to go into e Learning path, first thing they did was to select an LMS! Think about the working process of any (well…most of the) ‘early adopters’ of e Learning.

First, a decision-making subcommittee is formed, evaluation criteria are decided, 100 pages of RFP’s are released and the tender called.

Then the fun begins. People sit together in meeting rooms, munching donuts and sipping coffee, to interview LMS vendors. The process made them feel important. After that hoola-hoop, when the LMS was finally implemented (e Learning rollout – drum roll please!), there was nothing inside it. So they filled it up with off-the-shelf courseware and uploaded all the junk PowerPoint presentations, PDF and Word documents. Finally when they realized nothing is going according to their expectations (god only knows what those were!) – they jumped to the conclusion – e Learning doesn’t work!

Time has changed. After the bubble burst, companies are more careful and pragmatic to try out something new. My earnest request to you – don’t play with stakeholders’ money. Forget big rollouts; embrace small trial and error method. Try lots of things, with low risk factors, and keep what’s working. It is usually best to get them quickly into the new flow, and plan to course-correct going forward. This is a white water rafting strategy. When you pick, you pick hard.

Find out a visionary department, and try something new. If that works – use them as ‘headpin’ to enter other pragmatic areas. But whatever it is, make it fast.
Also remember - the best things in life are free. If you need to try out things on a small scale and no enterprise integration issues are involved – why not try out free and open source technologies? Use a multi-authored Wordpress blog to share knowledge within a department. Really need a CMS/LMS? Try out Drupal or Moodle. Use Wink to capture a software demonstration and publish that in the intranet. You can think about 1001 ways to use FOSS to implement low-risk e Learning initiatives. If you are successful – plan for the ‘big fish’.

6. e Learning is not only for internal learning
It’s a common misconception that e Learning is a ‘tool’ to train only the insiders of an organization. The truth is that for the last couple of years at least 70% of e learning projects I have worked on, are either for channel partners or end users of a product. The easy explanation would be – In partner or end user training, the funds come directly from the product group or the marketing department, and not from the training department (which is always the poorest). But that’s not the whole picture.. The internal staff of an organization will have to support, sell and market their product or solution anyway – whether they receive effective training or not. But channel partners and more importantly end users have no obligation to learn on their own if you don’t provide them useful information and knowledge on time.

On the other hand, your channel partner will sell your product better than your competitors’ if they are more knowledgeable about your product than other products.

7. Measure what really matters
Be careful what you measure. You might get the result and it might kill you. (Michael Hammer, The Agenda)

Imagine a situation – You are the product manager of a new product of your organization. You arranged an e Learning program to train your sales force. Every user/learner really liked the program (at least they said so in the smiley sheet!). Tracking systems of the LMS show excellent results and so does student evaluation. Just one problem though – after 6 months of launching the product you haven’t attained even 10% of the sales target! Well there may be many other factors at work here, but the point remains- without proving business results, any other measurement of the success or failure of a learning initiative is useless.

For all e Learning initiatives, measure what really matters to your business. For instance, please do not include ‘travel cost saved’ in the infamous ROI section of the learning initiative document. Think about opportunity cost, cost of ignorance and 2nd hand knowledge transfer. How to? First in a pre-heated oven put your pizza crust…oops! Sorry wrong blog and wrong post. Ok, seriously? The number one rule is that there is no specific rule or checklist. Always think within the business context – that’s all I can suggest. If you want to dig deeper, please read Metrics by Jay Cross.

CAUTION: The above 7 guidelines are not a checklist or anything of the sort. Every business is different and so are their knowledge needs. There is no one-size-fits-all formula.

Written by anol

March 7th, 2005 at 11:26 am

17 Responses to '(My) 7 guidelines for effective corporate e Learning'

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  1. Anol, I like this a lot, and not just because you point people my way. One thing we’re going to have to all get used to is that every answer leads to more questions. I really sense that you are on the right path. And that of course leads directly to questions about flexibility, uncertainty, harnessing technology, and a raft of other things. Great job! All the best.


    Jay Cross

    8 Mar 05 at 5:52 am

  2. As always good points about eLearning Anol…keep it up…


    10 Mar 05 at 10:07 am

  3. Ah yes! Collaboration and Learning — wow. The collaboration part is missing from 90% of e-learning. Ask an LMS vendor about asynchronous discussion forums, chat boards and synchronous tools and they tell you they can *add it in*. Their tools are about dumping content online — while the learning theory supports what we know for sure:

    . . . folks *talk* *think* *partner* *create knowledge* and this happens everyday at work where they turn it into products and services their employer translates into $. Capturing that ongoing, iterative process and its outputs is what I want to do.

    Loretta Donovan

    15 Mar 05 at 3:10 pm

  4. Hey Loretta, you might be interested in this:
    Learning Blogosphere Pt 2

    Harold Jarche

    17 Mar 05 at 3:12 am

  5. Hi Anol,

    You made some good points. Today, I read an interesting article which criticises the old fashioned use of learningmanagementsystems: Breaking Down the LMS Walls. This article also implies that a LMS is not necessary for e-learning.
    In fact, I use to say that simple technology can be very powerful from a pedagogic point of view. Since the last Online Educa in Berlin I prefer the term “technology enhanced learning” (te-learning) instead of e-learning. Imho it emphasises what it is all about: how can you use technology to enhance learning?

    Best regards from the Netherlands,

    Wilfred Rubens

    Wilfred Rubens

    17 Mar 05 at 10:50 pm

  6. I totally agree with most of the points in this article. So much so, that after being one of the first to implement frist generation LMS and LCMS 1996-2001, I embaked on the theme that you described “Today’s knowledge workers need information-knowledge-intelligence quickly and at the precise time.” I even named my new company – Instancy – to propogate this theme.

    I also 100% agree with “The business world is not about learning, it’s about doing business” and I have been experimenting with taking this message to directly to the business world (non-learning audience) for the past 1 year now and have come back with some bruises. My conclusion this month is that the message needs to be tweaked. Nonetheless, it seems like the right direction and I am experimenting with this in a big way!

    Thanks for your sharing your thoughts….

    Harvey Singh

    19 Mar 05 at 6:03 am

  7. If you allow me one more pretty useless comment, that’s an excellent post. I wonder what app you use for your graphics.


    2 Apr 05 at 7:06 pm

  8. I love point 5 about the LMS – we are just sitting down with our suppliers to configure our first LMS. Lets just hope we can avoid the mistakes you have described.


    13 Apr 05 at 1:07 pm

  9. i am a university student studying the subject of e-Learning experiences. within this subject i have had to create a weblog. i think your weblog is great and contains information relating to what i am covering. i also like point 4. Its not about Technology, because i agree that people have put too much focus on the ‘e’


    8 Jun 05 at 6:15 am

  10. i like what you said about “Off-the Shelf content is so yesterday, Courseware is dead.” and the example from the matrix, as soon as i read it, i thought of the learning software, Expert Management Systems- that is a system which helps to reduce the time in finding an expert, as the expert can be contacted through such social software technologies, such as email, IM, and phone calls! it’s funny how the example given about the matrix is fictional, but is slowly becoming reality, due to the advancement in technology and learning!

    I am also doing this subject at uni which looks at the “culture” of work, and there are six apporaches which training programs take, when dealing with cross-cultural training. Basically they are based on productive diversity, lingusitics and EEO. But i was thinking today that technology has become such a big part in the workplace. i think there needs to be 7 approaches to cross-cultural training, in that technology, more imporantly e-learning. In that organisations need to be trained in the issues and challenges that e-learning faces. As E-cultures are becoming a prodominate culture within the workplace… what do you think???


    8 Jun 05 at 11:43 am

  11. sorry, i used the wrong website, this is the correct one!


    8 Jun 05 at 12:12 pm

  12. Great ideas. My thoughts have been on the same path the last few months at

    Most big ERP-style LMS companies do a great job automating the reduntant tasks and instructional methods of 10 years ago. I’m certain every last one of them is scrambling to incorporate WIKIs, blogs, etc. into their systems.

    It takes 10mins to set up a WIKI, and less than that to start blogging. Both technologies combined with a Google-style search engine could easily begin to create collaborative learning networks that are built by the ultimate content experts…the actual workers/learners.

    Brent Schlenker

    16 Sep 05 at 1:23 am

  13. [...] Anol Bhattacharya, author of SoulSoup, has posted some good guidelines on elearning for the corporate world. I can really relate to guideline #1: [...]

  14. Hi Anol, this post really got my mind buzzing in such a way I could not do anything else but to push my thoughts into a blogpost myself. Feel free to give all your thoughts and suggestions questions about informal learning and a global brain

  15. “Off-the Shelf content is so yesterday, Courseware is dead.”

    I completely agree.

    Recently I have seen a boom in technologies like this –

    Essentially what this does is provide an open framework to developing animated tutorials, and then text an annotations in multiple languages can be added as desired. It then gives you the options for tracking etc.

    The main differences compared to a platform like Blackboard are -

    A) This is not limited to web (can be emailed and printed to DVD)
    B) Does not require login, while allowing the admin to track sessions

    Haley Mack

    4 Aug 08 at 7:53 am

  16. Great ideas. They are simple and clear. Just at the moment I am engaged into the implementation of the project on installing one eLearning system within the financial institution. The idea is to convert a lot of paper activities into electronic, to make closer trainers and trainees, to introduce the system of working with learners (testing, improving skills, providing with info) etc. After reading of your article I feel that only the system installing will not be the solution of the task to make closer, even a trainer could appear far from trainees due to the new technologies. At the same time, I think that the system will allow to manage the process, however it will require doobled efforts from tutors. And that will be a challenge. Thank you!


    6 Aug 08 at 11:03 am

  17. Four years after it’s written and still highly relevant! I like the observations on downplaying memorization – leaving the technical tasks to computers (that’s how I felt in 7th grade math class, that’s still how I feel today) – it’s amazing how some people love to beat their learner’s heads with paragraph after paragraph of content you could just as easily stick in a searchable knowledgebase, but… everyone’s got their preference!

    Eric Bort

    25 Mar 09 at 2:44 am

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