Thursday, August 31, 2006

Is Your Hammer Looking for a Nail?

Regular readers of eLearn Campus publications will know that we spend a lot of time talking about the design and management of eLearning. That is because there is a lot of poor design and equally poor management out there. We believe that eLearning went through an initial phase of technology focus where people did not spend a lot of time thinking about design and management. If these aspects are improved, it is more likely that eLearning will be used to support organizational performance.

Our research tells us that early stage eLearning was focused on technical occupations and technical skills. A large survey that we conducted in 2002 found that most eLearning was being used for software training and was targeted at technical employees. That, too, will change. We believe that eLearning will increasingly be used to support mission-critical management processes.

So, in anticipation of that change, we have decided to introduce our Performance Series of webinars this fall. These webinars will focus less on the "what" and "how" of the eLearning product (the hammer) and more on the "why" of a specific business problems (the nails).

In general, the type of business problem that lends itself to eLearning has the following characteristics:
  • A business process improvement that depends critically on the skills of people in the organization
  • Relatively large numbers of people needing skill upgrading
  • People geographically distributed, so the cost of face-to-face is prohibitive
  • There is a need to sustain and support learning beyond a "training event" (learning on demand in the workplace)
  • People are open to learning through technology, or can be taught to be
There are many business problems that meet these criteria. Any major organizational effectiveness initiative, by its very nature, involves many levels of training and a need to sustain training.

The Performance Series will define a specific business problem which lends itself to an eLearning application. We will invite guests from the business community to discuss their issue, suggest an approach to it, and discuss some of the challenges. The guest may not always even be doing eLearning as the initial focus is on a clearly defined business issue. Indeed, we see that as one of the advantages. These guests are the sort of people who need to be convinced that an eLearning solution makes sense.

Our first guest, on September 7th, is Catharine Johnston, Executive Vice President, Business and Organizational Excellence, Intrawest Corporation. Intrawest is a world leader in destination resorts and adventure travel. The Intrawest network of resorts attract over 8 million annual skier visits on 10 mountains, thousands of golfers on 36 championship golf courses, thousands more visiting lakeside and ocean beaches, and now offers adventure travel around the globe through Abercrombie & Kent. Intrawest has more than 24,000 employees located around the world.

Catharine will speak about the challenge of implementing Lean Sigma at a large, geographically-distributed leisure company. This challenge certainly meets our criteria as a business challenge that may be open to eLearning.

We hope you can join us for a fascinating discussion on September 7th.

Friday, August 25, 2006

Getting Opt-in for Your eLearning

My colleagues Mike Grant and Jon-Anthony Lui led an interesting webinar session yesterday focused on improving adoption rates for participation in eLearning initiatives. We did this because we are continually hearing from people in the field about the challenges of low uptake rates for the eLearning that they produce for their employees (in the case of companies) or members (in the case of associations or sector groups). As was mentioned in last week's posting, low adoption rates are often a symptom of poor eLearning design and/or poor management of eLearning initiatives. Fear of the unknown also plays a part.

Mike provided strategies for improving eLearning adoption rates, and Jon provided some insights from the many discussions he has had with eLearning professionals across many sectors.

Mike pointed out that adoption rates are important because these have a real bottom-line impact on the effectiveness of eLearning interventions. For example, if your eLearning program can be proven to have a positive effect (e.g. increasing sales, decreasing defects, shortening cycle times for various processes, etc.), these benefits will obviously be multiplied when more people actually complete the eLearning.

He outlined three strategic approaches for improving adoption rates.

Change Management Approach

This approach makes most sense for large-scale eLearning roll-outs. It involves the creation of a well-thought-out communication strategy from the top of the organization regarding the importance and value of the initiative, and has completion built right into the performance system. Learners are provided with much incentive and support to complete the program (including the most valuable resource: time).

Stealth Approach

For smaller scale eLearning roll-outs, it makes more sense to slowly insinuate your eLearning along the paths of least resistance in the organization. Which topic area, or which group of targeted learners are the most suitable for eLearning? You create great examples of eLearning where you can get buy-in, good word-of-mouth, and build upon this success into other areas.

Marketing Approach

This is a strategy that makes sense no matter how big your eLearning initiative. It focuses on understanding the users' needs, designing your eLearning to address these needs, and communicating these benefits clearly to your user group. Understand and respond to the WIFM (What's In It for Me?) factor.

We had about 60 webinar participants from across North America. When we polled them regarding their own eLearning adoption rates, the results paralleled what we have been hearing elsewhere.

Low - 34%
Medium - 53%
High - 13%

Clearly, a great deal of work remains to be done.

When we asked participants what contributes to low and high adoption rates, here is what we heard.

Reasons for low adoption rates: no clear communication from above on importance of program / no incentives or penalties tied to completion or non-completion / no alignment with business goals / no alignment with HR system / time and space not provided for completion.

Reasons for high adoption rates: good management support / making it required and having clear accountabilities for completion / good internal marketing / internal champions / making eLearning interactive and engaging.

Here is a link to the recorded webinar.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Where is Everyone?

Michael Grant
Co-Founder and Director of Research
eLearn Campus

What would you do if you held a course and nobody came?

Our Director of Education, Rick Nigol, has graciously lent me his space so that I may pontificate on a big issue that I am hearing a lot about these days: the take up and completion of online courses. I wanted to put down some thoughts on this prior to our August 24th webinar on this topic.

For all the discussion around making the business case for eLearning, it seems to me that many people simply ignore the problem of lower take up and completion rates. You can do an elegant job of calculating the ROI for your eLearning, but if you are not attracting learners and they are not completing courses, then who are you fooling? Hint: yourself.

It seems to me that there are two management challenges here: one is that you have to get people to start the course and the other is that you have to get them to complete it. Let me take each in order.

Getting People to Take the Online Course

The main challenge here is that most people have never taken a course online. Think about it. Basically, our entire educational experience is shaped by a classroom model. People simply don't know what it means to take an eLearning course and they don't like things that they don't know.

I like the idea of using carrots and sticks. There are all sorts of things you can do to entice people to take a course including:
  • Let people see and try out a course.
  • Promote the obvious advantages, which include easy access, better time management, the ability to refer back to material, and (hopefully) the enhanced interactivity.
  • Some people will actually care about the learning outcomes and how this will help them do their job better or position their career. There is a tendency to focus too much on the content itself and not enough on the outcomes of the course, so communicate this clearly.
  • Offer incentives to first-time learners or employ various contests to encourage early sign up.
  • Celebrate those who have taken the plunge and let them tell their stories about the advantages of online training. Allow experienced eLearners to spread the word to newbies.
  • Make the course a requirement and track those who sign up.
Getting People to Complete the Online Course

eLearning has suffered from lower completion rates. There doesn't seem to be any decent data on this, but our discussions with clients tell us that this is a problem.

To a large extent I think lower completion rates are an eLearning design issue. There are two aspects of design that result in lower completion rates:

1. Poor Product Design

People are social and they prefer to learn in ways that have them interacting with other learners, a facilitator or with the content. It is amazing how much eLearning is nothing more than electronic content dump.

A client described to us how they went with a suite of eLearning content that amounted to an electronic library. Not surprisingly, the take up was underwhelming and the completions equally bad. If people are just going to read text why not just give them a book? You have to make it fun and engaging. Remember, your competition for people's attention is often TV or video games. There are lots of way to educate, engage and entertain so that people are dying to come back for more.

2. Poor Managerial Design

Managers can be very naive about people's motivations to complete a course. The K-12 model is basically a command and control system with not a lot of room for freelancing. People then move adult learners into an online environment and assume that none of those enforced disciplines are required. Big mistake.

Sure, we all believe in lifelong learning etc., etc., but in our experience people are pretty calculating when they take an eLearning course, and I mean that in a nice way. If you don't make the costs and rewards clear, people will simply not prioritize the course. And, unlike a classroom, there are not the same social pressures to not "showing up."

People are busy and you need to explicitly lay out the benefits of completion, on many levels. For some people, this involves tightly integrating course completions with performance appraisal systems. But for others it may be about providing recognition for completion. Still others like to be competitive, so why not turn successful completion into a sort of competition? The fact is that there are many motivations for completing a course and you have to make sure you are touching on as many as possible.

We have been most pleased with the participation and completion rates for our eLearning! I am looking forward to discussing these issues in further detail at our August 24th webinar. In the meantime, let me know what you think at

Friday, August 11, 2006

Doing vs. Knowing

We ran our most subscribed webinar ever yesterday. Sixty-two participants from a variety of sectors (financial services, health care, pharmaceutical, food, telecom, retail, energy, education, entertainment, legal, etc.) participated in our session on Using Simulations to Bring Your eLearning to Life. We obviously struck a chord, as it appears that gaming and simulations are getting a lot of attention these days as methods for making education and training more engaging.

When we polled participants on whether they had ever experienced a training simulation, we were pleasantly surprised that most respondents had done so. However, when we asked what that experience was like, not surprisingly, the results were mixed. The eLearning field is still in the early days of figuring out how to make the most of simulations.

We were fortunate to have James Chisholm from ExperiencePoint as a special guest at yesterday's webinar. He provided some great insight on what makes simulations work and we took a tour through a simulation on change management that his company has produced.

Here are some highlights:
  • Simulations are about placing the learner at the centre of a realistic situation or scenario, having them assess the situation, making decisions on courses of action, and getting immediate feedback on the quality of those decisions.
  • Too much of training today is focused on "knowing" things. Simulations provide opportunities to "do" things. Doing things is focused on applying new knowledge, which encourages deeper, internalized learning, and changed behaviour.
  • Simulations do not always have to be conducted online and individually. There are great opportunities to do simulations in blended learning formats, either by doing them in group settings and/or debriefing as a group.
When we asked participants for their main "take aways" from the session, two themes emerged.

1) Make the decisions within simulations challenging, so as not to obviously guide learners to the right answers (i.e. let them screw up once in a while...a lot can be learned from making mistakes in a safe environment).

2) A simulation does not have to be huge and complicated. You can contain it to a specific task or situation that can be developed fairly quickly and economically.

Here is a link to the recording of this webinar.

And keep an eye open for our Fall 2006 series of webinars, which will focus on various ways of using eLearning to support and enhance organizational performance.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Simulations: Keeping It Real!

A few years ago, one of our clients asked me to review an online training simulation and provide feedback on its effectiveness. The simulation was titled ExperienceCSR, developed by a Toronto-based company called ExperiencePoint. It takes a participant through a process of planning and implementing a corporate social responsibility program within a fictional organization. You have to make key decisions, get buy-in within the organization, and work with limited time and money toward pre-defined goals. The program provides feedback on user decisions throughout and lets the user know how close he/she is getting to the goal, and how much time and money are left.

Long story short: six hours flew by before I knew what happened. What I thought might take me an hour or so turned out to take most of the day. Why? Because I was totally engaged. Remember, I had no motivation for reviewing this simulation other than doing a client a favour. I was not getting paid to do this, I was not getting any credit, and the topic was not one that I probably would have signed on for of my own account. However, I completed the whole program in one go because it was interesting, it made me think, I could immediately see the results of my decisions, and I had the competitive motivation of seeing if I could reach the goal before my time and money ran out (story of my life).

That experience really reinforced for me the power of simulations. When done correctly, simulations can foster active learning. They are a great way of moving beyond the tell-and-test approach that unfortunately passes for most training these days. Learning becomes internalized because learners are actively engaged in making decisions and solving problems.

I recently had an opportunity to interview James Chisholm (above), a Co-founder and Principal of ExperiencePoint...

RN: Why does your company focus on simulations? What is it about this type of learning experience that excites you?

JC: ExperiencePoint's mission is to help executives and managers make better decisions, faster. We believe that the best (most effective, quickest) way to learn something is through experience. We believe that the best way to learn how to negotiate, for example, is to create an experience where participants must negotiate. We've created a variety of simulation learning experiences over the past 10 years - both computer-based and paper-based, large events (>500 people) and single-user self-directed experiences. We've built a reputation, however, as a leader in merging the worlds of video games with business learning.

I grew up playing video games. I always found it incredible how engaging, and frankly addictive the experience was (and continues to be). You don't need fancy graphics or 3D environments. Some of my favourite games were Commodore 64 games. It is a very exciting time in the industry. We've written about our current take on the industry in our newsletter in an article titled "Simulation's Perfect Storm." (posted below)

RN: When making action decisions in your ExperienceChange simulation, which I tried recently, I couldn't help but imagine all the possible responses from the system to my decisions (depending on what I picked and when). In planning out these simulations, how do you keep it all straight in terms of which decisions produce which responses and when?

JC: The simulation uses a fuzzy logic engine that says there is no single right time to implement a tactic, but rather shades of grey (in terms of appropriateness). This gives us almost 1.5 x 1050 possible combinations - a very big number for sure. However, only a very small number will result in success. When building a simulation like ExperienceChange, it is important to have subject matter experts at the table. They can help shape the initial model. What is more critical, we've found, is to be continuously integrating feedback from participants into the engine. The web-based version of the EC simulation was first released in 2000, and now we are at version 4 - and over 25,000 users. Every release "feels" more realistic because of input from the previous users.

We use an engine approach to all of our games. Much like Quake has a graphic rendering engine with editable maps, we store all of our game content in a database. This allows us to very quickly change the content or model and have the game play differently - right away.

RN: How many people where involved in building the ExperienceChange simulation? What were the key roles? How long did it take to develop?

JC: The precursor to EC was created for CD-ROM in 1996-1997. It was a classic "garage" startup. We are very lucky today to have an incredible development team. We strive to keep a tight-knit shop - 1 lead programmer, 1 creative director, 1 sim architect, and then contract out additional work as required. We now have several "experience" engines that we can build upon when developing new games. To create an engine takes a long time - upwards of 1 year. However, to create a new simulation based on an existing engine is quite quick. We can create an ExperienceChange-like simulation in as little as 10 weeks.

Note: We are lucky to have James as a special guest in our upcoming webinar titled Using Simulations to Bring Your eLearning to Life, to be held at 12:00 noon Eastern on Thursday, August 10, 2006. Here are sign up details.

Simulation's Perfect Storm
James Chisholm and Greg Warman, ExperiencePoint

In any industry, it is the combination of felt needs and appropriate solutions that produce a vibrant marketplace. Until recently, the business game industry had neither in sufficient supply. At best, the simulation market was a peripheral blip on educators' radars. Affordable solutions were produced by hobbyists. More robust, professional simulations were the purview of management consultancies and cost millions to develop and deliver.

The picture today is quite different. In fact, the confluence of several forces is driving the increased demand and subsequent availability of simulation games for business education:

1. The Video Game Industry: Digital fun is big business! Worldwide video game software and console sales surpass $30B annually. And the traditional stereotype of the average user has proven inaccurate. Indeed, a typical video game player is 30 years old and socially functional. Nonetheless, recent years have seen sales soften in this market of core constituents and video game makers are exploring new strategies to bolster the bottom line. One strategy receiving particular attention is the development of "serious games."

2. The Serious Games Movement: In the past two years, the intertwined themes of 'learning' and 'video games' have been explored in the popular works of academics, business thought leaders, and pop culture analysts. The "Serious Games" movement was born from a desire to leverage video game makers' skills in educational applications. Chief among the new products are high fidelity business simulations - games that are meeting the increasing need for rapid Executive Development.

3. The Need for Rapid Executive Development: In the next 4 years, 25% of the workforce will reach retirement age. By 2016 the number will reach 50%. The looming "experience gap" necessitates swift and meaningful action by organizations to avert a crisis in the coming decade. Because simulation games accelerate time-to-competency, they will play a critical role in Executive Development. Concurrently, the traditional barrier to simulation's broader uptake - cost - is slowly eroding with the advent of new technologies.

4. New Technology: Online games are available to users world-wide. This simple fact dramatically changes a business game developer's calculus - access to such a broad user base with minimal administration and marketing costs enables offering products at lower per participant price points. And with respect to custom simulations, the vanguard of business game development companies have produced a variety of game 'templates' that can be inexpensively populated with an organization's unique industry/company data, best practices, and management wisdom.

This perfect storm requires one final catalyst - the "Killer App" - a business game so indispensable, it achieves rapid and universal uptake.

Like most disruptive technologies, the "Killer App" business game is already here in disparate pieces and its synthesis is on the near horizon. And upon arrival, it will come to define the next generation of business simulations for Executive Development.