Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Break Out of the Box

I wish I had a nickel for every time a client told me "we can't do that" when we suggest that they connect their learners in online discussion groups, or introduce audio elements to increase engagement, or add interactive Flash exercises to better explain complex processes. Usually, the reason they say that they cannot do these things is because of the limitations of the authoring software or learning management system that they happen to use. They feel they are "boxed in" by the technology choices they have made previously.

It does not have to be this way. Sometimes the boxes in which we find ourselves are more real than imagined (kind of like the boxes that mimes indicate with hand gestures).

You can break out of your technology boxes with a little creative thinking. Some strategies that immediately come to mind include:
  • Mixing and matching differing learning technologies that have different strengths to achieve desired results (e.g. seamlessly linking to discussion board software from a learning system that does not have this functionality)
  • Work-arounds to enhance the functionality of existing learning technology (e.g. using existing telephone bridges for audio when teaching with web conferencing technology)
  • Introduction of easy-to-use Web 2.0 tools (e.g. Blogs and Wikis) to provide missing communication elements
  • Doing away with ridiculous and over-zealous IT policies that do not allow for any flexibility concerning the introduction of new technologies in aid of learning (or having these hosted externally)
The focus is on making technology the slave to learning, not its master.

Of course it makes it much easier to do this when your IT folks are on side. You must have a culture wherein your IT support people are enablers and not blockers. Unfortunately, too often they are blockers, coming up with 10 reasons why something cannot be done, rather than finding a way to make things work. A really good IT department finds ways to help you get to where you want to be with your eLearning.

We will explore these themes in some detail in our October 5th webinar titled: Don't Box Me In!: Overcoming the Constraints of Technology to Achieve Your eLearning Goals. Be sure to check it out.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Painting Your Value Picture

My colleague Michael Grant led an interesting webinar today titled Budgets Paint a Picture: How to Use the Budgeting Process to set Your eLearning Strategy. Twenty-nine participants from a range of sectors (telecommunications, financial services, legal, medical, pharma, entertainment, software, business services, government and education) heard Mike describe how eLearning budgets should be more than just a collection of figures in a spreadsheet. Budgeting, done properly, paints a picture of your strategy to use eLearning to create value for your organization. It is not just a case of "here's what it costs," but "here is the difference we will make."

When we asked webinar participants what their big eLearning budgeting challenges are, we heard the following:
  • "identifying what will be required ahead of time"
  • "making realistic estimates"
  • "people don't appreciate all that goes into eLearning (especially development costs)"
  • "forecasting requirements for coming fiscal"
  • "justifying costs for management"
  • "'run overs' of time estimates"
  • "determining proper staffing levels"
These comments are fairly typical of what we hear from clients all the time. But they also show a fixation on the cost side of the equation. Notice that no one said that proving value was a challenge (although it could be argued that "justifying costs" is another way of putting this).

Mike laid out four ways of budgeting for eLearning that exhibit value.

1. Mode Comparison

Compare the development, delivery and opportunity costs of face-to-face training with eLearning. Although initial development costs are higher for eLearning, great savings can realized over subsequent years in lower delivery and opportunity costs.

2. Hurdle Rate of Return

Some organizations may have already established "hurdle rates" that any internal investment must clear in order to be approved. eLearning budgets in such environments must be able to show that investments in eLearning can realize these minimum returns via providing net benefits to the organization.

3. Incremental Links to Organization Metrics

Target your eLearning at improving a key metric important to the organization (e.g. perhaps part of its balanced scorecard). These metrics can be around things like improved customer satisfaction, better processes, etc., and are not necessarily strictly financial in nature. You measure your effectiveness in using eLearning to move this metric in a positive direction and use this experience to drive future approaches.

4. Joint Budgeting

This is where you work with a line department (e.g. manufacturing, sales, etc.) to create eLearning that addresses a particular challenge within that department. You work closely with them in defining what is of value to them. The department shares in the budget and the risk for the initiative. Again, you measure the effectiveness of the eLearning intervention in creating value for the department and use this to demonstrate value to other possible joint funders.

Bottom line? Make sure your budgets paint a picture of value, not just cost. It's more likely that you will get what you ask for this way.

Here is a recording of the webinar.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Budget Blues: Get it Right the First Time

This is the time of year that people may be faced with drafting budgets for their eLearning initiatives. A key challenge is that they may have not completed any significant eLearning to date, and therefore are a bit in the dark on how to go about budgeting.

eLearning differs from face-to-face learning in that it is new and therefore involves new fixed costs. But over time, successful eLearning more than recoups these initial costs because it is far more cost effective than face-to-face at reaching people and greatly saves on their time. So the budgetary trade-off is between relatively high costs today to produce better and lower cost access over time.

We always advocate a conservative and controlled approach to budgeting; conservative in that the projected returns are likely to be realized, and controlled in the sense that the budget is manageable. Anyone can fill in a spreadsheet and generate a theoretical return, but the actual return is determined by how you manage eLearning, not how you filled out the spreadsheet.

It makes sense, therefore, to start with what you know and budget from there. You might already have a budget for some classroom learning that could be delivered more economically online. Or you could see a portion of your training budget as being like research and development where you pilot an approach to eLearning. There is no one way of doing eLearning and the real value is how it is customized to generate a measurable benefit in your context.

The biggest mistake that we see in budgeting for eLearning is a matter of sequence. There is a tendency to purchase the eLearning tools before one has a clear idea of what they want to do with the tools. People end up with tools that they don't use effectively and this has the effect of wasting resources while not generating the concrete experience that might serve as the basis for future budget estimates. It's a little bit like starting to build a house before you have poured the foundation.

It makes more sense to budget a bit of time up front to figure out how your eLearning will make an impact and then to develop the eLearning product. As the saying goes, time is money. But if you don't spend a bit of time building the foundation, you are more likely to waste money, which has the effect of reducing the budget available for eLearning over time. (We hear: "eLearning doesn't work," which is code for "We don't budget for it because we had a bad experience."). Theoretical ROI calculations will never replace real metrics based on real experience as a basis for budgeting.

My colleague, Michael Grant, and I will be exploring many of these issues in a webinar on September 21st titled Budgets Paint a Picture: How to Use the Budgeting Process to Set Your eLearning Strategy. We hope you will be able to join us.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Making the Connection

I recently came across a refreshingly frank article by David Maister titled "Why (Most) Training is Useless." After years of experience as a trainer he has come to the conclusion that "the majority of business training, by me and by everyone else, is a waste of money and time, because only a microscopic fraction of training is ever put into practice and the hoped-for benefits obtained." Why is this? Because there is no alignment between what people are being trained for and how they are being managed. In other words, training is only really effective when organizations make a clear connection between what they are trying to manage and how they train toward and reward behaviour that contributes to what they are trying to manage.

This concept of making the connection between management goals and training goals came to my mind as I listened to Catharine Johnston in the webinar we hosted on Thursday. It centred on the theme of using eLearning to support a high performance initiative. Catharine is the Executive Vice President, Business and Organizational Excellence, for Intrawest Corporation, a huge destination resorts (think Whistler Blackcomb and Mount Tremblant) and adventure travel company.

Catharine (left) is overseeing a major initiative to implement Lean Six Sigma projects throughout the organization. Lean Six Sigma is a methodology for improving any process by removing unecessary tasks that do not add value and reducing defective processes down to virtually zero. In the case of Intrawest, for example, this may mean cutting wait times for ski rentals by half. Successfully implementing Lean Six Sigma across many units and various key processes in the organization saves and generates millions of dollars. So, needless to say, Intrawest is interested in doing it right.

Training is vitally important to ensure that employees throughout the company have the knowledge, skills and support necessary to do their part in making Lean Six Sigma initiatives work. And given that these employees are geographically dispersed and are being introduced to new ways of doing business analytics, eLearning plays a big part in sustaining the momentum. Catharine laid out four key elements to their "learning management system" (note: we are talking of an integrated approach here, not a piece of software):
  • Regular meetings, training sessions, brainstorming and problem-solving sessions using the WebEx online conferencing system
  • Resource sharing on the company's Intranet
  • Interaction via online project management software
  • Face-to-face training events where and when appropriate

Last week I noted that the problem with a lot of eLearning is that it is often a hammer looking for a nail to hit (i.e. eLearning is the starting point). In the case of Intrawest's Lean Six Sigma initiative, the nail is absolutely crystal clear and is the starting point. They have an organizational commitment from top to bottom to improve their key processes. eLearning is just one of the hammers that they are using to pound that nail. Therefore, there is an alignment of management goals and training goals. The connection is real and the likelihood of training success is heightened.

Here is a link to a recording of the webinar. Check it out if you want to see how an organization is aligning training to important business performance outcomes.