eLearning: From Blueprint to Building

Sep 2010
Issue 09


by Barbara Colvin

Editor’s Note: In our last issue of the Free-Range Learning News, we identified the 10 key attributes of an effective eLearning strategy. In this issue, since the “e” piece is so critical to employee development these days, we want to round out the perspective with a best-practice example of what “right” looks like. To do this, we invited a specialist in our consultant network to share her views. We thank Barbara Colvin – who now lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan – for this thoughtful contribution. It is based on a framework developed by St. Charles director Kathy Dressel.

A number of years ago, when I worked for Arthur Andersen at its learning center in St. Charles, I was put in charge of developing an eLearning strategy for one of our major lines of business and, within a very short period of time, I found myself floundering. Despite years of designing, building, and deploying specific eLearning solutions, I could not get myself into a strategic mindset. I found myself tangled up and lost in the weeds.

As a new manager, I was fortunate to have a director skilled at people development. He advised that, when dealing with strategy, I needed to lift my focus to a higher plane. He offered a scenario: Imagine that I was charged with taking control of the city of St. Charles.

My latent evil genius said, “Mwa-ha-ha!” My professional self said, “Ok …” My director then went on to say, “If you want to take over the city of St. Charles, there are a number of ways you could do it. You could seal off the roads into town, gain control of the police force, cut off the water supply, and so forth. Now, those things that you do to take control are tactics. They get you from point A to point B, but they’re not the reason for your action. The reason for those actions is the strategic intent, and your strategic intent is to take control of the city.” A-ha! That was a huge light-bulb moment in my career. It was the switch I needed to get me into a strategic mindset, and I use that mental model to this day.

The lesson to me: Don’t start building until the blueprint is complete. In the last issue of Free Range Learning News, we talked about developing the blueprint – the eLearning strategy. Once the strategy is defined, then the tactics – the framing of specific initiatives – can begin. You know where you are and you know where you want to go. Now how are you going to get there? How are you going to get from being a resident of St. Charles to its Dictator? There will always be options, and it’s critical to make decisions that will achieve the strategic intent.

I refer to the building plan as the eLearning framework – a well-structured compilation of high-level tactics. Now, just as there is no “one size fits all” eLearning strategy, there is no “one size fits all” eLearning framework. However, there are a number of tests that the framework of a model organization should be able to meet.

A strong eLearning framework … is aligned to the eLearning strategy.

While this sounds obvious, it provides a very useful test for relevance. When every aspect of the framework clearly supports the strategy, tangential activities are avoided and successful implementation is greatly enhanced.

A strong eLearning framework … supports different types of learning.

People learn in different ways under different circumstances and at different times. The eLearning framework should provide for diversity of learning styles. For example, let’s say the business objective is to increase sales in order to grow market share. To enhance sales knowledge and skill, you may want to put the sales team through simulations, deliver new product updates real time to the field via mobile devices, and provide on-demand training to your customer service group. Also, don’t forget the importance of informal learning that occurs – using blogs, wikis, and company knowledge bases. These sources can be supplemented by “nano-learning” – providing nuggets of content that are on-point and available just-in-time.

A strong eLearning framework … provides the technical foundation and infrastructure needed to create and distribute learning.

I think of the tools and technology needed to support learning needs as residing on three layers, and decisions need to be made on all three.

  • Technical Infrastructure – What should the organization provide in terms of server space, bandwidth, and firewalls? Each organization’s needs will differ, and there is no standard configuration that suits all. But, in all cases, it is critical that the IT department be engaged to assess what is and is not possible in the current environment and what it will take to get to the desired future state.

eLearning Platform

  • Design and Development Tools – There are numerous vendors to choose from, and several factors should play into this decision, such as content reusability, delivery platforms available, and the skill level of your development staff.
  • Delivery Platforms – How will learning be delivered? For example, if an organization wants to use virtual classrooms to deliver their training, it will obviously need to have an appropriate delivery platform in place.

A strong eLearning framework … creates a common language and provides a repeatable design and development process.

Providing the development team with a clear methodology, along with templates and defined approaches to follow, will help ensure that your eLearning products are all held to the same quality standards and result in a consistent “look and feel.”

A strong eLearning framework … relies on communication and support.

The best course in the world won’t get any traction unless learners know about it. So, a robust communication plan should be in place. Also, eLearning courses should be backed up by learner support – the “help desk” concept.

A strong eLearning framework … includes meaningful assessment and measurement.

There are two types of metrics the organization will need to consider: learning metrics and operational metrics. Learning metrics measure how well the eLearning accomplished the stated objectives. Were learners satisfied with the course? Did they demonstrate increased proficiency after taking the course? Were there measurable improvements to the business?

Operational metrics reflect usage of the eLearning. If you build it, will they come? If they come, do they stay? If they stay, do they finish? The organization should look at these metrics as the communication plan is deployed to determine the most effective ways to let people know of their eLearning opportunities.

A strong eLearning framework … is a “living” structure.

Lastly, it is important to think of an eLearning framework as a dynamic model. It should evolve with the eLearning strategy, which should in turn evolve with the organization’s business strategy.

If all of these tests are met, the likelihood of building out an eLearning program that truly meets the interests of the business and the needs of your people is greatly enhanced. It gets you expeditiously from the outskirts of town to the St. Charles City Hall.

Readers should feel free to direct comments and questions to Barbara Colvin.

Next month

Leadership Succession Planning … is not a “Nice to Have”

Learn why the topic of succession planning is crucial for you and your organization and some specific steps you can take.