What is the “e” in “eLearning”? and how do you strategically manage it?

Jun 2010
Issue 08


The answer to the first question used to be easy. As the Internet began to evolve in the 1990s, the term “eLearning” generally referred to electronic self-study courses – also called computer-based training (or CBT) at the time. There were some electronic training simulations and built-in “help” systems around but, for the most part, eLearning consisted of electronically packaged modules with text, graphics, and often audio and video, that learners worked through at their own pace.

Today, of course, “e” is capital “E” – it is everywhere – and the different channels through which learning occurs have mushroomed. So, it is not easy to be precise about what eLearning is … or is not. The term “eLearning” clearly is not as meaningful as it once was. But it is really the second question in the headline that is most important anyway – how do you strategically manage learning technology?

For many organizations, the articulation of a thoughtfully designed learning technology strategy is a mission-critical priority. In the current business climate, an organization needs to be exceptionally agile in its ability to adapt to rapidly shifting circumstances, and it fosters that by making relevant information available in forms that satisfy learning needs under varying conditions. In this context, a multi-dimensional approach to eLearning should be in play that has an assessment process and a set of decision rules that determine the kind of learning content to deliver – what, to whom, when, and how.

10 Attributes of an Effective eLearning Strategy

At St. Charles, we define eLearning broadly, as including any electronically-based channel through which learning resources are conveyed. In the graphic below, for example, almost everything that is not live face-to-face could be considered a form of eLearning.


At the same time, we do not feel that the specific definition of eLearning is as important as the overall eLearning strategy that is in place – specifically, how organizations strategically manage the use of technology to support their learning goals. We know that, when it is done well, employees work in a rich learning environment that is cost-effectively sustained and vital to the enterprise. And, when it is done poorly, employees see unorganized, disconnected learning opportunities that do little to develop them professionally or create loyalty to the organization – there is generally no meaningful ROI. Needless to say, we opt for doing it well and suggest that now is a good time for organizations to aggressively rethink their technology plans for learning & performance development.

Not surprisingly, when it comes to eLearning strategy, one size does not fit all. The “right” eLearning strategy will depend on specific conditions within an organization. So, in this brief article, while we cannot present a model strategy, there are some common foundational attributes to a strong strategic plan.

Here are 10 high-level characteristics of a well-designed eLearning strategy:

  1. It is rooted in the needs of the business. Ultimately, all directed learning activities should positively affect business results. So, when drafting the learning technology strategy script, it is important to answer the questions: What are we trying to accomplish? What does success look like? Will the learning that occurs make the right impact?
  2. It is linked to the organization’s talent management philosophy and approach. Learning does not occur in a vacuum, and it is important that the learning strategy (and the supporting technology) connect closely with talent management, particular in sharing a competency framework with performance management. There should also be key ties to succession planning and assimilation of new employees.
  3. It recognizes that technology comes into play in several different contexts. Technology factors into: a) the authoring of learning content (e.g., online courses, application simulations), b) the delivery of learning content (e.g., webcast platforms, knowledge repositories), and c) supporting the training function (e.g., learning management systems). Informed decision-making needs to occur in all three areas.
  4. It is based on a solid understanding of the current state and a clear view of the desired future state. It is important to know characteristics of the target audience, how they are currently learning, and what the existing infrastructure looks like. The future state can be assessed against that backdrop, and the extent of the implementation effort becomes evident.
  5. It is based on informed decisions regarding the major delivery channels that will be supported.Instructor-led training, self-study, just-in-time resources, webinar classrooms, on-the-job training, games & simulations, virtual worlds, and collaboration sites are among the viable options. Deciding what to emphasize in this mix will help to determine the decisions that need to be made and the level of investment required.
  6. It is grounded on an appropriate learning management system (LMS). An LMS provides the “glue” for integrating all of the key elements of the learning environment, but it is important that the LMS selected be right-sized for the organization based on its functional requirements. The determination of internally maintaining the LMS versus using one on a hosted basis has important implications.
  7. It includes deliberate decisions regarding what will be outsourced. It generally does not make financial sense for an organization to try to resource all of its eLearning technology strategy in-house. So, it is important to identify where it makes sense to dedicate internal talent to maintain control and where to commit to external talent to maintain flexibility.
  8. It recognizes the importance of informal learning. Readers of the Free Range Learning News know that approximately 80% of the learning that occurs in an organization happens outside of structured channels. So, for example, a robust, searchable knowledge repository very much belongs as part of an eLearning strategy.
  9. It is realistic in terms of the financial resources available. Perhaps this should be the #1 item – clearly, whatever is envisioned in the eLearning strategy needs to be affordable, the implementation timeframe needs to be sensible, and leadership needs to be fully committed to the plan. The learning strategists should involve key stakeholders early, advance a compelling business case, and demonstrate a significant ROI.
  10. It includes a multi-constituent governance structure. To forge the right connections and to ensure that the eLearning strategy is managed from an enterprise perspective, the governance structure and process should at least represent the interests of learning & development, human resources, information technology, and the key lines of business.

In short, in response to a variety of factors – including rapid shifts in business requirements, evolving talent management demands, a transforming global workforce, the rise of social media, and ever-present pressure to optimize resources – it is a good time for organizations to revisit and refresh their learning technology plans. There are many things to consider as part of that, but a disciplined approach that incorporates best practice principles, such as the 10 described here, makes the process manageable and increases the opportunities for success.

At St. Charles, in addition to supporting strategy development, we have decision support tools that help provide discipline needed at the tactical planning level. Contact Laura Oswald at 630-377-5549 or [email protected] – for more information.

Next month

Strategic Technology Framework

Next month, we will follow this discussion on learning technology by sharing our design thoughts on a strategic technology framework that can be put into place to advance an organization’s learning and performance interests.


Roycee Kerr Rejoins St. Charles Consulting Group

We are pleased to announce the return of Roycee Kerr to the St. Charles Consulting Group.

From 2002 through 2007, Roycee led the Talent Management practice for St. Charles and during that time was an integral part of the growth and success of the firm. While in this role, she served Fortune 500 companies and global professional services firms, helping them to transform their organizations by aligning people strategies, learning solutions, and organizational communications with strategic direction.

In 2007, Roycee left St. Charles to pursue a life-long passion at Southern Methodist University (SMU) Cox School of Business as the Director of Career Services, serving both graduate and undergraduate students. During her tenure at SMU, Roycee designed a career management curriculum and career workshops to provide just-in-time career-related instruction to undergraduates. Working with the university’s Business Leadership Institute, she gained approval to have the curriculum integrated into a required course for all Cox undergraduates. Roycee also designed the university’s Employer Relations Team that focused on creating and nurturing on-going recruiting relationships with hundreds of companies.

Roycee rejoined St. Charles on June 1 and is excited about reconnecting with former colleagues and eager to help St. Charles’ clients strategize and execute on their people solutions. Her previous experience and her newly acquired experience advising companies regarding employer branding on campus, establishing internship programs and recruiting millennials bring yet another element of unique expertise to the St. Charles Consulting Group.

Contact Roycee via email or via phone at 214-802-0349.