Organizations today face an array of challenges when trying to educate their workforces. The changing landscape of business entails not only new and often unfamiliar technology, but also the pressure of trying to find new ways to increase profits while decreasing expenses.
Successful online learning strategies provide significant, measurable benefits that help deliver substantial, long-term success for an organization. With the economic downturn in recent years, corporate training budgets have been cut considerably due to the fact that most training programs were not tied to measurable benefits. However, corporations are once again beginning to invest in targeted learning programs. According to industry insiders, corporations have earmarked over $50 billion dollars for formal training this year, with more than $13 billion budgeted for learning products and services. Even as organizations fight to remain competitive while still cutting costs, they understand the need to increase technology-based training and are finding ways to fund it.
According to Gartner’s report, “Forecast: E-Learning Software, Worldwide, 2002-2008,” from October 2004, “Revenue from business-focused e-learning software will grow 16.7 percent annually worldwide from 2003 through 2008. This market will more than double in size, to $619.4 million in new license revenue, by 2008.”
While the spotlight on the benefits e-learning offers to organizations is gaining notable traction, the e-learning vendor market–the people supplying the underlying resources–has contracted. With spending down in this market sector, only the best and brightest e-learning vendors have survived. Because of this, CLOs are assured of better customer service from their vendor and high-quality alternative options. While there are positive consequences to the consolidation in this market, CLOs are still under pressure to educate their organizations in less time and with fewer resources, and feel the compulsion to show a return on investment (ROI) for this expenditure.
Determining the Business Benefit
No organization should expect to pursue a new training initiative without first defining specific metrics for success. Often, knowledge management describes benefit in terms of Kirkpatrick’s four levels of evaluation or Bloom’s Taxonomy Application Level. While these concepts provide a foundation to the instructional design community, there’s a need to translate them into meaningful terms a company’s CEO and CFO will understand.
In order to do this, CLOs need to take a step back and correlate their training program with a specific organizational business need. It is imperative that training initiatives are linked to business needs and are viewed as pivotal stepping-stones to achieve those goals. Here is a checklist, to be evaluated six months after the training program is launched, that will help your learning team map its training program to business objectives:
- How much more will the sales team sell?
- How much more will the distributor/channel sell?
- How much travel expense will we save if learning is delivered online?
- What costs will we save through operational efficiencies?
- How much will customer support costs decrease?
- How did the training directly impact quality metrics?
- How will the support aid employee retention?
- How will this support compliance requirements?
This checklist must produce clear outcomes. Otherwise, you have to ask why the program should be developed at all, regardless of the delivery mode.
Having clearly defined business needs or organizational objectives enables the CLO to establish a performance improvement goal that, in turn, will derive a measurement of training effectiveness. Furthermore, the possibility of demonstrating the ROI of learning programs is increased by first establishing business objectives that the learning will help to achieve. The more actionable and measurable the objectives, the better they will guide and evaluate the program. Having the business objectives well articulated prior to beginning the initiative also allows a determination of how much can be accomplished.
At the highest level, it is important for the CLO to demonstrate how e-learning is helping the organization build or maintain its competitive position. Provide examples for senior executives that illustrate how e-learning initiatives result in increased brand awareness, and show how companies with strong brands do better during times of economic turmoil. It’s also important to reinforce to senior executives that e-learning rapidly and consistently provides employees in the organization with the skills and knowledge required to help them do their jobs.
Dade Behring, the world’s largest company dedicated solely to clinical diagnostics, is significantly focused on consistent branding and retaining the highest rating of customer service of all companies in its industry. As such, the company embarked on an e-learning initiative to reinforce its market leadership with customers, while at the same time reducing expenditures around classroom training. Dade Behring implemented an innovative online training program for employees and customers that enabled the company to reduce the need for in-person classroom training 25 percent by offering pre-classroom work online, increasing the productivity of classroom training. As a result, Dade Behring was able to reduce expenses, as well as further demonstrate the company’s commitment to customer service. To date, Dade Behring has more than 11,000 active e-learning accounts worldwide with students representing 40 countries and six of the seven continents (no students logging in from Antarctica, as of yet).
Creating Measurable Training Objectives
Several organizations have chosen to focus their objectives for e-learning on performance improvements, knowledge proficiency and decreasing costs. These important measures are logically associated with business benefits and help CLOs maintain the case for the e-learning initiative.
Your training objectives must be measurable—both conceptually and practically. Success can be measured in a number of ways. It might be as simple as keeping an accurate record of who took the course and when, or it might be gaining a better understanding of proficiency, adoption rates of new business practices or operational metrics.
When demonstrating performance improvements associated with e-learning, address both specific examples, such as greater-than-50-percent improvement in sales calls, as well as anecdotal evidence, such as employees reporting a higher confidence when making calls.
E-learning provides managers with real-time feedback on the effectiveness of training programs, whether key messages have been internalized or complicated product features have been comprehended. Furthermore, e-learning programs allow individuals to learn at their own pace, independent of time and space, enabling them to integrate online training into their schedules at a time that works best for them.
Participation in an e-learning program can be tracked to gain insight into whether the participant has absorbed and retained the correct messages. Information about individual employees can be collected and stored, including test scores or continuing education credits, to determine the participants’ level of knowledge. Employees can view their own test scores to gauge their understanding of the topic.
E-learning offers the benefit of capturing quantitative and qualitative data for measuring the execution of learning. Offer senior executives statistics that show a reduction in in-person training time and, therefore, true cost savings to the organization. E-learning eliminates costly classroom time, freeing individuals to stay focused on revenue-generating activities. For another metric of success, measure hours spent in the classroom versus hours spent learning online. For instance, if a company is able to reduce the number of hours employees spend in a classroom by moving those people to online training, it might be able to save significant money that can be redirected elsewhere. E-learning also reduces the expense of creating or purchasing training materials and systems.
F5 Networks, a Seattle-based provider of application traffic management solutions for Internet-based servers, has a superior yet fairly complicated product offering. With only a handful of channel sales managers, the company wanted to make the channel more self-sufficient in identifying appropriate sales opportunities for its products. F5 Networks implemented an online training program that captures and disseminates product information rapidly to key sales channels. The channel partners appreciated the time and effort F5 spent implementing the programs, and as a result, F5 witnessed a 30 percent increase in channel sales representatives selling their solutions. The channel viewed the training as an investment in them and their business and a vital part of building productive channel partnerships. In two months, F5 Networks was able to recoup the cost of implementing its online channel program.
For global corporations, doing business and providing learning around the world can be cost-prohibitive. E-learning offers these organizations a cost-effective means to internationalize, localize and customize e-learning content, avoiding a reinvention of the wheel every time they want to make training available to a new audience in a different country. Further, translation and localization of material can be accomplished much more quickly and easily with an e-learning system in place.
Clearly Articulate Objectives
When stating e-learning goals, it is important that the objectives specify a desired outcome, such as increasing awareness for a product or service, improving relationships with the distribution channel, building consumer preference, generating sales, etc. The objective needs to specify one or more target audiences for the learning and indicate a time frame in which it is to be achieved.
In general, process goals, such as “educate the channel” or “launch a product,” are undesirable objectives. They do not relate to broader organizational business needs and are not measurable in any specific, concrete or truly meaningful way. A useful way to replace process objectives is to ask, “What is the purpose of (insert objective)?” The answer to this question is likely to move you closer to a clear, actionable objective.
Cascade Corp. is a global leader in the design, manufacture and marketing of materials-handling equipment, such as forklift attachments and related technologies. The company has dedicated salespeople who need timely and accurate information about the products and services they sell, and as Cascade’s products become increasingly technical, the sales force requires more advanced training. Cascade implemented an online training module to help the company deliver its corporate objective of ensuring customer satisfaction by continually improving the quality and value of Cascade products and services. The learning program has been used successfully to educate Cascade’s sales force about the company and its value proposition, and to ensure that they are delivering a consistent corporate message.
Selecting a Vendor
In order to determine the right e-learning investment that meets the business goals you are trying to achieve, you will need to select an e-learning vendor that understands your company’s objectives. Engage a vendor that will get up to speed quickly and require a minimum amount of education about your business. Finding the right match in an e-learning vendor will pay off in time, money and business performance.
During the vendor-selection process, provide a description of the problem you are trying to solve and the desired outcome. This information should be thorough enough to permit contending vendors to identify their capabilities for helping you. But the information provided should not be so prescriptive that it dictates to the e-learning vendor which capabilities they must use. Avoid asking for a list of functional capabilities. Instead, ask to see which capabilities the vendor thinks are necessary to address your higher-level business objectives. You don’t want to miss out on innovative functionality.
In summary, identifying the right online learning solution that meets your organization’s specific business needs can provide tangible results. Organizations that implement compelling e-learning solutions as a strategic ingredient to their business objectives will achieve significant benefits for improving performance, increasing knowledge and driving sales.
Charlie Gillette has served as president and chief executive officer of Knowledge Anywhere since founding the company in 1998. Under his leadership, Knowledge Anywhere has grown to be recognized as one of the fastest e-learning providers in the industry through the implementation of a knowledge management infrastructure for leading global corporations. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.