e-learning, digital learningTechnology has changed the way corporate learning and leadership development happens across the globe. Organizations increasingly rely on digital learning for a portion of their leadership development and training needs. Whether the delivery method is a massive open online course, a small private online course, virtual instructor-led training, microlearning, blended learning, or other digital tools that allow participants across multiple locations to learn together or independently, it’s critically important to maximize employees’ time and company resources.

However, getting a return from digital learning experiences on an ongoing basis requires far more than just providing a library full of innovative content. Before jumping into developing or reinvigorating a digital learning initiative, learning leaders should consider the following six ways to maximize effectiveness.

1 Embrace the “less is more” principle for online learning. Many organizations pitch their learning initiatives with the concept of having “something for everyone,” and then they offer up thousands of choices. These kinds of broad initiatives often lack focus and are rarely successful. Utilization rates for noncompliance courses, in particular, tend to drop significantly as time passes. To boost utilization rates and ensure learning efforts are worthwhile, consider employees’ unique needs, and have them set clear goals around challenges they want to address. For instance, what specific leadership skills do they need? What skills do they want based on specific roles or functions? Limit program content based on these needs and wants. Then provide targeted digital learning offerings that align with them.

2 Enlist and creatively publicize support from the C-suite. To be effective, digital learning initiatives need support from upper management. First, learning leaders must make the business case to senior leadership that time spent on digital learning will lead to new skills that will make employees more efficient and effective long term. Provide specifics related to established business objectives.

Then, provide ways for senior leaders to publicly support the learning program. Videos are typically better received than e-mail. For instance, if a senior leader comes to address a group of learners participating in a face-to-face learning initiative, make a video and then put it on the company’s primary digital learning platform. That support can do a lot to boost participation rates.

3 Use learner-centric design. Would leaders benefit from a monthly online seminar? Or, would a virtual lunch-and-learn program be more effective? Talent leaders must find ways to make learning initiatives a part of the technology employees already use. Having ongoing gaming elements embedded into the experience, such as recognition and competition incentives, can help keep learners engaged and coming back. For example, promote and focus on one leadership topic each month or quarter; couple that with a means to recognize learners’ achievements around specific content offerings, such as a LinkedIn badge. This type of engagement is more likely to be impactful.

4 Make leaders into teachers. Leadership concepts and behaviors should be reinforced. Learning leaders should ensure that managers get the tools and support they need to become effective coaches, and that they are encouraged to share what they’re learning with their direct reports. To reinforce learning, ask managers to train additional front-line leaders, and have them provide follow-up training modules for skill refreshment.

5  Tap into the power of learning partnerships. Learning doesn’t happen just once. Takeaways learned from a webinar or in an interactive session must be practiced and refined for employees to retain the information. Establishing accountability partners connects peers who learn together so they can share experiences, and discuss challenges and goals. In this way, development experiences create a bond between participants, and they foster an interest in helping each other succeed. This bond also promotes accountability.

6 Measure what matters. Remember that what gets measured is what gets done. One of the most difficult but crucial ways to determine an initiative’s success is to perform ongoing evaluation. Measurement provides data that can be used to refine and strengthen ongoing digital learning efforts.

Looking at the return on investment and expectations, and linking these to top-line business metrics such as sales, retention and promotion rates can be a powerful way to account for program impact beyond participant satisfaction. Further, digital learning initiatives offer data insights such as participation rates and timing that typical face-to-face developmental experiences don’t. Linking these pieces to business objectives also can be informative.

Evaluate digital learning initiatives to track and measure success in the following areas:

  1. Program objectives: Ensuring program objectives are clear and measurable is critical to explore both expected and actual outcomes. Instructors in face-to-face environments can overcome weaker content alignment on satisfaction ratings with a charismatic nature and likable delivery style. The digital environment doesn’t provide the same connection between instructor and participants, so measurable objectives are vital to assess how well content is received and covered.
  2. Previous experience: When collecting data on the learning content and experience, consider the participants’ previous experiences with that learning delivery method and technology platform. If a participant had to first learn the platform before absorbing the content, this might negatively affect his or her overall experience.
  3. Corporate culture: A learning strategy built around metrics must align with the company’s strengths and cultural preferences to succeed. For example, simulation-based e-learning like gamification will work if the culture encourages competition. However, if competition is not part of the corporate culture, there would be a risk in creating an environment where people are likely to be embarrassed, resulting in people checking out completely. Similarly, setting a goal like “complete three e-courses in the first quarter” on an individual development plan will work if that is a cultural preference within the organization. If not, it’s likely to become a check-the-box activity that employees click through quickly but don’t necessarily absorb or use on the job.
  4. Business objectives: Employees are more likely to commit to a learning initiative that is aligned with the organization’s business objectives. Learners often need to see the connection between their participation in learning, the work they do on a daily basis and the company’s big picture goals.

Technology offers paths for developmental opportunities in real-time and across broad geographic locations, and leadership-focused digital learning and development is growing rapidly. With proper planning, these initiatives offer a cost-effective way to deepen workforce development to ensure learning is sustained and ROI is delivered.

Holly Downs is a senior evaluation faculty member at the Center for Creative Leadership’s Evaluation Center. Samir Mehta is a manager for digital learning products at the Center for Creative Leadership and an adjunct faculty member at NIIT University in India. Comment below, or email editor@CLOmedia.com.



  1. I just left a company that produces highly technical medical equipment. One of my first tasks was to review a Captivate learning module for one of their blood analysis programs. The module was 320 slides long with literally hundreds of text captions. The policy towards training there was so conservative based on the company’s constant scrutiny by the FDA that they thought “If we put every single function of this program into the training, we have covered everything and we are in compliance.” Early reviewers claimed the module was very helpful, sometimes after only having had the module for a few minutes, during which time they could not possibly have reviewed it. I’m sure that they looked at the length of the thing (to simply run the program with no interaction, letting the slides progress individually took over 45 minutes) and just rubber stamped it. So, the thinking that shoving everything about a thing into one file may have the FDA satisfied, but no one was learning from it. Compliance at this company meant opening a document, signing it, closing it, and forgetting about it. In some ways, almost no one was truly “compliant” in that they could demonstrate a knowledge of the product, but as with the Emperor’s new clothes, everyone swore they was knowledgable and compliant. This training should have been broken into at least 6 sub-modules to be taken over time as the employee gained hands on knowledge of the software. At this company “More is more, and more can’t be too much.”

    • Thanks for sharing Jim! I couldn’t agree more. I’ve seen too many of the big box elearning for all solutions fail after all of the best intentions. I love that we can analyse actual behavior using usage analytics on an LMS.
      Especially at a course or learning objectives level, I agree with your approach of at least 6 sub-modules, and the critical part being – taken over time as the employees gained hands-on knowledge.
      I feel that any management team that recommends elearning as a way to cut cost, and then crams all the content into the world into that session, should then be required to take that session, and answer a functional quiz on it – if they can’t pass, then they need to rethink the learning strategy.
      I think Cathy Moore is quite a phenomenal instructional design guru. Her big thing is to move from “what do they need to know” to “what do they need to do”

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