“It’s fine to celebrate success, but it is more important to heed the lessons of failure.” 

—Bill Gates

Few things in life are certain. Death and taxes, as they say, for sure. You might think of more. But in our business, despite our often-blinding insistence that eLearning is great, and wonderful, and true, i.e., certain to succeed, there is, unfortunately, lots of failure out there.

Despite our best efforts, we can’t always be sure eLearning will work. We can’t be certain it will save money, or be greeted with open arms. We can’t be certain the next tool, technology, or system will be better than the last. We can try to reduce the odds of a fiasco, but nothing is ironclad.

OK, maybe not nothing. In my travels around the eLearning space, I’ve come up with three situations where, almost certainly, eLearning will fail.

A law, as in a scientific law, always applies under the same conditions, and implies that there is a causal relationship involving its elements (Wikipedia). I believe the same can be said for these three “laws” of eLearning failure:

Law 1: Great eLearning technology combined with bad content results in more efficiently delivered bad content.

Learning without learning technology cannot scale. But learning technology without any learning is just a shiny object (as in shiny object syndrome).

Adding technology to the mix will not make learning better if it’s not good to begin with. It will not magically make incomplete content more complete, irrelevant content more relevant, or suddenly make incorrect information correct. All it does is increase the efficiency of doing the wrong thing. This is why content curation is becoming so important.

Often, technology—eLearning and otherwise—can make things worse. Putting a lousy course online doesn’t make it better. In poorly designed classroom training, there is—hopefully—a knowledgeable instructor who can clarify, explain, and demonstrate hard-to-understand concepts and topics. There is no such support online. Which is one reason why instructional design still matters and may be more critical for eLearning than for classroom training.

Law 2: eLearning that is compensation for bad documentation, tools, processes, or management will ultimately prove to be a waste of time and money.

eLearning is not a cure-all. Despite what we’d like to think, we can’t solve deeper, more systemic problems simply with more online training. How often have we in the training business (excuse me, the “learning” business) been asked to use training to compensate for documents that no one can understand (use eLearning to explain each page), inefficiently designed tools or processes (use eLearning to teach “workarounds”), or bad management (offer eLearning on dealing with “difficult” people)?  Too often, I imagine.

Instead, suggest that efforts focus on the root causes of the problem. Redesign the documentation, fix work tools and processes, and select better managers. Performance support can help here. eLearning might be part of the solution, but without getting at the underlying issues, you are merely kicking the can down the road. Eventually, you will run out of road.

Law 3: When great eLearning comes up against a lousy learning culture, the culture wins every time.

An organization that has a learning culture is one where knowledge, insight, and expertise are freely shared. Having lots of training, including lots of eLearning is not enough. A learning culture goes to the heart of how the organization is led and managed, how performance and knowledge sharing is recognized and rewarded, and how the organization sees and deals with experimentation, risk, out-of-the-box thinking, and innovation.

Becoming a real learning organization is much harder than becoming a technologically savvy organization. While both are important, a solid learning culture can thrive without the latest technology, but the latest technology won’t, in and of itself, create a learning culture.

Peter Drucker once said “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” How true. A bad organizational culture can smother almost all innovativeness. This is surely the case when eLearning, even great eLearning, comes up against it. When it fails, as it will inevitably will, you must get beyond the technology, the strategy or the learning design, to the broader environment. It is there you will find your culprit.

Look around your organization. Think back on your eLearning career and remember all the program implementations you’ve been a part of. If they failed, it’s almost certainly due to one or more of these three laws. Now, get in there and fix it.