Learning occurs in a variety of situations; a learner can be enrolled in a long-term course of study or simply be seeking information needed right now. Learners might be in an office setting, at one of dozens of stores or outlets in a large business, or on the road, calling on customers or making sales. They might need the “right now” information to solve a problem, figure out or remember how to perform a particular procedure, or adapt what they are doing to a new or unusual situation.

A traditional-format online course is not always the most effective approach to online training. eLearning can take any of a number of formats: a one-hour learning module; an infographic or diagram; a video or simulation; a microlearning module. You can also deliver it in many ways: synchronous or asynchronous courses, “just in time,” or on a schedule. Delivery might be via learners’ laptop or desktop computers or sent to their mobile devices. The goal might be to impart knowledge (facts and information) or to teach a skill or improve performance.

Therefore, there’s no single answer to “What’s the best way to provide training?” When choosing a format for online learning and a delivery method, managers should consider how and when employees will use and apply the learning. Here are five questions to help managers decide what type of eLearning is appropriate:

Will this training stand alone, or will it complement or form part of a deeper course of study?

Microlearning and just-in-time modules are ideal for stand-alone training. These formats also work well to refresh learners’ memory of processes and procedures or quick facts that they might have covered in a longer training course. But for deeper concepts, strategic learning, or complex topics, a longer-format course is more suitable.

When and where are learners likely to need this training?

A sales rep making calls on potential customers might need just-in-time training, available in a quickly searchable mobile format that provides quick facts about products and short demo videos the rep can call up on a tablet during sales meetings. Employees who perform a particular procedure only occasionally might need a refresher video or infographic that steps them through the procedure. You can easily provide these types of trainings as microlearning modules that they can access from their desks; for employees who are in stores or on the go, mobile formats that they can access on tablets or mobile phones are a better choice.

Is the skill something that learners are likely to need extensive practice to master?

Some skills need to be learned at a deep level; they almost need to become internalized. For example, employees who answer a crisis hotline require skills that can’t be taught using a simple five-step diagram. You can teach complex skills and learners can practice them using an eLearning module that includes simulations and allows learners to choose from several possible responses or options, then explore how each choice might play out. An interactive format, whether learners interact with fellow employees in a synchronous online session or with avatars in an online game, allows learners to become comfortable responding to a number of different scenarios before they confront similar ones with real-life callers.

Is the training in response to a real or a perceived threat?

Companies often spend large amounts of money on training as a response to a perceived threat: fear of legal action, risk of employee injury, or fear of harm to reputation, for example. However, before embarking on an expensive in-depth training project, managers should conduct a risk assessment and realistically consider the likelihood of various scenarios. Managers must also consider the laws and regulations that apply to employees. The scale and complexity of training, the platform and manner of delivery, and the method of assessing learning should all be appropriate to both the actual risk and the organization’s goals. 

How can we make this information most accessible to our employees?

Employees are asked to process massive amounts of information. Some, such as simple facts, product details, due dates, use examples, or common procedures, might be best presented in a quick-access database or a job aid: a chart, table, infographic, or checklist. Other types of information, such as instructions for performing a complex process, lend themselves to presentation via instructional videos, perhaps accompanied by searchable manuals. Choosing the right format makes the information more accessible and useful.

Office employees might benefit from a shared resources database or website, where frequently referenced information, job aids, FAQs, and processes are available in a curated, up-to-date location—and where outdated or irrelevant information is excluded. If employees are on the road or scattered among multiple non-office locations, consider a mobile app where the information is gathered in one easy-to-search location. These steps will make the information easy to find at the moment each employee needs it.