Organizations have created a myriad of internal initiatives to bolster enterprise performance. Among them, e-Learning has emerged to assume a strategic role in the organization, shifting from a simple solution for creating training efficiency, to one that aligns individual competencies to impact bottom line performance.

With every corporate goal there is a set of intellectual resources and capabilities that are critical to its success. Simply put, in order for a company to compete successfully there are things it must know, and things it must know how to do well. Consequently, the choices a company makes — from the technologies it implements to the products it creates and the markets it serves — all have a sizable impact on the knowledge, skills and competencies required to succeed. And of course, this is true for other organizations as well, whether companies, higher education, government, and so on. Nearly all of the points I will make in this article apply across the board, even though, for consistency, the words “company” and “corporate” will keep appearing.

When used strategically, e-Learning can be the critical element that aligns individual development, resources, and capabilities with corporate goals. It can be the catalyst to improved performance at all levels of the organization. To begin with, organizations must shift their present perspective of e-Learning from being just a vehicle for delivering content, to being one that offers tremendous opportunity for making learning a much richer, more meaningful experience. With an eye on key elements — and a focus on balance — bottom line impact can be achieved.

Key characteristics of a strategic e-Learning program

E-Learning strategy must account for issues of culture, leadership, change, business challenges and trends, and long-term business results. Key elements include:

  • A plan to align objectives with organizational goals
  • Buy-in from management and participants
  • A blended environment for learning and performance enhancement
  • Internal marketing and promotion
  • Follow-through

The plan

The most successful e-Learning initiatives are designed with results in mind. An organization must be able to articulate expectations in terms of how e-Learning will support its goals. Begin by identifying specific needs, which can be turned into business objectives for an e-Learning program. When accomplished, these business objectives should directly support the strategic objectives of the organization. To establish a list of desired results that map directly to business objectives:

  1. Identify business direction, needs, and goals.
  2. Compare these to the existing workforce skills the company has.
  3. Identify gaps between what the company has and what’s required to achieve future goals.
  4. Perform a SWOT Analysis (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats). Start by holding a team meeting with management from each department that will be influenced by the e-Learning initiative. Conduct a SWOT analysis of the company to determine e-Learning’s role.
    • Strengths — What does the company do well? What does it do better than any competitor?
    • Weaknesses: Where is the company falling short in the market? What issues are keeping it from leveraging new opportunities?
    • Opportunities: What are the opportunities the organization is poised to pursue? Look at market trends and shifts in customer and stakeholder dynamics.
    • Threats: If the organization fails to improve in key areas, what will threaten its place in the market? Are there technology and industry or regulatory concerns that should be addressed? What issues are influenced by the economy?
  5. Have clear job descriptions and required skills for each position within the organization.
  6. Identify the training and development needs for each position.

Once these steps toward establishing a vision and a plan for the e-Learning initiative have been taken (see Sidebar 1, “Key e-Learning questions,”), specific training objectives to achieve organization goals can be set for individuals. Likewise, departments should have team objectives for improving skills and performance. To clarify desired results and establish accountability, participants should be given concrete, measurable objectives and deadlines.


SIDEBAR 1 Key e-Learning questions

A strategic plan for e-Learning should answer the following questions:

  1. What elements are necessary to ensure that training goals and individual development are aligned with the organization’s goals?
  2. Who will participate in this training initiative? Identify individuals and job functions.
  3. What are the desired results and benefits of training for those participating? For the organization?
  4. How will results be identified and measured?
  5. What resources are required to implement this training initiative? Consider staff, services, hardware and software, and budget.
  6. What could inhibit or sabotage this initiative’s success?



Support from both management and employees in the organization can accelerate learning and progress, while indifference will undermine it. Once the strategic plan is created, leadership support should be established and maintained for two reasons:

  1. Initiatives are successful when they have the support of company leaders who are respected by employees or who are in a position to influence their careers.
  2. Having the management team involved enables the organization to change training direction or course content if it’s determined that a department is not aligned with the company’s strategy.

The success of any corporate initiative is directly linked to the degree of leadership buy-in. Management has tremendous influence on determining the success of any program, so bringing them into the process early will ensure the initiative receives the support it needs. Involving management in a situation analysis during the planning phase gives them the opportunity to express needs and concerns, and encourages ownership and support for the initiative. Once management support is established, the next step is to articulate the vision, goals and expected results to individuals who will be participating in the learning program.

Turn company needs into their wants

While short-term goals behind a learning initiative may be obvious to participants, a link to overall business objectives and individual benefits can be clear as mud. Consequently, the question on everyone’s mind will be, “What’s in it for me?”

To answer, consider again the goals and priorities of the organization and the fact that everything is connected. For instance, individual tasks are connected to group objectives, which in turn are connected to strategic plans, organization outcomes, and corporate profits. Consequently, the individual’s contribution to the company — good or poor — will have a direct impact on his or her career. (See Sidebar 2, “What’s in it for me?”.)


SIDEBAR 2 What’s in it for me? Help individuals see the e-Learning initiative

A strategic plan for e-Learning should answer the following questions:

  1. What elements are necessary to ensure that training goals and individual development are aligned with the organization’s goals?
  2. Who will participate in this training initiative? Identify individuals and job functions.
  3. What are the desired results and benefits of training for those participating? For the organization?
  4. How will results be identified and measured?
  5. What resources are required to implement this training initiative? Consider staff, services, hardware and software, and budget.
  6. What could inhibit or sabotage this initiative’s success?


Help individuals to view corporate goals in the context of what they do, what it means to their job, and finally what it means to their department and coworkers on a daily basis. This enables companies to highlight the mutual benefits of participation in the learning initiative.

Clearly defined expectations

Best results are achieved if program goals and accountability for results are introduced early. Participants should be encouraged to establish goals and objectives before, during, and after training. If left until the very end, objectives tend to be more superficial and are rarely aligned to business goals.

Managers should discuss objectives with participants before an e-Learning program is launched in order to establish expectations and ownership of results. Managers should address:

  • Key skills and knowledge to be gained.
  • How the training will be applied.
  • Job results that should improve as a result.
  • Business objectives and goals the training will support.

Introducing clarification and follow-through procedures at the beginning of each learning experience is important to support goal planning and implementation. Defining expectations will help participants translate what they learn into steps that will improve performance. These goals become the foundation of the follow-through phase. But let’s start at the beginning with the elements that are conducive to successful learning outcomes.

Collaborative, blended environment

E-Learning and Web-based technologies are essential tools, but are not in themselves a strategy. Relying entirely on technology or any single element of the e-Learning equation will only set the initiative up for failure.

Organizations should avoid getting caught up in technology’s bells and whistles without addressing the core issues of learner styles and needs, the impact of various delivery models on the learning process, and the new roles of instructor and student in the self-led learning and performance building process.

And while an emphasis exclusively on space-age content delivery will fail to yield results, traditional learning models alone will no longer thrive in organizations, either. There are two main reasons:

First, individual development today is about meeting the learner’s needs for improved performance. This cannot be accomplished by following the traditional learning models of the past, or by simply throwing content on a Website. Targeted, on-demand learning and performance support must be engaged to align individual learning with specific job and business requirements, and to achieve specific performance outcomes.

Second, the younger, “gaming generation,” was raised expecting immediate access, robust interaction that appeals to multiple senses, and a full spectrum of choices when it comes to learning, retrieving, and engaging content. For this generation, the Internet plays a central role in their desire for flexibility at home, at work, and at play. Being online and always connected is second nature to them, and they’ve developed the ability to multi-task better than any generation before. This will drive demand for richer, more dynamic interactivity from future learning and performance support models.

Teachers at universities are seeing firsthand the ways in which this generation is using the Internet to study, date, meet friends, and enhance life in general. For example, students are going online during class and finding Websites that supplement discussion, and they’re more likely to do research on the Net than visit a library. It is now common practice for teachers to distribute assignments or class handouts online, while class-related chats and electronic bulletin boards provide a platform for group discussion and enhanced study outside the classroom.

It is the students that are driving the use of technology on campus, and as they enter the workforce, they’re pushing technological advances in their organizations as well. Consequently, a growing number of companies have begun responding to the needs of the new learner. Greater percentages of corporate training budgets support alternative learning and performance support methods, such as intranet development and consulting services. This indicates a growing awareness that traditional training models are falling short. It also signals the opportunity to define and deliver effective blended learning models, to better address learning and performance needs in today’s accelerated business environment.

The concept of blended learning grew out of the successes and failures of e-Learning. While some instruction is appropriate for delivery over the Web alone, the right combination of technical, human, and content elements can significantly increase learning and employee productivity. According to Thomson/NETg’s Annual Job Impact Survey (released in 2003), a structured curriculum of blended learning generated a 30 percent increase in accuracy of performance and a 41 percent increase in speed of performance over single-delivery options.

Blended learning elements

Blended learning can be defined as a learning solution that combines live e-Learning, self-paced learning, and face-to-face elements using a number of delivery media, technologies, events, and practices. Such a solution can be deployed effectively for targeted development in three key areas: knowledge and skills; workplace behavior; and individual or group competency.

Along with the appropriate mix of elements, timing and relevance are also important. The key to successful blended learning is combining the right elements at the right time to achieve the desired result. Online instruction, live classroom training, and quality content are foundational to a balanced learning initiative. In addition, learners require a rich, interactive environment that supports multiple learning styles and encompasses human touch, expert guidance, opportunities to practice and reinforce learning, and resources for expanded study. The essential elements in this mix include live support and a virtual environment where learners can put to work the skills they have just learned.

Live mentor or instructor support

While a successful blended learning initiative requires a careful alignment of people, content, and technology, the human element is often missing in this equation. Essentially, e-Learning works best when there is a continual exchange between students, instructors, and the learning community, in order to make abstract or confusing concepts clear and to ensure learners don’t feel isolated.

Learners succeed by taking content and reformulating it, giving it their own interpretation, applying it to real-world tasks, and sharing it with others. Interaction with and feedback from instructors and the learning community enables individuals to build understanding and retain key concepts. Collaboration tools such as chat, instant messaging, email, threaded discussions, and application sharing can help answer this need.

The most advanced interactive platforms for live mentoring offer access to collaborative learning and communication tools through a single entry point or interface, which can be integrated into an organization’s LMS or intranet for seamless, on-demand access. This enables individuals to tap a subject matter expert for live help whenever needed to maintain learning momentum and avoid the frustration and isolation that can often lead to course abandonment.

Live mentoring can also provide desk side assistance for just-in-time learning and performance building, reducing help desk and technical support costs for the organization.

Virtual environments

Experts say real learning takes place when individuals attempt to apply what they’ve learned. Consequently, the key to increasing the value of a learning initiative is to quickly and effectively parlay what is learned into action.

The best Web-based labs and virtual environments can reproduce a company’s infrastructure or work environment in a fail-safe setting, so individuals can build skills and confidence on live servers, operating systems and desktop applications without risk to the organization.

Web-based labs take individuals beyond simply clicking through content to hands-on experimentation enabling them to apply concepts and skills using the same technology and environments they’ll encounter within their organization. Labs may also provide objectives and instant feedback to show individuals where they’re making progress and to identify areas in need of reinforcement. Labs that correspond directly with course curriculum and vendor certification tracks such as the Microsoft MCSE can also prove helpful in assisting individuals as they prepare for certification.

Internal marketing

There are generally two ways to encourage individuals to participate in a learning initiative. If learning is not mandatory, the use of an internal marketing program will be critical to the initiative’s success. (See Sidebar 3, “Internal promotion”.)


SIDEBAR 3 Internal promotion

A number of tools and events can be used effectively for internal promotion, including:

  • Intranet
  • E-mail and Voice Mail
  • Posters
  • Flyers/Handouts
  • Newsletter
  • Desktop References
  • Special Events: Lunch & Learns, Contests, Open Houses
  • Integration into Employee Development and Orientation


Internal marketing can be done in three key phases:

  • Launch: introduces employees and managers to the new initiative.
  • Awareness and Engagement: promotes program benefits and encourages utilization.
  • Sustainment: ensures utilization is maintained and increased.

An internal marketing program should have two main audiences: management and the end-user population. A marketing plan and timeline should be created to begin several weeks before launch and continue through the life of the initiative. It is important to remember that a successful program launch is only the beginning. Interest and use will eventually fizzle if marketing efforts do not continue. Executing each of the above stages will ensure long-term success.

Keeping the program on track

Training is often viewed as a one-time event with course completion as the finish line. Without keeping an eye on successful implementation of newly gained knowledge and skills, the initiative will fail to bring forth desired training outcomes.

Implementing a new work habit or using a new skill requires repetition and practice. According to some experts,

without reinforcement 87% of new knowledge and skill is lost within the first 60 days after training. Therefore, active follow-through and accountability can significantly increase knowledge-to-application transfer to an individual’s job-related duties and contribute directly to improved business results.

Best results are achieved in organizations that engage in proactive follow-up in the weeks immediately following training. Without it, the rate of relapse into less productive performance can be significantly high. Key components for helping individuals keep performance goals top-of-mind include:

  • Periodic triggers: An automated email or voice mail can remind individuals to assess progress toward learning objectives and performance goals.
  • Group support: Individuals establish goals and declare them to peers or coworkers, provide updates on progress, share learning experiences, and obtain help from mentors or others.
  • Management ownership: Managers periodically assess progress of direct reports and recognize when mentoring, reinforcement, or other intervention is required.
  • Mentoring or coaching: Individuals receive expert input and guidance in order to make the most progress when applying new skills for performance improvement.


E-Learning can play an integral role in keeping organizations in pace with market dynamics. It begins with seeing e-Learning’s promise beyond the delivery of content, and engaging it strategically to develop the knowledge, skills and competencies required to succeed. With the right mix of planning, promotion, technology, learning environment, and people, e-Learning can help companies achieve performance at the speed of business!