Most guidelines for e-Learning planning and implementation address the needs of larger organizations and assume a certain level of staffing, IT support, and budget. And historically, only large corporations had sufficient resources to do e-Learning. But more small- and medium-size companies are getting involved with e-Learning without the availability of such resources.
In fact, the main growth area for e-Learning over the next decade or so is likely to be in the domain of small companies and non-profit organizations. Typically in these settings, a single person is responsible for all e-Learning activities — an e-Learning department of one. In this article, I focus on e-Learning problems and strategies in this context (see Table 1).
|Problem or issue||Strategy|
|Limited budget and resources||
|Lack of support from management||
|Getting employees to participate||
|Getting assistance from IT department||
|Time needed to implement and evaluate||
|Nobody to consult with||
What are the main issues faced by the e-Learning department of one? Without a doubt, limited or no budget for e-Learning activities is the most common and most serious challenge. Many training managers receive the go ahead for e-Learning but without additional financial or other resources. This presents the immediate problem of how to offer e-Learning courses without the funds to buy courses or a learning management system to track their use.
There are a number of potential strategies to deal with the paucity of resources. The first one is to make use of the trial version of courses and tools. Most e-Learning and software vendors will make their products available on a trial basis for at least 30 days (see Resources section at the end of this article for some suggestions). That means you can offer a course or use an authoring tool at no cost to create e-Learning, provided you can get the training accomplished quickly. And there is no harm trying out different courses or tools from different vendors while collecting feedback from your employees on which ones they like most. Such evaluations can stretch over an extended time period, as much as six months to a year, during which time you could get a good amount of training accomplished.
Case study: Buying off-the-shelf
The American Diabetes Association is the nation’s leading non-profit organization supporting diabetes information, advocacy, and research. The ADA has been using e-Learning for 6 years to provide training to their staff of 900, according to Leigh Robinson, Director, Training & Development. The decision to try e-Learning was brought about by an organizational consolidation, and the need to provide training to staff in every state.
ADA began by purchasing off-the-shelf courses for their e-Learning efforts. They currently offer 75 different classes with over 3000 course registrations in a year. Recently, instructional designers in the organization have started to create their own courses. This will reduce costs since ADA does not have to pay for the in-house developed courses. On the other hand, course development is time consuming, requiring eight hours of development for every hour of instruction. Originally, the most time consuming aspect of e-Learning was managing the courses; now course development issues have become the most time consuming.
Advice for the e-Learning department of one? Choose a courseware vendor that offers good variety in their course offerings and an authoring tool so you can develop your own courses if that makes sense. Also look for a pricing scheme that lets you buy a block of courses or course time, and leaves you free to pick how many and what courses you want to offe
A second strategy for dealing with limited resources is to make use of existing resources. For example, many organizations use Microsoft PowerPoint (or Open-Office Impress) to create e-Learning course materials, especially if those materials are for use in the context of a Web conference (synchronous meeting). There are also Learning Content Management Systems available that will let you build an asynchronous (self paced) course out of PowerPoint slideshows, adding quizzes or interactive learning activities. PowerPoint is available on most office computers these days and is easy to use. The other tools mentioned (e.g., a Web conferencing system or an LCMS) are examples of products for which you should have no trouble getting trial versions. The eLearning Guild provides free e-books on LMS/LCMS systems and synchronous e-Learning; these are useful resources.
Indeed, e-Learning doesn’t have to take the form of courses at all. A great deal of online learning takes place informally via search engines, e-mail, blogs, and newsletters. You can harness these resources for training activities. For example, you could produce a series of e-mail newsletters that discuss specific training issues. You could also create a blog or a discussion forum with volunteer experts who will field questions on certain topics and nurture participation. In fact, asking people to contribute to a blog or moderate a discussion forum is a good way to get them involved and interested in e-Learning. Another option is to make use of a test creation program (again, either free or on a trial basis) to create tests for existing classroom seminars or training materials — and to add some outcome measurements and accountability to your training program.
Another typical problem for the e-Learning department of one is lack of support from senior management or line managers. When e-Learning is not a major organizational initiative, managers (who usually focus on operational issues) tend to ignore it. The key to enlisting management support (at any level) for e-Learning is to make sure that it addresses a high priority operational issue, such as turnover, customer satisfaction, sales performance, or cost reduction. The latter issue is a good one for e-Learning since it typically lowers the costs of delivering training by reducing travel expenditures. In fact, cost savings can be significant, in the order of 40-60%. For example, consider a training seminar on applicant interviewing intended for 100 managers in an organization that has 10 offices spread out over the U.S. To send a trainer to each of the offices is going to cost at least $1,000 per trip for a total of $10,000. But an e-Learning course on this topic, purchased for $50 per person or $5,000, yields a potential savings of 50%.
Senior management needs to see a business case for e-Learning. This means that you must identify the specific operational issues that a proposed e-Learning program will address, the cost savings or revenue increase expected, and the Return on Investment (ROI) for the resources required. If you are following the suggestions outlined in this article, the resources needed for e-Learning are going to be minimal, and so your ROI should look good.
ROI example: Customer service training
Companies continually lose existing customers to competitors at account renewal times because of poor customer service. In this example, a survey reveals that approximately 1,000 customers per year don’t renew due to customer service issues. The company decides to try an e-Learning solution, asking their 100 customer service representatives to take three online courses to improve their customer relations skills. The company expects that, as result of this training, there will be a 20% reduction in customer losses (i.e., 200 customers). The average value of each customer’s account is $150 per year or a total worth of $30,000. The cost of the courses is $150 per employee.
The ROI calculation is the estimated value of the training divided by the cost of the training
Estimated value of increased customer renewals for one year = $30,000
Cost of customer service training for 100 employers = $15,000
ROI = 30,000/15,000 = 2
Note: A ROI value greater than 1 is a viable investment; the higher the number, the better the return. This brings up another aspect of selling e-Learning — you will likely need to make lots of presentations to managers and employees.
Selling and sustaining e-Learning
Because e-Learning is not something with which most people in smaller organizations have much experience, a lot of educating is required. Managers are going to be interested in hearing about how it has worked at other organizations. There are plenty of useful materials available from The eLearning Guild and other e-Learning sources. Employees are going to want to know why this is a better alternative to the forms of training that they are familiar with. Convenience is usually the big selling feature with employees, because they can take the training when and where they want without having to travel.
The selling process for e-Learning needs an ongoing effort. Even after successful implementation, there will be new employees and new managers who need to be educated. You should plan on making regular presentations, updating everyone on results and new developments. Such presentations should review the nature of the e-Learning you plan to provide (showing a course sample is good), the business case and expected outcomes, the actual results, and the next steps.
One good strategy both for selling and for sustaining e-Learning within your organization is to create a steering or advisory committee composed of a cross section of managers and employees who are likely to use online courses. An ideal size for this committee is six to eight members. It should involve individuals who are enthusiastic about (or at least interested in) e-Learning. This committee can review courses and tools, plan implementation, and collect feedback. Such committees are a good way to establish an organization structure for e-Learning, even though none exists formally. And committee membership can rotate among departments on a yearly basis to bring in fresh ideas and allow representation from different facets of the organization.
Another major problem that e-Learning projects often encounter is getting employees to participate fully. To the extent that the e-Learning is of the self paced, asynchronous variety, employees must take the initiative to start and complete the training. This is the flip side of the convenience factor — you can do e-Learning any time and any place, or no time and no place. Address this potential problem by having employees commit to a training schedule that indicates when they will complete all or a portion of the e-Learning activities. Using a Learning Management System, it is easy for a manager to check on the progress of an employee against such a schedule.
Another strategy for increasing employee participation is to enlist volunteers to take the courses, perhaps as reviewers and evaluators. This strategy is particularly effective if the volunteers are supervisors or senior employees who command some respect among their staff. Knowing that others have taken the courses tends to create peer pressure for everyone else to take them.
Finally, tie completion of e-Learning courses to participation in other training activities (the blended model), to provide additional motivation. This works well when e-Learning courses offer basic information for use in face-to-face or hands-on sessions. Alternatively, you can use e-Learning for advanced instruction tailored to the needs of each employee following a training session common to all.
Case study: Course completion issues
LTP Management Group operates a number of restaurants in Southern Florida. They use e-Learning to train approximately 150 managers in a number of HR compliance areas including sexual harassment, hiring, discipline and termination, wage regulations (FLSA), and workplace injury. According to Lisa Burgs, HR Manager, they use e-Learning to reinforce company policy and training in these areas. They have been using e-Learning since 2002 with good results.
LTP selected e-Learning because of the convenience it provides to managers to take the training on their own schedule. However, this is a two-edged sword. Lisa Burgs reports that the most time-consuming aspect of e-Learning is the follow-up it takes to ensure that managers complete the training in a timely manner.
This is one of the reasons many organizations opt for real-time e-Learning using Web conferencing tools and scheduled sessions. The fact that the training has a specified time (and that the organization requires participation) increases the probability that learners will complete it. On the other hand, this eliminates one of the major advantages of e-Learning, namely the convenience for the employee of not being tied to a training schedule. However, it still provides the freedom to take the training from any location (including home or hotel), and eliminates the travel costs and time away from work associated with attending training events. Since a reduction in travel costs is often one of the major justifications for e-Learning, this benefit alone may be sufficient for some organizations.
One important consideration for implementing e-Learning is the potential involvement of your organization’s Information Technology (IT) department. While you want the support and assistance of your IT department for e-Learning, you don’t want to require any more of their involvement than necessary since this normally means internal budget requests. The best way to minimize their involvement is to look for externally-hosted, Web-based courses and tools. In fact, most course and LMS vendors offer this option. This means that you do not need the IT department to obtain, install, or maintain any software. To the extent that things are Web-based, they should be available via any machine that has Internet access and a browser — which is almost any computer these days.
You should also avoid so-called “enterprise” solutions. Enterprise solutions usually refer to e-Learning systems that integrate many different functions in one system (e.g., applicant screening, training management, performance appraisal, employee records, etc.). While such systems make a lot of business sense, they require extensive involvement by the IT department. Instead, you want tools that a single person (most likely you) can easily learn and use without any IT assistance.
On the other hand, it is unlikely that you will be able to conduct e-Learning activities without some help and cooperation from your IT department (or the IT person in a small organization). Even courses or tools from an external host will probably run afoul of plugins that someone will have to install, or firewall issues. So cultivate good relationships with your IT staff, even as you try to find e-Learning solutions that minimize the need for their help.
Case study: Plant environments
Armen Arisian is the HR manager at NYTEF, a plastics manufacturing company with approximately 200 employees located in five states. He is responsible for providing a broad range of training ranging from sexual harassment and diversity awareness for managers, to safety training for plant workers. He is using off-the-shelf e-Learning courses as a way of meeting diverse training needs with limited staff and budget.
One of the problems with e-Learning implementation in a plant environment is that most employees don’t have their own workstations. This is also true of many other work settings such as hospitals, retail businesses, restaurants, etc. The usual solution to this dilemma is to provide a training room equipped with one or more computers set up for e-Learning (i.e., Internet connection, all necessary software, and plugins loaded). Another potential solution is to provide laptops with wireless connections throughout the facility. In this case, NYTEF created a training workstation at each location with their IT group responsible for ensuring the proper functioning of the computer.
The biggest obstacle for e-Learning at NYTEF is finding the time to implement it. Even with off-the-shelf courseware and an easy to use LMS, it still takes time to organize and manage the training ... although substantially less than with classroom delivery. Armen Arisian suggests three strategies for ensuring that e-Learning succeeds: (1) make sure that the training offered addresses the priorities of top and line management, (2) get line managers and supervisors to identify what training is needed by which individuals, and (3) be sure to communicate clearly with employees about the details of the training. In other words, when doing e-Learning with limited resources, you need to be on target!
One of the biggest problems for the e-Learning department of one is finding the time needed to plan, implement, and evaluate e-Learning solutions. Most of the strategy ideas I’ve discussed above don’t require resources, but they do require a significant time investment. For example, the evaluation of a potential course or tool, or running an advisory committee can be very time-consuming.
Some general advice to minimize time requirements is to keep your e-Learning projects as small as possible. The amount of time required to implement an e-Learning effort tends to be in proportion to the number of participants. So rather than offer training to all 1000 employees, pick a small sample of perhaps 50 for an initial pilot test. Not only does this reduce the level of effort, but it may also allow you to pick a subset of participants who are more likely to complete the training, and therefore provide a better basis for subsequent training. Of course, you will eventually need to offer the training to all 1000 employees, but if the initial pilot goes well, you should have the rationale to ask for the additional resources you need to complete the full training program.
Another strategy to minimizing the time required for e-Learning initiatives is to distribute or delegate the responsibilities as much as possible. This goes handin-hand with the earlier suggestion to create an advisory committee, since members can be asked to carry out some of the tasks related to e-Learning. Some line managers and supervisors may also be interested enough in training, or e-Learning specifically, that they are willing to play a major role in e-Learning projects.
Of course the key to this kind of shared workload is to ensure that it appeals to the self-interests of the parties involved.
Off-the-shelf versus do-it-yourself
An issue closely related to the previous topic of time needed is the extent to which you go with off-the-shelf courses or try to create your online training materials. Locating and evaluating off-the-shelf courses is very time-consuming, and it’s tempting to give up early and decide to develop your own courses. For an e-Learning department of one, this can be a serious mistake. Even with a good authoring tool, the amount of time required to learn how to use it, as well as to learn the ancillary software such as a graphics, photo, or video editor, can be significant (i.e., many late nights). Likewise, learning how to use an LMS or LCMS, a blog, a discussion system, or a test creation program can require extensive time investments. And keep in mind that once you have created online learning materials, you have to maintain them. Every time there is a major change to the content of a course, the materials require revision. A popular rule of thumb is that you must update 20 percent of the content of a training course annually. In a course with 100 screens or topics, you’ll need to change that 20 percent every year.
The more you can go with off-the-shelf solutions, the less time you need to spend learning course development and delivery tools or doing course maintenance. Most e-Learning vendors offer turn-key solutions that include some degree of customization to your training setting for relatively little extra cost. Keep in mind what I said earlier about vendors offering trial versions of the courses and systems so you can try them out before making any financial commitment.
If you must develop your own courses or e-Learning applications, try to use tools that require minimal skills and time investments. I’ve already mentioned that a slideshow program (such as Microsoft Power-Point) is a versatile tool that you can use to create materials for Web conferences or self-paced courses. Similarly, screen recording software, such as Tech-Smith Camtasia or Adobe Captivate, will allow you to produce training materials quickly and easily for any software application. Flash is probably the most widely used tool for courseware development today and is not difficult to learn to use. Knowing how to use tools such as these provides a lot of flexibility to develop online training materials without a lengthy and expensive development process. But it should still not be your first choice.
Who to talk to?
One person e-Learning departments can be lonely places. Many e-Learning managers report that they have no one they can talk to for advice or just to toss ideas around. Clearly this is one of the functions of the e-Learning advisory committee. For interaction outside of your organization, you can turn to discussion forums and blogs (e.g., the Info Exchange in The eLearning Guild’s Community Connection). And of course, attending any e-Learning conference will give you many like-minded souls to commiserate with, as well as a start to establishing your own personal support network. The e-Learning world is big, so don’t be afraid to reach out to it.
Note: All of the software listed is either free, or offers a free trial version.
1. OpenOffice, a free alternative to Microsoft Office:
2. For free or inexpensive courses, see:
4. Test creation programs:
http://thinktest.com (Editor's Note: This company appears to have gone out of business prior to November 1, 2009)