With restrictions on travel and group meetings during the COVID-19 pandemic, many organizations are interested in moving their training and L&D programs online from classrooms. I recently spoke with Nickolay Schwarz to ask him for his thoughts on building online learning programs from scratch. Nickolay is CTO of BenchPrep, a company that creates learning experiences to drive results through a variety of different approaches.

Bill Brandon: Can you offer some guidance for building online learning programs from scratch? What would an organization have to do to set up the infrastructure needed?

Nickolay Schwarz: To set up their infrastructure on their own, everything comes down to how much an organization knows about its own market. How many users are they expecting, and what kinds of content are they expecting to deliver? My advice is that there is no reason to over-engineer anything. Platforms are available to bring programs online fairly easily. The learning management system (LMS) is a big part of that. If you want to spin an online learning program up yourself right now, there's a lot of different opportunities for infrastructure.

If an organization is not expecting a lot of volume and not expecting a lot of concurrency, if they don't have any sort of state or federal or any sort of other compliances that they have to deal with, or if they don’t have any regional compliances like China or India or Russia, there is a variety of choices for them. It can start as simple as a single server on Amazon, Google, or IBM, to a collection of virtualized components where you can cost out whatever solution you need. Then everything comes down to a very basic choice: do you build or do you buy?

The build or buy decision

NS: If you build, you can build from scratch or you can start with an open source LMS and then invest a lot into building it out. This is where everyone's path has very drastic differences: what team do you have, do you have tech folks, do you have engineers on staff? Do you have developed relationships with consultants to bring it up? This is the kind of build where everything starts to vary.

When you are into making that build versus buy decision, you also start looking into the LMSs on the market. What's your expected volume, what is the funding you have? I’m using “LMS” as a high generalization. I’m including everything from learning experience platforms to learning content management platforms.

BB: Is the process for "build or buy" any different now because of COVID-19, than it was six months ago? How's it different?

NS: Absolutely. A lot of companies realize that right now people need a lot of help. At BenchPrep, for example, we launched a Quick Start Program to simplify things. From that angle we basically say, “We'll get you on board in four-to-eight weeks.” Before COVID, everything was a lot more complex: long implementation times and a lot more moving parts. In the COVID situation, companies are forced to figure out something right away. They are now in a space where not only is the demand "yesterday", but it’s, "I need the fastest speed to market. I'm losing money now. I need this done yesterday."

Turnkey solutions?

BB: So are organizations looking for a turnkey solution?

NS: They might not be actual fully turnkey. It's certainly a turnkey solution to get you there and make sure you recoup your lost revenue. Everyone's situation is different. For some it's a matter of survivability.

BB: A lot of organizations don't have four-to-eight weeks.

NS: Right. Exactly. The four-to-eight weeks comes down to content. What content do you have, because the implementations vary drastically. In most cases, the dynamic piece of it is the content itself. For a lot of companies, it's the first time digitizing. It's a conversion from offline content to an online company. Some of them might already have some sort of program content in mind, ready to use industry standard packages, and then the implementation is very different. A lot of it is trying to react to see what you have.

Everyone knows that "business as usual" is no longer business as usual, so nobody's operating in that old “Let's slow down. Let's collect the business requirements. Let's build out this plan, map everything out from a state of ‘hope for, dot all the i's, prepare everything.” You also need to consider the situation you’re in: Are you looking for something for right now, for this year, to patch yourself through? Are you looking for something that's going to be your full digital transformation? Are you looking for something that will be a great start to your digital transformation and then to move further? And then how much are you willing to invest?

Some additional resources

In moving forward, you may want to consider recent strategies we have published in Learning Solutions:

"Making the Shift to Virtual Learning"

"Strategy for Fast Pivot COVID Response: Classroom to Online"