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Will Your e-Learning Investments Bear Fruit?

Ethan Edwardsby Ethan Edwards, chief instructional strategist

Happy St. Patrick’s Day!  I hope you Irish among my readers (and I guess everyone is a little Irish today) will find fun and convivial companionship in your celebrations.  Even though traces of Irish blood flow through me, I have to admit to failure in devising a connection between St. Patrick’s Day and e-learning.  I pondered this all day yesterday and all night hoping for inspiration and nothing came.  (Drive the Snakes Out of Your e-Learning?  Give Your e-Learning a Touch of the Blarney? Find the Pot-o-Gold at the End of Your e-Learning?....I think not…)  At least there is an entertaining St. Patrick’s Day e-card linked at the end of this post  built entirely in Zebra and ready for your enjoyment.

My mind (and my back and arms, actually) is still full of my project this weekend, which was to plant a small orchard.  With the help of my 87-year-old father, we dug holes for and planted nine apple trees, a pear, an apricot, and two plum trees.  They are all classic heirloom varieties from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  This is something I’ve wanted to do for a long time but have put off because it was easier to avoid.  And there are many reasons not to bother—apples are readily available nearly anywhere you want to buy them.  An orchard requires a commitment.  It calls for expenditures today that won’t be repaid for some time into the future.

Apple TreeOn the other hand, of course provided that the trees grow and thrive, an orchard provides great benefits.  I’m looking forward to harvesting apples that aren’t available to me anywhere else.  I’ll have greater control over the quality and nature of my harvest.  I will be less subject to the decisions of others as to what is available to me.  I have increased the value of this property, both physically and emotionally, and that value is likely to only increase over the next 30-40 years at least. 

Another way to think about this is simply a question whether access to apples is an expense or as an asset.  When paying expenses, one is always driven to pay as little as possible.  This also keeps you in the most perilous state possible in the long run.  With assets, one plans for long-term benefit, investing time and resources because the object of importance is of continuing importance and value.  That’s right…it speaks clearly to what we value.

This is the same question we face in planning training, and while it applies to all training, it is especially relevant to e-learning, because the initial development costs can be significant.  Viewing employees as an expense, training just becomes one more place to try to reduce costs.  Reducing budgets, time, and resources that we are willing to pay for training development only gives us less influence in creating an organization that truly embodies our unique goals and values.  This is what I find off-putting about the single-minded push to ever more rapid e-learning.  The only factor that seems to matter is how little time and effort one can get by with…and ultimately, the greatest success, if that is the goal, is to not do e-learning at all!

Viewing your workforce as an asset changes the way you approach training.  Training becomes an investment that will yield both short-term and long-term results.  But learning is an activity that takes a long time, and demanding that it deliver all anticipated outcomes immediately is unrealistic.  A specific training course is only the first step in the overall training process that requires mentoring and on-the-job learning that will occur over months or even years.  And because a “training as expense” mentality requires immediate accounting, irrelevant short-term assessments take the place of any meaningful measure of success.  (In a few weeks I should see if the trees leaf out and I can report that as success….never mind that real success will only be known several years from now if  and when those trees actually bear any fruit.) 

Again, this is a topic that has more to do with the whole vision and value that your organization has for training than specifically to the design of instruction, but I find in talking with new training professionals thrown into e-learning, that the failure of an organization to grasp what an investment in e-learning looks like—in terms of tools, design and development skills, access to media resources, and adequate time—makes accomplishing anything of lasting value nearly impossible.

Without that vision, we’re unlikely to provide training that makes much impact.  It’s as if we’re left with buying nothing but waxed and shiny Red Delicious and Granny Smith apples.  They look decent, are perfectly uniform, last forever, but provide very little taste, and give only a hint of what a good apple ought to be.