Overcome Management Resistance to e-Learning

Learning expert offers tips for more effective training

Most organizations support internal training programs for their employees. Some large organizations maintain dozens of such programs. Yet Michael Allen, a renowned expert on e-learning, argues that most corporate training programs are ineffective, at best, or colossal wastes of time and resources, at worst.

In the midst of an economic downturn in which organizations should be trying to squeeze the most out of the resources at their disposal, Allen argues, they’re overlooking their training programs, which—with a focus on training to achieve business results—can give them a real competitive edge.

In a recent interview with Enterprise Strategies, Allen, author of a number of books, including "Michael Allen’s Guide to e-Learning" (published this year by Wiley and Sons), discussed these issues and more.

Q. You argue in your book that instructional designers and developers should adopt a “business perspective.” What do you mean by this?

A. There’s no CEO that wants training out there that doesn’t help achieve a business goal. They’re not developing training because they have aspirations to be a college or a university. They’re training employees because they know that success depends on getting people to do the right thing at the right time. From the executive suite, the whole reason for our training is to make sure that the outcome is to get people to do the right thing at the right time. If it’s manufacturing, you want more throughput, or fewer accidents and fewer mistakes. If it’s customer service, you want people communicating better. [Executives] then are going to fund this training with that point of view in mind, but they almost never get business results in return.

Q. Why not?

A. A lot of times, when it gets down to the training managers and the project designers, what are the fundamental goals they were judged on? That the training program goes online on time, that it was within budget, that there are few complaints—almost never in terms of business results.

I’m quite convinced that it’s not that hard to achieve those things [on time, in budget, few complaints] if that’s what you’re focusing on—but you’re probably not going to realize business results.

Q. Why does this happen? Why aren’t training developers and planners judged according to business results?

A. A lot of times, it has to do with both sides misjudging one another. It’s a mistake, first of all, from the managerial point of view to think that the training department would not understand the business problem. They think, “If I laid it at their feet [training developers and planners] that we had to reduce accidents by X percent over several months, they won’t know how to design a program that can do this.” Similarly, training departments don’t always say, “Let’s set up a measurement so that we know whether we’re succeeding with this in terms of achieving business results.” I just don’t think that handshake occurs. And I think that this happens because organizations don’t realize how important training can be for their ability to compete.

Q. Just how important is training for an organization’s ability to compete?

A. The attitude in a lot of organizations is: “Training is a burden, we have to do this, unfortunately. If we could only hire more qualified people then we wouldn’t have to do all of this training and things would be much better.” What you would like to have are people who could perform in a uniquely optimal and beneficial way that nobody else has got. If everybody could hire highly competent people, then your company would only be competing against highly competent people. That’s why training is your competitive edge. Training is a way to perfect your theoretical processes and strategies and turn them into procedures, processes and value for the customers. Best of all, it’s a good way to enhance value even in today’s climate.

Q. How? Organizations are having a tough enough time allocating budget dollars for technologies—take business intelligence, for example—that are supposed to be ROI sure-things. Why would training be any different?

A. Most organizations are already doing training of some kind! Most large organizations already have training programs in place, but the culture in most of them makes for ineffective training. [Training is] not about a smile sheet at the end, asking people, “Did you enjoy this training?” It’s nice if they say yes, but that wasn’t at all the justification of doing this. They will say yes very often if you just take employees out of their daily routine and give them some variation. That’s the culture in most large organizations. So they’re already spending all of this money on training and they’re not getting all that they should in return.

What I’m trying to do is I’m trying to get CEOs or at least the C-level in organizations to realize how valuable an asset a good training program can be. Executives get involved in things that they really, really care about. They ought to really, really care about their training. They get the kind of training that they really deserve. Unfortunately, it’s often ineffective.

Q. Why is management still resistant to e-learning?

A. I have a lot of empathy for executives, if you’re in the learning business, you sometimes want to think, what’s wrong with these stupid executives? There are lots of reasons why they do not turn to training. The first and foremost is that they are unaccustomed to seeing dramatic results from training. Many times when budgets get cut, training is cut first. They almost always successfully cut the training budget and come to realize that nothing happened, things seem to be going as before—but that’s because their existing training programs aren’t doing anything for them.

The training that really works and that corporations spend millions of unaccounted for dollars on is on-the-job training. That’s where an employee who has recently completed a “training” program learns by interrupting someone who knows what they’re doing and asking them for help. Execs don’t see this very often and they think that they can cut the training budget with no ill effect.

Q. Many IT professionals I’ve spoken with have typically experienced e-learning as a means to become proficient with new technologies, or to gain additional certifications for career advancement. You argue that the goal of e-learning is to achieve legitimate business goals. I wonder if you think that the two motivations are irreconcilable?

A. A corporation is made up of individual people, so you have to weigh the benefits to the individual, in addition to the benefits to the organization. They say that learning is a personal and an individual sort of thing. It’s a growth opportunity. There’ve been lots of studies that looked at attrition rates of individuals, correlating that with the amount that a company spends in training. One of the best ways of keeping them is to give them learning opportunities. Even if the learning opportunity isn’t strictly related to their job, there’s a sense that people will stay with their jobs in appreciation for the growth opportunity.

About the Author

Stephen Swoyer is a Nashville, TN-based freelance journalist who writes about technology.