Case Study: The Rise and Fall of an Online Training Program

I’ve spoken with a slew of training colleagues over the past year.  Many of them have online training programs with learning management systems.  And many of them struggle to attract consistent traffic to their LMS.  Part 1 of what follows is a fictionalized case study based upon a number of these conversations. In Part 2, I’m joined by another training colleague to offer our thoughts and insights about the situation.

Part 1: If You Build It, They Will Come… for a Little While

Darryl shut down his computer and stopped by Starbucks for a treat before heading home.  He deserved it.  He had been working non-stop for the past two years on the development, implementation and roll-out of his organization’s new Online Training Academy (OTA).  With great fanfare, it launched today.  His boss was pleased.  Considerable buzz had been generated over the past month and a half.  Managers from across the organization had been sending him emails letting him know how excited they were to finally have a more flexible training option for their employees.

A Brief History

Darryl had been working as a senior training manager for a 2,000-employee telecommunications company for four years.  The company had 13 offices across the country as well as offices in London, Frankfurt, Bangalore and Mexico City.  When he first arrived, training was relatively de-centralized and carried out by regional HR staff within the various offices.  Most training was offered as classroom-based training, though several offices had begun to use webinars.  Two offices had also begun using Captivate to develop brief eLearning tutorials designed to orient staff to their various computer systems.

A year after arriving at the company, Darryl had first proposed the idea of a company-wide online training portal.  Over the next year, he spoke with HR and training professionals across the organization and presented both the financial and business case for the training portal.  Overall project objectives included:

  1. Reducing man-hours and costs associated with the each individual office developing and delivering their own training programs
  2. Ensuring the consistent delivery of content across the organization, especially on compliance-related training topics
  3. Reducing time away from the office for employees to learn
  4. Building a stronger learning culture that could result from access to on-demand training

A learning management system (LMS) was selected and integrated into the already existing company intranet with a single sign-on interface so that employees would not have to memorize a new login/password combination.  Initially, a combination of short, custom orientation and compliance training modules were combined with a series of off-the-shelf skills training modules (leadership development, management, customer service, communication skills) to populate the LMS.

Four and a Half Months Later

On his way out of the building, Darryl passed by Starbucks.  There would be no treat today.  He had spent the morning huddled with his supervisor, reviewing the data for the OTA portal and the numbers were depressingly poor.  His afternoon meeting with the Vice President of Human Resources was disturbingly short.  Darryl had presented the data, the VP of HR had asked if there was anything to add.  Darryl said it was all in the report.  And then Darryl was excused from the meeting.

During the two-week OTA Launch, every employee was set up with an account for the LMS and each employee was assigned two courses: a basic “How To Use This New System” course and one course that was assigned to the employee by his or her local HR office.  Daily emails went out to all staff informing them of the overall company-wide completion rate of these courses as well as a ranking of the top 5 completion rates by regional office.

At the end of the two-week launch period, there was tremendous buzz.  A month after roll-out and there had been an additional 1,327 sign-ups for new courses.  Two months after roll-out, and the number of new course sign-up requests had fallen to 172.  The overall completion rate for all courses hovered around 15%.  By the end of the first full quarter with the online training portal, only 94 additional course sign-ups had been requested.  In the fourth month, 21 new course sign-up requests had been registered.  The only ray of hope that Darryl read in the data was that completion rates during the second, third and fourth months with the system had averaged 72%.

Following a euphoric first month, Darryl was extremely frustrated with the turn this project had taken. He was also concerned about the waning support for the system that he was sensing from senior management (or perhaps it was waning support for him).  Still, he was not ready to call this project a bust quite yet.  But he was also running low on ideas for how to re-energize the company around the online training portal.

Part 2: Some Real-life Training Professionals Weigh In on Darryl’s Situation

Rethink your statistics and the way you use online learning

The convenience of online learning is sometimes your learners’ biggest barrier. Online learning is always there, so it’s easy to push off until it’s “more convenient.” For employees who are used to a more social learning environment, online courses can seem boring and harder to relate too. Find your barriers and address them. In my agency, this is what I share with employees:

  1. Schedule it. Put learning on your calendar.
  2. Create a space that is disruption free. Close down Outlook, put a sign on your door or go to another part of your building so you can focus.
  3. Get support. Make taking one or more courses part of your professional development goals and get support from your manager.
  4. Learn with a friend. Most of us learn better with others so consider taking an online course with a colleague who shares your interest.
  5. Share the learning with others.  Present key lessons to your colleagues or discuss what you learned with others.
  6. Learn with your team. Identify a course that is relevant to all and complete it as part of your team’s learning agenda.

Completion rates simply show that an employee took a course, not what they learned or if they are actually applying the learning. Learners may be using courses more as just-in-time learning, pulling out the few nuggets of information they were seeking without bothering to finish. My organization only seeks completion rates for our required, all-employee courses. It’s more important for us to know they are getting value out of their courses whether or not they actually complete them.

Shannon Dowd (eLearning Specialist, PATH)

It always comes back to the question: what’s in it for me?

Only after the novelty and buzz of a new initiative (like implementing an LMS) wears off can you truly measure whether that initiative was actually developed to meet a business need.  Course offerings can only meet that business need if they are directly connected to professional development plans or competency models and if they are seen as credible information sources by supervisors and managers.

If I was in Darryl’s shoes, I’d spend time over the next several weeks exploring the best way to connect the Online Training Academy with skills gaps – whether that means creating jobs aids for supervisors (“Hey managers, if your employees need development around customer service skills, then perhaps they should access the customer service course on the new Online Training Academy”) and/or perhaps working more closely with HR in connecting course offerings to the company’s performance management system.  He may also want to think of spending some time around the proverbial water cooler, asking staff and managers why they are (or aren’t) using the system.

9 thoughts on “Case Study: The Rise and Fall of an Online Training Program

  1. Reblogged this on LINGOs Blog and commented:
    We haven’t re-blogged other posts on the LINGOs Blog before, but Brian Washburn’s post “The Rise and Fall of an Online Training Program” is a worthy read for the LINGOs Community – not just because it’s by one of our members (Brian is with SightLife) ; nor because one of the real life training experts who weighed in on it is our Virtual Coffee Barista extraordinaire, Shannon Cavallari of PATH; nor because blogging is a GREAT way to learn and to share within the community; nor because his blog “Train Like a Champion” is a superb resource for all trainers and learning professionals; but also because this post illustrates a reality that many face when starting an eLearning program. Please take a look and share your thoughts and advice for a learning professional such as Darryl in the case study.
    Thanks to Brian for this gem, and allowing us to reblog to the LINGOs community,

  2. Thank you Brian. To me, the value you bring in your post is the importance of remembering the relevance of the learning to the e-learner. Then finding the barriers and addressing them. I am fascinated by the paradox of achieving truly engaging learning to a broad, and often uniquely sophisticated, audience. On visiting a global bank last year, I was interested to note that the library of on-line resources was only available outside of office hours. Staff had time limits to achieve a series of learning programmes that would, in turn, significantly affect their appraisals and salary. It sort of takes the fun out of design good learning programmes!

    • Yes, it’s so easy to get caught up in the “trainer bubble” where we start with what seems like a good idea, then we add bells and whistles and rules and systems and procedures… and before we realize it, it’s no longer about the end-user (the learner).

      The story you share about the global bank is disheartening, but it didn’t surprise me. All too often, training (whether classroom-based or online) seems to be viewed as separate and distinct from one’s daily work. In an ideal world, it would be seen as integrated and an essential part of one’s daily work.

      Thanks for the comments!

  3. Great post, Brian. I was especially interested in your discussion about completion rates not necessarily covering all the value that people are getting from courses. Some LMSes can provide more in-depth user statistics, which one might be able to use to tell a different, more accurate story to management.

    Without organizational support for a training initiative after it’s been delivered (especially for such a large one like the example you described), it’s almost crazy to expect there to be success. If employees aren’t motivated by something (someone) in the organization, then it’s an uphill battle to get them to participate.

    I also really like how you tell a story at the beginning of your blog post, then analyze solutions to it. Great post!

    • Thanks Kirby. And yes, a good LMS can definitely track more than just course completions (ie: how far along in a course someone is, did they watch videos or view other media, etc). And you’re absolutely right – even the most motivated employee will struggle with self-directed learning initiatives and will struggle to apply new skills to the job in the absence of organizational support.

      Sounds like you have some good thoughts… perhaps you’d be interested in offering a short analysis on an upcoming case study focused on instructional design for elearning?

  4. As a business owner and high school teacher with extensive experience educating people of all ages, I can assure you that my experience backs up your points. I mentally answered “organization” to the problems outlined in your example about half-way through the reading! Most adult learners need as much guidance in structuring their learning time as children do.

    • Yes – organization (structure) is HUGE. So often in the training world, we know the importance of our work and then leap to an assumption that everyone else buys in to the importance of our work as well. The easier we can make it on learners and their managers through organization and structure, the better.

      One other thing I forgot to mention or cover in my original article is: quality of content. If the LMS is full of courses that simply ask a learner to click through and passively read text, it may not get a lot of traction. Engaging (dare I say… fun!) courses will go a long way in helping the cause.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.