Jul 1, 2020

With Online Learning Comes Change

Don’t panic.

Someone in the office said “online learning”. It echoed down the passageways and came to rest like a cloud in the open plan work area. Change is coming.

So maybe your organisation is considering developing an online learning programme or even building a shiny, new learning management system (LMS). For some, this will be an exciting project with a lot of room to learn and grow. For others, it will be downright terrifying. In this article, I seek to understand and respond to the latter group by exploring some of the fears and sharing some insights.

The best way to understand the change that online learning brings to an organisation is by seeing it through the eyes of those people that have to deal with it. Let me introduce you to the team. These are some of the general reactions from those on the front line:

The Learning and Development (L&D) professional:

“It won’t work. We have spent years training managers and facilitators to run our learning sessions and you can’t replicate that online. It has to be interpersonal. Anyway, why change things when it’s already working? How about we upload the powerpoint slides and manuals so that employees can download them when they need it? That’s a form of e-learning right?”

The Business Executive:

“I am all for digitising the business, but this is not revenue generating. We cannot afford for staff to be spending time on online learning when they could be working. I’m pretty sure that the best way to learn is on the job so I don’t see the need to spend all this time and money on developing more training material? I never did “e-learning” and I’ve managed just fine.”

The Technical Expert:

“We definitely need to relook at how we train, but I can’t see how online learning is the solution in this case. There is just too much content and not enough time. It would take months for new recruits to learn everything they need to know. While I’d love to help out, I can’t spend my time training newbies when there is so much real work to be done.”

These are some valid points and I’d be lying if I said that online learning or “e-learning” is some silver bullet that solves all problems for all people. It can be a sizable investment and it necessitates change; in company culture, in the technical environment, and in how people engage with learning. And change is scary.

But change can also be good. Really good. Let’s take a closer look at each of the team members and address their core fears.

1. The L&D core fear: What happens to me?

There seems to be a misconception that e-learning will replace learning and development or make it redundant over time. That has not been my experience. What it really does is change the nature of their work by removing repetitive and administrative tasks so that more energy can be spent on monitoring, evaluating, and conceptualising learning programmes. Online learning does a lot of the heavy lifting when it comes to presenting learning content, which means that L&D professionals should shift into being learning and development stewards that are able to decipher the data being generated by the online programmes, to execute on the right learning interventions, for the right people, at the right time. With a crash-course in basic data analysis, and by continuing to listen to your learning workforce, L&D professionals can play a pivotal role in the future of learning within the business.

2. The executive core fear: What if it fails?

One thing is for sure, if online learning is on your radar, it is not a question of “if” but a question of “when”. Online learning is an answer to a need, not a tech show pony to make it seem like the business is keeping up with the times. There are numerous reasons why online learning might be necessary:

  • There is a need to reduce training time
  • Employees need to be inducted into the company culture
  • You need to reduce training costs
  • The quality of your output is at risk

These are compelling reasons, but the fear of it being a failure and it reflecting poorly on leadership is still there. The reality is that online learning is never a fixed outcome. It is inherently an iterative, evergreen initiative that responds to the business’ needs. While induction may be the most pressing need today, technical training may be the flavour of tomorrow, meaning that you are constantly thinking of new learning programmes to develop, while improving and updating the programmes that have been developed already.

Online learning gives leadership the ability to respond to internal business needs quickly and measure the effectiveness of online interventions. There is no binary success or failure of online learning, only a spectrum of learning outcomes achieved and learner-generated data to help you plot your programmes on that spectrum.

3. The Technical expert core fear: You have to earn it

It is not easy to become an expert in anything. Malcolm Gladwell seems to think it can take as long as 10 000 hours. So, it makes sense that technical experts often feel that you cannot take shortcuts by creating online learning in their area of expertise. Not to mention that, quite frankly, they’d prefer to stay the expert — it’s what makes them valuable. True enough. There are no shortcuts and without expert knowledge, no online programme can be created anyway.

But think about it. Being an expert has its benefits but it also means that you are often isolated and constantly called upon to deal with small issues that don’t require much expertise in the first place (have you tried turning it off and on again?). Take the opportunity to scale your knowledge. Not only will it allow you to step away from common, repetitive tasks, but it will signal that you are a proactive team player who also wants to see others grow. With fewer small, shallow tasks passing over your desk, you will be freed up to tackle the more complex, creative tasks that really require your hard-earned expertise. That’s where the magic is. As for there being too much to learn, online learning should provide learning in bite-size chunks according to what a person needs to be able to do. There may be libraries worth of knowledge out there, but the focus should be on what is most important and what will create the most impact — the rest can be learned later or stay with the experts.

So while there are considerations to mull over, there are also some possibilities that are worth exploring. If change can set your company up for increased efficiency, a more skilled workforce, or even just a greater feeling of support in personal development, then it might just be worth taking the plunge. But be warned, deciding to start is just the first step. Once you start you never really finish, because life-long learning is the new standard. More on that another time.