This Is Not Showbusiness

In his recent post Market failure? Blame it on the dog food, Clive Shepherd suggests that the reason that elearning content often has high production values but superficial learning design, is down to a market failure; that elearning vendors are selling to the employer, not the learner.

I agree, but how did this situation come to exist? Based on my own experience as an elearning manager within a corporate, and more recently as a consultant, I have some thoughts about why the relationship often works this way.

In his post, Clive touches on the first one:

When employers purchase an e-learning product or engage with a developer, they choose on the basis of production values rather than learning design, because they have neither the time nor the inclination to test out materials with real learners.

I’ve seen many examples of this, but it’s a problem that existed long before elearning. The same can happen when commissioning external providers of face to face training. The focus is on the delivery and collateral rather than the learning and business outcomes. Trainers are often selected, quite literally, on the basis of style over substance.

This is closely related to the second problem. When I was getting started with elearning, I was given all sorts of advice, but one of the more frequent suggestions was to produce “high profile content”; that is, content that people would talk about because it had the “wow factor”. The trouble is, that ends up being “wow those graphics were amazing”, or “wow I think 3D models are cool” when it should be “wow I’ve learned so much by doing that!”.

Who are we trying to impress with this high profile, “wow” content? It’s usually stakeholders and senior managers, because we want their buy in as way to ensure that we can do more of this.

The trouble is, once we’ve opened this box, it’s almost impossible to put thing back in again. We establish a situation where elearning is perceived as something that must have high production values, and anything else is considered to be sub-standard.

This also relates to the problem of procurement models and IT involvement. In the past, it was not unusual to see the commissioning of a piece of elearning treated as a software purchase, and for some organisations that’s still true today.

There are two problems with this;

First of all, a software purchase is usually sourced based on factors such as integration with existing systems, and the availability of support. Effective learning outcomes will not be high on the list. IT then end up making decisions about the choice of vendor; something which should be the domain L&D.

The second issue is how these things are paid for. A software purchase is usually treated as capital expenditure, and in many organisations something can only be a capital expense if it is above a certain cost (perhaps £30-£40,000). So what do you do? You make your elearning content more media rich in order to push up the cost, because you couldn’t get the budget if you wanted to spend less. Sounds crazy, but I’ve got plenty of experience of this!

How do we overcome this? Like Clive, I’m not completely sure, but I do know that it involves L&D keeping their focus on being business people rather than show people.

7 thoughts on “This Is Not Showbusiness”

  1. Simply put; much less elearning, much more informal & social learning. Question: When was the last time YOU completed an elearning module? Compare that to when you last sought to solve a problem using your social network; elearning as a concept is from yesteryear…

    1. @ Kohl – It isn’t a zero sum game. Social and informal learning is nothing new; what’s different is how much wider those social networks have become thanks to technology. It doesn’t matter which model you subscribe to (80:20, 70:20:10 etc.) there is still some element of formal (structured, taught, whatever you want to call it) training. For that to play its part in the mix, we need it to be effective; more substance than style.

      In answer to you question, the last piece of elearning I completed was about 3 weeks ago. It was a course on using Audacity. Now I understand the basics, I can make more sense of the the masses of freely available tutorials on Youtube etc.

  2. Hi Barry, really enjoyed this post and it’s very relevant to a client I’m working with at the moment on how best to create some e-learning. Looking at their requirements, do they really need a media rich, seriously impressive piece of content – or actually would a simple ‘talking head’ video deliver the same learning in a more effective and much cheaper way? I do think sometimes it’s worth trying to impress the learners with good production values – and induction e-learning would be an example of that. If you can afford it, why not inject a wow factor into the one of the first things a new employee will see? But I absolutely agree that substance and the organisational drivers for creating the e-learning, should more than style.

    1. @ Kate I’m all for style, just not at the expense of substance. You suggest impressing during induction, but I think people are less impressed by rich media and more impressed by content that helps them do what they need to do.

  3. As a supplier of e-learning I fully recognise this problem. The tender process ends up as a beauty parade OR the customer goes with the team they most ‘like’. The situation is of course similar to buying F2F training but with even more emphasis on ‘liking the trainer’. And if the purchase is treated as a capital expense we are in big trouble because we end up spending the entire budget on V1.0. We need something more sustainable and responsive – and social learning is part of the solution but a more realistic appreciation of how e-learning gets made (and maintained) is also crucial. Most of us ‘insiders’ get this we just need to pass our learning onto customers (which is partly why you wrote this blog post I guess)!

    1. @ John – I can understand to a degree why people select suppliers that they ‘like’, after all it makes the working relationship easier. Of greater concern to me is how much control the buyer passes to the vendor, and you are spot on in saying that me way to address this is for buyers to better understand the development process.

      It’s not magic, no matter how much some vendors may try and make it appear that way.

  4. Thanks for raising this, Barry – it’s a good debate. In essence it’s one we wouldn’t be having if training were subject to rigorous evaluation. On the other hand, if training were subject to rigorous evaluation we wouldn’t be doing it at all. We’d be doing performance support (as one of your commentators suggests). Today, training occupies a similar place to cinema – we expect to go along, take a break and have a good time. We don’t really expect it to change us. People like being somewhere else, with peers, in a room with someone entertaining – and if something is learned along the way, all the better. Formal elearning is compared directly with formal learning and though it is clear that the latter is a better learning mechanism (see US Dept. of Education metastudy) this is not the comparison that either purchasers or learners are making. By comparison with classroom elearning is a poor experience – hell, you don’t even get to network. In summary, we probably shouldn’t be doing formal training, period. If we are going to do it then it does need to be a good experience; classroom trainers know how to deliver a good experience, online trainers still don’t.

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