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Lessons Learned from a Problem-plagued
Learning Initiative

by Richard Montanaro and Frank Troha

 
   
 
   

Designing, developing and deploying e-learning company-wide is like navigating a minefield. To get through in one piece, you'll need a provider who is experienced, dedicated and capable of effective leadership.

More than a year ago, my organisation's senior management gave the go-ahead to convert our successful two-day, classroom-based course on selection interviewing to a half-day of online self-study session, followed by a half-day of live instruction. The online portion was to present our company's proprietary interviewing process and guiding principles. A live follow-up training was proposed to ensure learner competency in their application.

The result was a non-compulsory online course, lasting up to three hours. You may be astonished that it's taken over a year to get to where we are today. Here's how we got to where we are:

  • Top management demonstrates its support for online learning by providing funds to buy an LMS and develop several courses. Among the first courses designated for online delivery is selection interviewing. And, as manager, learning and development, I was selected to lead its design, development, and deployment. As you'll see, this ended up being the last of four on-line courses to be completed, rather than the first as was intended to lead the way.

  • Several of my learning and development colleagues and I plan how we'll proceed, preparing a set of criteria to identify the best outside provider for the job. Additionally, we identify all decision makers and stakeholders associated with our project and subsequently include them in our plans. Through our contacts and knowledge, we identify five providers and begin the selection process.

  • As we meet with each prospective provider, we're distressed by the regular use of e-learning jargon and each provider's inability - or unwillingness - to specify what we'd be getting for our money. Limited prototypes are offered. Proposals are not only vague, the spread between the highest and lowest bid is over $40,000. After careful deliberation, we select the lowest bidder on the basis of overall criteria score and price.

  • Several weeks later, the provider's team and I meet to determine and agree basic tasks, time frames and roles/responsibilities. The provider assures us that we can have a test version of the course online in as little as two months, if we hold up our end of the bargain.

  • Several weeks pass with only one communication from the provider, which assures us that all is proceeding as planned. A week later, I call the provider to check progress, but my voice mail to the project manager goes unreturned. Two days later, I send an email that also goes unanswered. Several days later, my phone call to the president of the provider firm elicits his assurances that the project will be completed on time and to our satisfaction. Unfortunately, he's proven incorrect.

  • Six months into the project and four months late, the provider finally delivers a course we can review online. We notice obvious typographical errors, links that don't work, windows that don't open and a variety of other problems.

  • Five months and three additional iterations of the course later, we finally receive a version ready to be loaded onto our company's server and tested. But, the course won't load despite hours of trying. The provider blames us for the problem, upsetting our IT people who say courses prepared by other providers have run perfectly well on our system.

  • I complain to the provider's CEO who hires a consultant to resolve the loading problem. Though the provider promised us SCORM and AICC compliant products, we received a course that - unless modified by another (external to the vendor) consultant - could only run on the provider's proprietary LMS! We further learned the vendor did not have an IBM LMS configured test platform on which to run our product to ensure "plug and play". Fortunately, the consultant solved the problem.

  • Two decision makers representing top management participate in the final review of the course. I realize internal commitment and support for my program is waning, owing to delay after delay. In the end, it's the last of the top four courses to receive approval.

How to do better next time

Experience being the great teacher that it is, I expect my organisation's future e-learning projects to proceed more smoothly because we'll:

  • Devote more time to clarifying and confirming our understanding of management's expectations concerning what e-learning can and cannot do, and how best to use it.

  • Enlist the ongoing involvement of a technical representative from our company's IT department. This is essential to all decision making, from hiring the right provider to deploying the final product.

  • Invest more time and effort into provider selection.

  • Insist that the provider of choice prove compatibility of its products with our LMS before any contracts are signed.

  • Pay for performance.

  • Keep our options open - and, instead of committing to design, development and deployment upfront, we'll commit to design only. Only if the vendor performs to our standards, will we commit to the next phase.

  • Require weekly progress meetings with the vendor. Instead of taking the provider's word for it, we'll 'trust but verify' progress no less than once a week. This would be stipulated in the project agreement and serve as a client service standard used to measure vendor performance.

  • Hold our own people accountable. Instead of trusting colleagues for follow through on any agreement to review course materials for subject matter accuracy, legality and functionality, we'll be more proactive. Before asking for a commitment, we'll specify exactly what's required of a reviewer, and why accuracy and prompt turnaround are essential to completing the project on time, within budget and to top management's satisfaction. Additionally, our ongoing progress reporting to top management will specify tasks, person(s) responsible and present status.

  • Own and control what we bought. Instead of assuming that we retain intellectual property rights in all deliverables created on our dime, including source code, we'll get it in writing.

     
   
     
   

The Authors

 

Richard Montanaro is a practicing manager of learning and development in a US-based firm. Frank Troha, learning design consultant, assisted with this post-mortem.Contact: Frank Troha, Instructional Design and Development Consulting, One Landmark Square, No. 411 Port Chester, New York 10573, USA. Tel: 00 1 914 933 0114; Email: frank@franktroha.com; Web: www.franktroha.com .

     
   
     
   
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Copyright 2004 by Richard Montanaro and Frank Troha. All rights reserved.

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