Quality Learning is about Culture First, then Design

Learn & LeadI had a conversation with an instructional designer last week, and it’s a conversation that echoes many other conversations I’ve had in recent years.

She was expressing frustration about elearning quality. She has strong design skills, but doesn’t get to use them to the degree she would like. She’s works in a small training department supporting a large organization, and she’s the only elearning design/developer. She is in a constant struggle of balancing quality and quantity. She supports multiple projects, and has to deliver elearning projects quickly so she can move on to the next deliverable. As such, she often needs to produce elearning that many would categorize as “page turners” to meet the demands of various project timelines.

Sound familiar? This is one of he biggest challenges instructional designers face today.

This isn’t a resource issue. This problem exists in large training departments as often as it exists in departments of one. While this challenge is rampant in our industry, I would not categorize it as an industry problem. To me this challenge is about organizational culture, and it has very little to do with elearning.

It’s About Culture

Many years ago, before the first bank I worked with started leveraging technology for learning, all of our training was built as in-person workshops. Most of these workshops were built and delivered VERY quickly, and were lecture driven.

At the time I was fairly new to the Training and Development field, and was heavily involved in educating myself and building my skills. I went through a certification process related to instructional design, and part of the certification required me to build a learning program and execute it. In order to receive a passing grade on the certification, you had to meet certain standards and follow the prescribed instructional design process.

The problem was, the “proper design process” did not sync up with the existing organizational business process – in fact it wasn’t even close to it.

In order to complete the certification package, I decided to build a Business Writing workshop. I chose this topic because it had been on the organization’s “Important but not urgent” list for years. I built the workshop on my own personal time, without any stakeholders barking about deadlines.

When we started rolling the workshop out to the organization, it was incredibly well received. There was a lot of buzz among employees and managers about how this workshop was “different”, enough that senior managers from the organization started asking questions about it. I was asked to talk about it briefly at a senior directors meeting, and everyone wanted to learn more about the process, and how it could be applied to the training provided to their workgroups. I wound up meeting individually with 5 or 6 of them, sharing the story of what I did differently to make this workshop more effective, and how we could apply those methods to the training provided to their departments.

All but two rejected the process outright because when I said “Doing it right takes a little longer” all they heard was “It takes longer”.

That’s the reality of the world most instructional designers live in, and it’s a critical part of the conversation often missing when people discuss the lacking quality of elearning today.

Building a Learning Culture

It’s almost impossible for instructional designers to build quality learning programs without a culture that respects what quality learning programs add to an organization, and an understanding of what it takes to build one. That’s a cultural issue, and something that takes a long time to change – but it can be done.

I mentioned earlier that all but two of the senior executives I met with rejected my proposal for revising how we built learning programs. That wasn’t a roadblock; it was an opportunity.

I gave those two senior directors that supported my proposal a LOT of attention. We built each of them a new program addressing a critical business issue for their departments. The employees responded very well to the workshop and there was a strong correlation between workers attending the workshop and the business issue being resolved. Looking back, that’s where things started to change. Once stories of these internal examples of the process benefiting our business started to spread, so did the organizational buy-in. Those two initial ‘wins’ we were able to attain were the foundation upon which a growing learning culture was built for years to come. More importantly, it made people listen to us more any time we made a recommendation to make a change to the status quo, which is another important component of a continuously evolving learning culture.

Culture Comes First

I very much agree that the quality of elearning, in general, needs to be raised. And yes, the quality of elearning is linked to the competency of the designer and developer. I just see that as a secondary issue. The world’s strongest instructional designer can still be handcuffed by an organizational culture that doesn’t provide the type of support needed to develop quality support programs. That statement applies to instructor-led training, elearning, mlearning, performance support, or any other type of effort coming from the L&D function.

Raising the bar isn’t just a design or competency issue. That’s part of it, but it’s secondary. Culture comes first.

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  • urbie delgado

    Sure, culture is important. But it takes time and serious commitment from top-down to make it happen. And.. (blasphemy coming) are page turners really that bad? I don’t think so. I like designing my elearning courses in tiny snippets: one page snippets to be exact. Give the learner something to do, a story for example. Have the learning (practice, collaboration, discussion, reflection, application) happen offline (in the real world). All too often elearning happens in bulk without much thought to application. I learned at an ASTD Valley of the Sun conference a couple years ago how important it is to go into a learning even with an expectation from a supervisor that post-learning event the learner was going to produce something to demonstrate efficacy.

    Who said this.. “Be the change you want to see in the world.” So true here.

    • LnDDave

      Are page-turners bad? That’s a great question, and one I think speaks to context. Looked at in isolation, I don’t think page turners are a quality learning experience. However, where does the page-turner fit contextually? For example, if the page-turner is replacing an in-person lecture, that might be beneficial to the org.
      Context is always something that needs to be considered.

  • tanyalau

    Hi David – thanks for this post. I’ve encountered this issue too. I’d suggest though it’s not *always* necessarily just the organisational culture that puts IDs in this position – sometimes it’s just the ID not actually pushing back and just assuming they have to deliver whatever the business is asking by the (often unreasonable) timeframe they’re asking it for – without even initiating a conversation about the quality implications of doing so – or the business objectives behind what is being requested.

    Juggling multiple elearning projects and delivering them all at mediocre quality isn’t a good outcome for anyone involved. If I were the ID, I’d first be questioning the business why they want this elearning developed (what are they trying to achieve?) and why they need it within such a short timeframe. Often scoping business needs appropriately results in the business either reassessing their needs or reassessing their need for an elearning solution, or reassessing the timeframe – or you as the ID exploring alternative ways to meet their needs and maintain quality (usually this involves scaling down the elearning they were expecting – because in all likelihood it wouldn’t have achieved the desired outcomes anyway). But unless you have the conversation with them, they’re not going to have the opportunity.

    In the example you gave a positive outcome eventuated because you had these conversations with the business stakeholders and worked hard to change their minds. Sure, you’re not necessarily always going to win in every instance, but you’ve got to start somewhere – and for me, it’s the first conversation you have with the business that is most critical.

    • LnDDave

      I agree. Conversation is the first step in stepping away from the order-taking approach to ID.

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