Bridging the Apathy Gap

It’s probably safe to say that you are already a true believer. You believe that learning, knowledge management and investing in human capital leads to competitive advantage in this rapidly changing information economy, right? And your peers and colleague

So why are we hearing so many of those stories? You know the ones. The training director who was getting ready to renew the 2,000 course licenses she purchased the previous year, but then discovered that only 10 people had accessed the library in the previous 12 months. Or the one about the vendor who spent a lot of time and money setting up a “pay as you go” virtual university for a major corporation and ends up billing a grand total of $175 a year later.

We’ve spent millions installing learning management systems, licensing content libraries and even building custom content, and we’re disappointed with the results. Turns out that was the easy part of our jobs. Because while most senior executives now “get” e-learning, we’ve discovered through cold hard usage reports that individual learners don’t.

Martin McInnes, managing director of UK-based 5 Communication, describes this chasm between learning professionals and learners as the “apathy gap.” McInnes used focus groups to understand attitudes toward e-learning, which yielded statements like:

  • “I’m doing OK without it.”
  • “Too busy.”
  • “It’s more work for no more money.”
  • “Just the latest management buzzword.”

We can see that the toughest part of our job is bridging this apathy gap. So how do we do it?

First, make sure your e-learning efforts are tightly aligned with organizational priorities. What are the key initiatives being rolled out in your organization? When your CEO is spending valuable time on internal communication, what is she talking about? What are the themes in your town hall meetings? What are the feature stories in your company newsletter?

Second, use methods of consumer marketing to generate awareness, desire and action. Too often, internal marketing is limited to a one-time poster campaign that announces the list of available courses. However, effective communication requires learner-centric messaging that is repeated over time. When McInnes asked potential learners what would motivate them to take e-learning, their comments included:

  • “Good for my career.”
  • “Improves my marketability.”
  • “Makes meeting the personal development bit of my quarterly review easy.”

This “what’s in it for me” perspective should drive your branding and marketing efforts.

An example of these methods can be seen in the successful global rollout of PharmaLearn at Pharmacia, with more than 100 multi-language soft-skills courses. Don O’Guin, senior manager of e-learning, tied course content to job competencies and to Pharmacia’s corporate behaviors. For example, “participative management” is associated with almost a dozen courses and resources related to coaching and delegation. With this direct link to Pharmacia’s performance management process, these “voluntary” courses became valuable prescriptive resources used by managers and employees alike.

Additionally, O’Guin used everything from mail drops and posters to keyboard calendars over several months to ensure the learning portal wouldn’t be a passing fad. The messaging was decidedly user-focused, with taglines such as “Learn more… achieve more.” As a result of these efforts, more than 6,000 Pharmacia employees worldwide accessed the online training in the first six months.

Using alignment strategies and consumer-focused marketing, you can bridge the apathy gap and increase the odds that your e-learning story will have a happy ending.

Kevin Kruse is a principal with Kenexa and facilitator of

May 2003 Table of Contents