Learning Investments: More for Less

In the dot-com days, many companies were willing to invest more to get more. Companies would invest in changing a process to improve customer satisfaction, even if it took more labor hours. They would purchase more capable technology, even if it cost more

Today this is no longer the case. Instead, “more for less” has become the catchphrase—especially as it applies to investments in learning. But while there is no silver bullet, there is a set of practical “more for less” strategies that training departments can employ to get more results for fewer dollars.

Create a Lifecycle Model to Ensure Training Meets Demands
Training departments are plagued by an inherent fact of corporate life: Business demands constantly change. To attack this problem, some companies are applying lifecycle models for developing courseware. Under a lifecycle model, training evolves in content and delivery mode, staying in sync with changing business needs.

One company that has put lifecycle models to use is software giant PeopleSoft, which annually offers hundreds of courses to its employees and customers. Historically, PeopleSoft used instructor-led training to deliver courses. But while ILT was popular internally and well suited to absorb rapid shifts in content, instructor-led courses were economically practical only when demand was high and classes full.

The PeopleSoft Education Strategy Group has created a lifecycle model that integrates internal training into customer training. The model begins with releasing “bare bones” e-learning courses for internal audiences—starting with the sales force—then gradually enhancing these courses to meet the needs of the product rollout.

Mary Beth Mockler, PeopleSoft’s curriculum development manager, describes the strategy this way: “We need to focus on reducing the duplication of efforts through reuse and recycling.”

The training lifecycle has three stages:

  • Develop an overview of product functions and features. Companies gain by garnering an early understanding of new products, which enhances quality throughout the development cycle.
  • As the product moves into testing, add demos. These are still meant for the internal audience. This gives the sales team the tools they need to comprehend and sell the product.
  • As the product approaches general availability, update the training for customers. Since most of the content work is now done, rollouts are much shorter.

Also helpful is a process for managing the ramp-down of training on aging products. This process gradually transitions live courses into less expensive, asynchronous distance-learning courses.

The process for a training ramp-down also has three stages:

  • Convert from face-to-face to synchronous online learning. When attendance for a classroom course drops, convert it to a synchronous e-learning event that can be offered to a wide geographic audience more in line with demand.
  • Convert from synchronous online to asynchronous online learning. Once it becomes difficult to hold regular synchronous courses, convert the course to an asynchronous event. Interaction diminishes, but companies continue serving those who still require the training.
  • Develop the next version. As the asynchronous conversion happens, the product’s next version is readied for release, along with the next course to replace the archived course.

By implementing these processes, PeopleSoft increased the number of its students per classroom course by 50 percent and achieved more for less.

Training lifecycles are applicable to many areas. When content and audience needs shift in predictable ways over time, such lifecycles can be put in place. Tom Cooper, director of education strategy for PeopleSoft, advises that companies “set up a strict process that is analytical and financial in nature to measure the results of this process, including the ability to meet customer needs, even if it’s for your internal group. This will demonstrate your financial savings.”

Adopt a ‘Selective’ Outsourcing Strategy
As companies search for ways to get more for less across functions, the idea of outsourcing learning is gaining significant attention. So far, attention has focused on a few large, traditional outsourcing deals, such as Avaya’s deal with Accenture Learning. However, the industry has seen only a few such mega-deals, and it is too early to tell how well they will bear results.

Other companies are pursuing a more nuanced approach, one we call “selective outsourcing.” Under this approach, companies selectively choose which functions are best performed by in-house staff (with their likely superior connection to the business) and which are best performed by outside staff (with their likely superior technical expertise and lower cost structures). Under selective outsourcing, a company might use its own staff to set the learning strategy, monitor quality and manage curricula. At the same time, it might outsource content development and maintenance, learning technology, learning administration and delivery management.

Whereas the CEO or CFO may impose total outsourcing on a learning group, typically the learning group itself drives selective outsourcing. And while total outsourcing may require a large transition, selective outsourcing enables a step-at-a-time approach, starting small and evolving as partners demonstrate results.

One company that has been pursuing this path for the past three years is CNA, the commercial insurance firm. Over this period, CNA has been able to develop and deliver a dramatically expanded amount of training at lower costs without increasing head count while ensuring that its training is more directly tied to business needs. It has done this by relying on partners for specialized skills and technology in curriculum planning, needs assessment, content development, evaluation and learner support. At the same time, it has developed stronger internal capabilities in curriculum management (via curriculum managers who partner with their business sponsors), content delivery (via regional training coordinators who identify local needs and ensure programs roll out effectively) and learning administration. CNA has worked with its partners to develop innovative, state-of-the-art learning designs that make sure that what is learned in courses is transferred to the job.

The strategy behind this mixed approach is to ensure that CNA’s revamped training function, called the “Knowledge and Learning Group” (KLG), executes clearly defined processes to identify where learning solutions will have the most impact on the business and whether the solutions in place are working. KLG then leverages partners with specialized skills to carry out the day-to-day work, such as NIIT (for curriculum design, content development and learning technology support), Collaboration Architects (for content development and performance support) and KnowledgeAdvisors (for evaluation technology).

Reduce Development Costs Through Standards
In e-learning, we have seen a proliferation of types and styles of training. Training departments now have what can seem like a blinding variety of design options to consider. While these options should make it possible to create better solutions, they also can lead to inefficiencies as training departments struggle with how to “blend” the latest instructional strategy on the newest technology platform with the rest of the training they provide.

However, in some areas, e-learning is beginning to mature. As part of that process, we see design standards, as implemented in software templates, growing in importance as a way to achieve efficiencies and operationalize best practices.

Shaving time off the development cycle is a must given the increasingly short time frames between product launch and training delivery. To make this happen, PeopleSoft sought to package and reuse what it could.

First, if there is a great deal of overlap in content between courses, reusable content objects for common learning objectives can be created. In addition to eliminating the duplication of effort, the use of content objects increases the ability to effectively ramp up content development. Using content objects makes it easier to bring new people up to speed in developing courses.

Second, if there is a great deal of overlap in instructional strategies between courses, create many variations on a theme. Reusable design objects—interactive code templates that represent different types of learning interactions—can be created to give structure to new content development. PeopleSoft’s e-learning is now 100 percent template-driven, reducing development time by two-thirds and increasing the ability to upskill new developers and create consistency across courses.

Moving to design standards and templates can seem overwhelming. Many companies are reluctant because they are not confident they have “got it right” yet and do not want to codify what is not a best practice. However, mounting evidence shows that using design standards—and, more specifically, design templates—reduces cycle times and ensures quality.

One of the keys to success, Mockler said, is not necessarily to try to fit everything into the same mold. Rather, make progress by considering the common and important cases. “Begin with the end in mind when considering where efficiencies can be gained through re-use and sharing content,” she said.

Align Training With Business Needs
Companies are beginning to recognize that they don’t need to provide training for everything, that a more cost-effective strategy is to focus training dollars where they will have the largest business impact—specifically, where employees are making mistakes that affect the business.

John Wannamaker, the famous retailer, said, “I know that 50 percent of my advertising is wasted. I just don’t know which 50 percent.” The same is true of training in many companies.

For training to make an impact, it must target the right behaviors and effectively impact those behaviors. A methodology called “critical mistake analysis” can help ensure that training hits its mark.

Critical mistake analysis has its roots in the world of quality improvement. Quality initiatives start by identifying the goals for a process. Similarly, many learning initiatives start by identifying learning objectives that specify the goals for desired behavior. Quality initiatives then identify the most important sources of variance. Few learning initiatives do this. In contrast, critical mistake analysis does exactly this, identifying deviations between desired performance and the actual performance in the field. Such deviation is a critical mistake.

Quality initiatives do not stop there. After identifying sources of variance, they evaluate the business impact of each and then make the hard call of selecting the most important few. By focusing on eliminating the few most important sources of variance, quality initiatives ensure that they hit them hard enough to actually have impact. Similarly, critical mistake analysis identifies the “value drivers” for each mistake, allowing a trainer to hone in on the few mistakes that have the largest impact.

The key value drivers include frequency of the mistake, the impact or cost of the mistake and its tractability—the percentage of occurrences that can be eliminated via training.

By identifying these value drivers, one can perform a Pareto analysis to isolate the 20 percent of mistakes that have 80 percent of the impact. Performing this analysis in conjunction with business sponsors allows trainers to help sponsors choose how much training to invest in based on a clear understanding of how much impact they are getting for their money.

The concept of a training needs assessment is well understood. But one of the largest surprises is how seldom a thorough needs assessment is actually performed. The reason: Sponsors are reluctant to invest money and time in it because they simply do not understand the value they get in return.

Critical mistake analysis gives sponsors the understanding they need because it involves them in setting priorities in a data-driven way, and also because they can see how the proposed training stems directly and concretely from the priorities they helped establish.

In the current economy, training departments need to produce better results with fewer dollars. Training departments have been actively working to cut this Gordian knot, and many have emerged with successful more-for-less strategies.

The four strategies discussed here are not the only effective more-for-less strategies. Yet they do represent proven ways to succeed. How many of these strategies is your training department using today?

Christie Schneider is an instructional designer at CognitiveArts, where she works with corporate clients to design learning solutions. Chip Cleary is vice president of design at CognitiveArts and leads the advisory services practice for NIIT, its parent company. For more information, e-mail Christie and Chip at schneider.cleary@clomedia.com.

March 2004 Table of Contents