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E-learning basics: essay: dead trainer walking
making a business case for e-learning

By Darin E. Hartley / November 2002

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John Johansson, mild-mannered training manager, gathered his folders, PDA, pen, and brochures, and headed towards the office of Chip Brock, the Vice President of Sales. The cloth-padded cubical walls and the non-distinct brown carpet muffled the impending doom of John as he moved towards his final destination—the training proposal meeting. John didn't realize it, but Chip had already decided that if his predictable training manager made another recommendation for a three-day training session or retreat, that John was a dead trainer walking.

When John said, "I've found a great place for the next sales-training retreat," his fate was sealed. He was punishing his employer and would have to be removed. Nobody saw John after that. He was there one day and gone the next.

The scenario above is of course full of hyperbole, but it isn't as far from the truth as you might imagine. In this day and age it can be very hard justifying total classroom solutions when there are fewer people in organizations doing more work, and when many companies have double-digit new product and service growth annually. Think about it. If you are a technical support person in a company producing fifty new products a year, you could conceivably be in traditional classroom training forty to fifty percent of the time. And if you're in the classroom, you can learn but you're not providing the service that your customers are demanding, and there is an opportunity-cost associated with it.

If you are facing with this kind of issue more and more each day, how can you make changes that will positively affect your organization and enhance your current offerings? One way is to make e-learning part of your solution. And the best way to do this is by demonstrating the value of e-learning for employees. Following is a step-by-step process to make the case for e-learning.

Educate your organization and the key decision makers about e-learning. E-learning is a brand new field that is evolving daily. People have a lot of questions, even in the training industry. And for the non-training people in your organization who may have very little knowledge of this topic, you can provide a definition or a white paper on e-learning. You can even create a simple Web page that defines it and provides hyperlinks to examples of e-learning on the Web. There's nothing like having someone experience something to help explain it.

Identify and explain the benefits of e-learning to your organization. This is a key point. There has to be some benefit to the organization to help support your case for implementing e-learning. It's also important to remember that the key benefit often varies from organization to organization. For instance, Company A may want to reduce fulfillment and travel costs associated with traditional learning and use e-learning for that benefit. Company B might want to use e-learning as a way to increase the amount of access learners and employers have to learning opportunities. Other companies might want to focus on the efficiencies that are gained with e-learning. Still, other organizations might want to have greater impact with learning or greater consistency in the delivery of training. Some organizations might want to use a combination of the benefits of e-learning to make the case for e-learning.

Discuss the state of the e-learning industry. For people that aren't in the e-learning or training business, there might be a lack of awareness about the e-learning industry. It is a multi-billion dollar a year business and will continue to grow for many more decades. You can get information on e-learning businesses from organizations such as Corporate University Xchange, ASTD, and financial organizations such as ThinkEquity Partners.

Make the case. When you have done your background work, you are ready to start creating the case. Think of a business case as a persuasive paper on a topic. You are basically trying to persuade a potential champion for your cause to use some aspect of e-learning. You can do this by laying out your plan and identifying costs, timelines, and outcomes, etc. You should include the following items in your business case:

  • Title—hopefully one that will inspire the reader to actually read the case
  • Executive Summary—senior managers don't have time to read treatises or dissertations. Summarize key points in one or two bulleted pages
  • Scope
  • Purpose
  • Benefits of the project
  • Business Need—This is a key part of the case. If your e-learning project is not aligned with at least one critical business initiative, it will be difficult to get the case approved
  • Risks associated with pursuing and not pursuing the e-learning project
  • Risk Management—Now that you've identified the risks, describe how they can be minimized
  • Task list
  • Timeline—Management will want to get a sense of when this can be implemented
  • List of deliverables
  • Cost-Benefit Analysis—Is this something that should be pursued?
  • List of potential vendors and related products
  • Estimated costs
  • Supporting industry data
  • References
  • Glossary—This is a key. The e-learning world is laden with acronyms and terms that will be foreign to many people
  • Signature page

There may be other headings that you add to your e-learning case and there may also be headings that you will want to remove. Once you have built your case then you will want to save the template for future use, and include any additional e-learning cases you may want to pursue.

Present the case. Creating the business case is only part of the battle. Once it is developed, it will usually be presented to a group of decision makers. There are many things you can do to make this part of the process a success.

  • Practice, practice, practice. Everyone knows that the more we practice something the better we will perform. This is true when making presentations as well. One recommendation that is very helpful is to make your presentation to a group of non-training people before you make your actual presentation. When you do this, you will get asked many of the questions that your managers will ask you. Write these questions down and prepare answers for them so that when you are going to make your management presentation, you are well prepared.
  • If possible, allot some time in the case for demonstration of the proposed technology. As mentioned earlier, there is a ton of e-learning jargon and terms that are in this field. Even though you may be an expert in the field, you can bet that your audience won't be, so help ease this issue by demonstrating some of the potential solutions that are out there. For instance, if you are trying to make a case for Web-based collaboration, then demonstrate this technology during a portion of the presentation. Better yet, let the attendees in the meeting participate in this part of the session!
  • Ask for vendor assistance. Sometimes you might not feel comfortable in demonstrating some of the technology that is out there. Most vendors will gladly help you with this—at their cost—if they think there is the potential for a future sale.

Be prepared to respond to objections. Invariably, you will meet at least some resistance to the idea(s) that you are presenting. This is normal. You just need to be able to provide answers that will help alleviate any fears. There are people in all organizations that may have a fear of change, specifically a fear of technology. Closing a skill gap of those with technology fears can minimize many of these worries. Some of the common concerns about e-learning include:

  • Fears about employees' Internet use. Yes, there are still organizations out there that have an Internet caste-system. Some organizations only allow executives and managers to have access. There is a fear that people will use the Internet for non-work related matters. But keeping the majority of workers from using the Internet merely to prevent workers from slacking off is counterproductive and shortsighted.
  • Fear of change. This is a common fear about using e-learning. Organizations might think, "We've never done this before, so why start now?" Using e-learning success stories, and using a blended learning strategy (which combines traditional instruction with the online variety) will help minimize some of the fears associated with change.
  • Fear of abandoning the classroom. Some organizations believe that employees will only learn in a classroom under the guidance of a trainer or facilitator. In actuality, people learn things every day outside of the class.

There are many other fears that organizations might have regarding the use of e-learning, but the key is to get to the source of the fear, and provide rational solutions and alternatives to them. Often, getting people some skill-training will help. For example, I got my mother-in-law a computer several years ago. She was afraid to even set it up when it arrived, so I had my brother-in-law go to her house and help her get the system set up. He also showed her some of the basics on using the computer: sending e-mail and using the Internet. By constantly doing things on the computer, she eventually gained a lot of confidence. Now she sends e-mail regularly, orders things from online stores, and even makes travel arrangements through the Web. In this way, her computer skills were improved and the fear of using technology vanished.

Success stories were mentioned earlier in the article. These e-learning success stories can be used to solidify the case for employing e-learning in organizations. There are plenty of them out there. Simply do a search on for "e-learning success stories," and you'll get hundreds of examples. Or talk to other people in the learning industry and see if they can share some favorable examples of e-learning that you can use in your argument. Most people will be more than willing to help you out. Go to learning conferences and attend trade shows and you will be able to glean plenty of e-learning success stories. Use these in your presentation and also in your business case documentation. They can have a very positive affect.

Finally, be prepared to demonstrate and/or discuss the potential Return On Investment (ROI) of the solution(s) that you propose to implement. There are a variety of tools out there to help you with this. Go to to get a free cost-benefit analysis tool that will help you forecast the ROI of two potential solutions and help make the decision on the best solution for your organization. Intellinex has also released a powerful and free ROI calculator. Answer the eleven questions at the site and submit them for an instant snapshot of the potential ROI for your organization.

So, if John Johansson had been able to jump from the classroom training rut he was in, he would have made more of a business impact, and would simply have been sent back to his cubicle. As it was, he was stuck in the classroom while the business world was changing around him, so he had to be… removed.

Don't be the dead trainer walking in your organization.


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