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Monday, September 14, 2009

eLearning Strategy

I spend a fair amount of my consulting time working with large organizations to help define how they will apply technology to particular business / performance / learning needs. This is either in terms of specific needs, e.g., improve customer satisfaction, or as part of an overall eLearning strategy.

I've spent several hours this morning trying to find good resources on eLearning Strategy development and particularly looking for examples to use in this post. I've really been striking out. I'm hoping that people will help out.

Update Nov. 2010 - I just did a search for eLearning Strategy articles and through eLearning Learning found a bunch more around eLearning Strategies, Learning Strategies that resulted in Top 35 Articles on eLearning Strategy.

Most of the time I'm working with a centralized technology groups within Learning and Development that acts as a services arm to corporate L&D and to distributed L&D that is spread throughout the organization. I wish I had a good name for these groups, but they are called something different in most organizations. For the purpose of this post, I'll call it the L&D Technology Group.

It's interesting working closely with L&D Technology Groups because you are a key influencer, but you don't really decide much about the performance and learning strategies. Rather, you are very similar to a services company. You get requests for help building particular kinds of solutions. You determine business requirements around that solution and get to influence where it goes. But ultimately, the internal customer and likely someone who is in another department within L&D who is responsible for learning design (ID) ultimately decides on the approach that will be taken.

Another interesting aspect for the L&D Technology Group is that you really don't know what your next client may ask you to do. So, you have to be prepared for a wide variety of different kinds of requirements and be ready to service them. You can't afford to be constantly saying, "We can't help you with that." At the same time, you can't over-engineer because it costs too much to prepare for every last contingency.

This is the heart of the challenge in defining eLearning Strategy:

  • predicting future needs,
  • planning to effectively and efficiently service those needs.

Predicting Needs

The starting point for an eLearning Strategy is predicting needs. This is very hard. Clearly, you are going to go around the organization to various business owners, partners such as IT, KM, Corporate Library, etc., and to your distributed L&D organization to understand what you can about the kinds of requirements they will have in the future. Of course, you can't say - "What requirements will you have for me in the future?" Few of your internal customers or partners will be able to answer that question in a way that really helps you.

Instead, the eLearning Strategy discussion is a learning, teaching and evangelist discussion. You start the conversation by understanding what their real business, performance, talent and learning challenges are. And then you shift from those challenges to the myriad of different kinds of solutions that might be part of solutions. You have to walk people through different tools and learning methods. Show potential customers within the organization what they are and how they can be applied. Then collaborate around where and how they might fit with the organizations needs.

This conversations can result in some really great outcomes. But most often, it's quite a mess. You will hear about many different kinds of possible future needs. Some wish list kinds of things. Often you have to talk your internal customer out of something that's pretty crazy. "Sure that 3D telepresence stuff if pretty cool. I bet we could get similar outcomes by using X. It wouldn't be quite as cool, but is probably much more cost effective."

Still in my experience this is messy stuff and you try your best to capture what it means for you in terms of requirements.

I would love to hear how people do this and if they have good ways of capturing this mess of requirements.

Planning Services

From this messy set of requirements, you are really looking at a strategy where you define the set of services you will deliver to the rest of the organization. This includes:

  • Learning Method Support
  • Tools / Technologies
  • Process / People / Vendors

You need to be the one who is aware of what's happening generally with technology in the organization. You have to be a really good partner with IT. You are going to be learning's liaison to IT.

You likely are also a liaison to vendors. As parts of the organization have variable needs for technology solutions, part of the strategy is to be able to quickly and effectively engage with vendors to address particular needs.

Technology steward – you likely can't say to the rest of the organization, "Don't use these tools." But you can say, "We know this set of tools works. If you use this other tool, we won't be able to support you as well."

Packaging Your eLearning Strategy

In most cases, if you are going after significant dollars, a key aspect of your eLearning Strategy will be how you present it. Most often this includes some kind of vision for what you are looking to provide. It will summarize at a high level the requirements you are hearing and then will talk about what this means in terms of your Learning Strategies and then how the technologies fit into this.

Most of the time, it's best not to focus too much on all the different individual types of solutions you are prepared to deliver, but rather on the net effects. Still almost every eLearning Strategy will contain something like the Learning Methods from Reuters:


This is broader than the technology group, but there are implications for the technology group. You can also see that there are talent elements in this list.

It will also contain a list of major technology or related initiatives along a timeline:


I did a bit of searching looking for examples of corporate/workplace eLearning Strategy presentation decks. I didn't find a lot. It would be really interesting to see what people produce around these things. Please point me to them!

Bigger eLearning Strategy Questions


  • See Learning Performance Business Talent Focus. This question of focus and scope has a major impact on the strategy.
  • What's your role relative to Talent Strategies? Are you involved in Selection, Onboarding, Reviews, Development?
  • What's your role relative to providing business and performance focused initiatives? Are you on the front lines of improving customer satisfaction? Do you get in and analyze aspects of performance relative to that and provide Data Driven performance solutions? Or are you going to be brought in to provide training?

Informal learning?

  • Are you focused on and responsible for informal learning solutions? What responsibility do you have after the learning event?
  • Providing a set of tools (wikis, blogs, discussion groups, etc.) that can be used as part of informal learning support does not mean that you are really supporting informal learning in the organization. There's a lot more to it than that. And part of your strategy should be to be prepared to help your internal customers with those aspects.


  • Off-the-Shelf / External Content?What's your responsibility for finding, vetting, facilitating the acquisition of external content sources, e.g., Skillsoft, Books 24x7, Safari, etc.
  • Content management, re-use
  • Portal and portal integration
  • Reporting/dashboards

What are some of the other big eLearning Strategy questions?


Bersin provides a great high-level list of issues to consider in their Modernize Corporate Training: The Enterprise Learning Framework. It is good to raise possible areas to consider.


Also worth a peek is: The eLearning Guild : Guild eBooks: Handbook of e-Learning Strategy

What other resources are there on this topic? What would help me think through what I might be missing in my strategy? What would help me create a presentation to executives with our eLearning Strategy?


Vic Uzumeri said...


I don't have much eLearning strategy to offer - because I really have never seen anyone try to do it. That may just be my sheltered upbringing, but I think it betrays a fairly fundamental problem in the industry.

On the other hand, I have a PhD in management of technology and business strategy and there are several concepts from that (arguably far more developed and mature field) that I would recommend.

First, I am a strong proponent of the concept of strategy is, at core, about the achievement of "fit". When an organization's methods and resources are aligned with its goals to achieve maximum beneficial outcomes - that's a good "fit". Works by Michael Porter have always emphasized this. Pick goals that your organization has some realistic chance to achieve.

Second, I am a strong proponent of 'lean'. While lean is not a strategy per se, it is a powerful ingredient in helping an organization to achieve any chosen strategy. Lean says that you should organize your operations to maximize standard work, reduce process flow time and eliminate wasted motion. That means that you can get things done faster and you have more free resources to apply to the most urgent demands. When you aren't really sure where the business needs to go, it is reassuring to know that you can change direction quickly and get there fast once you do figure it out.

Third, I am a strong proponent of "triage" as a short-term tactic in support of whatever strategy you choose. Look for the points of highest leverage first and get those right.

Some things that I consider strategic traps:

1. Wish Lists of goals. Until you have related them to your strengths and weaknesses and set up operations to achieve them, they are just fairy tales.

2. Copy-cat strategies. Every organization has different strengths and weaknesses. Why would you think that because 'ACME does it this way', that your organization is capable of doing it that way?

3. Using the word strategy when you are really talking about 'tactics'. Strategy is not a simple game. Achieving fit is a long-term undertaking. Becoming lean to achieve that fit may take even longer. Social networking is a tactic - unless it is tied to a longer term goal. If you are a science-based company and your scientists need to engage with their scientific peers to be productive, then building a strong social networking technology may make strategic sense. Not because software is a strategy, but because the technology supports the peer interactions that are strategic.

Just my $0.02

Tony Karrer said...

@Vic - fantastic comment. Agree with you on everything, but a couple of quick thoughts.

Lean and nimble are a little bit different. The way I read your second suggestion is that we need to be nimble as an outcome - more than lean.

I agree with focusing on highest leverage - but sometimes there are investments to be made that are not the highest immediate leverage but required for downstream value. There's a bit of a trick to getting in these infrastructure things if you only focus on immediate highest value.

On copy-cat, I think there's risk in the opposite as well. Assuming you are somehow completely unique and need to do everything different is also a risk - and more common than people who only want to copy-cat. The question is first whether your approach to learning will really differentiate you.

And now the kicker - Strategy vs. strategy vs. tactics. In these discussions, we are not doing the same thing as setting a company Strategy. Vision of where the company wants to go. Often, we really aren't even setting the learning Strategy. Instead we are setting up a strategy that is more operationally focused. How can we get to a fuzzy future state (that has a lot of variables about it) from where we are? Often you are not really inventing something new, but trying to be smart about a lot of hard choices in a fuzzy situation.

I wonder about how much this is really strategy vs. tactics.

Clark said...

Tony, I'll immodestly point you to my chapter(PDF) in Michael Allen's e-Learning Annual 2009 on eLearning Strategy. I find it helps to have a framework to guide your analysis framework.

I ran a workshop at ASTD's International Conference this year on eLearning strategy, and after working through the framework, indicating tradeoffs, and having the attendees self-assess their status and choose actions, they'd figured out what their next steps should be in the larger picture. In my experience, as you have the conversation about what you've found in information gathering, and in the context of an overarching framework, teams start having productive discussions about what their strategy should be in terms of short-, medium- and long-term tactics.

I like your response to Vic, you have to also understand the relationships between the tactics to help understand why doing X might make more sense than the obvious Y, because it sets up Y to be more successful (e.g. content models before mobile).

Vic Uzumeri said...

Tony, Clark

I think we are probably mostly in agreement. The terminology is a bit different, but the sentiments are nearly identical.

@Tony/Lean - I have been studying and applying lean for 10+ years in all sorts of business settings. I strongly associate being lean with being nimble - at least if you do lean the way Ohno, Toyota, Womack and Jones, Liker, or Spear and Bowen define lean.

If I have a lean operation, I have methodically cut out the waste that made me slow and expensive and error-prone. I have well-chosen, well-defined process capabilities, following defined standards, in the hands of a well-trained workforce.

I can pivot on a dime. I can set up a new 'production cell' for a hitherto unknown output - and do it in half a day or less.

Even if I can't assemble a crack team in advance, I can take people with different skills and get them to work together immediately, because I have systematically mapped their skills and I have defined and enforced standards for their interfacing.

etc. etc.

Anything else isn't really lean.

@Tony/Tactics vs Strategy - You have very closely described what strategists mean when they talk about 'fit'. A so-called strategy is useless if you don't have the capability to execute it. Nearly as bad is having a powerful capability that your strategy doesn't exploit. Getting these to line up and match is the art and science of strategy.

In a time of desperately limited resources and limited expectations, attendance to fit takes on even greater importance.

@Clark/investment - I took your last comment to be a very important insight. If our actions involve learning, they are not only actions, but investments in future capability.

As we speak, we are probably going to bid on a small job with no better than break-even prospects. However, it is a fun extension to our core capabilities and I'm pretty sure we will learn a lot of useful stuff. It will contribute to some salaries, raise their skills and we might even stumble on some serendipity.

Gotta do those when we have a chance. Just not too many.

V Yonkers said...

I'm not really sure if this is what you are looking for, but I have used Rob Phillips' design dimensions when I teach distance learning. What I like about the framework is that he has 8 dimensions with 16 combinations and the effect that each has. One aspect is technology, but taken with the student-teacher, student-student, and content combinations it gives a rich framework to work from. I'm not sure if he has an updated framework as this is from 2004.

You might also try searching the ASCILITE site as I have found some great resources on elearning there.

Unknown said...

We, as a commercial e-Learning technology developer, are working with Lean methods to develop our tools. And if you ask me, it is more that you park your strategy untill it is really necessary to implement it. The freedom which you gain with that allows you to develop just exactly what your users/customers want at the present time and them knowing they don't have a lock-in (or not as much) as when using other products. It is strange to decide how your software tool has to work and look over a period of say 3 years when you are not able to see what other techniques allow. Who would for example say flash got so well adopted in e-Learning a couple of years ago (except from you Tony)

Allison said...

This is a great thread. Very much like Tony's original post and subsequent comments.

That said...

I know that there is work to be done in generating elearning strategy for organizations. I do it. But it concerns me to start with the question: what should our elearning strategy be? That takes us back to possessing a hammer, and perceiving everything as a nail. Except in the case of elearning, it's a multi-use tool, say a big old Swiss Army knife. I second Vic's comment, above.

Let me point to an article I wrote about strategy for learning leaders that was published in CLO last summer:

Technology is one way we deliver on strategy, but a clunky way to commence the quest for direction and execution.

Tony Karrer said...

This is a great discussion. Thanks for the article link Allison.

I completely agree with you that the term "eLearning Strategy" itself is somewhat suspect. Same question of whether you are already tactical at that point. However, we see this happen all the time. The reality is that even having a "Learning Strategy" is suspect because people come with preconceived notions of "Learning". With that said, you can still navigate this discussion to be very meaningful and useful.

Allison - one thing your article didn't really get to is: What results from the strategy work? How can learning leaders see examples of what other organizations are defining as their strategy?

My belief is that there's a fair amount of commonality among learning strategies and especially among technology strategies to support learning (i.e., an eLearning Strategy).

Tony Karrer said...

@Clark - great paper. I like how you start with the most common business drivers that we commonly hear going in.

One question I have for everyone is how much you concentrate on general organizational goals (faster time to market, improve customer satisfaction) or on specific top level learning initiatives (e.g., leadership development to grow next generation of leaders, supervisor skills, etc.)?

Another big question is how to bridge the gap from organizational goals into either top level initiatives or into strategies?

Clark, I see a bit of a gap there in what you are describing. The organization tells us that "time to proficiency" is critical or "time to market of new products." We need to translate that into a set of technology initiatives (similar to what you are doing in the later part of your paper). Here's the capabilities we will provide to the organization through people, process, technology. But the hard part is often in between and having enough learning and performance strategy defined that allows us to make choices.

If you look at Allison's article, she talks a bit to that gap, but then doesn't necessarily translate it into a specific strategy.

I think what's missing in both are concrete examples of strategies worked through. So again, how do you see these?

Allison said...

It is rare to see:
--the process to get to strategy, --the statement of strategy,
--how it is executed and tweaked,
--and the blessed (or damned) results.

Been trying to think where you can find such details, where organizations open up the kimono and talk about what they attempted and how it worked out.

I don't know where to find it. Snippets, sure. But soup to nuts, from aspirations to evidence and results and lessons learned... I can't point to any.

Vendors.... they have incentives to share and dare, but work for clients who often require confidentiality. I have one case that sort of kind of would work, but am not free to publish.

It's a crying shame that there is so little out there to help us all do this better.

Ellen said...

Tony -- When I was faced with developing an elearning strategy for the trade association I was working for, I looked everywhere for examples, couldn't find them -- especially not for the non-profit arena.

So after developing our strategy, implementing most of it, continuing to tweak it, I ended up writing a book to guide others in the same process.

If you don't mind a plug -- (you can see Bill Brandon's great review of the book in the eLearning Guild's Learning Solutions e-magazine if you don't want to take my word for it) -- aLearning: A Trail Guide to Association eLearning, available at is essentially a crash course, tutorial, and action guide all in one 270+ page book.

Strategy is a tricky thing -- we really need to take the time to fully work through the stages of planning (needs assessment, competitive analysis, etc.), but it's tempting, because of time and resources, to cut to the chase. Even so, working methodically through a full process always leads to better results!

Tony Karrer said...

Allison and Ellen - two of my favorite people - quite nice to have you comment on this post. I'm wondering how we could help get better sharing around this.

Vic Uzumeri said...


Your 'soup to nuts' aspiration is similar to my interest in mapping the 'knowledge supply chain'.

The grand task of transmitting/sharing/teaching a given body of knowledge is inherently comprehensive and holistic, with many, many different ways to skin a cat. At the very least it spans the expert's brain to the learner's actions.

My sense from most of my commercial interactions is that it is very hard for practicing managers to look upstream or downstream from their current responsibility. Most are responsible for a few steps in the process chain rather than for the process end-to-end.

To me, decisions about intermediate steps (or even partial sequences of steps) are inherently tactical. Strategic decisions have to rise to the holistic full-chain level and, more probably, to the level where the needs of different knowledge supply chain opportunities play off with and against one another.

I can't think of anyone that is publishing about issues at that level. If anyone does have some good examples, please, please share.

kcbrady said...

You might look at the Educause website. Their focus is higher ed, but many of the same issues will be involved and academe loves a good planning process. Now, if we could only get them to act ...

David said...

Hi can chip in on the predicting needs aspect. I've written a couple of articles on compliance training strategy and branded eLearning content strategy available here

These may be of assistance. They provide frameworks within which you can discuss needs with stakeholders.