Wednesday, October 21, 2015

eLearning for external stakeholders? You need product development.

This is enormous.

The 2015 Virtual Learning Trends study from eLearning! Media Group includes this remarkable statistic: Up to 83% of respondents report using virtual methodologies to train external audiences. This is a tectonic shift. There was little to no warning in their 2014 report. eLearning Industry cited their Top Ten stats from last year without mentioned it. This seems like an earthquake already happened, with the tsunami yet to hit.

Okay, that analogy may be over the top, because with a tsunami you just grab the kids and the laptop and run. Here, there are actually new opportunities. This wave can be surfed. But if you're training externals, and you're building your training the way you've always done it, consider this post a friendly alarm. Surf's up!

Here are five consequences of this little statistic, and all of them require action:

1. eLearning has become digital product development

Treating an external audience like an internal one is anathema to product developers. Once you've got people outside the organization--channel partners, dealers, and (gasp!) customers--as an audience, your eLearning is product. It doesn't matter whether they are paying for the learning directly or not, or whether it's bundled in with other fees or services. These audiences have an entirely different definition of success: Their own. And that means...

2. User experience matters

From Utility to Engagement – Beyond Usability (Accenture) 
UX design is a critical component of any product, and has its own world of expertise. Take a look at this article by Alexandra Quevedo, and ask yourself how your training product stacks up. Or doesn't. It's important because...

3. eLearning must now reflect brand promise

If you've got a bit of compliance training to do for an internal audience, you can buy something of reasonable quality off the shelf and tick the box. But if your external stakeholders are logging on to anything whatever, then this is you, your organization, your mission, your values, your promises, out there for the world to judge. Training has become an extension of your brand, and it sends its own messages. The flip side for internal audiences is this: they need the same thing. There are very few topics that don't have an inside/outside component, and so what you train employees to do needs to align with what you're saying externally. All your training therefore needs to be steeped in, to come from, and to clearly reflect, your mission, vision, values, and brand. Then there's this...

4. Legal liability issues now change 

Of course you already have a set of legal do's and don'ts when you're training employees or contractors, but when externals--particularly customers--are involved, you are making product promises. These promises have a different legal weight. And if your training goes to an international audience, the issues become even bigger. Every country has laws that protect customers from false claims or misleading promises. And how many times does your training say or suggest that "if you do this, this good thing will happen"? There are legal protections on education and training, of course, but do you know what they are, and how they apply, where? Your legal costs are going to go up. But that's not necessarily a bad thing, because...

5. Training now needs a measurable Return On Investment. 

Once you've ventured into the realm of learning product, you are firmly in ROI territory. And this is true even if you're "throwing in the training for free." Because in reality, your training just became a part of your organization's COGS, or at least its COS. This in turn means that you should have a seat at the cost/benefit table. You can and should make a case for this investment, and set up both ROI and RAI (Reach And Impact) targets. You're in business. Your eLearning just hit the big time.

These are some of the consequences. There are others, of course. But those five are a very good starting point. And here is one (admittedly catch-all) action required:

Develop a digital product development discipline. 

Add PD expertise. Now. Product development means market research, product planning, UX design, branding, prototyping, legal protection, a business case, ongoing user data, customer service, continuous improvement. Add it now or add it later, but later means you're behind the curve, waiting out the tsunami. Add it now, and catch that wave of opportunity.

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