Online learning in companies is plagued by problems.
Lots of money and effort are spent every year in producing content that almost no one will ever get to see.
But the biggest problem is hidden under layers of good intentions and bad ideas: the online learning process is almost impossible to control.
The L&D team can do very little to have employees sign up, log in, finish, take the quiz and apply what they learn.
I've seen L&D leaders try selling online learning programs in many ways, from eye-catching posters to company-wide events, from desperate pleads ("it's mandatory") to soft blackmail ("you won't get the diploma/course materials/fancy pen until you finish").
Online learning products also deploy a series of tactics to bolster participation and fix the big problems: gamification elements, new formats for content (3D, VR, branching stories), annoying notifications reminding people a million times a day that they need to finish a course or apply the lessons.
All of these tactics address the symptoms, not the root cause. And because of this, they've been failing for a long time now.
Online learning is one of those fantastic ideas that promised to change the corporate world as we know it. Yes, having people learn online is cheaper and more scalable than classroom training. Yes, it's faster. If only it would work.
The underlying reason online learning falls short of its promise is the key assumption that is built into the process:
People are perfect
(and therefore, they will see the benefit, will voluntarily spend their time in online courses, extrapolate on the lessons and apply them in their work context)
But people are far from perfect.
Employees are not eager to spend hours alone in front of a computer learning theoretical concepts. They get bored, distracted, and overwhelmed, they have their own online social lives, and TikTok is more entertaining than 99.99% of online courses.
Especially true for the younger generation of employees, having access to information about how to solve the challenges of work is not attractive. Many employees would rather not have the challenge in the first place.
We have become comfortable with our lack of patience and learning the theory does not get us excited about working hard to put it into practice.
As soon as we acknowledge that people are not perfect, the sooner we can look at what people actually are really good at and play on their strengths when designing the online learning process.
Because if we go back to the basics, people are imperfect social animals that have thrived for the past 100.000 years by banding together to solve problems and learn from each other.
The story of human progress is the story of collaborative problem-solving.
In organizations, the process of online learning is the complete opposite: solitary consumption of information.
To fix it, L&D leaders need to change a hell of a lot more than how they promote online learning or what kind of flashy new content type they produce.
They need to change the foundation so that they get control over the whole process. Because when you control a process, you can improve it for the benefit of all (that's why in teamlearning.ai we call the admin part of the platform "Mission control" because that's what we aim to provide L&D teams with).
The elements that need changing are in part radical, in part common sense, and further on we discuss three of them: voluntary access, solitary use, and content type.
Redesigning the system takes the form of getting more control over those parts of the process that create the highest rate of return, while also making sure we play on people's strengths, not their weaknesses (remember that people are not perfect).
The word "control" has a bad connotation, but it's something we all desire in our lives. We would like to be able to control what happens to us all the time.
For the L&D team, control doesn't mean "controlling people", just the bits and pieces that form the online learning system.
We can't control if, when, for how long, and how people access the content. But we know that if we could, people would be much better and learning would happen much faster and longer-term.
We can't control if managers support the online learning efforts, if they coach and mentor their employees and if they promote online learning. But if we could, we know the managers and the employees would benefit from this.
Fixing the problem starts with a radical idea: don't give people access to online learning.
From the L&D function's perspective, voluntary access (people logging in and studying on their own accord) makes it almost impossible for the L&D team to control enrolment and finishing of the courses.
From the employee's perspective, having learning always available decreases the perceived value of that thing. Anything that is easily accessible is seen as less valuable, while anything that is rare is seen as more valuable.
So instead of voluntary access, we have experimented with scheduled access when designing and building the technology around teamlearning.ai. This works by having the L&D team create learning journeys that are programmed to take place at precise dates and times for specific individuals.
Just like you would schedule and enroll people for a classroom training session with an external trainer, the system brings multiple benefits and also creates some useful constraints:
Scheduled access must also involve the managers in the process, both by giving them a clear picture of what kind of learning their people are involved in, and by validating with them the time and dates when employees would benefit the most from the session. We've spent an absurd amount of time in teamlearning.ai making sure the system is helpful to managers in this way.
All in all, when online learning is approached in the same way as classroom training, the process is more easily controlled, there is a clear overview of what happens, when, and for whom, and both employees and managers start seeing courses as more valuable. You remove chance from the process and you become intentional.
But this can backfire if two more things don't change: content type and solitary use.
This is crucial when scheduling online learning. If content sucks (as it does in most cases), then the whole process will look like "scheduled dentist appointments". People will find excuses for not attending and not finishing courses.
To fix content, let's take a look at a common question that trainers ask their participants in the intro section: "what are your expectations for today?".
I've asked this question over 1000 times in the past 15 years, and almost every time I got the same kind of problem disguised under the answer: "we don't want to get bored through endless PowerPoint presentations".
People want to be able to engage with the content of the course. They don't want to consume knowledge, they want their brains activated, their ideas heard, and their work-view challenged.
That's why the content that most people like the most comes in the form of some sort of problem-solving scenario. Case studies, experiential activities, and work-related simulations, all have the same impact: people love to engage with them and they learn deeper and longer-term because their brains get reconfigured in the process.
Instead of letting online learning be the ugly brother of in-class training, it can become the one part of the learning efforts that makes more sense financially (easier to scale) and has the same or more impact on employees' lives.
We've tested this type of content with over 46.000 employees during the first two years of the pandemic and the results speak for themselves: people are just as engaged as when learning in a classroom and they can connect learning with their work very easily.
One extra benefit for the L&D team when using problem-solving content is the extra control you get: by knowing how people are handling the scenarios, you know what's missing (skill-gap) and can plan accordingly.
But for this to work, scheduling smart content is not enough. We need to change another fundamental aspect of online learning: solitary use.
Earlier we said that people are imperfect social animals that have thrived for the past 100.000 years by banding together to solve problems and learn from each other.
The story of human progress is the story of collaborative problem-solving.
So why do we design online learning for solitary use?
Scheduled, smart content can still fail if we need to do it alone. What if I can't find the answer? What if I don't know how to solve problems? We don't want people to experience overwhelming difficulties, we want them to experience manageable difficulties. And this comes from the power of the group.
Those 46.000 people we've experimented with in teamlearning.ai were part of small learning teams (3-7 employees). We've designed learning content that can only be solved by the group, not the individual, and this has increased participation, satisfaction, confidence, and learning by a wide margin.
People learn not just from the content and from the challenge, they learn from each other.
We've also seen that groups of five usually outperform smaller or larger groups and that keeping the same group together for multiple sessions improves performance and positive social behaviors (people start listening more, being more curious about one another, and challenging each other).
This is the moment a learning culture starts to take shape, as culture is built by repeating the same behaviors over and over as if they are the norm.
Having people learn together online also gives the L&D function more control over the process by being able to look at individual performance, engagement, and confidence in context (compared to the group).
Scheduled, collaborative problem solving is the formula we've tested that brings the most benefits, and we've built and tested the technology to put it into practice over the past two years.
Making online learning better is not complicated from a tech perspective, but the willingness to change the paradigm needs to stem from inside the HR leadership team.
You can even keep the current e-learning system for light-mode knowledge distribution and use collaborative problem-solving journeys to check people's ability to put theory into practice.
Building on this idea, we've identified six areas where the new process can improve (not replace) other means of deploying learning in a company, from compliance training to onboarding, and in the next articles, we will analyze them.