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Managing the ‘soft side’ of e-learning


This article, written by Ken Stewart, of Berkshire Consultancy Ltd, discusses the challenges of overcoming the organisational cultural barriers e-learning often comes up against, and explains how a range of organisations have tackled their own cultural challenges with varying degrees of success. The article is based on a presentation given by Ken at the Managing the Culture, Content and Effectiveness of E-Learning conference in London in February.

The introduction of a successful e-learning system is a complex combination of technology and culture; providing the right level of IT infrastructure within an environment that actively encourages and supports its use. Often the introduction of e-learning is focused on technology - do we have the right levels of software/hardware, do we have enough capacity in the network? - or focused on content; who will supply the content, how much will it cost?

These are justifiable questions to ask, but sometimes organisations forget to address the internal cultural aspects of e-learning – how will we get people engaged to use the new ways of learning?

So let us explore some aspects of developing a supportive culture for e-learning.

Assessing the Current Situation

How much analysis of the current situation do you conduct before launching your e-learning system? The introduction of e-learning is like any other change situation and needs to be treated as such. Have you identified:

  • What are your success criteria? What will a successful project look and feel like?

  • What are the driving and resisting forces in introducing e-learning? This will include not only technological forces, but cultural e.g. development culture.

  • What is your strategy for achieving success?
  • Failure to identify properly the current level of support, barriers and key players can not only lead to wasted resources in terms of energy and cost, but can fundamentally undermine the success of your project no matter how appealing the benefits of e-learning.

    Case Study 1.

    Two international oil and gas companies worked collaboratively for 18 months on the development of web enabled training for offshore safety; sea survival techniques, platform evacuation etc. Both organisations had the minimum hardware/software in place that would allow video, sound and animation to be used. In one company they had spent a lot of time and energy on educating their staff on the value and benefits of e-learning, to the extent they had installed in every employee’s home a personal computer with web access. They had spent time and money on upgrading their IT infrastructure which minimised 'down time'. The other organisation had IT infrastructure that was unable to cope with existing levels of e-traffic (e-mails etc).It crashed regularly, with the result that employees grew to mistrust the system. When the products were launched simultaneously, one company had a huge take up on use, and the other had none.

    The success of one company in introducing its first steps to e-learning was more than a result of its superior IT systems. It had spent time, money and energy in addressing some of the barriers, intrapersonal as well as organisational, that may have inhibited the success of their project. Their reason for issuing home computers was more than altruistic; it was designed to help employees overcome their own barriers regarding the role of technology as an enabler of development.

    Organisations that are looking to introduce e-learning need to consider how receptive people in the organisation will be to using technology for more than doing their job. This may include overcoming previously held perceptions on the state of your IT infrastructure, how much responsibility employees take for their own development, how the organisation views development and changing mindsets that being at a workstation doesn't always have to mean work, but can include development.

    Proper analysis of the current situation is key to shaping your strategy for implementing a successful e-learning culture.

    Overcoming barriers

    Q. How do you eat an elephant?

    A. One bite at a time of course!!

    It’s the same with introducing e-learning. Incremental bites are often more successful than trying to swallow the thing whole. You need to take small steps that move you towards your goal. You need to overcome the resisting forces bit-by-bit, not by mass onslaught.

    Case Study 2.

    Reflecting on its failure to get take up from its first attempt at e-learning, the international oil and gas company from the previous case study learned some valuable lessons. The key two lessons; getting people to trust the IT infrastructure and secondly demonstrating the value of using technology for development. Opportunities arose that would allow it to tackle both these challenges simultaneously.
    The organisation wanted to conduct a 360 degree feedback process on its senior managers. The demand was for a paperless version, not through any love of technology, but a dislike of paperwork. Recognising the internal IT infrastructure would be unable to handle the demands this process would place upon it, the organisation outsourced the management and delivery of the 360 degree system. After smooth project delivery, including no technology down times, senior managers began to see the value technology- enabled development processes could bring. One of the outcomes of the 360 degree was the need for improved financial skills. Senior managers are often reluctant to attend open programmes, seeing attendance as an admission of failure, so needed a flexible method that would suit their work and travel patterns. A senior manager conference presented an opportunity to demonstrate CD and web based solutions. The managers felt the demonstrated solutions provided the right level of content and flexibility of delivery for them and agreed to buy the packages.
    The organisation above recognised the need to identify and manage key decision-makers; by demonstrating how e-based development solutions could solve their problems they moved a previous barrier to become a supporter.

    The delays and set backs the organisation encountered earlier in its attempts to introduce e-learning would have been reduced with proper analysis of its cultural and technological barriers. Of course, some organisations already have supportive developmental climates and robust infrastructures.

    Case Study 3.

    A UK based financial services organisation with a strong development culture wanted to move towards e-learning as part of its strategic approach of empowering its employees and to have greater connectivity between people and resources. Technology held no fears within the organisation, being not only an integral part of how people worked, but also how people developed. They ran a pilot with the prime objective of testing delivery and content. The pilot also threw up some unexpected results regarding management attitudes to development at workstations; they had difficulty in accepting that using your workstation could mean development. The pilot resulted in the organisation doing much more selling of the benefits of e-learning in order to overcome line management barriers.

    Even in organisations with apparently supportive cultures, barriers will exist. In this case, management's perception was that being at your workstation meant you should be working. Often managers see development as something that is done away from the desk. Managers are able to find several days per year per employee for development, but somehow cannot find 30 minutes per day or per week for similar development to occur at the workstation.

    Piloting is a good way of identifying unforeseen barriers and supporters of e-learning. No matter how good your analysis of the current situation, the realities often occur only on implementation. Few are prepared to admit to being against developing their staff, but actions speak louder than words.

    Irrespective of where you are along the road to creating a supportive e-learning culture, you can never do enough marketing and communication. However much you feel you need to do, double it at least. Organise fairs, demonstrations, desk-drops, and poster campaigns - anything you can to raise awareness, interest and excitement in your project. Sell it hard, then sell it harder.

    Key Lessons

    We have looked briefly at how some organisations have overcome their cultural blocks to the introduction of e-learning. Each organisation started from a different place regarding technology and culture but all found culture to be just as big, or an even bigger, challenge than the IT infrastructures. Spending time and money on creating the best e-learning system is of no use if no one will use it.

    So what are some of the key lessons for managing the culture for e-learning:

  • Spend time to analyse the current situation. Time spent now will enhance the chances of success. Proper analysis will help shape your strategy. Consider current attitudes to technology and development as well as the technology itself.

  • Involve key decision-makers. Persuading those with influence on the benefits of e-learning will give your project credibility. Create a Project Sponsor at a senior level to provide visibility and status.

  • Never underestimate the power of a pilot study. No matter how supportive your climate, many barriers often only become apparent during the pilot phase.

  • Plan a marketing campaign. You need to create excitement, interest and awareness in your project.
  • This is by no means an exhaustive list of lessons, the article is designed to help people think about other issues beyond technology and deployment. Our experience has shown that allowing time and space to address these cultural challenges can greatly enhance the chances of successfully managing the 'soft side' of e-learning.


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