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Small Businesses: How to Get Started with E-Learning (Without Blowing Your Budget)

— by Trina Rimmer


ASTD’s Learning Circuits just published their annual survey of E-Learning Trends and, being the training geek that I am, I’ve taken some time to compare last year’s survey with the current survey to spot trends that may impact my work and inform my interactions with clients. One of the more noteworthy changes was in the responses to question #7: What concerns does your organization have about using E-Learning? Check out 2010’s chart on the left compared to 2011’s chart on the right.

In 2010, 40.6% cited it as an organizational concern and in 2011, 48.4%! While it’s notable that the response pool was larger for the 2011 survey (and we’re all more cost-conscious these days), I still find it remarkable that E-Learning implementation costs are such a big (and growing) concern. How is it that in our age of democratized content, flexible tools, and cloud-based solutions, E-Learning is being seen by many as a costly luxury rather than an affordable alternative?

One reason could be that the learning marketplace is simply over-flowing with options. Many of my clients come to me because they’re completely overwhelmed and want someone who can help them sort out their alternatives. They own small businesses with fittingly small training budgets and they feel that they’ve been shut-out from using E-Learning by a marketplace that caters to enterprise clients with deep pockets. These smaller businesses recognize the need for easy access to training for their distributed workforce, but they’re intimidated by the idea of investing in specialized technology like E-Learning authoring tools and Learning Management Systems, and stymied in their efforts to locate affordable consultants who can offer objective guidance scaled to their needs.

Assuming you’ve already assessed your readiness for E-Learning and found it to be a good fit for your needs, there’s really no reason why a smaller training budget should eliminate E-Learning as an option. Rather, E-Learning may be one smart way to lower costs. The trick is to implement it with tools that minimize up-front costs and allow you to creatively reuse existing content.

Here’s how to get started:

Repurpose Your Existing Content

If you’ve already got Words docs, YouTube marketing videos, .pdf files, and PowerPoint presentations full of great content, why should you have to set them aside to create brand new E-Learning with special tools? With training platforms (like Trakstar Learn) you don’t have to. You can leverage what you already have in new ways and without buying an LMS. Yes; you’ll need to adjust your existing content so that it supports the goals of your instruction, but no longer do you need a proprietary E-Learning software suite or a seven-figure database to help you realize your goals. And hosted platforms that provide you with a link to your training may, in some cases, help LOWER costs in other areas of your organization by allowing you to re-purpose the same information that supports trainees on the job, as self-service tools for customers (for example, online help or FAQs).

Leverage E-Learning Marketplaces

Many companies believe that their business is so unique no off-the-shelf E-Learning could possibly represent their interests and priorities. But custom designing every E-Learning course is NOT a low-cost solution. And, more importantly, if an existing E-Learning program meets 95% of your needs, why should you spend the money for custom? Obviously buying off-the-shelf E-Learning isn’t always ideal, but there are many good courses available for purchase through E-Learning marketplaces like Open Sesame or Vidizmo that can train your team on fundamentals – like how to effectively coach an employee or how to provide good customer service. Yes, you may need to do some research to see which course best meets your needs, and on the back-end, you may need to “fill in the gaps” with your own content; but isn’t that faster (and cheaper) than building from scratch?

Tap Your In-House Talent

Not every business has the budget to hire a performance consultant or a full-time instructional designer. Many businesses simply leverage their Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) in a training capacity. That’s fine, except not every SME is a born training designer — nor does every SME want to be. If you’re going to hold SMEs accountable for designing and developing E-Learning, then at least give them some support to help them succeed.

  • Put your SMEs through Instructional Design Boot Camp! Use free online resources like blogs and tutorials to get them up to speed, quickly. Start with the basics as laid out in this great post from Tom Kuhlman’s Rapid E-Learning Blog, or take Clive Shepard’s 60 Minute Masters free online course. Cammy Bean’s Learning Visions Blog has a nice list of Essential Reading for Instructional Designers, as well. Or, engage a seasoned instructional designer to spend a week or two working with your SMEs to get them up to speed on the basics. Just having the ability to elicit feedback from an experienced designer will help SMEs to build their training design muscles.
  • No time for SME boot camp? Rather than trying to makeover busy SMEs into amazing training designers, hire an instructional designer or a technical writer (preferably with some training background) on a part-time or a per project basis. Even a designer/writer with moderate experience should be able to partner with the SME to get the content out of their heads and onto the screen. This strategy more than pays for itself if it helps to keep your SME focused on their core competencies, alleviates an unwelcome burden AND helps your organization dip a big toe into the E-Learning pool.

If you’d like to read some more practical E-Learning tips, check out these posts from the Mindflash archives:

>> More from Trina Rimmer on the Mindflash blog.

Trina Rimmer is a learning and communications consultant with twelve years experience designing, developing, and delivering smart, engaging training. When her skills aren’t being tested by her children, you’ll find her helping others to develop their own training design muscles.

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