ATD Blog

Growing Talent Management Firms: To E or Not to E?

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

In the previous blog, we focused on the topic of effectiveness claims. Now, let’s explore the many effectiveness claims made about e-learning.

Then and Now

It wasn’t too long ago that the talent development industry was enamored with the advent of online learning. Indeed, many industry gurus were quick to argue that the mere travel savings alone made e-learning solutions worth their weight in gold.

This claim was also heralded by uninformed CFOs and CEOs, whose mission was less focused on learning than it was on the bottom line. The argument was clear: E-learning is a win-win for the business; it exposes more employees to training at significantly less cost. Talk about chasing bright shiny objects! Of course, relatively few CLOs were able to (or even wanted to) admit that less costly training doesn’t always equate to more effective learning.

A little history lesson… Once upon a time, e-learning required industry professionals to piece together three to four hardware components with a 12-inch videodisc or multiple floppy discs. At the time, we called it “bleeding edge” technology, and carried screwdrivers around just in case one of these components went on the fritz. 

Here’s the good news: Since the early days of e-learning, the pendulum has, for the most part, swung in the right direction. As saying goes, “We’ve come a long way, baby.” At least, we’ve made progress in the configuration part of this story. Only one piece of computer hardware is needed today, whether it’s a desktop, mobile phone, or tablet. And, the software is often invisible—housed in the cloud somewhere.


Sadly, wild generalizations continue to be made about these efficiencies and effectiveness, independent of the content being taught. Most of those in the C-suite still try to equate efficient (and cheap) online learning to effectiveness. However, to my knowledge, no definitive research has surfaced that indicates whether information acquisition and cognitive skill learning is significantly improved via online learning alone—especially for interpersonal and communication skills.

Enter Blended Learning

It was no surprise when the practice of a hybrid approach that paired e-learning with traditional classroom experience—or blended learning—gained momentum. For all practical purposes, this method seems like the most pragmatic option. You get the best of both worlds, with the benefit of knowledge acquisition at the cheapest and fastest level combined with real in-person practice and application.

Keep in mind, though, that asynchronous online learning is not necessarily the same as virtual learning. Synchronous, collaborative and interactive webinar-based programming may be able to accomplish a lot of the more difficult skill learning while saving time and costs of training.


Looking Forward

About 13 years ago I co-authored the article, “E- Learning: Harnessing the Hype,” for Performance Improvement. We presented research that showed e-learning to not only be less effective than instructor-based learning, but also less preferred by learners for more interpersonal and leadership skill training. There was a lot of hype back then, despite evidence to the contrary of online learning’s relative ineffectiveness.

Admittedly, things have changed considerably, even in this short timeframe. Certainly, the technology has advanced significantly, and even the instructional design and graphic formats have evolved to keep pace with these advances.  No question, digital learning is more exciting, interesting, and meaningful than it has ever been—and as the technology improves so will the capacity to learn more efficiently and effectively.

What’s more, we are seeing some disruption with MOOCs and other readily available learning platforms. In fact, technological advances are moving so quickly, who is to say that classrooms won’t at some time be replaced by online learning? Just ask small residential liberal arts tuition dependent colleges focused on teaching critical thinking, problem solving, and communications skills how they are going to cope with this disruption.

At the end of the day, however, learning effectiveness must be measured by specific outcomes—regardless of the delivery platform. For this, I turn to my 5-M formula: as long as the learning architecture and platform combine to create a magical, memorable, motivational, meaningful, and measurable user experience, it is likely to provide its intended impact and results.

Have you evaluated the effectiveness of your e-learning offerings? Or, if you have none, do you know how your solutions stand up to the effectiveness claims of a comparable online program?

About the Author

Steve Cohen is founder and principal of the Strategic Leadership Collaborative, a private consulting practice focused on business strategy and development. A 40+ year veteran of the talent development industry, largely on the supplier side, he has demonstrated a proven track record for building equity by growing top and bottom-line performance for eight different consulting enterprises in the education and training industry he has either founded and/or led. He has been called on to consult with numerous firms needing strategic planning guidance, business coaching, and board advisory services.

His first book, The Complete Guide to Building and Growing a Talent Development Firm, was published by ATD in 2017. His recent follow-up, 12 Winning Strategies for Building a Talent Development Firm is now available on Amazon.

He can be reached at: 952.942.7291 or [email protected].

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