Bridge the Gap Between E-Learning and Compliance

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Compliance learning, in too many organizations, is dangerously close to an oxymoron. No matter how rigorous and compelling our primary learning programs may be, our compliance learning initiatives, especially in e-learning, are routinely boring, stale, and lacking in any real impact. We often blame the technology, but there are deeper issues at play.

We build the courses because we have to, and our learners watch them because they have to. But no one pays any more attention than the absolute minimum required. This second-rate status is only natural. Unlike the majority of adult learning programs, which are born directly from an organizational need or opportunity, compliance-training programs are foisted upon us without any perceived need from within.

Even if we see the importance of the subject—as most of us would on issues like sexual harassment, employee safety, and business ethics—the broad mandates of compliance laws and policies often make it difficult to see where any real, individual learning will occur. Instead, we throw up our hands, check the boxes, and move on as quickly as possible to a course that we actually care about.

Such compromises are understandable. In real life, with limited resources and seemingly infinite demand, learning departments have to choose priorities. We must accept that not every course will be a masterpiece. But sometimes, priorities must shift. And now might be the time to shift a little more love toward compliance.

The need is certainly there. After years of hasty compromises, many learning programs are lost in a sea of lip-service compliance tutorials that barely even pretend to carry any real meaning. Their dead weight is a burden to designer and learner alike, posing a serious threat to the long-term health of our industry.  

If we can’t bridge the gap now between compliance and learning, we may soon discover that we’ve failed at both. Here’s why.

We Are Undermining Our Role as Trusted Curators of Information


Whether articulated or unspoken, many of us in the design and development industry have grown comfortable with separating mandatory compliance learning projects from our “real” learning programs. Unfortunately, our audience doesn’t make the same distinction. If we routinely hit our learners over the head with compliance training that doesn’t apply to their needs, they will gradually lose faith in all of our learning initiatives and begin to view our offerings with skepticism instead of trust. That vantage, if it sets in, makes teaching and learning almost impossible.

We Are Wasting Valuable Opportunities for Real Learning

In many industries, especially decentralized organizations like those often found in higher education, mandatory training initiatives for all employees can be almost impossible to achieve. The only place where we’re guaranteed to have all eyes focused on us is our compliance training programs, where laws or policies have already taken care of the mandate for us.

The question is, what do we do when all those eyes are watching? If we can find a way to meet the letter of the law and hit the real learning needs or our organizations, compliance training could become a critical tool for achieving our desired learning and development outcomes.

We Might Not Be Complying at All

The arbiters of many policies and laws are getting wise to the myth of compliance learning, and are trying to cut it out. Official guidance recently released surrounding Title IX legislation, for example, demands not just training for faculty and staff, but “rigorous and effective” training. It states that training must be measured for its effectiveness, or based tightly on methods that have already been proven elsewhere. This is a high, somewhat intimidating bar to hit. And if we don’t change our approach soon, it’s likely only to get higher.

This is the call to action, sounding for all serious instructional designers and developers: Someone needs to fix compliance training, and you’re the ones with the tools to do it!

Want to learn more? Check out ATD's online course "The Essentials of Effective Compliance E-Learning" designed and facilitated by Travis.

About the Author
Travis Waugh is a training generalist for the Georgia Institute of Technology. A reformed screenwriter and film editor, Travis has been helping adults learn in-person and online for over a decade. Whether teaching English as a second language in Japan, crafting IT training solutions for large corporations, or meeting faculty and staff learning needs in higher education, Travis has demonstrated a commitment to engaging audiences through humor, interactivity and dogged relevancy.
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