E-learning can provide substantial and immediate rewards, but developing a strategy is complicated for several reasons. Gartner offers a framework to help you with long-term planning and implementation.

When to implement e-learning and how to do it

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E-learning can provide substantial and immediate rewards, but developing a strategy is complicated for several reasons. Gartner offers a framework to help you with long-term planning and implementation.

E-learning demands careful, strategic planning by CIOs, training managers and business units because it includes many different technologies, each with its own pace in the adoption cycle. Technologies typically follow a pattern: Type A (leading-edge) enterprises adopt an unproven technology to gain a competitive advantage. After the technology has proved itself, Type B (mainstream) enterprises implement it. When the market has matured and consolidated, and the price of the technology has bottomed out, that’s when Type C (conservative) enterprises buy it. E-learning, however, makes planning difficult because it doesn’t follow this pattern:

- Its technologies mature at different rates.

- Most enterprises ultimately will build an e-learning environment that closely integrates e-learning technologies.

- An enterprise’s competitive circumstances and business processes may require it to adopt individual technologies before they’ve matured and been integrated with other technologies.

- E-learning can provide direct business benefits and a rapid return on investment; therefore, faster-than-normal implementations often make sense, even for Type C enterprises.

- The market eventually will consolidate as major application vendors fold e-learning into their software stacks. For now, at least, pure-play e-learning vendors will continue to drive the market.

For these reasons, e-learning has a peculiar status. With respect to maturity, some technologies — such as learning management systems (LMSs) — have nearly stabilized, while newer technologies (which eventually will fit within the LMS environment) have only recently appeared (such as simulation authoring; see “Hype Cycle 2004 Suggests Aggressive Adoption of E-Learning”).

Moreover, the relative maturity of technologies doesn’t necessarily reflect the types of enterprises that adopt them. For example, some Type C enterprises may need virtual classrooms now.

For e-learning planners, the object is to minimize conflict between filling immediate e-learning needs and building an integrated e-learning environment over many years. It’s important to think long-term and strategically. Don’t let the confusing landscape of e-learning vendors and technologies make you give in and provide every department with what it wants. If you do, you’ll end up with a collection of disparate technologies that cost a fortune to integrate and maintain, while your competitor enjoys the advantage of a unified e-learning platform that smoothly rolls out new knowledge to all of its workers.

To help you think strategically, Gartner has constructed a maturity model that describes the six levels of maturity that enterprises typically traverse when making e-learning integral to their businesses (see “Use a Maturity Model to Make the Most of E-Learning”). Your enterprise must understand how sophisticated it is with e-learning, what it must do to get to the next level of maturity and how far it must go before arriving at the final level. Also, to get the most from the enterprise’s investments, managers must make e-learning a part of normal operations and business processes. This will take longer to accomplish than installing the technology. Although a first-rate IS organization may be able to quickly roll out enterprisewide e-learning, it won’t do your enterprise any good if the business units don’t know how to use it and don’t work together.

Content is a characteristic that sets e-learning apart from other technologies, because you can’t delay the development or acquisition of good content until after you’ve implemented the infrastructure on which it runs. For example, you can implement an e-mail system without regard to content, because all you do is build the system and then let users fill it up with their own content. With e-learning, however, content is central. You must have high-quality content or courseware from the start, or else workers won’t use it and your e-learning project won’t succeed. A few years ago, early adopters made the mistake of underestimating the importance of courseware. From the beginning, e-learning planners must involve business units down to the department level so that area experts can help select or develop appealing content, then sell the idea of e-learning to their departments. Thus, e-learning requires an unusual degree of coordination across the enterprise, as well as methodical implementation (see “This Four-Phase Method Can Help You Implement E-Learning”).

Virtually every enterprise worldwide should explore e-learning, because the technology has entered the mainstream (see “Japan: Top Five Trends in the E-Learning Market” and “CIOs in Latin America Should Re-evaluate E-Learning”). Whether your enterprise is in the public or private sector, whether you operate in developed or developing economies, or whether you ultimately choose a small project or an enterprisewide implementation, e-learning can be beneficial — as long as you approach it correctly. Each country has a unique mixture of factors driving the e-learning market. For example, Japan’s national government offers incentives to prefectures and local governments to adopt e-learning as part of a wider effort to spread e-government. Large, global enterprises have joined the government sector’s effort to promote e-learning throughout Japan. Latin America traditionally waits before adopting new technologies, but e-learning may benefit its enterprises — especially if they want to compete in global markets, or have a workforce that’s widely dispersed throughout the region. E-learning can keep workers’ skills up-to-date with minimal travel, but successful projects demand attention to local needs and conditions, such as courseware adapted to local cultures.

Regardless of where you do business or what kind of enterprise you are, you can benefit from e-learning (and remember, if you don’t, your competitors probably will). Plan carefully by envisioning the comprehensive, integrated e-learning environment you want to create. Implement the e-learning technologies that best fit within this long-term vision and make sense for your business — don’t dismiss a technology just because its level of maturity doesn’t align with the typical pace at which your enterprise adopts technology. Finally, in any e-learning project, success depends on having superior content that captures users’ interest.

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