Curate versus Create: Making Sense of Off The Shelf

curated elearning content

There’s a role for eLearning courses. Not as often as they’re used, perhaps, but the ability to get on top of a particular skill at one’s own pace on one’s own time is clearly a valuable opportunity. Thus, we then need to ask the classic question: build or buy?

However, one question to be addressed before that is: when should we use asynchronous eLearning? Developing or purchasing a course only makes sense under certain circumstances. We should be clear what those are.

Filling the Need

First, we should be certain that what is to be learned absolutely, positively has to be ‘in the head’. There is a persistent belief that all learning has to be in the head, but it turns out to be really hard to get knowledge reliably in the head (and when we do it’s really a time for tarted-up ‘drill and kill’, which is not really a ‘course’). We should resist trying to present a bunch of information and expect it to be retained, and save courses for more obvious situations.

For example, many performance needs can be met in other ways. You need to fully understand the gap between what’s needed and what’s occurring, and then you need to understand the root cause. If it’s a knowledge gap, can you put it ‘in the world’? E.g. make it available by a look-up table?  Again, putting it ‘in the head’ is hard to do reliably. And if it’s a motivation or belief problem, (e.g. they could do it if a gun were put to their head), then a course isn’t going to help either.

The time for courses is when a skill shift is needed: there are things individuals need to be able to do that they don’t know how yet, or aren’t doing right, or they need to do it a new way. When this is the case, then it’s the time for a course.  When learners don’t know what they need nor why they need it, they need the development. Face-to-face or social learning is valuable when there’s some ambiguity in the material, or you need ‘hands on’ with physical instruments that can’t be simulated. In other cases, eLearning can be used.

Build versus Buy

Once you’ve established that a course is the solution, you can ask the question of whether to develop it yourself or whether to obtain it. And two important questions get raised here. The first is where you get the best value, but the other is whether there are any downsides to releasing the information.

There are really three ways to proceed. One is to develop it yourself. The second is to outsource the development. And the third is to buy off-the-shelf training content. The latter one is fairly simple.

If the content is not proprietary, but instead is general business skills, why would you use your resources to develop it? Your development resources are precious, and you should be able to find an acceptable level of quality (see below) with a price tag less than you can build it for.

There is an argument to populate a library of content available for self-learning. This category, so-called ‘shelfware’, covers a wide variety of typical business needs including interpersonal skills, management and leadership, finance, and of course typical software. Most of the specifics are increasingly available for free on the internet, but licenses for libraries, particularly with specifics to a particular vertical market (finance, pharma, telecomm, and the like) might make sense. (As an aside, I’ve often wondered why the organizations in these verticals haven’t collaborated to make the library in any area that all can share.)

On that note, your best investment might be in helping your staff learn to learn and then they can develop themselves. This is particularly true if you’ve developed an effective social network, where your people can learn from each other as well as from resources internal and external.

If there’s not a library argument to be made, and not a trust in the learners and the network, the next decision is whether to outsource or develop in-house.  If the skill to be developed – the ability to do – is critical to the business, you might not want to release it to the public. Just as Coca-Cola’s recipe is secret, so too may be your formulations, architecture, or process. There’s always a risk in outsourcing the development of content.

If you’ve a trusted partner, with appropriate Non-Disclosure Agreements (NDAs), and they can execute cheaper, faster, or better than you can, outsourcing makes sense. If learning design isn’t a core success factor for the organization, having a dependable partner is of value.

Increasingly, the valuable part of learning will be facilitating the internal, ongoing, informal learning rather than formal learning. Consequently outsourcing the formal may well be a strategic move!

Quality Learning Design

One issue that remains is the quality. The holy trinity of ‘fast, cheap, or good (pick two)’, has resolved too often in the market on fast and cheap.  Unfortunately, the investments have yielded learning experiences that aren’t good enough to achieve any learning outcomes. Consequently, that money is wasted!

An effort to define a quality standard, the Serious eLearning Manifesto (caveat: I’m one of the instigators), was launched a few years ago. This defined a delta between typical eLearning and what serious eLearning should be. The 8 core values are backed up by 21 research-based principles. The initiative is totally free, and backed by the relevant societies (not least ATD, ISPI, Training Industry, and the eLearning Guild). There are other guides, such as Quality Matters, but you should have some explicit criteria against which you evaluate learning design.

You can (and should) choose to use these as a guideline in evaluating any eLearning, whether a library, outsourced, or your own internal development. Internally, it’s not a case of having to take it all onboard immediately, but as a direction to move in. Externally, you could ask your providers whether and how they align to the principles.

Overall, the goal is to meet real learning needs in the organization. And, of course, to meet those needs with the best balance between cost and benefit. One of the benefits should be having a real impact on business capability: learners need to be able to achieve the performance required. Then, of course, it’s about meeting it at a ROI that justifies the cost.

And it’s not about just having a course. If it’s not leading to any new capabilities, it’s really not a solution. For anything beyond legal ‘CYA’, that is, the ability to say that we’ve provided training whether or not it’s effective, it’s time to look for real capabilities.

The answer may come from supporting learners in self-learning, from a library (and evaluating the entire suite of offerings against needs and cost), from outsourcing, or from internal development. You need to understand your goals, options, and costs. Then you can make selections that offer the best solution. Curation trumps creation when possible, but only when the solution uses the least resources to achieve the necessary minimum level of performance. Yet that’s increasingly possible, and desirable. It’s time to do the due diligence. Your organization is depending on you for it.