The company's top echelon may support e-learning wholeheartedly, but how do you bring middle managers on board?
When you talk to certain mid-level managers, you get the feeling that e-learning isn't their highest priority. Some claim training isn't necessary because they can teach employees themselves. Others point to urgent deadlines as a reason for employees to do e-learning on their own time. Sometimes managers agree with the company's top-level executives that e-learning is important, but then unintentionally make it hard for employees to take online courses by constantly interrupting them.
"There's a misunderstanding or lack of communication about e-learning," says Stu Tanquist, CEO of Express Learning Inc., an e-learning consulting firm in suburban Minneapolis. There's a perception that learning "particularly learning on a computer , is a perk, he says, which means some middle managers don't see the value. "If it hasn't been communicated from senior management, and if they're not held accountable for implementing the change, it has an impact on their buy-in," Tanquist explains.
So how do you bring middle managers into your company's e-learning initiatives? Sometimes all that's necessary is an endorsement from senior management in both word and deed, says Jeremy Lurey, a human resources consultant at the Los Angeles office of worldwide management consulting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers.
"Oftentimes you'll hear managers say, "I don't have the money. I don't have the time,?" he says. When that happens, senior management must step in and insist on making the training a priority.
Some companies build e-learning or corporate training initiatives into a manager's performance review, says Karen Lasinskas, program manager for the personal learning network of the Royal Bank of Canada, based in Montreal. "It has to become part of a manager's role," she says.
However, when support from top executives isn't so obvious, there are other ways of breaking through to mid-level managers. The following are five suggestions from
e-learning professionals who have tackled this issue.
If it's not working, tell the boss.
Tanquist was trying to implement an e-learning program at Hennepin County Medical Center in Minneapolis, a large regional hospital with approximately 4,000 employees. In April 1998, he began installing 150 online courses on IT and regulatory topics for a broad mix of employees, including those in medical records and the business office.
By March 1999, he was disappointed to find that only 156 courses had been started. "That was pitiful," he says. Even though the managers had seen demonstrations of the courses, and even though employees had all the right computer equipment, the importance of the e-learning initiative somehow wasn't filtering down from senior management to supervisors and employees.
So Tanquist decided to rate each department at the hospital on its
e-learning progress, then supply the information to management. "There was an accountability function and competitive factor because people don't want to look bad on paper, especially when their boss has the paper," he says. By the time he left in July 2000, the number of course starts had improved to 5,160.
Emphasize the business case.
Sometimes, only cold, hard business results will get supervisors to move on an e-learning project.
Don McIntosh had been hired as senior consultant for e-learning at Telus, a local and long-distance telephone company in Vancouver, British Columbia, with approximately 26,000 employees in more than 100 offices across Canada. The company's director of education, who told him there was a direct mandate for e-learning at the company, hired him in January 1997. However, by the time McIntosh started work two months later, the director of education was no longer with the company, and the rumor was that he'd been let go because of his intense fervor for e-learning.
McIntosh struggled to keep e-learning alive, winning some battles and losing others. "Communication in a company this size is difficult," he says. "You don't have time to evaluate the individual units that have signed up [for e-learning]." It was also tough to sell the concept of online learning to older employees (the average age at the company is 49) who are less likely to embrace change, he says.
Then in 1999, he showed that the company could save $3 million annually by not sending employees to Vancouver for training every year. And sure enough, later that year, a survey of supervisors and managers showed they wanted to make e-learning operational across the company.
Telus recently began helping customers install ecommerce and e-communications systems. McIntosh believes that shift in the company's business plan will encourage supervisors to use e-learning more. "If we're going to understand ecommerce, we need to understand that e-learning is a part of it," he says. "The very use of e-learning will increase people's ability to have the Web work to their benefit."
Anyone in charge of implementing an e-learning initiative should think about business results from the very beginning, says Suzanne Biegel, chief learning officer with Quisic, a Los Angeles e-learning company.
If you're trying to convince managers that they can benefit from e-learning, she suggests reading best-selling business books and magazines, as well as the company's strategic mission and annual report. Then do a strategic analysis, asking: What keeps managers awake at night? What are their strategic priorities? How can e-learning help them?
Sometimes, peer pressure helps convince mid-level managers that e-learning really works. "One of the most successful strategies is to get people to approve of it in front of their peers," Tanquist says. He suggests bringing together small groups of employees and supervisors to talk about e-learning's benefits.
Others recommend installing pilot projects in which a few key people take a sample course. Gord Haverluck has done that at Ontario Power Generation in Pickering, Ontario, where he is project manager of computer-based training. "That way, we know that if there's a mistake, it won't get repeated 10,000 times. It gives management the reassurance," he says.
When Nina Adams of Adamsisolutions, an e-learning consultancy in Western Springs, Ill., signs on with a client, she starts by helping the company devise a list of objectives that everyone agrees on.
When the program is implemented, she continues to ask questions: How many people are taking the training? Are they doing their jobs better and with fewer errors? How can they improve? If everyone agrees on the answers to the questions, supervisors in individual departments are likely to endorse the program.
John Moxley, principal for strategic education with marchFIRST, a Chicago provider of Internet services, agrees. "Once managers really understand what e-learning is and they have used it themselves, they will buy into it," he says.
If you're planning to roll out an e-learning initiative, he says, start by doing demonstrations for everyone who wants one. He also recommends promoting the new system through email and luncheons, and tying specific course topics to everyday tasks. When supervisors are included in this process, they'll be more likely to be supportive, Moxley says.
Coach learners, but don't overdo it.
People may be more likely to complete courses , both online and in a classroom , when their supervisors take an active coaching role. That might mean giving employees informal quizzes, talking with them about the material learned in the class, and answering questions. "People generally aren't good at self-directed learning," says Tanquist.
Adams, however, believes too much coaching can actually make employees feel as though they're being treated like children. "I think people are self-directed," she says. "Professional people take responsibility for what they do , they want to do the right thing."
Often, learners simply want a sense of clear direction, both from their direct supervisors and from the company's executive team. Says Adams, "They want to know what they're expected to do."
-Matt Wetzel is associate editor of Online Learning Magazine. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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