Friday, 16 May 2014

The Human Side of Learning Technology

Budgets are a limiting factor for all of us one way or another.  For an organisation looking to get into elearning where they've previously feared to tread, it's easy to think we want to spend all we have on the system itself and rush in to tender or purchase the best they can afford.  Or alternatively organisations say we've got 100k to spend so I'm going to spend 60k on the system and save 40k for an elearning package or two.  So you buy a system that costs 59.99k and it's good to go right?

The problem is that selecting a system is kind of live going for a job.  If all you're doing is looking for the best salary in the job sector of your choice chances are you may well end up with a job you hate.  For an LMS the cost is sure important, but much as with a job there's so much more to consider.  One of the most important things to realise is that total renumeration and salary are not the same thing and that's before you even get into looking into the other benefits that may not have a financial attachment.  Same goes for an LMS, there's the cost, the real cost and then there's the benefits that you can't immediately put your finger on.

For example, a hidden cost is the amount it takes to customise things.  Not the things you've explicitly stated in your tender or agreed with vendors, but things that might come up down the road.  If you need to change a process or enrol in a different way or even change reporting data sources or something more complex like linking to other systems there's a cost and often a customisation - do you know what the costs look like for the system?  We work with open source solutions because we know exactly where the cost goes and the rates to make code changes - it's an almost hidden benefit beyond the obvious that with open source you (and anyone) can make changes.

But there's an even bigger point I haven't yet mentioned - it's really down to your internal capabilities but I do this a fair bit (LMS implementations rather than blogging) and I regularly see organisations that rush into the implementation and yet don't want to invest beyond the system.  What I mean is that you have a budget and you spend it on the system, the customisations, the links, the data storage but actually you miss out the one most vital area if you want to succeed; the human side of technology.

We build configuration and consultancy into every implementation, yet regularly when it comes to budgetary squeezes those are the areas that suffer.  A recent example was a client who was using about 10% of Totara functionality with a sudden budgetary allowance of about $20k that would enable them to invest in a new version of the system and get an enhanced theme and a few minor tweaks.  I get this I do.  But the problem for me lies that they probably won't use more than 10% of the new features and probably that now makes 9% overall (my maths can be dodgy so don't look too closely please).  My point here is that for $20k we could have gone in and reviewed how they were using the LMS and made some real recommendations and changes for them that would have unlocked far more for them than the upgrade will.

As a rough guide if you're using a complex system and paying $50k for the system then you want at least 20% of that budget going on the configuration and consultancy.  Why?  Because without it you have a much lower chance of successfully introducing your new system.  Sure, get trained and do it yourself - of course we do capability building too - but that initial help and outside eyes can make a tremendous difference to your implementation and indeed the whole life span.

As a last thought and pulling this back to the equivalent of a job, think about the consultancy and configuration a bit like the new boss you're going to have in your new job.  The job could be perfect, the money could be more than you're currently getting but if the boss is the sort of person that is going to make your life hell that job is always going to suck.  Same goes with the LMS; you put in the best possible system with all the features and swishness that your heart desires, but if you don't truly know how to get the most from it or at least find out all the pitfalls and ways to achieve best results you're really in for a very tough year or two and that system won't feel so great.

The system won't do everything for you; with an LMS it's just the same as with a job, it's the people and what they can add - so make sure you budget for the human side of technology if you want to be successful.

Wednesday, 14 May 2014

Too many cooks spoil the implementation

So you've made it past whatever red-tape process you needed to upgrade or put your first LMS in place?  Chances are to get to that stage you've already had to put up your case and fight for it to get it this far.  To be successful buy-in is an absolute must so you're obviously doing something right!  If you haven't got it this far... well... okay, we'll cover that next time!

The next problem is that you've now got a number of interested parties who all want to get involved and from the start you have to set the tone for the whole implementation if you don't want to find each decision and step is made by a committee of well-meaning but ultimately inefficient people.  The key is not in keeping everything to yourself - you're definitely going to need help and further buy-in, but in keeping the implementation on-track and able to make key decisions.  If not, you're going to get project creep, budgetary issues and a whole can of worms that you won't be able to get the lid on.

The most important thing to understand if you're running the implementation internally is that it's your show and you have to own it and bring people in and control the process.  If you don't someone else will if you're lucky or it will be mob rule if not.  Their is literally no limit to the number of people you can involve but the more you do the more time you need to allow and when you're with the vendor or partner that you're using to implement the system you need to remember that time is money and you can't afford to turn up with everyone with even a passing interest in your system.  If you want widespread involvement then have a number of meetings with different people and go to all of them, gather up their thoughts, ideas and desires for the new system and bring them with you or have a representative from those meeting at yours.

What's the number we're looking for here?  Well, when I'm running a configuration workshop for Totara LMS with a new client I'm ideally looking for a max of about 6 people from an organisation.  I've done it with 1 and that's great if you're the only one with the drive, but for bigger organisations that's just not practical.  The perfect number depends on the size and functions being represented, but I'd say a representative from IT, L&D (hopefully the lead and at least HR if not) and the eventual systems administrator (possibly your training coordinator or the like) is a pretty good start.  Maybe you have someone who is effectively the sponsor of the project (your senior rep) and another one who is your 'trainer' or training designer to round out the group.  5.  Yes, that sounds good because you have an odd number to get good decision making too!  You can have a wider group to start where stakeholders can join in - but keep that as the opening meeting and then kick them out and get down to business when you start needing to make the decisions around the system.

Again, I'm not suggesting groups like marketing and comms don't have input, they clearly do particularly around look and feel; but you don't want them contributing too much into the workflows for development plans or your appraisal processes.  In fact, that's a great strategy - use smaller groups for specific functions but don't keep bringing the wider group in for every part.  IT are an absolute must (yes, must) and you want to engage them early, but past the technical they won't want to know and will get bored real quick if you bring them to everything.

Finally, remember that too many cooks spoil the broth, too many chiefs means no work gets done, too many people means that there's never enough chairs/biscuits/coffee and most importantly decision making suffers as the number of people increase.

(I have in fact ran a configuration and training session where I was the only person present, whilst I strongly believe in a minimalistic and agile approach, this takes the theory just a little too far... that organisation is still struggling with getting people trained and a lack of configuration two years down the track unsurprisingly)