At a recent meeting, the director of training operations at a global biopharmaceutical company was asked a fairly simple and straightforward question: "What keeps you awake at night?"
After thinking about it for a moment, she said, "Well, my group is developing more than 50 new courses this year, and I'm not too worried about those. My problem is that we now have more than 400 courses in our LMS and, because of application upgrades, organizational changes, and general changes with our learning and development environment, about 50 percent of the courses needed to be updated this year. With my staff fully utilized with the new development efforts, I honestly don't know how I'm going to maintain all of those lessons."
The recent proliferation of e-learning development in the workplace has added an extra layer of complexity to course maintenance. There are now many more courses packaged into shorter, more highly focused segments to accommodate learners who want to pick and choose only the training topics that they really need. To make matters worse, today's blended learning solutions require numerous delivery methods, and some of those components, such as performance support systems, information repositories, online user guides, and others, are not even under our control.
The truth is that even before blended learning became the norm for training in the workplace, course maintenance was often overlooked or even forgotten as a step in training development methodologies:
- The ADDIE process (analyze, design, develop, implement, and evaluate) ends with evaluation.
- Human performance improvement is a circular process that does not touch on maintenance.
- Walter Dick and Lou Carey's systematic approach only briefly touches on course maintenance, and their approach was designed in the early 1970s.
In other words, you are more or less on your own to determine the steps you need to take to minimize your maintenance effort.
Keep training from becoming obsolete
If the maintenance nightmare hasn't disturbed your sleep yet, consider this recent real-life example:
In the spring of 2009, Mike Costello, training director at Thermo Fisher, introduced a new training module that was deployed to approximately 35,000 employees. The training course contained many references to the executive-level organizational structure and was proudly announced in the company's weekly newsletter. However, in that same newsletter, a new CEO and a new division were announced, making the training obsolete on its first official day.
Keeping this example in mind, let's discuss some steps that can help to reduce your maintenance nightmares.
Create and implement a content indexing system. There are a number of instructional design tips for reducing the maintenance burden, but at the core of your environment, there must be a cross-referencing index that contains a list of all topics that are covered in all courses. With it, you can pinpoint all courses affected by a system or organizational change and effectively plan for the future. Without it, you can use your dartboard and hope that your luck holds up for a while longer.
What type of tool do you need for this type of index? A database tool is ideal of course, but you can get off to a very good start with a simple spreadsheet. Essentially, you want to make sure that you are tracking two types of information in the index:
- course identifiers, including information such as course name, course ID, publish date, course type, audience, and author
- course content, including the course topics, tools, and materials used to teach the course. Do not simply copy the table of contents into this section. You will want to know if the course requires a flip-chart from a vendor who has gone out of business or if the course will only run in Internet Explorer 6.0. Add all content references that may change over time and all elements that are needed to run the lesson.
Use your information repositories. When designing and developing your courses, think about the information repositories that are available to your audiences. In almost every organization, there are a wide variety of repositories that store detailed information regarding people, processes, procedures, and more. Instead of including every single detail in your training course, simply point to the repositories and instruct your learners how to find the information. This step by itself can drastically reduce your maintenance work.
For your course exercises, don't forget to include a search for specific repository information as part of one or more of the exercises. If you are teaching a software application, your course exercise could include steps that require the learner to find specific information in the application's online help or an online user guide that is stored on your network. Make sure that your learners know where the repositories are and how to use them.
To make the training worthwhile, offer tips for accessing the information quickly. For example, if the information resides on your company intranet, remind learners that they can access a frequently used intranet page immediately by dragging the site icon from their browser's URL field to their desktops.
Avoid "time stamp" wording. When you proofread your training materials, eliminate any wording that contains a time stamp. This would include wording that refers to a product or program as "new" and terms such as "this year" and "next year."
Along those lines, avoid mentioning a specific version number when describing software applications. For example
- high-maintenance phrase: "Internet Explorer 7.0.533.1 has many new features."
- low-maintenance phase: "Internet Explorer has many useful features."
If you really need to specify a version number, try to avoid specific point release details and refer to the application as "Internet Explorer 7" or "Internet Explorer 7.x."
Make employees generic. The simple rule here is to avoid specific employee names whenever possible, and remember that even pictures of employees can lead to problems. The more specific you are with references to employees, the more you may need to update or maintain your materials. Whenever possible, refer to "our chief marketing officer," not "Jane Doe, our chief marketing officer."
Also, include as many generic pictures as possible by using one of the many online photo providers. For many reasons, it's nice to put your colleagues' faces in your lessons, but the more company faces that you put in your materials, the more you are risking that the materials will become out of date.
Let's face it. People simply do not stay at one organization for life anymore. When attrition happens, and your courses are full of references to specific employees, you have created an extra maintenance requirement that you may have been able to avoid very easily.
Set up email notification for the information repositories. To ensure that you are aware when changes happen to key information in your information repositories, set up automatic email notifications within the repository. Many systems (such as SharePoint) have this capability, but few users take advantage of it. If in doubt, check with your IT administrator.
Be creative with narration. If you design a lengthy e-learning lesson and then need to update a handful of pages in the courseware, how are you going to update the narration? Will you be able to easily get the same narrator so you can maintain consistency throughout the lesson?
If the narrator works for your company, if they are still employed there, and if they have the time available to record the changes, you're all set. However, this approach leaves a lot to chance - and includes many "ifs."
Think ahead. If you are developing e-learning lessons with narration, consider using two or more narrators, providing more options for any potential updates needed. Find just one of the original narrators to record the new narration, or simply find someone else that sounds similar to one of the original voices.
Resistance (to maintenance) is futile
Aside from the specific recommendations in this article, the most important general recommendation to help you with your maintenance burden is to simply have a maintenance plan when you design your development plan.
For example, if you are using ADDIE as your process model for instructional design, make sure that you add an "M" (for maintenance) at the end. The ADDIE-M (think: Wizard of Oz) model will force you to look beyond the deployment of your course and to plan for things that will save you time and effort in the years ahead.
If done correctly, this simple but often forgotten step in the development process can maximize your course shelf life, and that will allow you to focus on other important matters - like not keeping awake at night because of your overwhelming maintenance workload. T+D