12 Traits Of An Excellent Online Training Program

If your goal is getting better-trained employees without sacrificing productivity, the next generation of online training programs have a lot to offer.
August 15, 2013

Online training has come a long way in just a few years. These days, it doesn’t have to be the clunky, ineffective, painful process many of us once experienced. Technology, bandwidth, user familiarity and readiness, and lower costs have all converged to make today’s online training an integral part of any credible employee development program.

Savvy business leaders are already aggressively integrating online learning into their training curriculum. And this goes far beyond the now-expected online compliance programs in safety and other mandatory topics. Previously hard-to-teach subjects, such as supervisory skills, are finding a new home online. The payoff is getting better-trained employees without sacrificing productivity because you don’t have to pull them offline for a few hours or even a day to take a training class. While online training doesn’t replace face-to-face teaching, in most cases, it can reduce and augment it. 

I knew that the training landscape was changing, but I didn’t know what I didn’t know about the landscape. Over the past few months, I embarked on a research effort to understand just what's out there from a technology perspective and what is actually being used in business. I did user demonstrations on nine different online delivery platforms and interviewed more than 20 small businesses across numerous disciplines. My research led me to some critical conclusions. Let them be a guide for you as you consider bringing online training into your company.

1. It's not about the technology. I admit, that sounds contradictory to the intent of this article. However, technology is rarely about the technology; it's about what it enables us to do. It's about the return on your investment. The technology you select to meet your needs should actually train people and improve performance. Just as you make any purchase decision based on the value you receive, so, too, should you make this decision. In other words, this isn't an IT or operations decision, nor is it an HR or finance decision. It's a corporate decision based on the needs of the organization.  

2. Full-motion video is essential. Is the instructor speaking to participants directly? Most online learning I've been subjected to is mind-numbing, voice-over-Powerpoint or a bad recording of a live presentation someone delivered. That is so 2010! Best of class today features a speaker who delivers content directly to users consuming the program from their laptop or tablet.

3. An interactive Q&A means participants actually participate. What would it be like if the presenter asked you a question during the online training that required an answer for you to continue? It would certainly be interactive and engaging. Just as in a live classroom where the instructor asks questions, in the best virtual classrooms, the instructor asks questions too. The way you answer the question would then determine the response you get from the instructor. For example, the instructor might be talking about planning and then ask, “Are you a senior manager or a field leader?” If you select senior manager, the instructor then tells you about planning tools such as strategic planning. If you select field leader, the instructor might talk about the usefulness of the daily huddle.

4. Quizzes help you assess progress. One of the best features of online learning is the ability to quiz the student in real time and assess progress. If they don’t fully grasp a concept, a good system will immediately take employees back to the content they need to review, so they can see it again and learn it. In a live training session, having people progress at different rates is impractical. Not so in the best online systems. In fact, quizzes are just part of the assessment process. A good system will allow role-plays and other progress checks as well. 

5. The content should be structured for the online world. Studies show that the way we consume data and information in the virtual world is quite different from how we do it in the real world. Yet trainers continue to ignore these truths and structure their programs just as they always have. The resulting courses are long and boring, which results in poor user satisfaction, a high abandonment rate and no actual learning. Platforms that simply take the old and try to make it new simply by putting it online without conforming to the demands of the Internet are a waste of money.

6. It should incorporate a way for users to track, measure and monitor progress. Most systems now allow users to track their own progress in the learning management system (LMS). This is helpful when a student needs to take a series of courses as part of a larger curriculum or certification. Seeing all your grades in one place is convenient too. This can also be useful for managers. Not all systems feature an LMS that allows managers to track, measure and monitor progress. But with this capability, managers can ensure their employees are in a "review, repeat, rehearse, retain, remind and reinforce" mode rather than the more traditional "watch and forget" mode. 

7. Subtitles are essential if your workforce isn't fluent in English. In our increasingly diverse society, it's important to make training available to employees who aren't English language-proficient. Subtitles in their native language are the logical answer, but most programs don't support that. If they do offer subtitles, it may come at a premium price. The best programs feature a simple “CC” button on the screen to allow a user to toggle on training in their native language.  

8. The system allows you to complete certain administrative tasks. The ideal platform allows you to choose how you want to interact with it administratively. You may want the provider to enter the names of your employees, run reports and so on. Or you may want to be able to do that yourself so you can be more flexible and responsive rather than waiting for this task to get done. In that case, it has to be user friendly. A 45-minute tutorial with an accompanying 55-page workbook should be a warning sign you're using a program that's not user friendly. 

9. The platform is co-branded. Employees like knowing they're using something that was created for them. Using the generic, off-the-shelf training system everyone else uses sends the subtle message that neither the training nor the employees are very important. Does your online platform feature a welcome screen custom-designed for your company? Is your logo there, along with a greeting from the trainer that welcomes your employees? It is possible, and it sends the message that this program is going to be different.

10. Optimal streaming is key to the user experience. Okay, I know little about this, but I do know when it takes forever for me to watch a video that keeps buffering. Then there are the ones that never buffer and lock up after a few seconds. I don’t know how optimal streaming works, but I do know that it works, and you want to ask about it.

11. API integration helps you get your hands on the data. Does the system allow you to interface with the data? Perhaps you have your own LMS and want the training system to share data with it—this way you won’t need to deal with two LMSes. Not all systems allow you inside. Maybe the best they offer is an exported report which you then need to format to import into your database or, even worse, you're forced to enter the data by hand. It may not sound like much right now, but it can create big headaches if you don’t get this feature.

12. The software company should offer a demonstration of the platform without getting a human involved. In the course of my research, I found that every time I wanted to do a demo of a platform, I needed to fill out an online form and then wait to be contacted by a human. I was then walked through a 45- to 60-minute webinar, which was actually a sales presentation. I prefer kiosks and self-service. I don’t like sales presentations when I'm not ready for them or don’t want to buy. A good system will let you take it for a test drive. It may not give you access to the entire online library of learning, but it will provide temporary access (for a day or so) to get in, “kick the tires” and experience the platform. 

Are you wondering if your competitors are delivering training online? Some are most likely doing compliance training, like safety. Far fewer, less than 10 percent, are doing anything beyond compliance training. This is a huge opportunity for you, and you need to make the move soon. First of all, employees will view you as a progressive firm that invests in people. Second, the cost advantage is compelling: You train more people for less money. You maintain production while getting them trained. You make yourself more attractive to the next generation while educating all your leaders. We are finally at a time where new technology is creating real value in employee learning. 

Wally Adamchik is the president of FireStarter Speaking and Consulting, a Raleigh, North Carolina-based leadership consulting and development firm. He is a regular presenter at construction industry gatherings and is the author of Construction Leadership From A to Z: 26 Words to Lead By. He learned about leadership as an officer in the U.S. Marines and can be reached at wally@beafirestarter.com. Learn more at www.Firestarterspeaking.com.  

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