3 Proven Strategies for Increasing Adoption of Online Courses at International NGOs

A guest post from LINGOs CEO Chris Proulx

Chris_ProulxAt the end of 2015, I was reviewing data from our 85 members in the LINGOs Learning Collaborative—looking for insight into which programs were generating more adoption and usage. What jumped out to me was that there was a marked difference between a small number of members who were seeing amazing utilization of their online courses (as measured as completions per employee) compared with the majority of organizations.

Online course engagement at any organization is difficult, but encouraging employees to focus on learning while they are working in challenging development and humanitarian contexts can be even more of an uphill battle. So, I dug a little deeper and spoke to some of the L&D managers at these over-performing organizations to find out what was working.

Strategy #1: Start on Day One

At each of the four organizations I interviewed, employees were introduced to the LMS during their new employee on-boarding process. When Relief International overhauled their orientation program last year, Diane Barish focused on creating an online on-boarding program that had most staff using the LMS within the first 48 hours of joining RI. For Diane, this has been about establishing—from day one—that learning and professional development is a critical part of the organizational culture—and access to the LMS is a primary tool for which everyone can access regardless of work location.  At Elizabeth Glazer Pediatric AIDS Fund, Leigh Jenkins explained how they developed specific new course modules on EGPAF’s ethics policy that reached more experienced employees as well new employees and provided an opportunity to re-introduce the LMS to the company.

Requiring completion of online courses has given online learning and the LMS a black eye in many organizations. However, when used effectively and rolled out properly, these courses can provide staff with a window into the breadth of training that is available. Tamidra Marable of Heifer International confirmed that by exposing staff early on through on-boarding and compliance courses, you are essentially marketing the range of course options that are available for on-going professional development.

Strategy #2: Make it Sticky

At the conservation organization Rare, Teri Brezner explained how she had worked with her colleagues from the talent development group to launch five learning communities in 2015 around important topics at Rare. By aligning online courses with these communities, they were able to drive increased engagement. This is just one example of several where an organization aligned online courses with other organizational initiatives that resulted in increased adoption.

For example, Rare also rolled out new training programs mapped to the organization’s new Leadership Competencies that combined online courses in the LMS, in-house developed guides, and an online discuss. Relief International goes even further by encouraging use of the online courses as part of the performance management process—in fact 20% of an employee’s performance rating at RI is tied to meeting your training and professional development goals for the year.

Heifer has made an organization-wide commitment to PMD Pro as its project management methodology—for HQ as well as the field. As part of this commitment, all employees are required to complete LINGOs-authored Last Mile Learning PMD Pro courses before attending a more in-depth face to face PMD Pro training. The use of pre-requisites as part of a blended program is not uncommon, but Heifer goes a step further. The online PMD Pro courses are also included as part of one or more learning paths, where the project management courses are combined with other management and soft skills. Employees who complete the learning path are awarded an internal certificate of achievement—delivered by their manager at one of Heifer’s all-hands meetings.

Strategy #3: Don’t Go It Alone

It is nearly impossible for an L&D professional to drive significant adoption and engagement on their own. Each of the four people I spoke with joined forces across the organization to make learning a priority. Teri at Rare is using VPs and other senior leaders as visible experts in their in-house developed courses—generating demand among employees and also encouraging the leaders to advocate and promote the courses. At Relief International, Diane is working with in-country HR professionals—training them on how to help employees match training courses to their performance goals and how they can use LMS reporting features to track progress of their country’s staff. Continued professional development also had support from the top-down at RI which creates lots of energy and discussion around learning in the organization with even the VPs asking for their annual training records to ensure they are leading by example.

Tamidra explained that at Heifer, leaders are now competing against each other for the right to claim that their team has completed the most training and learning in the past year. Leigh at EGPAF works with in-country HR staff to hold brown bag lunch training sessions where teams complete an online course together and then discuss it in real time over lunch.

And, don’t forget that a little sizzle goes a long way. Tamidra’s colleagues at Heifer have been creating Pow-Toons to market learning and generating some excitement along the way.

And…Focus

The other key message I took away from these leaders was about focus. Most of them spoke about only three or four key initiatives last year where they invested significant time and energy to ensure success. So as you contemplate your 2016 strategy, choose a couple of important organizational needs and initiatives and work with other leaders to design a program that will allow you to start to build momentum for learning.

In addition to these strategies, there are some useful resources on the web to help you jump start your program in 2016. Chris Pappas’ blog post on effective blended learning strategies is a great start. The eLearning Guild also just released a new e-book on the role of Context not Content in your learning strategy. Fcousing on relevance and currency, similar to the learning communities at Rare or PMD Pro at Heifer, is far more important and effective for long-term sustainability of learning that relying on compliance mandates alone.

And finally, LINGOs and the Learning Collaborative are your partners in this journey:

  1. Making sense of the data from the LLP is a first step to planning ways to improve engagement. Are you signed up for the data and reporting webinar on Feb 11? Janet Humphries from GOAL is going to demo some of the dashboards she has created to stay on top of her learning program.
  2. The Marketing Your Learning co-creation group is kicking off on February 25. Make sure you email ross@lingos.org to sign up for this year-long working group designed to create and share tools and best practices in marketing.
  3. The Learning Collaborative team has also assembled more learning paths that can help you target specific job functions or learning objectives more easily. To learn more, contact your dedicated LINGOs account manager.
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