Beware the Dark Side of Online EHS Training

Squandered opportunities incur productivity and monetary losses that may completely offset any compliance gain.

"THE future is here to stay." In terms of safety training, this saying refers to the use and proliferation of Internet-based courseware for delivering training messages, as well as Internet-based software for administering and managing those messages.

IDC, an IT market intelligence and advisory firm, estimates the global outsourced eLearning market now exceeds $5 billion and expects it to grow to $14 billion by 2010. Experts find it difficult to calculate the precise size of the EHS online training market, but they almost all agree on this: Online training will continue to grow at a much faster rate than videotape, instructor-led, or other traditional training formats. The online EHS training market has matured beyond its early adopter phase and has now entered a true growth phase.

Why has safety-focused eLearning bloomed to such an extent? One can chalk up its impressive adoption rate, to some degree, to its ease of ROI measurement. When compared to soft skills training--leadership, management skills, etc.--safety and compliance training's subject matter lends itself particularly well to objective economic and performance measures. So far, those measures have returned impressive results.

In addition to its "good looks" and inherent effectiveness, however, some of you may have also encountered the dark side of online safety training. The unfortunate fact remains that many online safety training programs, like their more traditional brethren, obsessively pursue one central objective--checking the "compliance box"--at the expense of other valuable training outcomes. When you make the satisfaction of compliance requirements the sole aim of your online training, you inevitably fail to leverage the "training moment": the time spent in the delivery of training when you not only build on your employees' skills, but also shape their attitudes and reinforce organizational norms and goals. A singular focus on compliance at the expense of the training moment qualifies as the dark side of online safety training.

Who or what is to blame for the dark side? A likely culprit may be the multitude of companies offering online EHS training solutions. Compliance has been a hot topic for the past several years, compelling many providers to jump on the bandwagon. Often, these providers offer useful learning management systems, or LMSs, that allow you to administer your safety training programs and achieve compliance much more efficiently than ever. Given that the technology offered by these providers has been beneficial, how have they fallen short? They missed the mark by turning their EHS eLearning solutions into single-outcome training initiatives that solely target compliance. In many cases, EHS-focused eLearning has become a compliance product rather than a training product.

All eLearning should address and seek to optimize the overall trainee experience. To be effective, training must go beyond compliance and instead target multiple objectives and outcomes. It should increase or reinforce trainee knowledge, affect trainee behavior through the practical application of this knowledge, and produce measurable business benefits. Training should be satisfying, engaging, and effective. It should boost morale, enhance an organization's safety culture, and generate employee and public goodwill. This is not to diminish the importance of compliance for any online safety training initiative; but compliance should emerge as a byproduct of that training rather than serve as its most lofty goal.

What is at the core of a quality training experience within an EHS-focused eLearning program? If you answered with "the LMS," you should guess again, although a poorly designed or performing LMS certainly can contribute to an inadequate trainee experience. "Courseware," instead, is the correct answer. Courseware, or content, affects the trainee experience more than any other component of an online training program.Can poorly designed courseware satisfy compliance requirements? It can in a technical sense, but that might not save it from being a dull "page-turner." Will flawed content satisfy basic principles of adult learning theory, as well as support your overall training objective? More often than not, the answer is a resounding no, and the corresponding costs can be very high.

Costs of the Dark Side
Say a company provides six 30-minute online safety courses to its 500 employees each year. That means it dedicates 1,500 hours annually to that online training, which represents no small outlay of time and money. The company either can seize that training opportunity by taking a multi-outcome, trainee-focused approach, or it can squander those 1,500 associated hours by pursuing the less-than-ambitious goal of mere compliance.

Squander that training opportunity, and you incur productivity and monetary losses that may completely offset any gain achieved with respect to compliance. You might even damage employee morale. That's not to mention the hassles and headaches of then trying to reverse course and re-initiate the whole process.

How do you avoid the dark side and its associated costs? Begin your online training initiative with a trainee-focused, multi-outcome approach. Don't give in to the dark side and its singular focus on compliance. Choose instead to capitalize on the training moment. But given the wide array of EHS online course offerings, how does one winnow the wheat from the chaff? No magic formula exists, but practical advice does, whether you seek off-the-shelf or custom online training.

1. Preview the courseware. This sounds obvious, but make sure you "try it before you buy it." Many organizations begin online training initiatives without a thorough review of the courseware. Take your time. Thoroughly assess and compare the content of each potential provider. As discussed below, pricing differences often become understandable after this type of review.

2. Check the production date of the courseware. The market contains plenty of poor courseware that should rightfully be put out to pasture. Make sure prospective courseware remains current, not only from a regulatory standpoint, but also from a multimedia perspective. Content doesn't need to be over-the-top flashy, but it does need to be engaging and interactive.

3. Evaluate subject matter expertise/sources. Ask who determined adherence to compliance standards and other industry practices and standards. Ask where content comes from and on whose standards it was developed.

4. Consider the instructional design. Although ignored by many providers, the quality of a course's instructional design remains the most important contributor to the training moment and a meaningful trainee experience. Find out who served as the "architect" of the courseware. Make sure the prospective provider can answer these questions: Who is the intended audience for the course? What are the specific and measurable learning objectives" How are principles of adult learning theory incorporated into the course? How did you make the courseware lively and engaging?

5. Production and project management processes matter. If you are partnering with a provider to develop courseware from scratch, pay particular attention to the provider's quality control and project management processes. Determine your project roles and responsibilities, the communication channels you will establish and maintain, and the tools you will employ to streamline the development process and to optimize your time commitment.

6. What customization capabilities are offered? Does the provider offer a means to customize the courseware according to your needs? Customization may be offered either through specialized tools or by harnessing the provider's own development resources. But be wary of providers who tout easy-to-use customization tools. Very rarely will these tools provide true ease of use, and the degree of allowable customization often remains limited.

7. Check a provider's development resources. Ask the provider whether it employs its own development team or relies on subcontractors to produce content. Both methods can result in success, but it is much more difficult to manage contracted resources and ensure control of content quality at the same time. Do not be afraid to ask for the resumes or about the credentials of those developing or customizing courseware.

8. Examine the courseware's technical support. How will the provider assist with the proper performance of the courseware? It is one thing for a vendor to create a nice-looking, engaging, interactive course, and quite another to implement it within an LMS. If you already use an LMS, make sure to specify the volume of data that must be passed between the content and the LMS. Also, look for companies that have experience with the LMS you intend to use.

9. Check customer and market references. Ask providers for customer references. In addition, ask your EHS industry colleagues for their opinions about the prospective providers.

10. Consider the pricing. Your cost outlays will increase in lockstep with added content interactivity and media-richness. Only by previewing numerous offerings will you understand and appreciate pricing differences. In EHS eLearning, as in life, the old adage "you get what you pay for" holds true.

Conclusion
As many of you continue to manage online EHS safety training programs and others plan future rollouts, consider first and foremost the needs of your trainees and their overall training experience--the training moment. In the end, the primary goal of your online EHS training should be employee-focused. Simply stated, it is keeping them safe, healthy, and on the job. Compliance should flow as a natural byproduct of that effort.

This article appears in the November 2005 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

This article originally appeared in the November 2005 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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