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Does your organisation have Grand Designs?

Are you about to embark on a new e-learning project? Acteon Learning and Communication consultant, Rebecca Trigg looks at the different approaches to consider when it comes to designing and building e-learning.

I imagine most people have seen an episode of Grand Designs. It’s the TV show that follows the story of a family building their dream house. It starts out with a happy family, usually expecting their first child, with grand plans and sunny plot. A year on, they are living in a damp caravan, arguing and borrowing money from the bank. Luckily, there’s normally a happy ending involving sustainable materials, panoramic views and laughing children.

This kind of transformation is fun to watch and despite the challenges, generally has a satisfying ending. But, it recently occurred to me - building houses involves the kind of choices that you have to make when developing e-learning. This can also be fraught with difficulties – although rarely do the L&D team end up living in a caravan!

Like all builds, one of the main considerations is getting the right help at each stage. Will you manage it yourself, will you use a series of individual contractors or will you hire a full-service team that can do everything for you?

Your decision depends on your business objectives, your resources and your choice of partner.

DIY – doing it yourself

There are some great e-learning platforms and software out there right now. In fact, there’s never been an easier time to create your own e-learning materials. But doing it yourself requires a healthy amount of investment, if you’re going to do it well.

Managing content creation yourself can be low cost initially, but it’s worth remembering that it normally takes longer. Although upfront costs may be less, your own time – and the time spent by your tech or comms teams helping you getting the system up and running – also comes at a cost. So when does this approach work? Mainly, when your business has a long-term need to produce their own e-learning content. Or perhaps you have content that requires updating at regular intervals.

If you don’t want to write the content yourself, you could look at buying content that you can deploy on your own system. This can save the time and hassle of creating bespoke materials, but you won’t get that authentic and engaging experience that you do when you develop it in-house. Of course, it’s not just written content you can create now – pretty much anyone with a smartphone can create video or audio content to support key messages. There’s plenty of great resources online giving tips on how to do this effectively.

Like all DIY projects, a lack of external input means you risk losing momentum. Think of that unfinished bathroom. Real life just gets in the way. You lose motivation, you lack energy and you’ve still got your day job to do. It’s no wonder so many e-learning projects never get finished. Watch out for common pitfalls. Rookie mistakes can have disastrous and expensive consequences. Try and find a partner – either the platform or software provider – who will help you on your way and highlight things to watch out for. Good authoring and software companies will offer support and advice, usually for free.

The good news is that DIY develops the skills of the team – each course that you build and deploy gets better, takes less time, becomes more responsive to business needs. Just be careful you develop skills throughout your organisation, not just with one individual!

“Professional e-learning designers know the trade, they’ve got the right tools, they understand what works, how to apply best practice and they also know the pitfalls.”


Sometimes you just need to work with a professional. The business has a need for a quick turnaround and you want to get training or communicating as soon as possible. Or perhaps you want impact – a professional, flawless finish. If so, then working with an agency or an experienced freelancer could be what you’re after.

Professional e-learning designers know the trade, they’ve got the right tools, they understand what works, how to apply best practice and they also know the pitfalls.

Buying in external experience gets you the benefits of exceptional instructional design skills, leading to better retention of messages and higher levels of engagement. Professionals will be aware of the opportunities to blend the learning experiences, meaning there’s more likelihood of learning being applied in the real world. And from a technical perspective, everything will work as it’s meant to so you can reap the benefits straight away.

Professional ‘builders’ can work within an existing framework – they can extend or repurpose content; a bit like when you turn your loft into a new room. So you may already have a company handbook online, or you perhaps have some e-learning in existence, but you want someone to make it more interactive, add animations or scenario assessment questions. That’s a great time to get a professional in to deliver maximum impact.

Outsourcing development also makes it easier to push back on unnecessary content – they can liaise directly with your subject matter experts, handle others’ input, making sure you stay focused on the important stuff.

Professionals generally have a great network of reliable contacts – they can judge when to use video or animation, they can assess whether you need responsive design – and can then bring expert knowledge and application into the project as and when it’s needed. You don’t have to go and find these skills yourself. That saves you time and money.

The key thing to watch out for is that you may miss opportunities if the project scope is too narrow. Try and maintain a long-term vision – look beyond the single module; like when you refurbish a house, there may be economies of scale if you do many rooms at once.

Overall, professional learning designers can be a great asset when you simply need to get a job done – and get it done really well.

“But what many companies are realising is that learning and development is at the heart of an organisation’s culture.”


But what about when you need something more impressive? When your business needs to re-invent itself, to shape a new path for the future, wants to change behaviour on a grand and sustainable scale? It’s at this point that you could do with a learning architect. Not just a supplier, but a true partner that can take your vision and turn it into something tangible for every person in the organisation.

Bespoke transformation solutions aren’t new in the industry. But what many companies are realising is that learning and development is at the heart of an organisation’s culture.

The perception is that it’s expensive to design and deliver on a grand scale, but actually this is where you can reap the greatest rewards. If you’re building something for the whole organisation then yes, clearly there are costs involved in the first year, but once you’re ‘in’ then you’ve got an amazing landscape on which to roll-out learning programmes. This environment has high ceilings, there’s room to grow, it’s a place to engage and inspire others. At this level, you create and deliver absolutely relevant, tailored, game-changing content.

Business transformation partnerships require openness, honesty and trust on both sides. Flexible approaches allow innovation and growth, which is why strong partner relationships are essential.

Large scale projects need a learning management system that delivers meaningful information – robust and reliable data that you can use to drive business strategy. Don’t skimp – this is the bedrock of your project.

When the scope of a project is wide and the amount of people involved seems to grow, you need tight project management. Get a ‘blueprint’ agreed before anyone starts building. Consider getting that blueprint signed off by anyone in the business who could pull content at the last minute. Get engagement early to save development and build time. This will help you stay focused and on budget.

Home sweet home

All these approaches are valid; it just depends what your objectives and resources are. But what you always need is a committed and reliable delivery partner who shares your vision and understands what you’re trying to achieve – the perfect home for your e-learning.

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