When to Bring in an E-Learning Provider (and More!) from Diane Elkins

Our network of customers includes corporate learning teams and training providers, all of whom strive to provide the most impactful training possible. In this series, we aim to connect our network by interviewing training service providers about their expertise and how you should decide on the best provider for your team.

Diane Elkins Co-founder of Artisan E-Learning

Here, we feature Diane Elkins, Co-Founder of Artisan E-Learning and E-Learning Uncovered on when and how to find an e-learning provider.

What is Artisan E-Learning’s area of expertise? What about E-Learning Uncovered?

Artisan E-Learning and E-Learning Uncovered are “sister” companies, both focused on e-learning using rapid development tools like Storyline and Captivate.

On the Artisan E-Learning side, we do it for you. We work with your subject-matter experts to design, write, and build e-learning courses for you.

On the E-Learning Uncovered side, we teach you how to do it yourself. We have books, workshops, and one-on-one coaching on everything from instructional design to graphic design to using the e-learning authoring tools.

How did you develop your expertise?

I would have to say the school of hard knocks! I got started with e-learning in 2001, when there was very little industry infrastructure—very few blogs, conferences, or even publications. So I took in everything I could find and talked to anyone who would stand still long enough to help me put the pieces together. I learned how to use the tools often through trial and error.

What does a typical client engagement look like for you?

A typical engagement is soup-to-nuts design and development of an e-learning course/curriculum built in a tool such as Storyline or Captivate.

We talk with the stakeholders to define the goals of the project, and then work with the subject-matter experts to identify what the learners need to do to meet those goals, along with the necessary information needed to get there. Then we decide on the instructional strategies and write all the content in storyboard form, which the client reviews.

Once the storyboards are approved, our production team gets all the graphics, records the audio, assembles the content, builds the questions and activities, and tests everything out to make sure it works, with client feedback and review cycles along the way. Then we turn over the ready-to-launch courses!

We’ve got a quick video on our website that summarizes the process.

What questions do you usually ask your clients to understand the projects they bring to you?

I’m all about the questions! When I teach e-learning design, I always emphasize that interviewing is one of the best skills you can have in this job. We tackle the big things, like what they are trying to accomplish, who their learners are, and what their culture is like. And we even go down to the little things, such as whether or not they use the Oxford comma and how they prefer to punctuate bullets. (It may seem little, but realizing at the very end of a project that there are inconsistencies can cause unnecessary headache and rework!)

If I had to just pick my one favorite question, it would be “What do you want someone to do differently on the job as a result of getting this information?” This helps us make sure we are focusing on the actions a learner needs to take to achieve the business goals of the program. It also helps us keep the content practical and relevant for the learner.

When do you recommend an organization bring in outside help?

I think it’s a combination of knowledge, capacity, and frequency:

  • I strongly recommend that organizations new to e-learning bring in some level of help—whether that’s hiring someone with experience, hiring a consultant, or working with a full-service vendor. There are so many decisions to be made on the first project, and it’s so much easier to do if you base those decisions on someone else’s experience! Some clients simply choose not to make it a priority to become skilled in e-learning development. They’d rather focus on their industry and their company, leaving the acquisition and maintenance of e-learning know-how to someone else. Keep in mind that e-learning knowledge is a beast that needs to be fed. I’ve had folks go through my Storyline training but then get pulled to other initiatives and not get to use any of it for a year. That’s a tough re-introduction when it’s time to get back to it.
  • Sometimes it’s a capacity issue. You may be interested and even have the skill, but you already have a full-time job. E-learning development will not fit into nooks and crannies of your day! It needs a concerted effort that many just don’t have the capacity for. Many of our clients do have a full internal development team. But they still come to us when they have capacity issues: they have too much work, an employee leaves in the middle of a project, or they want help with a high-profile project they want to take to the next level.
  • Finally, it makes sense to use outside help when you have infrequent or irregularly timed needs. If you only do a few courses a year, it might not be worth it to get someone up to speed and have that person stay current. Or maybe you need quite a few courses, but they all need to launch at the same time. Outside vendors can manage irregular staffing needs much easier than an internal team.

How should an L&D team decide on the best provider for their needs?

Let me start with my least favorite way. That would be a formal RFP (request for proposal) process where everything is done through writing, including a written question-and-answer process.

While these processes are designed to be equitable to all parties, it makes it very challenging to really understand the project needs and propose creative solutions.

For example, an RFP may state that they want the course to be responsive. I would want to have a conversation about that need. What clients often want is for the course to work on tablets, maybe phones, and they believe responsive is the solution. Well, responsive is one solution—there are others, and I’d like to talk through that and come up with our best recommendation.

So I guess to answer the question, the decision should be made based on a collaboration—a series of conversations. And I would always recommend asking to see samples of work and a chance to talk to references.

How do you define success with clients?

Our unofficial slogan is that we partner with our clients to craft their perfect solution. So to a great extent, we let the client define success.

We have one client who asked us to create 30 microlessons in 30 days in a variety of formats so they can see what their audience responded to. Some of the microlessons they loved; some they didn’t care for. But the project was a success because they wanted feedback on lots of different approaches and wanted it quickly. Mission accomplished.

Another client came to us saying how much he hated September because that’s when he launched their annual compliance courses. He would then spend a good amount of the month fielding phone calls from people complaining about having to take the courses. He said, “And I know they won’t be the most engaging things on the planet, but can you at least design them in a way that doesn’t make people’s eyes bleed?!” We designed the courses to be scenario-based to make them more engaging and provided a double test-out feature for people who already knew the content. I spoke with him late that September. He said, “I haven’t gotten a single complaint.”

For some it’s time, others it’s quality or trying to do more with a limited budget or redefining their approach or winning awards. We partner with our clients to craft their perfect solution.

What advice do you give to an L&D professional who is just getting their start?

Look at as many examples as you can. Look at award winners. Check out samples on the authoring tool communities. Look for free vendor demos online. Look outside of the L&D world to the web, entertainment, news, apps, and any electronic interactions you have. Become of a student of what’s possible. I think it’s best to start with knowing what’s possible—then figure out how to go do it.

How do you stay on top of industry news and trends?

We are celebrating Artisan’s 15-year anniversary this year. I look back at some of the things we created back then and have to chuckle a little bit. Even some of our early award winners could be so much more today. You can check out an example here.

This is why it’s so important to stay current. I do this currently by relying on professional organizations like ATD, Training Magazine, and the E-Learning Guild, along with an extremely generous network of colleagues (co-workers, clients, and other like-minded professionals whom I’ve met at conferences put on by the organizations I just listed). The books we write also help me stay fresh. When a new version of Captivate or Storyline comes out, we need to dive in and learn every checkbox of every new feature.

Ready to hear more from Diane? Reach out on LinkedIn or catch her in these Mimeo resources:

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