Building Internal Advisory Councils

A colleague and I facilitated a session at The eLearning Guild’s 2011 DevLearn conference on selecting and implementing a learning management system. We were enthusiastic about the subject, having recently done this in our organization. However, as we shared our experience and the resources we had used for system selection, we saw a distinctly different pattern emerge from the participants during discussion.

When we asked the group about their experiences, there was a collective groan as they lamented about the various learning technology solutions in their organizations and how many of these solutions had gone awry.

One individual who worked for a global corporation shared that within their company there were multiple systems, and the systems didn’t mesh well. User adoption was limited in any of the systems, and their team couldn’t fully support what was put in place.

Another colleague shared that their company’s CEO and executive team had decided on a system that they liked, with little involvement from the learning and development team. The result was frustration from the users and system functionality that couldn’t keep up with the growing pace of the organization. Although it was critical for the CEO to buy in to any solution, he eventually made the LMS purchase selection without engaging the learning and development arm of the organization. The result was an expensive solution that was a poor fit for the organization.

Unfortunately, we heard similar stories throughout the conference. The frustrations felt by both the vendors representing learning technology solutions and the learning professionals responsible for managing these systems were often the same: lack of internal alignment and preparation often leads to failed selections and implementations.

Taking a proactive approach within our companies to identify stakeholders at all levels and involve them early and often in the process through an internal advisory committee can make selecting and implementing learning technology solutions successful.

The importance of involving managers in learning technology initiatives

Involving managers early in the process is critical to gaining support for your technology solutions. In most cases, you are more likely to gain buy-in by sharing how the technology will address a problem that impacts the managers.

As explained in the eLearning Guild report Getting Started in e-Learning: Building the Business Case for e-Learning, “Different situations and companies will warrant different approaches. In general, problems and opportunities are phrased as statements, and a gap analysis is presented as a conclusion from research.”

In other words, the decision-makers must understand why they would consider investing in a solution.

Example

Problem statement:

Our on-boarding process for new hires takes 90 days, and there is an additional average of 60 more days before they are rated as able to perform their tasks effectively.

Opportunity statement:

By using the new system to support and automate processes for on boarding, the average time for these tasks will decrease to 45 days, and estimated time to proficiency will be 30 days. Our time overall will decrease 50 percent, and lead to accelerated ramp up and the potential for increased sales.

Sample gap analysis:

The cumbersome on-boarding process currently frustrates new hires, and overall job satisfaction ratings within 30 days decrease by 20 percent, with another 15 percent in the next 30 days. Improving the process will lead to increased engagement and grow our talent pool.

Even if your learning and development team is abreast of the latest trends in learning technology and they know the reputation of different solution providers, they may still run the risk of losing support from the front lines if managers are not involved in the process.

How to identify key stakeholders and communicate the value of their input

It is your role to engage your internal stakeholders early in the process and encourage them to plan for the future, and to paint the picture of how technology can support the organization’s visions. Leading the charge in selecting the right fit and communicating early and often throughout the process will help you avoid a common setback in successful implementation: lack of support from senior management.

—ASTD Infoline, July 2012

By identifying all of the business areas that your solution could potentially impact, you increase the likelihood that everyone will buy in to the final decision.

In addition to identifying end users and executive stakeholders in business units of the organization, consider asking the following:

  • Who can assist your team in anticipating larger-scale initiatives in your organization? These may impact your rollout if other, more widespread technologies or initiatives are competing for resources.
  • What is happening externally, but within your industry, that could conflict with an enterprise-wide rollout? Who is able to offer advice in this area?

Depending on the size of your organization, you may need representation from:

  • Human resources
  • Compliance
  • Information technology
  • Internal help desks
  • Risk/audit
  • Project management
  • Marketing
  • Accounting
  • Safety
  • Quality
  • Sales

Also select a sample of your end users. Are there members of your organization that would be early adopters of the system? Gaining their support and asking for feedback will increase the likelihood of system adoption. 

Best practices in forming the council

Once you have identified council members, customize your invitation and messaging to the group to set your team up for success.

In many organizations, individual contributors as well as managers are being asked to do less with more. They are doing the work of two or more people as a result of staffing cutbacks. They are already serving on multiple project teams and workgroups. In this case, being asked to attend additional meetings or adding to their workload could cause resistance.

In some cases, asking for their participation in a way that sets a positive tone and emphasizes the importance of their contributions may be better received.

Depending on the culture of your company, you might consider:

  • Getting buy-in from a prospective council member’s supervisor, and positioning their involvement as one of being “nominated.”
  • Meeting for the first time face-to-face. If another event in your organization will be bringing these individuals together already, such as a company meeting, adding a few hours or a half day for these and a few other participants to get together may be feasible.
  • Send a formal communication to each member outlining the reason for their nomination, the value they could provide your group, and basic expectations of what they might be asked to do.
  • Sending handwritten thank you notes periodically, recognizing individual team member’s contributions.
  • Holding a kick-off meeting to come together as a group, review what you might want feedback on over the next year, and decide as a group the best ways/dates to meet and/or communicate. This allows council members to influence how often and in what way meetings would be manageable for their schedules.
  • Recognizing the council members in company newsletters or your intranet.
  • Periodically sharing “testimonials” of council members to encourage interest and participation from others in the future.

An additional consideration will be your technology vendors. If you approach potential service providers as partners, you have a higher likelihood of gaining acceptance.

Barry Richman of EPath Learning has over 15 years’ experience both on the client side and in a business development role with learning technology companies. He suggests building a democratic methodology to support the selection and implementation of learning technology. For example, when working with a small manufacturing organization client, he asked:

  • What’s your decision tree? Who needs to contribute input? When?
  • What is your span of control?
  • Who does the technology impact? What business units? What regions of the company?

These questions helped them discover that the safety, human resources, and quality control department heads would be critical to the decision process. During selection and implementation they used a tool that decentralized the decision-making process so that everyone could weigh in equally, express their opinions, and feel valued as decision makers.

Richman adds that feedback from a high level as well as ground level in the organization is critical to engaging end users as well as influencers, and allows all stakeholders to be a part of the process.

David Guralnick, president of Kaleidoscope Learning and founder of the International Conference for E-Learning in the Workplace, shared a similar approach for a national retail chain. “We proposed learn-by-doing simulations at a time when most online training was just text and page-turning. Our internal champion was able to convince the VP of HR that this was a worthwhile approach. We showed brief demonstrations of similar work to give a better sense of what it would look like. Our champion had to go high up in the organization to get the go-ahead, and it paid off—the simulation was very well received, and in some ways helped change the training culture for the client.”

Whenever possible, communicate openly about internal stakeholder concerns with your preferred vendors. They may be able to partner with you to achieve an outcome that will benefit the organization and the end user.

Good vendor partners will focus on your needs and want to uncover how to help you gain buy-in with your council. They should be willing to customize product demos or data sheets in order to best address the interests of your stakeholders.

Examples of how different stakeholders might contribute opinions

Mike Baker, my co-presenter at DevLearn, has been involved with multiple technology selections and implementations over the last 20 years. He advises that leveraging council members as early adopters is critical to the success of any project.

However, he says, it does come with a price. Because each member’s level of buy-in is a direct reflection of what they feel their departments/areas will get out of the project, he suggests customizing product demos and presentations for each of the council members to best explain what’s in it for them. Although this may initially require extra time and work, it will quickly pay off as they start spreading the word throughout your organization of how beneficial the project will be. Then you can focus on the task at hand, and they will generate the necessary buzz throughout your organization.

It may help to anticipate the concerns or questions that might come from different departments. For example, human resources may be concerned about how new technology might depend on their HRIS system. The risk department might want information about the background and stability of the solution provider. And the sales executives might want to make sure your new mobile sales app reflects the sales cycle and expectations for the reps in the field.

The risk associated with not involving key stakeholders

Without stakeholder involvement, your technology solution may drain resources, increase organizational risk, and frustrate learners, as well as their managers.

In addition, your team’s credibility may diminish without proper selection and implementation. 

Summary

Anticipating obstacles, identifying key stakeholders, and setting expectations for internal council involvement will help you achieve buy-in and support for your learning technology efforts. Thorough and thoughtful planning, as well as a partnership approach with your vendors, will increase the likelihood of your success.

Resources

Temple Smolen, Getting Started in e-Learning: Building the Business Case for e-Learning, The eLearning Guild (2009) http://www.elearningguild.com/research/archives/index.cfm?id=136&action=viewonly

Stacy Lindenberg, “Selecting and Implementing an LMS,” ASTD (2012)
http://store.astd.org/Default.aspx?tabid=167&ProductId=23168

 

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