Creating an e-learning strategy that works

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The Conversation

A: “We need to have online learning”

B: “Huh? Why?”

A: “I was told we must have e-learning. I’m not really sure what it is, but I know it is popular, so we must have it”

B: “Okay, what should I look for?”

A: “We need a LMS. So look for that.  And we want it launched as soon as possible.”

B:  “Ok.”

While the exact conversation might not exactly be along those lines, if you read between the lines, I’d surmise many of you have had or have heard such discussions.

But just looking for a LMS while definitely needed, shouldn’t be your first step. Rather, it should be developing an e-learning strategy.

An e-learning strategy can be and should be used in whatever industry or market.  Education? Need a strategy. Higher education? Strategy. Corporate? Strategy.  Hybrid (HE/Corp)? Strategy. Non-Profit? Strategy. Association? Strategy. B2B/B2C? Strategy.

What constitutes a strategy?

If you look on the internet, a strategy is a very long and extensive document with specific headers for whatever type it might be (marketing for example) and always seems to require a lot of pages, even if you use a template.

Say the word “strategy” and people start to worry. “I don’t know how to do it”, “Ugh, this will take a long time to write”, “Where do we go to find it?”.

Before you start to panic about an e-learning strategy, know this:

  • You can build and design an e-learning strategy without writing the next James Joyce novel
  • On a weekly basis you are already doing some form of strategy (going to the grocery store, buying stuff online, renting a flat/apt/condo/house or buying one, etc.), you just don’t call it that.

Example: You are heading home and see a traffic jam. You must decide – do you just deal with it, do you jump off the first exit and take the backwards or do you jump off an exit, take some roads and get back on the interstate.  Right there, you devised a strategy.

More importantly, it didn’t require to write 25 pages to do it. 

I’m not saying that some types of strategy do not require you to write a massive tome, rather I am saying when it comes to e-learning, you do not need to write a book (that nobody will read) – hence those wonderful summaries – to get the job done.

What your e-learning strategy needs to include

Let’s start off with the basics. An e-learning strategy should always include

  • Objectives  – What do you want to accomplish with e-learning?  (I should note I define e-learning as online learning)
  • Goals – What are your goals? Short term and long term?  (You always have goals in mind, and they can change as you move forward with your program).

Long term -where do you want to be in three years? (Nowadays, three years is long term, anything beyond that will always change, heck in three years the ice cap could melt and we could all end up on one island or the robots can take over the world, so five years is too long).  Short term? The first year.

  • Target Audience – Who are they? On the ed front: Students or students and teachers or students, teachers, parents, or students, teachers and administrators; on the biz side: for internal – all employees or some employees – if some employees specific departments or locations or job role, etc., on the all employee side – full time and part time or full time only or full time and contractors or full time only or whatever; on B2B – employees and customers or customers only or customers, channel partners, distributors or whatever; B2C – customers.  And whatever other mix you may have involved.
  • Projected number of learners – Has to be done up front.  Too many people wait until they are ready to go with their LMS.  Better to have an idea now, then spend the time later as part of your LMS search. 

B2B/B2C – requires estimates. I always recommend conservative numbers to start (even though I hope for large out of the gate). 

You can always change and modify these numbers even internal (I mean you do plan to hire more people at some point right?).  For education, uh you are planning on more students?

Can you have multiple targets? Absolutely, but you must identify at least one target audience, otherwise you will just be blasting out your strategy with no end game in mind.

  •  What components or items do you need to accomplish your e-learning plan?  In my opinion here are the key items you will need:
  • Will you want/need an authoring tool to build courses or are you going to have someone outside of the organization build them or just purchase courses via a 3rd party provider?  Perhaps you are going to build your own courses and also purchase courses. Thus, if you plan to build your own courses, you will need an authoring tool (I recommend authoring tool route).
  • A LMS/LCMS/Learning Platform –  Regardless if it is open source (free, but not really) or commercial. You will want one.  I know people you just use a web server, but honestly, that won’t achieve long term success. 
  • Web Conferencing if you plan to do webinars – At some point, you will want to do them – they save you money, compared to folks traveling to a specific location and so forth, when a LMS includes a web conferencing solution – you will still need a separate license, thus having one beforehand makes a lot of sense. 

Best of all, there are plenty of solid ones out there, that are less expensive than say WebEx or GoToMeeting.  One note, I have never found a perfect WC solution.

Rather, I and many others find ones that freeze up, drop calls, have tech issues and so forth.  That is the reality today.

  • Digital Tools – Do you need a separate assessment tool? Or want to include a MOOC platform (can be done via API BTW)? Perhaps you are seeking a mentoring product or a syllabus management tool or plagiarism detection tool or VR tool or whatever
  • Social – Do you need any social tools or features?  Most LMSs have some form of social functionality, but there are people who seek a specific platform. Personally, I wouldn’t go that route, but hey, people do – with Yammer, Jive, Bloomfire and so on. 
  • E-Commerce – Do you need e-commerce? If yes do you already have a payment gateway?
  • Mobile – How are they going to access the courses/content when they are not in your location (internal)? For customers they can access the platform, courses etc. anywhere. 

What we know when it comes to employees is that overwhelmingly they access out of the workplace.

Exceptions being part-time and union. 

For students, out of the classroom. Exception those higher ed institutions and K-12 schools that spend 50% in the classroom and 50% of folks out of the classroom (I should note that the percentiles can vary by school/institution)

The Option

  • TM/PM – Some people like to include a talent mgt or performance management system as well, under their e-learning strategy. Personally, I think that is a mistake. 

If you want specific PM features in a LMS (and today the vast majority do not have PM features beyond per se skill gap), then that would go under your requirements and features needed in a LMS.

What Else?

Some people add a mission statement or vision.  Please.  You are not launching a business here. That said, here are the items I always had (you may or may not want to include them):

  • Implementation – How is it going to be done? What is my timetable? Do I need a project manager on my side of the house?  Will there be a project team at our location (i.e. your own people) – the vendor will either have a PM and a PM team or not – just depends on how they operate. 

Implementation is the whole entity, all those wonderful components.  You may be the only person who has to do it (don’t fret, I’ve been there), so you should have a game plan in mind.

  • Who will be involved in the e-learning program? Just you? Training department, organizational development, human resources or a combination of XY or sales and training or X, Y, K and B or if you have just L&D – then is it just L&D or L&D and IT and so forth.  On the HE side – only the department or is it the entire list of faculty or only a select few of faculty and does it involve folks in IS/IT or some professional lab and so on.. for K-12:  usually it is whoever is running the tech entity for the school district, but it could just be each individual school – and who are those folks.
  • End Result – You should always have one IMO.  Even if that end result is per year, have one. 

Specifically we are talking about specific people at whatever type of business, school, university and so forth. 

You may have a committee – who is on it?  On a side bar, no more than five people should be on any committee. Anything higher guarantees too much time, too much out of focus and too many headaches. 

If five people can’t get this figured out, then you have the wrong five people.

Actually, it can just be you – whoever is running the entire e-learning initiative. 

I did it at many companies and it worked perfectly. Committees were always an added joy (j/k, they gave me headaches), but the key was I was the final decision maker on the committee – trust me you will want this.

Elephant in the room

Budget.  You must have one. It should be broken down by line item of each of those components (products you will need). It should include resources (human beings). 

If you have a team and all of them are involved you should calculate the cost – yes, your team becomes a number.  If whomever oversees you doesn’t require this piece and it is a non factor for the budget, then leave it out.

When you create your budget – create a forecast of three years. 

Again, your forecast may or may not change over that time period, especially if you did your estimates and as a result produced accurate projections.  

Realize that it takes time to build and sustain mass.

Some folks have a budget that is unrealistic in that it is too low. 

E-Learning costs money. 

In the long run it is cheaper to maintain, sustain and build up from than ILT, however in the initial phase it tends to be higher (depending on a LMS and users projected, and that setup fee – if applicable).

Worse, I have seen companies who have a strong budget for year one, then drop off to low for year two and so forth.  Launching a program is not a one time shot and then you hit cruise control.

It is on-going and thus your budget should reflect that. 

It doesn’t mean you have the same budget as the initial phase (which should always include buying a LMS or using an open source one – eventually will cost $$), but it shouldn’t be where you have jumped off the stagecoach either.

Bottom Line

Before you send me an e-mail or list in the comments some item that I might be missing, I’m here to say – that what is listed above will get you where you need to go. 

There will always be people who have additional items they list or include in their strategy, and that is fine with me.

But, the point is you don’t need it. 

The results for my e-learning strategies at the various locations and places I worked at was always the same – when it came to design and length. 

Get right to the point information without all the fluff.  I never wrote anything more than 10 pages. If it went over that, then I knew two things:

a. Not everyone would read it – especially the people I reported to – usually the COO.  They always wanted to know what will it cost (budget wise) and how long until it goes live. Everything else was a wasted paper.

b. I did not streamline it as much as I could.  A budget by the way, should be a separate document and never part of the pack per se.

How you do it is up to you.

But remember an e-learning strategy is more than just saying I am going to buy this or that and then when that happens figure out the rest.

It is coming up with a game plan. 

After all, you do it on a weekly basis. 

You just don’t write it down. 

E-Learning 24/7


  1. Hi Craig,

    I was wondering if you could provide some budgetary advice for someone new to managing e-learning projects. One of my main concerns is coming in too low or too high. Is this something that you need to learn through experience, or are there any resources that can help you prepare for it?

    Thanks, and great post!

    1. Randy,

      Excellent question. The challenge is knowing what will be part of the e-learning projects – i.e. a platform out of the gate, authoring tool, digital tools (online or otherwise). Factors to consider number of users (i.e. one username and one password) – the LMS industry’s pricing (there are some minor vendor exceptions) is based on users – i.e. seats. If users are frequent – that is a factor, if in-frequent another factor. If B2B/B2C factor. The authoring tool – I would recommend SaaS, but that said, desktop does have some advantages – mainly in the licensing angle (not all vendors mind you). The industry is well aware (or at least some vendors) that people share licenses (AT that is). So you could buy one license and share with some others. I know it sounds devious, but it is reality. If you decide that is not something for you, then the industry is moving more towards a user base pricing set as well. The users are the people building the courses. People reviewing them, giving feedback, blah blah are not charged – so if someone says, hey we don’t charge for that and make it sound like they are the only ones – uh, they are not.

      What I tend to find is people (buyers) who come in too low for their budgets. Rule #1 – always project for three years. Expect your budget to be higher in year one – so that should be calculated – this is based on you getting a LMS which at some point you will need.

      If you wait to say the second year to get a platform, personally I think it is a mistake, nevertheless your budget would be low in year one – say 10K at max, and then be higher in year two. Year three is about maintenance and user base. So you could go low or mid. It shouldn’t be higher than year two, unless you are say B2B or have lots of users and plan for lots more. Let’s say you have 100,000 users. Whenever you buy a LMS, you can expect somewhere in the neighborhood of 500K and up. I would estimate closer to 900K and up, because many vendors love to guage on pricing. At that number of users, you should never pay higher than $6 a user. NEVER.

      Be aware that seat pricing is arbitrary. There is no magic formula for that – and never take the first price they pitch you. That is a street price. Setup fees is the killer in the industry (as a whole) and it where people planning budgets mess up. It depends on the vendor mind you, on what they will charge and if they will charge. The majority charge.

      If at some point you are interested in my services, I can help you a lot more. Regardless though, you should plan for outside unknown variables (external). If you have internal only (employees and even some contractors and are under 5,000 users), you will have a lot of flexibility – your budget though (assuming you get an authoring tool), shouldn’t be higher than 55-60K – I would put that at the high mark, with clearly the goal of going lower. I have seen people go 15K with 3,000 users including setup – and that is not a good idea.

      Finally, think were do you want to be – in three years. That should be a big key, that people forget. They focus on now – not next year. You need to do that for your budget.


  2. Thanks, this is a really nice post, and you’re absolutely right regarding the strategy. It’s the key to implementing e-learning on wide scale and must be considered carefully and be planned for a long-term period of time.

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