Who Wins? Client or E-Learning Designer?

It’s election season—have you noticed? If you live in a “swing state” like I do, it’s hard to ignore the daily political ads and robocalls. A common question in our political system is, ‘What exactly are we electing our representatives to do?’ Are they voted into office to directly fulfill the will of the majority, or should they make choices based on their own experience and judgment?

As e-learning developers working with clients, we face a similar challenge. Is it our duty to faithfully carry out the client’s wishes, or should we instead use our own informed judgment when designing a course? We’ve all worked with clients who’ve told us, “Oh, we love our course—we’ve used it for years, and you won’t have to change anything.” Then we get their PowerPoint, which is roughly the length of Lord of the Rings trilogy and features 127 different animated bullet styles. Ideally, we would be able to make changes and improvements to the course based on our education and “expert” ideas about course design and development. But who really is the “expert”, and whose course is it anyway?

Whether you are an e-learning contractor or part of an internal development team, I believe e-learning designers always need to strike a proper balance between the wishes and desires of the client and our own expertise in course creation. If we don’t listen to the client and instead build a course completely the way we want it, we risk creating something wonderful that has no impact on the client’s business goals. Conversely, if we slavishly build a course based exclusively on the client’s dictates, we may end up with an ineffective course and miss an opportunity to help the client increase their bottom line.

When working with a client, here are some suggested strategies and techniques you can use to help maintain a proper balance between fulfilling the client’s wishes and injecting your own expertise.  For the purposes of this discussion, let’s say your client insists on including all 57 pages of their information security policy in a course for new hires, even though most of that material relates only to the IT department.

1. Use a lot of “I” statements as opposed to “You” statements.

You’ll get a lot of mileage out of this technique by avoiding becoming unwittingly confrontational or challenging. Instead of “You don’t really need a lot of this policy material in this course,” try “I was thinking we could remove some of the policy material that only applies to folks in IT.” Instead of implicitly pointing a finger at the client or their course, you offer a personal suggestion.

2. Ask clarifying questions.

The goal here is to guide the client into being more specific about what they want from this course. Your questions and the client’s answers can identify weaknesses or gaps in the client’s approach without you having to explicitly point them out. Be careful not to let your clarifying questions become “framing” questions that too aggressively attempt to paint the client into a corner.

Examples might include:

“Which three parts of the information security policy do you think are most important for all employees to be familiar with?”
“Which information security violations have created the most problems for your company in the past?”

3. Ask about the learner’s performance

It’s your client’s job to focus on the subject matter. It’s your job to focus on the learner. Bring the two interests together by asking questions and getting them talking about the people who will be taking the course. This can focus everyone on the performance goal of the course and clarify key instructional design issues. Questions might include:

“Could you give me an example where a typical employee would use this information on the job?”
“If a new hire didn’t know this particular piece of information, what would happen?”

4. Ask forgiveness, not permission.

If you feel strongly about a particular design decision, just include it in an initial storyboard or early finished module rather than asking first. This allows you to set the agenda and engage in conversation about the relative merits of your approach, as opposed to discussing whether it should be included at all. In the example we’ve been working with, go ahead and cut out a significant portion of the information security policy in the first block of content you provide to your client. Provide a summary as to what you took out and why you think it’s best for the course.

I believe it’s essential as an e-learning professional to lobby for what’s right for the student, as well as the intended performance outcome. Bring your education, experience and expertise to the table, but always in a way that’s respectful of your client and includes active listening. I vote for politicians who won’t just carry out my wishes, but will make choices on my behalf that are right for our country based on their knowledge and expertise.

As an e-learning professional, what strategy works best for you when you want a client to follow your lead?

Rod Jackson

2 Responses to “Who Wins? Client or E-Learning Designer?

  • Hi Rod

    You have hit the nail on the head. we have the same issues all the time. The problem is that the clients providing the material are often the trainers themselves, and changing the content is therefore not easy. Worse still, we sometimes get dreadful really e-learning material sent to us with a request to tidy it up or update it, when what is needed is a total rewrite. We did not realise that as e-learning developers we would need a qualification in Psychology!

    Frank Smit, Bridgewater Learning

    • Hi Frank,

      I agree completely – I think your experience speaks to all e-learning developers. Now I need to get back to my online graduate course in Psychology!


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