It was 1996, and many of us in training organizations around the world were just beginning to use tools to move training to the personal computer. Our first products, known simply as Computer Based Training, or CBT, had no inherent dissemination method, instead relying on distribution of diskettes or CD-ROMs. With the advent of the World Wide Web and its Intranet counterparts, our tools evolved to enable network distribution. By all accounts, those early tools were clunky and their models for distribution weren’t clearly worked out, clinging to both WBT and CBT models. Within a few years, however, they began to focus nearly exclusively on the Web.

email-150497_1280At the same time, the World Wide Web was in its infancy but growing rapidly. E-mail had been invented nearly two decades earlier, but was mostly the domain of government and higher education organizations on ARPANET and BITNET networks. When e-mail moved into the business space, it began as a means of communicating within an organization. That changed in 1999 when network transport protocols (SMTP) allowed for the forwarding of mail from outside an organization. E-mail from different vendors could then be exchanged seamlessly across wide area networks and would forever change the pace of communication and business. This time period marked the beginning of the global email email explosion, the hyphen being dropped as the word became an integral part of our vocabulary.

This time period was also the beginning of the information age, and vendors in virtually all business areas began developing network-enabled products. Spurred by the immense popularity of “e-mail,” an e-branding frenzy of sorts ensued. Just about any new product became an e-product or e-service, from e-business and e-government to e-banking and e-travel (see The Land of e-Everything from Business Week, Nov. 1999).

Perhaps “e-training” would have more appropriately described our online training products that followed CBT and WBT, but our workplace training organizations had also recently undergone somewhat of a transformation, focusing more on outcomes (learning) than methods (training). Always chasing the next buzzword, our online training products would become branded as “e-learning.”

The Erosion of the E-learning Brand

The digression above is not meant as a history lesson but to underscore the origins of “e-learning” as a collectively developed brand for our online products. Over the last two decades, however, the brand has slowly and consistently eroded. To explain this in more detail, it helps to follow a framework for what makes up and defines the meaning of a brand. Susan Gunelius summarizes this well as resulting from five key factors: the brand promise, its perceptions, consumer expectations, the brand’s persona, and its elements.

1. Brand Promise

“At its core, a brand is a promise to consumers.”

As mentioned above, e-learning has never been a learning product but is instead a training product that we hope people learn from. In essence, we turned a perfectly good verb (learning) into a noun (e-learning). While we may use every engagement tactic we know to achieve learning, we can never truly guarantee that it happens. As an industry, we were destined to fail at delivering on the e-learning brand promise to our consumers.

2. Brand Perceptions

“Ultimately, it’s the way consumers perceive a brand that defines it.”

One of the more pervasive perceptions of e-learning is that it’s that stuff people are required to use to comply with laws or other business requirements. People procrastinate and dread “taking” it. Then, when they do, they use every ploy imaginable to minimize their discomfort, which often includes performing a variety of other tasks at the same time, paying only minimal attention to the required program. Let’s face it, the perception of e-learning isn’t good.

3. Brand Expectations

“Based on your brand promise, consumers develop expectations for your brand.”

The e-learning brand promised to be a vehicle through which people would learn in the workplace, but expectations didn’t end there. Attitudes surrounding the brand, as well as many instructor-led programs, contributed to a rise in thinking that the primary way people learn in the workplace is through formal programs sponsored by the organization. This in turn contributed to a learned helplessness that extends from the employee population up through the business leaders who fund the training organizations (Learned (Learning) Helplessness by Mark Britz is a must-read).

This is likely only rarely the case, as evidenced by several peer-reviewed studies (referenced in 70:20:10 – Above All Else It’s a Change Agent, by Charles Jennings). Although the workplace rarely incentivizes training, preferring a more punitive approach to non-participation, they do often reward innovation and solving difficult problems. These are both fully immersive learning activities, if only they were recognized as such. Expecting the e-learning brand to help is futile in these cases.

4. Brand Persona

“Rather than asking, ‘What is a brand?’ a better question might be, ‘Who is a brand?’ Every brand has a persona.”

What is the e-learning persona? I would argue it’s characterized by the “Next” button, or reading (usually slowly) everything I could have quickly read for myself. It involves meaningless interactivity not clearly tied to the objectives. Frustratingly, it also includes starting with the lowest common understanding among those who must participate, even when many are already knowledgeable, causing them to tune out and likely miss the one or two things they really do need to learn.

5. Brand Elements

“Your brand is represented by the intangible elements described above as well as tangible elements.”

The e-learning brand elements are largely captured under persona, above, plus elements such as its online nature and being tracked automatically in the corporate learning management system.

What strikes me as more important however are the many elements of online electronic learning in today’s workplace that are not represented, such as:

  • Learning from others through social media, outside and increasingly inside the workplace;
  • Helping to solve authentic workplace problems with the help of Internet search;
  • Using “how-to” online videos guide first-time projects; and
  • A plethora of online performance support tools to help get the job done, even by a novice.

Dilution of the Brand

The many elements of online learning in today’s workplace that are not represented by “e-learning” effectively dilute the brand.

elearning-fadingIn the late 1970’s, Xerox® had such a strong brand in photocopy machines that it became synonymous with them. The brand name was commonly used to refer to virtually any photocopier made by any company. It even became used as a verb – people would speak of “Xeroxing” a document. Even photocopies were called Xerox copies. This became one of the better known examples of brand dilution, where the essential qualities of Xerox brand photocopy machines became diluted with overuse in the market, with both positive and negative consequences.

The same can be said of e-learning. If we focus on workplace learning itself, the vast majority is done today online through electronic means: online social media, the all-knowing Internet search, online video repositories, the semantic web, and soon widely distributed smart devices and knowledge agents that make up an Internet of Things. You might argue it’s all e-learning. It’s the product that we branded as e-learning that is the outlier.

I think this form of brand dilution is mirrored in Jane Hart’s survey, “What does the term ‘blended learning’ mean?” Blended learning is another brand of sorts. Originally intended to describe the blending of conventional instructor led training and e-learning, it’s increasingly being used to describe a blending of any number of approaches to learning in the workplace. Those approaches may not even include a “conventional” e-learning product.

Re-brand or De-brand?

The problem is not that the products we call e-learning are inherently bad; some are quite good. The problem is that the e-learning brand has eroded, become diluted, and has therefore outlived its usefulness. The trouble with doing nothing is that over time it comes to mean less and less (as in the case of blended learning). Time will tell whether we cling to the brand, embrace its larger meaning to encompass all that e-learning is today, or drop it entirely.

The important thing is that we stay focused on employee learning, individual performance, and business performance. We can best achieve this only by considering the full range of responses to any particular need, whatever they’re called, and whether they’re online or in-person. The best solution may be produced by a centralized training department, but it may also be found by managers and employees in the workplace or by individuals creatively solving authentic problems. At times this may include an online training product, but there’s really no need for us to brand it.

Thanks for reading!

Xerox® is a registered trademark of Xerox Corporation


E-learning: The Brand — 8 Comments

  1. I was there back then too but your last point is where I wanted to be so long ago – it’s just learning at the time, and place, of need. No “e” or “m” or “d” – we support performance and lifelong learning. Thanks for the post!

  2. Bill, I think there are a lot of us in the same head-space about all of the prefix initials and the need for their immediate demise. It’s all learning regardless of modality.

    I keep thinking of parallels in the music industry when electronic drums were coming on the market in the 1980’s. Traditional kit manufacturers were feeling the pinch of the new players on the market and the impact on their sales. But the pendulum swung the other way, technology evolved, and there’s a balance between “engineered” percussion & rhythm and having a real timekeeper.

    In the same way, technology-mediated training hasn’t moved the educator into the same category as the Rumble Seat as many predicted back in the day, but its impact cannot be underestimated. We do so at our peril.

    • Thank you for pointing out we are not alone. The e-learning brand has eroded to the point I think something has to change, it’s just frustrating to talk with others who drop the term “e-learning” to refer exclusively to the product. I think we have our work cut out for us.

  3. Thanks for your piece Tom. 100% agree. We needed to drop the prefixes a long time ago. It’s all learning, it’s just the delivery mechanism that is adjusted based on the participants and good ol’ needs analysis. We have a tough road ahead of us turning the noun back into a verb. :)

  4. Great post Tom! And from the comments it looks like many others agree. I don’t want to take away from the intent of this post, but I also feel like learning is not the right word for what our industry does either. Learning is the learner’s responsibility. All we can do is provide content, and environments, that help learners learn. We cannot do the learning for them. So, in my view, words like “training” are much more suited to what WE do…as you mention in the post as well. Lots to say on this, but mostly just wanted to give you kudos for such doing such a complete review of the topic.

    • Thanks, Brent. Your comment doesn’t take away from my intent at all, it extends it. We can’t quickly change the hearts and minds of an entire industry where people are largely working with a mindset from decades ago, but we can try. More often than not, I hear phrases being tossed around carelessly, assuming that everyone understands their meaning. This is actually a form of laziness. It’s important to be articulate when communicating outside our small corner of the business, but it’s also important to be clear when communicating with our peers around the world. I’ll look forward to your further thoughts on this.

  5. Hi Tom – nice post. I’ve never been a fan of having to attach labels to things. It seems that just causes people to spend unnecessary time trying to slice things so thin to be sure it is a discrete “fit” and justifying the fit that one loses site of what’s important (i.e., effecting change/learning).

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