Most of us avail ourselves of freely-available resources on a regular basis – whether it’s taking a quick refresher on uploading an image to a Word document or a step-by-step guide on how to change a tire. While on the one hand, I acknowledge just how helpful this freely available content can be in the moment of need, choosing freely-available content as a suitable wholesale solution for enterprise-wide learning programs can be a costly mistake for an organization in today’s context. Why is this the case?
There are many reasons, but I’ll concentrate on five key reasons:
1. The Need for Careful Curation
Curation, or organizing learning material into relevant subject areas or learning paths, is essential to the success of any learning program. It ensures that not only are the learner’s and the organization’s development goals in harmony but, importantly, careful curation ensures that they are adequately addressed through learning plans. When organizations use free content as their primary pedagogical tool, there is a heavy demand on resources and for internal curation competency. The curation responsibility will end up falling to either the learner or the L&D professional. Learners can view the need to curate as burdensome if they are forced to use precious time (which has a significant opportunity cost) to sift through a long list of freely-available material to find that one resource that genuinely addresses the learning need.
Also, given that employees have 1% of a typical workweek available to focus on training and development, this “misuse” of their limited time can have negative consequences on the amount of learning that occurs. Curation is also time intensive for L&D teams, and the more free content that an organization leverages, the more resources and time must be dedicated by L&D to the activity of curation. In fact, in the 2015 Bersin by Deloitte Corporate Learning Factbook, curation was named as the fifth highest allocation of time. The heavy use of free content significantly adds to this already heavy burden.
Even if modern learning experience platforms (LXPs) provide a degree of automated curation through machine learning algorithms, the accuracy of automated curation solutions is far from 100%. The results of automated curation need to be assessed by human capital. Over time, these algorithms will improve; however, today the accuracy is highly dependent on information/data inputs to the process, and these inputs are often not robust enough to generate meaningful outputs of curated learning assets for effective personalized learning.
2. Content rigor and relevance
The skills crisis is a very real and global concern. A study by PwC found that 77% of CEOs are concerned about the availability of key skills. To tackle this severe workforce development challenge, it’s essential to source content from a trusted provider of training and development solutions. Free content is not guaranteed to be rigorous, relevant, accurate, objective, free of bias or up-to-date. Training and development content providers need to be able to ensure that their material is all of those things. Such providers collaborate with experienced and credentialed subject matter experts who continually perform thorough and unbiased research on their selected topic/s, thereby ensuring that learners are getting the most authoritative and up-to-date content. This offers a guarantee of proper training and development which is so critical for the acquisition of the skills needed in today’s workplace.
Offering the most current content is especially important for learners who are pursuing professional certifications. To effectively prepare for certification exams, learners need access to trusted content that is assured to cover the relevant bodies of knowledge and the associated exam objectives. There is limited availability of robust content of this type in the free space.
Further, many certification programs require the credential holder to earn professional development credits to maintain their certifications. To help facilitate this mandatory training, many content providers establish formal credit programs with the program sponsors to offer a portfolio of training that is pre-approved for the professional credits. In the free space, learners are challenged to find training that will earn them these required credits.
3. Lack of effective instructional design
Neuroscientists are now able to use fMRI and EEG imaging techniques to advance our understanding of how the brain operates when learning new material. This research can heavily influence how to design and develop training content that maximizes the absorption, retention and application of material that has been learned. What this research is highlighting is the importance of specific assessment regimens, unique instructional design approaches and the inclusion of application tools such as job aids. Without the incorporation of these elements, it’s less likely that learning will actually stick and applied on the job. Free content often lacks any form of assessment, does not optimize on instructional design and most of the time has few if any supplementary resources for continued practice and reinforcement.
4. Job-alignment and other requirements including localization and accessibility
A corporate-wide learning program needs to align to employees’ goals and requirements, cultural objectives, and the corporate strategy and do so consistently and effectively. International organizations need to provide continual training across the globe, and localize the content in multiple languages. A montage of free resources, all in English, will not meet this need, and free content is unlikely to meet the accessibility standards that most companies mandate. Many organizations today desire to provide accessible content to all employees regardless of disability and therefore rely upon content providers to adhere to accessibility standards, thereby ensuring that the content is accessible to all learners.
Moreover, free content is harder to align with consistency to specific job roles or desired competencies. Inability to align free content consistently to critical business objectives negatively impacts organizational performance. Given the large number of job roles and competencies that exist in any organization, it is an impossible challenge to find freely available content that is consistent across all those roles and competencies, concerning content coverage, depth, degree of contextualization, content format/modality range, quality and instructional technique.
5. Ongoing maintenance
Finally, free content which is available today may not be there the next time a learner needs to access it. Even if L&D departments take the time to curate free content for employees, there is no guarantee that that content will be available in the future. L&D teams cannot directly control the source of free material. This “availability problem” can lead to hours of work lost when an essential piece of content is unpublished or removed without notice (and advanced notice is rare) resulting in learners feeling caught by surprise and without a solution in a moment of need. Most L&D departments have constrained resources and do not have the time to check the ongoing validity of web links to every learning asset daily. Also, if employees continually attempt to access free materials that have been removed or altered unexpectedly, they can become frustrated and annoyed.
It is true that the “free” of leveraging free content for training and development is tempting. However, for areas such as leadership, business skills, compliance and IT, and when development programs and solutions need to be delivered comprehensively and consistently to an entire organization, free often simply does not cut it. When you add up all the hidden costs of “free” from curation resource requirements to the inability to align development content effectively to job roles and competencies to a lack of assessment and other pedagogical and instructional elements which ensure retention and application, free starts to look more expensive to the organization. There is a role for free content, but it is risky for any organization to rely exclusively upon free content for comprehensive enterprise learning.
Heide Abelli is the SVP of Content Product Management at Skillsoft.