Organizations that use teaching, mentoring, or consulting to deliver their mission have likely faced an existential challenge since the COVID-19 pandemic hit, restricting in-person connections. Perhaps they had previously considered moving online but had not yet made that commitment. When the pandemic struck, they had to quickly transition to an online-only delivery model. This has probably involved copious amounts of Zoom and Google Hangouts. Organizations have no doubt discovered that filming a play and calling it a movie does not result in Avatar.
Here I’ll describe how an organization can navigate this process using a phased approach with a significant advantage: It does not require an initial overcommitment to a distant, future solution. Working in this way allows the organization to take measured, intelligent steps toward a transformed digital future.
A typical organization
We generally collaborate with organizations that are creating learning experiences for their constituents or partners — not ones developing learning experiences for internal consumption. This partner-facing learning experience is how these organizations deliver much of their value. Face-to-face delivery manifests in several typical ways, including the following:
- Create a train-the-trainer model, in which the organization teaches its clients how to teach something. Example: an organization that teaches teachers how to incorporate entrepreneurship into their classrooms.
- Facilitate a mentoring relationship between an organization’s representatives and its clients. Example: an organization that supports community activism and encourages its constituents to support each other.
- Use a consulting model, in which an organization’s representatives support its clients through some group or decision-making process. Example: an organization that provides project-based consulting services to small businesses.
Note that only the first model described above would typically be considered a “learning experience.” Extension Engine takes a learning-experience-focused approach to creating partner-facing online programs. Sometimes these partners are 1) “teachers” going through “courses,” 2) “activists” being supported within a “learning community,” or 3) “clients” receiving “consulting” or “training.” In each case, the owner of the platform can be viewed as wanting to change the behavior of the platform’s users; that is, the owner has “learning objectives” for the users. Most of the time this language (“teachers,” “training,” “learning,” etc.) is not used — in fact is actively discouraged — by our clients, but the intellectual scaffolding inherent in using a learning approach to build the platform is what enables the organization to achieve its intended impact: effective delivery of its mission.
In each of the above models, many steps and resources are required to transition from a purely face-to-face experience to a purely online experience. But that does not mean this has to be accomplished in one long operation. Since COVID-19 hit, and even before that, Extension Engine has worked with organizations that need to get online quickly. These leadership teams know they have to digitally transform their operations, but they cannot sit by and wait for the completion of that lengthy process: Launching online delivery must happen even as they continue to develop strategic long-term digital operations.
The hypothetical “typical” organization I will describe here had a robust and effective means of delivering its mission face-to-face, but was not online in any significant way at the end of 2019. It had some plans to eventually move online — because it recognized the potential power of a digital transformation — but it had not taken any real steps toward making it happen. Its in-person learning could include face-to-face classes, workshops, or consultations. Of course, these methods became impossible with social distancing and limits on travel. The organization was forced to try to offer something online when the pandemic affected its operations.
Before reading this section, note that there is no magic bullet, no perfect solution that is cheap, fast, and has maximal impact. Everything is about making trade-offs. That said, taking deliberate and thoughtful steps toward the ultimate goal (even if it is but a hazy vision) allows an organization to deliver an effective online experience while they go through the process. I think of this as first standing, then learning to walk, then breaking into a jog, and finally running. Let’s take a look at these stages.
1. Stand: Take inventory
Before moving forward, the organization needs to have a clear understanding of where it is and where it wants to go. We start by taking an inventory:
- What are the organization’s goals?
- What challenges does it need to solve?
- What challenges does its partners need to solve?
- How are the organization and its partners currently addressing those challenges?
- What personnel does it have, what do they know, and what skills do they have?
- What technology does it have?
- What is the funding structure for the organization, and how will growth be enabled?
Now, if there is already some form of learning experience in place, we have a few questions about that as well:
- What are the learning objectives for the courses, experiences, or sessions (we will refer to these as “learning experiences” without loss of generality)?
- What types of people (we will refer to these as “learners” from here on) go through the experience?
- What do learners know before they interact with the organization, and how much do they interact with it afterward?
These are just a few of the questions we ask, but they are indicative. Next, we must learn about the organization’s broader goals related to the possible learning experience:
- How many learners does the organization interact with during a given period of time?
- How much does the organization want to grow in terms of offerings or engagements per year?
- What does success mean to the organization?
- What does success mean to the learners — what are their “jobs to be done”?
- What, if any, comparable offerings or solutions exist in the marketplace?
- What is the minimum viable offering needed to achieve the organization’s goals?
Now that the organization has a shared understanding of where it is and where it wants to go, it is in a good position to start its transition online.
2. Walk: Online MVP
The organization needs to get online — now — so that it can deliver on its mission. The first step involves getting the basics right as quickly as possible:
- What technology is in place to support the delivery of individual courses? This might be as simple as Zoom with a Google Document.
- What technology is in place (if any!) to support a catalog of programs or learning experiences (e.g., a learning management system of sorts)? This could be WordPress or Google Classroom or some other web-based platform the organization currently uses.
- What technology is in place to support, track, and market to learners (e.g., customer relationship management software)?
- Organizational champion: Who will be the single go-to person for questions about direction, funding, management, etc.?
- Project manager: Who has day-to-day responsibility for ensuring that the right people are doing the right things at the right times?
- Learning experience designers: Does the organization currently have these professionals on staff? If so, should they be involved?
- Information technology specialists: Does the organization currently have these professionals on staff? If so, should they be involved?
- How does the organization support learners during registration, during the learning experience itself, and after it has been completed?
- How does the organization deliver its mission?
- What are the objectives of each specific learning experience, and how does the organization determine whether they have been achieved?
Now that an understanding of technology, capabilities, and processes is in place for the short term, our team can work with the client’s team to get a minimum viable product (MVP) running online. It might simply involve Zoom and WordPress, but the organization will be prepared to support it. This allows the organization to actually continue to fulfill its mission in the short run, giving it some time and the confidence to take bigger steps and plan for the future.
3. Jog: Learn
The above steps should not take more than three to six months to complete. Even while the previous stage is being implemented, the organization’s leadership should be taking a position on the nature of its transition online:
- Duration: Is this going to be a complete move online? Will the organization run parallel service-delivery paths when/if the need for social distancing has passed? Will the online work be discarded? Or is the organization making a full commitment to online delivery?
- Scale: When going online, is the organization’s driving goal to reach more students? Does it want to deliver to hundreds of cities with thousands of cohorts instead of a dozen cities and 50 cohorts? Does it want to be able to do that without having to hire a proportional number of employees and open a similar number of offices?
- Cost structure: Or, when going online, is the organization’s driving goal to deliver its mission equally well but without the high marginal cost associated with allocating employees to each learning experience? This might involve creating asynchronous classes, or a virtual community-building experience, or a scaffolded consulting experience in which a consultant appears only infrequently.
The answers to all of these questions will determine what is to be done in this stage. There are no right or wrong answers, but they do need to be carefully considered.
No matter what, the organization must commit to an iterative process with at least three stages. The organization must recognize that this will take some time, outcomes will not be perfect, and success will be an evolving concept. This structure will allow the organization to focus on learning and improving.
Given the answers surfaced by the above questions, various choices will allow incremental investment while exploring possible futures:
- Given the possibilities inherent in Processes in section 2.b (the Walk stage) , the organization should run a few experiments to help it learn about the effectiveness of different approaches. These might relate to online learning pedagogies, engaging with students before a class, or encouraging student interaction during a class, etc. Extension Engine’s Learning Experience Designers, working with organizational subject matter experts, can design several experiments to help gain this insight. The results then feed into the next round of experiments (and the next round of learning experiences).
- The experiments do not run in a vacuum. They must run on a specific set of technologies that the organization has available. Different technologies enable different experiments. The organization would undoubtedly have to invest in new technologies in order to run some experiments. In some instances, it is possible to run stripped-down versions of experiments that require a smaller investment in technology. However, a minimum level of fidelity has to be maintained for the experimental results to be useful. A bad experiment poorly run would not provide any useful information about future learning experiences.
- The organization must relentlessly focus on its goals for the learning experiences, its overall mission, and its criteria for success. It is easy to be distracted from the big picture when running a long process like this. A strong, actively involved leader and project manager should keep investments of time and money to a minimum.
- Early in the process, the organization will want to work on its high-impact learning experiences, sequences, and programs. This will make it easier to justify investments and measure success. Pilots and A/B tests can provide early feedback so that future investments can be made in the best approaches.
As mentioned, trade-offs must be made between investments in technology and the breadth and usefulness of experiments. Some investments will be made in technologies that don’t pay off. Other investments will be rapidly scaled up because they are so successful. The process is so complicated that wrong forks will inevitably be taken, but a disciplined approach can help minimize investments in the road mistakenly traveled.
4. Run: Differentiation
In a sense, this last stage is the least risky. By this time the organization should know a lot about its online operations, the preferences of its students, the strengths of different online learning approaches, and more. It should also have a good sense of how the market is accepting the online delivery of its services.
With this understanding, the organization can address the question of how to define and execute a differentiation strategy based on its learning experience. Extension Engine has helped many organizations create online learning experiences for their constituents that have wildly distinguished them from their competitors:
- Harvard Business School’s HBS Online platform is the world’s most innovative online learning platform.
- ArtCenter’s CRIT tool enables online art and design instruction.
- Bridgespan’s Consulting Advisory Services platform provides scalable, team-based consulting programs through an online platform.
- The Center for Effective Public Policy (CEPP) and the Arnold Foundation are looking to scale training for judicial jurisdictions on a new way to evaluate bail for pretrial hearings, to reduce unjust outcomes in the pretrial process.
The design and delivery of these experiences, often with customized technology platforms, are not inexpensive, but they each embody the dimensions of those organizations that distinguish them from their competitors. Think about Disney with its new Disney+ platform. Disney’s key differentiator, or “secret sauce,” is content — they make and own more excellent and unique content than anyone else out there. With this platform, Disney gets the following:
- They can control the entire user experience from browsing to sign-up to interacting with its content.
- They can directly observe and gather data about that interaction.
- They can use that data to evolve the platform and content.
Extension Engine can help organizations make a similar move. Our clients have something unique that differentiates them, and they need our help launching a digital product to scale it. After going through the steps outlined above, it would be a relatively easy call to either make the full commitment or stay put.
A variety of organizations have already seen the benefits of a client-facing, learning-focused online experience. The difficulty has always been making the decision to invest in the project through to the level where it pays off. The process outlined in this paper is a phased approach that allows an organization to take distinct steps, staggering and evaluating its investments in the project. Taking these discrete steps allows the organization to launch immediate necessary online delivery, while exploring future options for digital transformation and simultaneously minimizing exposure to the effects of bad decisions.
Extension Engine has helped many organizations take advantage of such a digital transformation.