The company I worked for in the mid 1980’s was a pioneer in the e-learning space. I sold some of the first computer based training programs ever produced. Then between 1988-2006 I was the Founder and President of an e-learning company that touched the lives of hundreds of thousands of adults by helping them upgrade their literacy and numeracy skills. 

Our adult literacy solution was state of the art. We were one of the first to use sound in e-learning solutions. In those days it required an external  device called a Digispeech adapter. Now I was fortunate enough to work with some of the best adult education experts in the world. Learners were continuously assessed for prior knowledge. That meant that in a lab with 30 workstations each individual worked independently to fill in the gaps in their learning. The company I partnered with invested millions of dollars in the development of this software. My own investment reached the six figures. And it was all worth it because it worked and it changed lives.

I know this because I frequently received notes of thanks from adults who had benefited from the program. Perhaps the most touching was the story of a mother who enrolled alongside her 16 year old daughter who had recently dropped out of high school. They studied together and both successfully passed the G.E.D. exam (high school equivalency). They actually recorded a short video (a big deal in the 90’s) and sent it to me. I regret not being able to find it.

But here’s the thing. As good as our software was, without a teacher in the lab, it would have been close to useless. There were three reasons for that and these are the same three reasons why stand alone self paced training programs for entrepreneurs rarely work (the exception being short clips that show you how to do certain tasks with various software programs. Of course those are usually free on YouTube). 

#1 We’re All Unique

Training programs for entrepreneurs tend to be complex and they are most often patterned after a process that the course developer used to achieve certain outcomes in their business. The problem with this is simple. Whether you’re training adults who have fallen through the cracks of a leaky education system, or entrepreneurs that are struggling to scale their business, there is one absolute truth. We’re all unique.

As entrepreneurs we all have different skill levels, different challenges, and most importantly our businesses are all at different stages of development. That’s just the way it is. And then there is the reality that there are many different learning styles. What works for one person may be utterly confusing for another. We faced all those issues with our Adult Learners. Our software assessed prior knowledge (something that is almost non-existent in the world of self paced training programs for entrepreneurs), but it was the teacher in the lab who ensured the content was understood. If the teacher saw a number of people struggling with a particular concept (something they could track in the management system), they would pull that group aside and use different teaching strategies (yes sometimes a piece of chalk and a blank slate is still a great way to learn). Other times they would work one-on-one with a learner while the rest of the “class” worked independently.

When entrepreneurs enroll in professional development programs their number one goal is to learn how to apply lessons learned to their business. This is almost impossible to do in a vacuum, and the idea of a one size fits all solution that can be applied to any business at any stage of business development is absurd. 

#2 Learning Stops When We Have Unanswered Questions

No matter how good the design is, learners will always have questions. And if you don’t answer those questions when they come up, the learning usually comes to a grinding halt. It’s easy to say just skip over this section and come back to it later, but our mind will always resist that suggestion. Not knowing the answer is irritating and can also introduce self doubt. Again this is true of an adult learning about fractions and an entrepreneur who is seeking to attract more paying customers. If there is something about the content that we don’t understand or doesn’t seem to apply to our business, our frustration level will build fast. This is one of the major reasons why so few people actually complete self-paced learning programs that they have purchased. 

#3 No Accountability

Lack of accountability is far and away the biggest reason why most self-paced training programs don’t work without mentoring. Accountability comes in two ways. Good old fashioned human interaction (like a teacher in an adult learning lab) and  measurable third party validated assessments. In the case of the adult learning programs the learners ability to pass G.E.D. or High School exams provided that accountability. During the learning process the software was also continuously evaluating learner performance. 

Now picture all the self paced business programs that you’ve taken (usually a combination of video, PowerPoint slides, and worksheets). Say for example you dropped $1,200 to learn how to use Webinars to create an inflow of paying customers. You go through the lessons, see the examples of things that have worked for other businesses, and then try and figure out how to apply your new knowledge to your business. Even if you stick with it (most people don’t) your chances of success are slim (yes I know everyone has “social proof” of their success). The technology side of things is easy enough to understand. But what if the message you crafted doesn’t resonate with potential customers? This is a common outcome where there is no one holding you accountable for the effort you put into the process. You invest lots of time and money in the webinar with no tangible results. Sure it’s a learning opportunity, but it’s one you would have had much earlier in the process if you had a mentor holding you accountable for the quality of your work. 

Blended Programs Are Where It’s At

I want to be clear. I’m still a fan of using different forms of media in professional development. It provides flexibility to the learner and can also bring down the cost of the program. With one big caveat. The program should also include direct mentoring. These kinds of blended solutions ensure that the learning is adapted to the specific needs of the entrepreneur, deal with questions and frustrations on a timely basis, and include the all important accountability element.

In almost all cases, entirely stand alone self paced programs have been designed to create passive revenue for the course creator. Save your money. 

Tim Alison

Tim Alison

Business Mentor, Harvard Speaker, Magnify You Facilitator, Author x 3, Podcast Host at Screw the Naysayers

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