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Online and just in time: The change implications of implementing e-learning solutions in a large organisation

Peter Holmes
Digital Educational Solutions
Alan Smith

Introduction and context

This paper examines the change implications of implementing e-learning products in a large government organisation, the Australian Tax Office (ATO) of around 20,000 staff and discusses strategies that can be used in organisations to assist with these change issues. The paper is based on the literature review and an action research project done as part of a Masters of Business Leadership.

The action research project involved the purchase and implementation of a range of e-learning products including two major IT Training releases and several technical modules for the ATO. At the same time an e-learning strategy was designed at the corporate level in an attempt to consolidate all that was happening. This strategy saw a major shift in the organisation from classroom-based learning towards technology supported learning and a shift in the control of learning away from the organisation to the individual.

Change themes and strategies

A number of key change themes and strategies for dealing with them were developed during the project and through its associated literature reviews. They are as follows:

Fear and anxiety about technology

The changes made to learning methods inherent in this project required a change in ways of thinking and doing things. It required learners to rethink as individuals how they do things, discover information, interact with others and learn.

Werner (2000) suggests that instead of "rolling out" e-learning to an organisation and, therefore, making it seem like the flavour of the month the strategy should be to pull people into the process. He suggests (five factors that "pull adopters toward innovations" (p3) as follows:

  1. Advantage
  2. Compatibility
  3. Simplicity
  4. Trialability
  5. Observability
    (Rogers cited in Werner, 2000, p3)
This would seem to be especially the case where the organisation is continuing to provide traditional learning methods because people have a choice about which methods of learning they will use. This dual system enables a pull process to work.

He also suggests that we should forget about "large scale" and concentrate on "where the need is greatest". Experience in this research has shown this to work. When e-learning products were implemented where there was a great need, the learners used them extensively and were willing to change their learning methods.

Support and training (Smith, 1999; Schmikler, 2000) for learners through the initial phases of e-learning is also seen as an important strategy. Experience in this research has also shown this to be the case. A strategy has been put in place to run the first e-learning products with facilitator support and this has proven to be a success in that assistance is available to learners when they require it.

Learner acceptance

This theme is closely related to the first theme but is about how learner acceptance of the new system of learning can be gained. Smith (1999) describes this as "learning to learn online" and suggests that "many students under utilise tools such as computer mediated communication simply because they lack the competence and the confidence to do so effectively" (p1).

Shmikler (2000) suggests that we will need to train learners in how to learn using the new methods. He suggests that learners, when they are presented with these new ways of learning, need to learn about the learning real estate, the navigation system, how to recover from a problem and get back on track and how to learn in short chunks rather than all day sessions. He suggests that most learners still see learning as an event rather than as a lifelong process and this means that they have difficulty in the new e-learning environment.

Clarke (1999) adds details of possible course content including familiarisation with software and course outline, needs analysis of hardware access and technical skills and an online self-directed tutorial. Clarke goes on to suggest, "Development of social skills for the on-line setting is necessary"(p9).

A specific strategy, therefore, was developed for learners in the organisation. This strategy included training in the use of the portal, other related software and also in the new ways of learning. As part of this strategy the first launch of the technology based learning modules was done in a classroom setting with a tutor present. This proved very successful. Other products were also launched and training in the use of the product was provided. Some competitions were also run during the launches to entice people to use and learn about the products.

Learning environment

The learning environment is also a crucial issue. In classroom based learning the classroom is the learning environment. It is away from the normal workplace and therefore usually away from interruptions. In an e-learning environment staff may be undertaking small chunks of learning, as required, by accessing a learning portal. This might usually be undertaken in their work area. This means that they look like they are available for discussions, phone calls and so on.

Masie (2000) in his research on how eLearners like to learn has found that "53% would choose to participate in an important e-learning activity at a location other than their work desk" (p1) such as a learning cubicle, conference room or at home. In the same survey "49% reported that learning at their desktops was distracting" (Masie, 2000, p1). Most of the respondents in the Masie survey thought that corporate signage, dedicated rooms and scheduled times would help. They also thought that having a door to close off their office helped greatly. 53% thought that dedicated rooms would be very helpful.

In the organisation, which has been used during this research, almost all staff have "cubicles" and so the possibility of corporate signage and separate learning centres was considered.

Management acceptance

Creighton and Adams (1998) suggest that many of today's executives are not comfortable with collaborative technology. They state that, "Many of the current class of executives ... were raised during an era when anyone who typed was a clerical person" (p36). They suggest that this is changing with the growth of email but that there are still many executives who fall into this category.

Interviews during this project also showed that fear of technology was also a very strong factor at higher levels of organisations and this means that senior managers are less likely to be champions of an e-learning system.

Werner (2000) suggests that the way to get acceptance from senior management is to use a business case that outlines the business results from the implementation of e-learning.

He also suggests using the concept of "business results" to sell e-learning to clients. Factors such as global consistency of content, anytime, anyplace learning, learning in small chunks, self-assessment, and simulation can all be good selling points.

In the organisation studied in this research a business case was prepared as well as presentations to many high level forums. This was aimed at raising the profile of e-learning in the organisation. Demonstrations of e-learning tools and products were also shown to be an effective tool for getting management on side. A pilot program with senior executives, where they were supplied with a personal technology trainer to assist them to learn and use technology, was also piloted and has been found to be effective.

Information technology partnership

Hall (2000) and Merakovsky (2000) both stress the need to make a partnership with the Information Technology area of the organisation if e-learning implementation is to be successful. Hall suggests that it needs to be made clear to the IT department that learning will be a major user of technology in the future.

In the case of this research project this was a crucial issue for there was no facility in the organisation for streaming audio, streaming video, video conferencing, discussion boards and no learning management system. These are all technology enablers, which need to be built into the IT architecture of an organisation before a fully functioning e-learning system can be implemented.

Merakovsky (2000) and Hall (2000) both suggest that holding a workshop with the IT department right at the beginning of the process is the best approach. The purpose of this meeting is to give them an understanding of the requirements for the system and to provide the e-learning implementers with an understanding of the IT infrastructure and issues related to it. Any fears such as the ones that have been encountered during this research, may well be overcome by involving relevant parts of the IT area early in the process.

The IT architecture area was involved in the formative stages of the e-learning strategy project during this research and this found to be most useful as they were able to include learning technologies in the IT architecture for the organisation.

Skilling community acceptance

Merakovsky (2000) and Hall (2000) both suggest that the skilling community must be accepting of the shift to e-learning if it is to be a success.

Ellis and Phelps (1999) state (p1), "For academics to successfully make the transition to become online teachers or learning facilitators, they must do more than develop new technological skills. Online development and delivery requires new pedagogical approaches, challenging previous practices with regards to assessment, group interaction and student/teacher interaction".

During this research it has been shown that this acceptance could also be very difficult due to a large degree of fear and anxiety amongst many of the skilling community who like the current ways of working. This was shown during interviews where many said that they wanted others to do the technology work for them and that they would concentrate on the content.

Ellis & Phelps (1999, p6 & 7) suggest a four-stage model to assist the skilling community. Their model was for academia but equally works for corporate trainers. The model is as follows:

  1. "Activities that aim to raise the interest, and increase motivation of, individual staff members to the possibility of becoming involved in online course development
  2. Focussed support for the staff members to undertake a clearly defined online project
  3. Further developing and extending the staff members' skills by challenging them to extend their work into more complex areas
  4. Acknowledging the staff members new skills and expertise by having them mentor and train staff at stage 1"
During this research, several trainers were involved in the development of the first web based training initiatives and this involvement was widened as new products were developed. An e-learning network was also set up to bring together those of the learning community who were enthusiastic about e-learning and to create a group of organisational champions for e-learning. A significant amount of skilling was also provided for the skilling community and a separate area on the learning portal for this community was also created.


A summary of the change management strategies developed during this project is shown in Diagram 1 below.

Editorial note for the web version: We are seeking a replacement copy of Diagram 1, as the copy
obtained from the Proceedings CD in MS Word format and reproduced below appears to be faulty.

Diagram 1

It was discovered during the project that it is vital that these change management themes are examined during the implementation of any shift toward technology assisted learning and that strategies (including possible strategies shown in Diagram 1) be put in place to deal with them.


Clarke, S. (1999). Overcoming barriers to creating online communities. Proceedings ASCILITE Conference 1999. [viewed 27 Feb 2002, verified 15 Aug 2002]

Creighton, J. L. and Adams, J. W. R. (1998). Cyber Meeting, American Management Association, New York.

Ellis, A. and Phelps, R. (1999). Staff development for online delivery: A collaborative team-based action learning model. Proceedings ASCILITE Conference 1999. [viewed 27 Oct 2000, verified 15 Aug 2002]

Hall, B. (2000). e-learning report - new research trends in the e-learning industry. Video. [viewed 27 Feb 2002, verified 15 Aug 2002]

Holmes, P. (2000). Online and just in time - the change implications of implementing a strategy to use technology in the delivery of learning solutions in a large organisation. A paper prepared as part of a Masters. [viewed 26 Feb 2002, verified 15 Aug 2002]

Masie, E. (2000). Learning at our busy desks? In Learning Decisions Interactive Newsletter, May 2000, The Masie Centre, Saratoga Springs, New York

Merakovsky, J. (2000). A Practical Guide to Online Training. Southrock Pty Ltd. Unpublished.

Shmikler, S. (2000). How to prepare learners for the e-learning experience. Video. [viewed 27 Feb 2002, verified 15 Aug 2002]

Smith, E. (1999). Learning to learn online. Proceedings ASCILITE Conference 1999. [viewed 27 Feb 2002, verified 15 Aug 2002]

Werner, T. (2000). To successfully implement e-learning, forget what you know about change. [viewed 27 Feb 2002, verified 15 Aug 2002]

Author: Peter Holmes runs a business specialising in the use of technology in learning and e-learning development. Prior to that he was the National IT Training Manager for the Australian Tax Office and oversighted the systems training effort for the tax reform process. This involved shifting the organisation toward the use of technology in its learning strategy. He completed his Masters of Business Leadership at RMIT University in 2000. Phone: 0419 502 064 or (03) 9503 9577 Email:

Please cite as: Holmes, P. (2002). Online and just in time: The change implications of implementing e-learning solutions in a large organisation. In S. McNamara and E. Stacey (Eds), Untangling the Web: Establishing Learning Links. Proceedings ASET Conference 2002. Melbourne, 7-10 July.

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