This is the second in a series of three articles on the secrets of SaaS training. The first article, Secrets of SaaS Training: Design , explored approaches to designing SaaS training, and how it differs from traditional models. This article explores best practices for delivering SaaS training.

Types of Training Delivery

In most cases, when learning professionals talk about training delivery, they speak in terms of modality. That is, is it a live, in-person instructor-led event (ILT)? A live, virtual event or webinar (V-ILT)? A self-paced web-based training event (WBT)?  A self-study course (independent work done through a workbook)? Or perhaps a “performance support” tool or Electronic Performance Support System (EPSS), which is an elaborate way of saying tool-that-guides-you-through-a-process. Other popular terms and modalities that have come in and out of vogue include just-in-time training, informal learning, mentorships, apprenticeships, action learning, workflow learning, social learning, and Learning 2.0. The truth is, there isn’t a particular modality that is better in all cases, but that different modalities are appropriate in different situations. The idea is to determine the best modality for a given audience and a given purpose.

“Blended learning” is an especially popular approach (as it should be) and simply means offering a combination of two or more modalities. Blended learning delivery is popular, because often training involves multiple audiences and multiple purposes, which lends itself readily to more than one approach. And even when it doesn’t, it almost assuredly involves multiple people, who are likely to have differing preferences and proclivities in terms of learning styles. Because of this, it is useful to think of training delivery more broadly, and from a consumption perspective rather than a modality perspective. That is, if a person who needs to know or do something, what might help that person be most successful? In general, there are three broad-stroke approaches one might want to take to learning, depending on how much time is available, and how deep that learning needs to go:

  • Formal learning: This is what is typically thought of when referring to learning – a classroom course or an online module. It is anything where participants specifically set aside time to learn, with the sole intent of focusing on the topic and learning about it, most likely (though not always) for near-term application.
  • Agile learning: This is learning facilitated by accessing focused, discrete, easily consumable pieces of content at various levels of depth, to support a specific goal. By nature self-paced and done in the moment of need, agile learning is finding, consuming and (hopefully) applying the desired information to accomplish whatever task prompted the need for the information in the first place. Agile content, then, can be anything from a list of steps, to the “how to” demos described in the prior article on SaaS training design , to whitepapers, to templates.  A Google search is the least structured example of agile learning. The challenge, of course, is finding the right content at the right level of detail to address the immediate need. When Google searches are insufficient, it is typically not because they don’t produce enough results, but because the produce too many. A more structured agile learning platform, then, would provide additional guidance, filtering capabilities, or support in getting people quickly to the insight they need in as least a disruptive way as possible.  The goal: quickly get the person to what they need, and let them get back to what they are doing, better prepared to do it successfully.
  • Social learning: This is emergent learning that takes place as people are interacting with each other and with technology (typically social media). It flips the traditional approach to training as something that is defined and delivered by “experts” to something that is created or co-created by “users.” (Though in actuality, the two are rarely mutually exclusive.) It acknowledges and respects the skills, experiences, insights and value that learners, or more accurately, colleagues, have to offer one another. Note that social learning actually takes place all the time, with or without technology as an intermediary. Mentorship and apprenticeship programs are examples of social learning. Brainstorming sessions, or even hallway conversations can be as well. When you bring technology into the mix, however, you can capture and extend these instances of knowledge creation and sharing beyond the individuals interacting in the moment, and convert pockets of information to pools of information.

Again, there is not anything particularly new or disruptive about any of these three broad classifications of learning. You can find excellent examples of each (as well as plenty of poor examples) all over the web. Where they become most powerful, however, and how they lend themselves especially well to SaaS training, is when they are aggregated and delivered together via a learning portal or “knowledge center” that is a one-stop-shop structured around key topics or themes. For example, if people wanted to know about a new piece of technology being implemented in their organization, they would want to be able to find out about available courses, job aids, discussion forums and even get access to experts within their organization all form the same location, and preferably from the same screen. This kind of portal would offer a truly blended experience, getting people to what they need to be most successful, when they need it, regardless of modality.

Learning Portals

To be effective, a learning portal (like any other well-constructed web site) requires thoughtful design. Nearly anyone who has used a wiki will attest that the downfall of the technology is how quickly and easily content can get lost. The more content there is, the harder it can be to find it. To avoid this, it cannot be emphasized enough how important is to work with an Information Architect and/or a User Experience designer to create a portal that will be intuitive, navigable, and extensible.  Here are some guiding principles to employ when designing a learning portal:

  • “Web 2.0” capabilities are table-stakes: the number of consumer sites offering comments, ratings, and user-generated content these days abound. Virtually anyone who uses a computer has come to use, and expect these capabilities. They are a minimum requirement for any kind of learning portal.
  • Consistent navigation is key, preferably topical, or thematic: Structure the information architecture around the content that users need, not around the modality that it is being delivered in. As mentioned above, users want to find the formal, agile and social content for any given topic in the same location, rather than having to access one page for formal, and a separate for agile, etc.
  • If designed around a process, track progress: People love TurboTax for a reason. It’s simple, it shows users where they are in the process and how much further they have to go, and it lets them dig in deeper when it is relevant, without forcing them to read every word. Feel free to leverage this agile learning/performance support model, and extended it to incorporate formal and social learning, where appropriate.
  • People are resources, too: Help users easily find and connect with colleagues and experts, whether internal to their organization, or if appropriate, from within the extended enterprise.
  • Federated search is a must: Content itself may end up being housed in any number of locations, depending on existing infrastructure and/or administrative and management needs. This can include SharePoint sites or other Content Management Systems (CMS), Learning Management Systems (LMS) or intranet or extranet sites, among other sources. When picking a platform for the portal, a critical requirement is its ability to pull content in from your existing or “to be” sources, and more importantly to perform a search across these sources. Equally important is that this search needs to be a full text search (that is, searching the body of a document or file itself) rather than just the metadata associated with a document or file.

Sidebar: An LMS makes a better integration point than it does a platform. An LMS is an administrative tool, rather than a learning tool, designed for those running training far more than those consuming it.  It serves an important function, but is rarely the tool people launch when they start their work day. Take advantage of its APIs, and don’t force people into its UI any more than is needed.

  • Single sign on (SSO) must be seamless: Related to the above, if a link passes users through to another system, the users shouldn’t need to know about that. And they definitely should not be prompted to provide a log in when they click a link.
  • Security should be granular: Allowing different permissions to be set and/or cascaded down to the object level.
  • Customer-facing portals should be multitenant: Like SaaS applications themselves, you need to be able to maintain and serve the super-set of content from one place, while allowing for each customer instance to have its own look and feel, and access only the sub-set of content relevant to the customer.
  • Constant beta is both the journey and the destination: “If you build it they will come” definitely does not apply. Be prepared to launch, promote, monitor, harvest and improve in a cyclical fashion.

Finally, be sure to monitor consumption and ratings of content. The “modality” of a Web-based learning portal offers a ton of insight into what people are finding, using, and valuing vs. what is left unconsumed. This enables you to treat your training spend like an investment portfolio, informing areas in which to invest more, less, or differently. This becomes even more powerful if you are able to correlate training consumption metrics with performance and see what high performers are consuming and/or contributing as well as how much low performers may or may not be tapping into these resources.  Now that is actionable data.

The final article in this series will explore best practices for monetizing SaaS training, with a particular focus on selling training as a subscription.