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The Rapid E-Learning Blog - compliance training jail

Every two years I take my car in and have the emissions tested.  The goal of the test is to certify that my car meets specific emissions standards.  If the car passes, I am certified and I can move on.  However, if it doesn’t pass, then my car has to go under a different series of tests (and perhaps repairs) to get up to the appropriate standard and certified.  Of course, this takes more time.

As I was waiting in my car, I was reminded that a lot of what we call “e-learning” is similar to the emissions testing process.  The purpose of the course is not to learn, but instead to demonstrate what we already know.  If we don’t pass the certification, then just like the car, we have to go through a remedial process.

When I worked for a healthcare organization, we did a lot of training like that.  We weren’t really training the staff since they already knew the subject matter.  Instead, we were certifying that they knew it.

Like the healthcare industry, there are many industries that require annual refresher or certification testing that has little to do with learning.  In those cases, the goal is not so much to teach new skills; instead it is to certify existing knowledge.  Of course, when a person doesn’t pass the certification, it identifies a clear learning opportunity.

One of the frustrating parts of the emissions testing is that, while the actual test only took a few minutes, waiting in line to take the test took a lot longer.  This is especially true if you wait until the last Saturday of the month when all of the other procrastinators also show up.

The Rapid E-Learning Blog - I know this elearning

Sitting in the car and waiting in line is not very productive.  The same can be said for those people who already have existing skills and yet have to go through an “elearning course” before they can be tested.  The ideal situation is to create an environment to assess the person’s skills and then direct them based on their results.

If the person can demonstrate the skills and knowledge, then go ahead and certify them, so they can go back to work or surf the Internet.  If they can’t demonstrate the skills and knowledge, put them on a path to get it, and then reassess them later.

Compliance Training: A Real-World Example

I was talking to a colleague recently who works for a very large financial institution.  Needless to say, they have many certification and annual refresher training programs.  The problem he ran into with his courses was that many of the employees already knew the information, but the organization still made them go through the entire course before they could be tested and certified.

This was a great source of frustration for the employees.  In addition, most courses took anywhere from 30-60 minutes to complete and each employee had to take a number of them throughout the year.

Let’s look at this from a financial perspective.  The organization has over 30,000 employees.  Just a ball park figure shows that 30,000 hours at $50 per hour is $1,500,000…for one course!  That’s a lot of money and lost productivity.

Surely there was a more efficient approach to meet the regulatory requirements and get the employees certified.  There was!  Here’s what his team did to create a more efficient elearning certification process.

The Rapid E-Learning Blog - what does the elearning law say

  • They contacted their law department to better understand the real legal requirements and certification process.
  • They found that in many cases they weren’t legally required to deliver a “course.”  Instead they only had to document that the employees were certified and had a certain level of understanding.
  • With this new information in hand (and the legal department’s blessing) they changed the structure for many of their courses by allowing the employees to test out of information they already knew.

And, what type of results did they get?

They found that for the more complex information, if they offered a pre-assessment, about 30% of their employees could skip past the course.  They also found that in some of their simple 15-30 minute courses, almost 70% were able to skip past the course and be certified.  Run some numbers on paper and you’ll see the savings add up quickly.

Our industry is always talking about demonstrating a return-on-investment and this seems to be a slam dunk.  There’s no better way to show your value than to demonstrate that you’ve created a more efficient way to certify your employees.

  The Rapid E-Learning Blog - return on investment - ROI

Of course, this approach doesn’t work for every industry or every elearning course.  But it does for many. If you do a lot of regulatory training, now might be a good time to rethink your elearning strategy.  Get with your legal department and find out what the exact requirements are; and then build a course that helps you meet them.

Many of you are in industries that require certification and regulatory training, I’m interested in hearing some of your best practices.


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32 responses to “Escape from Compliance Training Jail”

January 29th, 2008


Great points. The truth be told, the Sarbanes-Oxley Act here in the US ( has been great for us in the training field. So while your points are spot on, in the interest of my job security, I’m not going to show your post to my management or business sponsors! 🙂

Great points – I would like to add a couple more – in hopes that you may address these with your upcoming blog. What about questions on certification courses that really have nothing to do with demonstration of knowledge. I have a side assignment to help a group of technical support people certified in an internationally recognized process of providing support. This is a “foundation” certification that is designed as a very broad exposure to handling support. The exam itself is about 40 questions. 4-8 of the questions require the student to know what organization created the material, what organization provides the certification testing, and what organization maintains the information. My point is when we create eLearning courses, we should resist the temptation to present and test on things about ourselves. This is as big a turn-off as having to sit through 60 minutes of compliance material that you already know to take a test that has questions that are not relevant.


I couldn’t agree more with your comments. When people have to go through a serial training process regardless of their level of expertise, two problems arise – you lose productivity and learners become totally disengaged in the learning process. If they are disengaged, when that “nugget” of learning that they truly DO need comes up in the training process, they’re likely to miss it altogether because they are no longer connected with the process.

You ought to check out Confidence-Based Learning. It incorporates a lot of best practices around this theory and is reducing training time for many companies by 50% or more – while ensuring that people master the content. It employs a unique process flow that repeatedly audits the knowledge quality of learners to determine where they have knowledge or confidence gaps, then focuses the learning on those gaps. If a person has mastery of some knowledge already, they are rewarded by not having to focus time on it. The process is very efficient.

Makes so much sense, why waste time! Great article.

Absolutely! We separated our OSHA courses activities from our testing activities. First time through employees had to take the course before attempting the test. For refresher, they could take the test to demonstrate they were proficient in the knowledge required. Instead of having to spend 30-45 minutes each year going through material they already knew before testing, they could spend 5-10 minutes documenting they knew it by taking the test. Training time could then be devoted to things they really did need to learn. That benefited by employees and management, and represented a significant savings to the company’s bottom line, especially when you consider how much front-loaded training requirements are just regulatory in nature.


I agree with the others…really great post, which I am in complete agreement. I also agree with the comments Brian Webster posted; especially the implications of a disengaged learner.

I will be sharing this post with my boss. 🙂

Agree. I hope your follow-up articles will include recommendations of easy-to-use tools for valid and efficient testing, and tracking of tests/training in the absence of a full-blown LMS. I can’t trade less training time for employees for increased administration and tracking time for me and managers.

Ditto Rick’s question regarding dictated content that is not learner-centered(e.g., Mandatory Reporting for healthcare workers that has to include DHS decision-making processes. Why?).

Regarding Sheldon’s comment, we need to start saying no to training that does not add value to an organization and does not deliver skill-building or needed knowledge. There’s plenty of L&D work to do in any organization beyond compliance training. If we don’t say no, we’ll be out of jobs soon enough when others realize we haven’t delivered on our empty promises. And we do L&D a disservice, too. Just see the ongoing conversations about HR’s value to an organization (e.g., “Why We Hate HR,” Fast Company, August 2005).

Thank you for the excellent article. The truths that you explain in the article should hold for students in K-12 and university level. It is a lack of respect to waste their time teaching them what they already know.

January 29th, 2008

This is a concept I have pounded in our organization for years. Not only does it reduce frustration and wasted time for the customer, but in companies with limited resources dedicated to training, it is a real life saver as well.

January 29th, 2008

While I agree that it would be nice to allow learners to test out of a course, I have found that some learners will game the system to learn how to pass the assessment. They end up not showing that they know the material, but that they know how to pass the assessment.

Instead, I work to make sure that the course has new, relevant material every year if it’s an annual requirement. I change the layout and interactions to make it fresh. I make the refresher courses short and to the point.

Right on! We followed a similar path when I worked in a compliance training department. We got a lot of feedback about our long training and then we just asked the Law Dept.

That was good article and insights, thank you so much.

I like how Paris put it–“It is a lack of respect to waste their time teaching them what they already know.” It would be great if we could get some legislators to see this as well. Then maybe we could get rid of laws that focus on the number of hours of training rather than the actual mastery of the content.

I was sitting her vigorously nodding my head as I read through your post – working for a healthcare organisation, that is exactly the situation we are in. Now I just need to work on changing the thoughts of our educators.

Thanks for the comments and feedback. I agree with Cathy and Paris, that it is not very considerate of the learner to build horrible courses. However, I know that many times this is out of your hands.

Considering Tracey’s statement, what are some strategies that we can employ to help the educators, managers, and organization embrace a different approach to this type of training?

Brian, can you give us a little more detail of the confidence-based learning process without violating any proprietary data?


These were good points. Yesterday I completed a mandatory online Harassment “Training” session followed by an assessment to make sure that I knew the information. The technology used to to deliver the training was great, streaming audio, and video, great graphics etc. But the content gave me a headache. The 45 minute training (for most of which I skipped the audio) covered information anyone who has not been living in the dark ages for the past 20 years would know. On the other hand, it is scary to think that some people might not be clear that oogling the body parts of a co-worker during a conversation is inappropriate. Anyway, while I understand the need for the training, during it I couldn’t help thinking, there has to be a better way.



January 30th, 2008

Hi Tom,

This is very well observed and happens frequently in regulated industries such as in the UK financial services industry.

One way to address this is to combine learning and testing content and publish it using an adaptive delivery tool so that each learner consumes only what is needed. We use a tool called QuestionLogic which does just that although I suspect there other tools around. I wonder if you or any fellow bloggers have any views or experience to share on these adaptive learning tools?

Compliance training is our bread and butter (we wouldn’t have an LMS if it wasn’t for HIPAA compliance). We have also gone through similar growing pains with compliance, re-certification and course design. Our goals are more or less in alignment with your article…keep up the great posts.


I like the idea of putting in new ideas and the latest info on the subject. I also will look in to adaptive learning tools, thanks Simon!

Tom you have the greatest articles! I am so appreciative of you. I put together annual compliance training, looking forward to more ideas of how I can put a fresh spin on the process.


A previous blogger, Tom, asked for more info on confidence-based learning (CBL).

CBL is like a Six Sigma Learning process. Before a learner enters a program, the CBL process audits the learner’s knowledge quality to determine where knowledge and confidence gaps exist related to the training content. It then creates a learning syllabus that focuses on the identified gaps. It doesn’t “hide” the content the learner has already mastered, it just focuses primarily on gaps.

Once the learner has mastered the knowledge needed to fill the gaps, the system repeats the process to determine if there are any remaining knowledge or confidence gaps restricting the learner from achiveing 100% mastery. If so, these are remediated. The cycle continues as many times as needed. On the other hand, if someone has mastery of a lot of the content to begin with, the process is very fast. The audit simply confirms that the individual knows the material. It will even print a certificate at the end when someone demonstrates total mastery.

Most CBL users experience at least a 50% reduction in training time and longer knowledge retention. It’s good for referesher training and benchmarking, and its unique reports show where individuals or group populations stand in terms of mastery, doubt, misinformation and lack of knowledge.

I hope that’s helpful.

I supervise a group of analysts that have always groaned at the beginning of each year when they get a look at all the regulatory training I have to assign them. But my company has just recently started adding test out options. It’s kind of funny, but I now have employees who actually look forward to it. It has become a competition between them to see how many full length courses they can avoid! I’m thinking they are going to start awarding trophies. BTW, I especially appreciated CTR’s comments. Stop the oogling!

LOL. CTR’s comments makes me wonder if sometimes there isn’t workplace violence because of the eLearning courses. I took a course one time on “lawful harassment.” I think it implied how to harass and still comply with the law. It’s a good way to get dates.

Agree with CK, quit the oogling and get back to lawfully harassing your employees.

Oh, good post.

Regulatory training has been a challenge in our organization too. We operate under the illusion that people will learn when we make them take numerous modules in a short period of time. A goal that I have is to try and modify our approach. I like CK’s approach and might try to work on that approach for next year. Scott’s approach will work for us as well. Thanks for your ideas!

January 31st, 2008


I totally agree, there needs to be a better approach to deal with the annual compliance training. I am fortunate that I have not been tasked with developing such a course.

The two courses that I have had to take on an annual basis are cyber security awareness and harrassment. I think that the better versions of these courses likely contain a nugget or two of information that the students may have forgotten. But when it comes to testing the students, the tests are often designed so that the majority of the students will pass the test on the first attempt.

I feel that if you can craft an effective test, then give the students the option to attempt the test before taking the course. If they pass the test, there isn’t much more you can do.

Now, knowledge and behavior are two different things. I know how to create effective network passwords and I know that I should not write my password for everyone to see. But, I have passwords for everything and I am always being asked to change one of them because it has expired. Many people are forced to write them down. The training and the knowledge don’t always impact the behavior.

On the same token, I am fairly sure that most people could still pass the behind the wheel drivers test conducted by the DMV. However, based upon my observations while driving to and from work, it would appear that many people don’t always drive the same way on a regular basis. The test may identify the teens who are not ready to take the responsibility of having a drivers license or the seniors who no longer have the fast reactions needed to continue driving. The driving record is the better indication of a good driver.

My biggest fear with any training is that once a student is turned off to training, it is hard to motivate them in the next training course. I think that poor training hurts the industry. It also hurts my reputation as a training developer. A client who implements a course designed to reduce accidents is going to think twice about creating another course if the first course didn’t effectively reduce the number (or severity) of accidents.

Good points, Mike. I cover some of this in next week’s post. One thing that I think is critical to learning and you touch upon it:

“The test may identify the teens who are not ready to take the responsibility of having a drivers license or the seniors who no longer have the fast reactions needed to continue driving. The driving record is the better indication of a good driver.”

Formal learning structures like courses are only part of the process. A driver record is equitable to performance history. Thus, it’s important that managers/organizations not only assign the courses, but continue to provide the coaching and performance support that is required to maintain a “good driving record.”

Too often, managers and those who support performance are out of the loop when it comes to elearning.

[…] of the issues with compliance-based elearning and how taking a different approach to its design can save your organization time and money.  And of course an additional benefit is that it makes your employees happier.  There are […]

How to do context analysis? what factors should be consider in this process.

In response to Mohammad, try this as a foundation for context analysis:

Learning Environment
• What is the learning environment like? (e.g.: classrooms, learning labs, PCs, projection/playback equipment, sound reinforcement, quiet/noisy, roomy/cramped, colorful/bland, distracting or encourages focus, etc.)
• How large are the facilities? How many learners can be accommodated at once?
• What equipment is available?
• Are facilities, and access to them, adequate?

Work Environment
• How similar is the learning environment to the work environment where the knowledge and skills will eventually be used and applied? (can affect skills transfer)
• Are there secondary uses for the intervention or materials? (e.g.: reference, use on the job, performance support, etc.)

Interpret the Results
What are the instructional design implications based on the answers to these questions?

I am trying to design an e-course on,”designing and developing PowerPoint-based lesson plan that incorporate Gagen 9 events”.

The course will be for the higher education faculty.

based on this scenario, how will i do my context analysis.

The response by Terry was very good, but I need little more specific information. As this is my first e-course to design. Even though this is not complaince-based course. I am inspired from this strategit. Any help will be apprciated.


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[…] we may not want to admit it, there’s a lot of elearning that’s kind of pointless from an instructional perspective.  But it exists because the organization wants to show they delivered the training or met some […]