Can Centralized and Decentralized Online Training Co-Exist?

Running manCentrally managed.

Those two words conjure many images in my mind…Big Brother, top-down control, central command—as three examples.

When it comes to applying the words "centrally managed" to online training, the traditional LMS comes to mind. The traditional LMS is generally thought of as a centrally managed online training system with the purpose of making life easier for managers. Yes, organizations and managers loved centrally managed online training—and for good reason. Top-down online training management enables training courses to be encapsulated, content to be easily re-used, training statistics to be captured, and ROI to be measured. (All of which are very important.)

On the flip side, the traditional adult learner seeks the freedom of choice in learning that often comes with a decentralized learning network. Decentralizing the learning function can encourage self-directed learning, mentoring, social and informal collaboration, learning tailored to specific groups and locales, and on-the-job performance support. (All of which are very important, too.)

Can a centrally managed online training system and an individualized learning network coexist? Should they coexist?

Yes. And, yes.

But ensuring that the answers to the questions above are “yes” requires a modern LMS that allows central management of online training yet is flexible enough to provide learner choice.

Centralization can be useful—even mandatory. But it’s human nature to want to circumvent central control. Why not embrace human nature and garner the best of two (seemingly) contradictory states—allowing freedom and flexibility within a centrally managed online training system?

Enter the “Learning Ecosystem”

As learning ecosystems—or the various learning resources available within organizations—have grown exponentially, it’s becoming easier to bring workplace learning from the theoretical to the immediately-applicable. In other words, it’s becoming easier to cause both learning and work to intersect constructively.

According to a January 2015 eLearning Guild survey on Learning and Performance Ecosystems: Current State and Challenges, people from 21 industries were surveyed and asked how they expected their organizations’ learning and performance solutions to evolve from the current state over the next three years (2015-2017). The survey indicated:

  • Scheduled learning events (e.g., classroom courses, webinars) are expected to decrease from 94.6% today to 93.1% over the next three years
  • On-demand learning offerings (e.g., self-paced courses, eLearning, mLearning) are expected to increase from 86.6% to 95.0%
  • Learning embedded in the work environment (e.g., performance support, social media, knowledge base) is expected to increase from 50.9% to 78.1%

The data reflects growth—or that the current learning ecosystem is evolving into a richer and more complex state—rather than a trend toward replacing one approach with another.

Allowing Freedom of Choice in Centralized Learning Systems

There’s a unique opportunity afforded to organizations which have the vision, foresight and knowledge to use a centrally-managed LMS that still allows flexibility for individual learning plans. That vision and knowledge includes knowing how to flex the LMS (the centrally managed “tool”) to allow granular control of content (the “learning”) by individuals or discrete groups in the organizational umbrella.

Consider introducing choice, voice and freedom in online training in the following 3 key areas.

#1 Give People a Choice

Flexible learning strategies include a combination of formal (instructor-led) or informal (experiential, self-directed, impromptu) learning.

Consider adding flexibility to course content by:

  • Creating specific content for geographical locales or specific job functions (sales vs. support vs. engineering, for example).
  • Allow learners to contribute content informally (via a knowledge base, Wiki, forums, chats, etc.)
  • Allow learners to contribute content formally (ask SMEs, customers, or partners, to author course content).
  • LMS’s allow you to import files, such as PowerPoint, Video, Word, and PDF. Job aids and reference material can thus be imported into the training module and downloaded for future access, perhaps at the time when that information may be needed for on-the-job application.

#2 Give People a Voice

Having the ability to discuss learning content encourages learners to process information.

Consider encouraging formal or informal learning-related conversations by:

  • Integrating social networks, like Yammer, into learning programs to allow your workforce to collaborate, communicate, socialize, and create informal learning spaces outside of (but connected to) formal learning spaces.
  • Offer “one-on-one time” with the experts (online instructors or SMEs) in the form of an online chat, hangout, webinar, or other personalized discussions.
  • Provide spaces for mentoring relationships to develop, either formally (i.e., new hire mentorship programs) or informally (i.e., by creating spaces where people of similar learning interests can congregate and set up their own mentoring relationships).

#3 Allow Freedom

People want the freedom to chart their own learning journey.

Consider encouraging freedom in learning by:

  • Involving learners in creating their learning plans. Engage managers, mentors and other key people in the process.
  • Use microlearning concepts to provide learning in small chunks. If your course catalog is well-organized, the learner will be able to quickly scan the catalog to find “bite-sized” learning chunks that will let him learn what he needs to know when he needs to know it.
  • Create optional courses for your learners, let them choose their own learning paths, and allow them to determine completion deadlines.
  • Modern LMS’s are device agnostic: learners can start training on their desktop, and pick up where they left off on a mobile device at the job site.


Using a centrally managed system to manage online training courses doesn’t necessarily cause learner choice, voice or freedom to be compromised. Finding ways for individuals in an organization to co-exist within the learning ecosystem will yield maximum individual and organizational benefits.

What type of learning ecosystem currently exists in your organization? How do you expect it to evolve in the next three years? And does that evolution support learner choice, voice and freedom?

Gauri Reyes is a talent developer and learning leader with extensive experience in roles ranging from software management to managing the learning function in organizations. She is Principal Learning Strategist and CEO at Triple Point Advisors and Founder of the YOUth LEAD program. Follow her on Twitter, LinkedIn or Google+.

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