I just finished ironing my shirt. It’s a simple white dress shirt with some unique details. It has a European 8 spread collar (8! Not 7. Not 9. 8.) and a red detail on the inside of the cuffs. I like that flash of red to show when the sleeves are rolled up. The fit is impeccable, and it would be fair to say that it’s my favorite shirt. It was made just for me. As an amateur fashionista, I spend time, and money, on countless shirts, some of which I still own and actually wear, that aren’t quite right. Different brands, materials, discount items – nothing beats my simple white shirt.

So what does my laundry have to do with custom eLearning? Everything. From vision to design and execution, the story of my shirt is a metaphor for the ins and outs of custom eLearning production, and the dilemmas contemporary executives face when trying to decide whether to create custom eLearning or purchase off-the-shelf learning products.

White shirt

The Big Questions

Why get a custom shirt? The benefits are clear: It fits me like a glove, it looks and feels exactly the way I want, it is made of the fabric I selected, and it has the specific embellishments I want. But there are drawbacks: It took some time to make. A tailor had to take my measurements and then sew the shirt. When you think about it, the whole process took a lot more time than a trip to the local mall. It also cost more than a store-bought shirt - though perhaps not as much as you might think. The decision comes down to: What do I REALLY want? What is my priority? What do I want to achieve?

And these are the big questions when it comes to deciding whether to go the custom vs. off-the-shelf route in Learning and Development. If you want your employees to achieve specific behavioral change or transfer knowledge that is unique to your organization through specifically-designed learning objectives and strategies, you need a solution which will take some time to design, develop, and deploy. If your learning need doesn’t have any specific organizational implications, off-the-shelf might be a good choice.

But before you run out to shop for your next off-the-shelf training, let me make a case for custom eLearning and the value that can only be provided by tailor-made learning.

Custom eLearning solutions allow you to:

1. Focus On YOUR Target Audience

Like people, no two organizations are alike. They attract unique talent and have specific characteristics, strengths, and weaknesses. When you consider the unique nature of your organization, taking into account its processes and standards, and attempt to overlay off-the-shelf Learning and Development products, you will almost certainly see gaps. When it comes to processes, safety, onboarding, accounting, legal, or even compliance training, organizational specificities almost certainly exist, and a generic approach can do more harm than good.

When creating custom eLearning with a reputable vendor, you’ll experience the added benefit of a target audience analysis. Any responsible learning provider starts there. An intimate knowledge and understanding of your organization and employees inform the decisions that will influence not only the learning design but also the results you’ll see once the learning initiative has been executed.

A couple of years ago, one of our clients was concerned about lack of employee buy-in concerning cybersecurity. Employees had been provided with several eLearning courses and workshops to increase awareness with the aim of protecting the intellectual property of the company. The trainings were bland and generic – classic page-turners with no company-specific examples. Furthermore, management had difficulty communicating the rationale – why cybersecurity was such an important topic. Learning Management System analytics uncovered that there was some enthusiasm at the beginning of the courses, but only 7% of the target audience completed the trainings.

Taking all these things into consideration, Obsidian Learning designed and developed a series of 12 key cybersecurity micro-eLearnings. Each lesson was gamified and designed as a highly interactive experience. The micro-eLearnings were released one by one over a period of 8 weeks. They were loaded into an existing LMS, and a simple, easily accessed portal was created to house the series. The portal also included a gamified “spy-like” mission message from the project owner, which was later replaced by a message from the VP of Information Technology.

Custom eLearning: Cybersecurity Microlearning screenshot

The positive response was immediate, and the initiative expanded from a single division to a company-wide offering. 87% of employees completed all 12 modules, and the series was bookmarked by 63% of the employees who completed it.

2. Achieve The Behavioral/Knowledge Changes YOU Require

Even your closest competitors do things a little differently than you do, and that is probably reflected in your relative performance. Each individual, each team, each department has its own set of goals and objectives. If the gaps between the performance vision and reality are obvious, they should be relatively easy to address. But for more subtle dysfunctions, you may need to provide your employees with the organization-specific concepts they might be missing, and not waste their time, and your company’s money, with an off-the-shelf product that does not address the actual need.

A Fortune Top 10 company (+10,000 employees) wanted to educate its workforce on the basics of Lean Sigma. Though resources were somewhat limited, management wanted all employees to understand what Lean Sigma is, how it could benefit the organization, and also how its use could benefit the job role of each individual working for the organization. One of the key expectations of the proposed learning initiative was for each employee, from the janitor all the way up to the CEO, to suggest a functional improvement.

The client owned several off-the-shelf eLearning programs, but the adoption rate was unsatisfactory. After careful analysis, we recommended creating a simple, easy to understand analogy that was the subject of a learning video containing specific learning objectives and a concrete call to action. This short animation and its accompanying brief email campaign generated more interest in 3 weeks than a decade’s worth of previous Lean Sigma initiatives.

Custom eLearning: Lean Sigma screenshot

3. Create MORE Than Just A Training. Provide Performance Support

With custom eLearning solutions, you can, and always should, go beyond training. If you make the decision to go custom, challenge yourself and your eLearning vendor to create something that your employees will be willing, and motivated, to use after they’ve taken a course and learned something new. Ongoing Performance Support in the form of applications (apps), resource centers, video libraries, or even simpler solutions such as electronic quick reference cards and guides or electronic checklists can be powerful tools designed to support your employee not only while they are taking their training, but, more importantly, precisely at the moment when they actually need to use, or at least recall, the information.

Elevating regular custom eLearning to include some form of Performance Support is actually quite easy. The only real requirement is opting to create a custom learning asset.

A large motion-centric automation company tasked us with creating a highly-engaging and interactive safety training. As a leader in the industry, the health, safety, and security of its employees was of huge importance to this client. For maximum learner impact, we suggested shortening the existing training and curating the less retainable but extremely useful information into a type of “toolkit”. To increase learner motivation, the toolkit only became available (unlocked) once the training portion of the module was complete.

Custom eLearning: Field Safety Toolkit screenshot

4. COMBINE Seemingly Disparate Subjects

Don’t get me wrong; there are subjects that are better suited for an off-the-shelf purchase. These usually include scientific topics such as math, chemistry, accounting, or even engineering. But what happens if you’re trying to educate your workforce on two distinct, seemingly unrelated topics? This happens more often than you might think, and in a situation like this, a custom eLearning solution is your best bet.

One of the world’s largest oil and natural gas companies asked us to digitize a two-day workshop dealing with two distinct subjects: financial and economic acumen and the use of a software. The challenge was that some employees understood the underlying financial and economic principles, but had no experience using engineering software, while others were quite comfortable with the software, but had trouble with the financial aspect. The economic data were usually presented in the form of lengthy spreadsheets and the principles driving their interpretation could be difficult to grasp.

Custom eLearning: PEEP Cashflow screenshot

The solution we provided was complex: an ecosystem of short but pointy eLearning modules which built on one another and ultimately combined.


Of course, as you can imagine, there are other benefits to creating custom-made eLearning pieces. And just like with my favorite white shirt, the fun doesn’t stop there. I liked my first shirt so much that I asked the guy to make a few more. The great thing is that you can, at any point, with each subsequent shirt, improve and change whatever you like (or don’t like). With my ‘two blues’, two new shirts with the exact same cut of the first one, I decided to add a white trim line under the button hem. I saw it once in a movie and spent hours searching the internet for such a simple, yet to me, a very cool and unexpected fashion note.

Blue shirt

Let’s bring this clumsy analogy home. From my experience, this is exactly what happens with most, if not all our clients. They like the first custom piece so much that they let us create whole blended learning programs, eLearning portfolios, and full-blown curriculums. With each new custom eLearning asset, we evaluate what really worked, and what didn’t so much, and improve.

It seems like it takes lots of resources, and it may. But spending hours sifting through products that you know deep inside are not the exact right fit for your employees, and rationalizing the risk that comes with inherent gaps in such products can also be costly, and in some cases, it can compromise the safety of your workforce.

And we are back at the big question: What do you really want? Meaningful lasting change and improvement of your workforce or do you just need to ‘tick a box’?

Believe me. Just like I look, and feel, like million bucks in my custom shirts, so will you with a brand spanking new, 100% relevant eLearning ecosystem your employees will love and your enterprise will be able to tangibly connect its success to them. And remember; this article kickstarts a series which will provide an in-depth look at custom eLearning vs. off-the-shelf products.

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