The 8 Keys To Implementing An Effective Compliance And Ethics eLearning Program In Your Organization (And Mistakes To Avoid!)

Friday, October 1, 2004 - 01:00

Alex Brigham
Corpedia Corporation


The company that I manage, Corpedia, in alliance with the Practising Law Institute, offers a joint service (PLI-Corpedia) of ethics and compliance eLearning for the workforce of corporations and other insitiutions. When we introduced our first program on sexual harassment in 1998, the competitive landscape was barren. Over the next few years the evolution of the Internet combined with the fall out from Enron led to the emergence of many organizations to service the market. When we were asked by a potential investor if we were upset at the newfound competition we were facing, we exclaimed to the contrary that we were ecstatic. Over time, some of our competitors blossomed into long-term players, while others had a short run.

Now is a terrific time for an organization to embark on a compliance and ethics eLearning initiative. The technology has improved, which makes for a better experience for employees; online learning has become a more accepted part of business processes; and the vendor landscape has matured to the point that there are several viable and cost-effective offerings available.

We now find we are one of the old-timers in the market. This piece addresses eight valuable lessons we have learned in the course of implementing compliance and ethics eLearning solutions at more than 200 organizations.

1. Understand And Make The Commitment

If you choose the right vendor, implementing and managing an enterprise-wide compliance eLearning initiative does not have to be a fulltime job. This is not to say you will not have to commit upfront time into planning the initiative -- picking a vendor, mapping out a curriculum, testing the technology, etc.

Therefore, the first step is making the commitment and truly understanding why you are doing this. The truest goals for any compliance and ethics eLearning initiative are not only to prevent malfeasance, but also to promote and encourage existing ethical behavior. If these are your goals, they can be achieved with commitment.

2. Set The Proper Tone From The Top

Much about having an effective compliance and ethics training program is setting the proper tone. If employees don't believe in their leadership's personal commitment to ethics and compliance, they are disinclined to accept such ethos for their own behavior.

The most effective training programs not only address a broad range of relevant topics, but also personally engage senior management in the design and implementation of the program. At a minimum we see that the General Counsel gets involved in the program, through adding a personal note up front or even a multimedia introduction that explains the importance of the program and why it is being rolled out. Often we even see the CEO getting similarly engaged.

3. Understand That Technology Is Half The Battle

One trap that corporations tend to fall into is to undervalue the importance of simplicity in technology in the overall equation as it relates to enterprise applications. For instance, we witnessed a situation where a company picked an eLearning program that had all sorts of "bells and whistles." This program looked extremely impressive. However, after purchasing the solution, the corporation discovered that the functionality and robustness of the program was too much. Employees could not figure out how to use the programs and the technical support line began ringing off the hook. Adult learners can become easily frustrated and such frustration quickly undermines the goals of putting the program in place. Therefore, we have found that the user interface must be extremely intuitive to any adult learner. The instrumental steps to avoiding such a problem are to ask the right questions in advance and then to conduct a pilot program within a segment of the organization.

4. Be Demanding And Invest In Quality - It Is Less Expensive Than You Think

In many ways, the implementation of an enterprise-wide compliance and ethics training program is a branding exercise. Therefore, the quality of the programs and underlying technology experience will directly affect how employees think about the topic of compliance and ethics and their corporation's commitment, or lack thereof, to instilling a culture of proper behavior. Fortunately, the compliance and ethics eLearning industry has evolved to the point where getting high-quality, customized programs are both easy and inexpensive. You just have to ask!

5. Respect Employees' Time

A well-designed eLearning program draws a direct correlation between relevance and "desk time" (the amount of time it takes to complete the program). The problem in not tailoring the relevance of the program to the specific trainee is two-fold. First, the program takes longer than necessary to complete - which can lead to resentment by the employee. Second, as soon as the learner is exposed to a significant portion of any program that is not relevant to his or her job function, he becomes "disengaged" and stops paying attention.

By keeping these concepts in mind and reviewing the programs for time and relevance (and tailoring them as appropriate before rolling them out), you will demonstrate respect for the employees and ensure the learning experience is a good one.

6. Demand That Vendors Disclose Any Possible Conflicts Of Interest

In the day of heightened transparency there is increased pressure on boards of directors to ensure their organization's business dealings reflect ethical and fair transactions at all times. Make sure your outside advisors do not have a conflict of interest when recommending a particular solution to your organization. This could later prove to be both embarrassing to your organization and yourself personally should it later turn out that you overpaid for a compliance eLearning solution or purchased a less than ideal alternative available to your organization.

7. Pick The Instructional Methodology That Works Best For Your Organization

All compliance eLearning programs address the law. However, there are different approaches on how to "present the law" to the end trainee. Generally speaking, two alternative approaches are used: "story-telling" and "concept-based."

Story-Telling. The Story-Telling methodology follows one specific employee, or a set of employees, in a fictitious corporation. The learner watches as the employee encounters a myriad of ethical dilemmas and opportunities to violate the law, and learns about how ethics and the law apply to certain portions of his/her job.

There are both advantages and drawbacks to Story-Telling. Without question, the stories are memorable and, if properly designed, they reinforce which course of action presented was proper. However, there are many drawbacks to this approach. The first is because the scene needs to be set, it takes longer to train. The second is that the number of issues that can be covered in any one training program are limited by the reasonable fictitious scenarios that a main character in the plot can encounter while still seeming plausible. Furthermore, Story-Telling is more difficult to customize to a specific corporation's unique environment and operations. And finally, Story-Telling does not lend itself well to be re-assigned as a refresher course throughout an organization.

Concept-Based. The Concept-Based methodology starts with the key legal principles and concepts that the trainee must know in order to act within a legal and ethical framework with regard to their job responsibilities. The concepts are presented and then supported by "scenarios" and other types of interactions and activities that provide context for how the principles and concepts are to be applied in an everyday business environment. There may be thematic elements to the characters presented throughout the scenarios but they can just as easily vary dramatically from one to another.

The biggest disadvantage of a Concept-Based approach is that it may not always seem as engaging to certain portions of a company's workforce who may enjoy learning through stories. However, Concept-Based is more time-efficient and more flexible when it comes to customization and tailoring the concepts to the unique corporation. In addition, Concept-Based learning is also better suited for "refresher" training.

Which Methodology Should Be Used? Such decisions are often based upon the intended audience. Generally, the "Story-Telling" instructional methodology is more appealing to "manual" workers and the "Concept-Based" is better suited to "knowledge workers." Many organizations' workforces may reflect both types and, therefore, a mixture of methodologies may be preferred or required. Also, personal preferences and corporate cultures vary and can also play a major role in your organization's choice of methodology.


8. Learn From Open Standards, Best Practices And Experiences Of Others

The final of the eight key elements to implementing a successful eLearning initiative is to learn from those corporations that have already done it. Fortunately the dogged efforts of pioneers in this industry - both vendors and clients alike - have resulted in the creation of a collective repository of best practices, experience and recommended standards.

Our nascent industry has already given rise to numerous nonprofit institutions and gatherings where resources can be accessed, including the Ethics Resource Center (, the Open Compliance & Ethics Group (, the Ethics Officers Association ( and The Corporate Compliance Institute (


Avoid The 3 Common Mistakes!

A discussion of the keys to a successful implementation of a compliance and ethics eLearning initiative would be incomplete without brief mention of some of the common pitfalls. The three most frequent mistakes that we have seen over the past several years are as follows:

  • Failing to do due diligence on vendor references;
  • Entering into multi-year contracts without adequate incentive or diligence;

Failing to determine the vendor's commitment to the industry.

Alex Brigham is President and Chief Executive Officer of Corpedia Corporation d/b/a Corpedia Education. The full version of this White Paper was originally printed in the Corporate Legal Compliance Handbook, Aspen Law & Business, Chapter 16; 2004. 

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