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As an eLearning manager, you are required to confront and resolve complex problems on a daily basis. Each new project presents its own unique set of issues and considerations, but there are common issues that crop up:

  • Do you hire additional full-time employees or do you outsource any of your content development for the project?
  • Do you compensate SMEs?
  • How much time should you allocate to analysis of underlying issues?
  • What is the appropriate cost-per-minute that needs to be allocated in the budget for the project to fulfill its ultimate objectives?
  • Are there any LMS-related issues that need to be addressed?

As you attempt to answer these questions, every next piece of unique information adds complexity to the equation. The correct answer for one project may not be suitable at all for the needs of the next client. In other words, you need to develop ways to take common questions and reinvent your problem-solving approach for every next project.

After poking around Cynthia Shoemaker’s book, Leadership in Continuing Education in Higher Education,[1] and elsewhere around the web, I settled on this quick run-down of five techniques that may help you identify and resolve problems:

  1. Six-Question Approach – Make a list of possible solutions, then ask and answer a list of questions about each of these possibilities.
  2. Problem Redefinition – Take the initial statement of the problem and attempt to identify any biases or pre-conceptions that may distract you from the true issue. Restate the problem in a more open-ended way to eliminate creative constrains imposed by the initial statement.
  3. Root Cause Analysis – Define the problem in terms of chain of events that lead to the ultimate issue. Evaluate each link in the chain to identify causal factors (i.e., root causes) of the issue and identify solutions that will address these factors.
  4. Boundary Examination – State the problem, underline all nouns and verbs, and then think of alternatives to the nouns and verbs. You should both generate possible solutions and help define limits of the problem.
  5. Morphological Analysis – See the discussion below.

One technique that has been particularly useful to me is the morphological analysis, so I want to discuss it in greater detail. is a great place to start A morphological analysis allows you to study the form and structure of the problem, investigate different configurations of key factors, and visualize potential solutions. Take these factors and create a matrix to help you identify how different configurations of these factors conform and build toward an optimal solution. Dr. Tom Ritchey’s online article, General Morphological Analysis: A General Method For Non-Quantified Modeling, is a great source for a more in-depth treatment of this method.

As a quick-and-dirty example, let’s consider the problem of SME engagement in a content development project. We could list a variety of variable that factor into the solution to this problem, but let’s focus on two key factors: compensation and level of involvement. There are obviously various options within each of these factors as well. If you compensate SMEs, how much do you offer? How will the compensation be structured? At what point will SMEs become involved?

Although the ultimate configuration of your morphological matrix will be tailored to fit the precise facts of a given project, it might, as an example, ultimately look something like what I’ve posted below for these two factors.


As I set up this morphological matrix and looked over the possible configurations, an idea occurred to me: The optimal arrangement for a complex eLearning project with a tight budget may be to marry the best aspects of different configurations by using two SMEs with different pay structures. You could find a young, hungry SME in need of a byline for course authoring to improve his or her standing and credentials in the field and offer a fixed, lump-sum compensation in exchange for core content development. This SME becomes your workhorse for the project and gets the benefit of building credentials through the process of developing great content. You can then seek out a more established (and expensive) veteran SME in the field to bring on in a less expensive advisory role to review the content and identify any lingering issues for the younger SME to address. It’s possible that this arrangement could provide you with more budgeting leeway without sacrificing any quality or credibility on the content side of things. You will need to consider your own unique circumstances when deciding such things, but hopefully I’ve managed to illustrate the benefits of doing a morphological analysis for this type of complex problem.

I hope you can put this technique to good use for future eLearning projects. If you have any additional suggestions or tips to pass along, please feel free to leave a comment.


[1] Shoemaker, Cynthia C., (2007). Leadership in Continuing Education in Higher Education. Xlibris.

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