Development Time for Corporate Learning: A Reality Check

corporate learning

A frequent part of my job is answering the question, “How long will that take?” And my answer is based on a combination of experience, data, and knowledge about the project type.

In January, ATD posted updated data as to how long it takes to develop an hour of instructor-led and asynchronous eLearning. This has led to lots of conversation and questions here at BLP and in our broader industry. Is this the formula for estimating development that we have all be waiting for?

While there is value in seeing this data over time, the authors acknowledge that the research did not gather enough information to answer key questions, such as:

  • Are these estimates for internal developers or vendors?
  • How many reviews and quality checks are included?
  • Is there a shared understanding of what the different interaction levels are? (There are no interaction levels identified for the instructor-led training.)
  • What impact does the chosen authoring tool have?
  • How experienced are the developers who responded?

Given these and other questions that need answers to validate and effectively use the data, it could be tempting to dismiss the information and say that the focus should not be on development time anyway – we should care about goals, objectives, and the learner experience. But I think that is short-sighted and not realistic for the corporate learning environment we all work in. We can’t just say, “it will get done when it’s done; you can’t rush greatness.”

Ask the Tough Questions

So, what do we do? Dig deeper. If someone agrees to create an hour’s worth of instructor-led training in 38 hours (the 2017 average reported in the ATD research), clarify what that means. And if you are the developer, ask yourself the tough questions to ensure you are going to meet the commitments you are making to the business.

Here are some things to consider.

Hours and Days Are Not the Same

Let’s say Sarah is creating a one-hour instructor-led course with the assumption that it takes 38 hours to develop. She might say, “Ok – I’m going to get that done in six business days. That feels like I’ve given myself a day of cushion.”

But then you look at her calendar:


Muffins with Mom (2 hours, including travel)


Staff meeting (1 hour)


Scoping meeting for new project (1 hour)


Dentist Appointment (2 hours)


Company town hall (1 hour)

Budget meeting (2 hours)



First, assume that Sarah can spend about six hours a day doing development work (knowing that she needs time for email, phone calls, interruptions, etc.) which means she has 36 hours available for this project.

There are nine hours of meetings and appointments already on the calendar. That takes the available time down to 27 hours. Sarah now has to find 11 hours to complete the project based on the estimate for development time. Most likely one of two things will happen:

  • She will work late to get it done, but quality will be lower because she is writing slides at 11 pm while watching TV.
  • She will miss the deadline and have to renegotiate a new timeframe that may have broader implications.

It’s Not Just About Development Time

Beyond the time to actually complete the design and development of the corporate learning, there are other factors to consider when estimating training development time.

Increase Factor*
Is this the first time you are creating this kind of training intervention? If yes, multiply estimate by 2.5 If you’re developing something for the first time, you need time to learn and experiment as well as gain buy-in from stakeholders. You don’t know what you’re getting into…expect roadblocks.
Are there clearly defined goals and learning objectives? If no, multiply estimate by 1.5 If these things aren’t defined, you are going to have well-intentioned people wanting to add new “nice to have” content into your course, which requires extra work.
Are there more than five people on the review team? If yes, multiply estimate by 2 The more voices, the more risk that there is a lack of vision or decision maker who will keep the course and team focused and on-track.
Is the content stable, available, and clear? If no, multiply estimate by 1.5 You are going to spend extra time talking to subject-matter experts, doing research and hunting down the content.
Do the developer and stakeholder have a shared understanding of what good/finished looks like? If no, multiply estimate by 2 There will be re-work and more reviews needed as the team gains shared understanding through the process of review cycles and edits.

* These factors are based on my 15 years in the learning and development industry and are guidelines, not hard and fast rules.

It Is Possible to Create Corporate Learning on a Tight Timeline

So, is it impossible to develop training quickly to meet the needs of the business? Absolutely not! If speed is required, then be sure to do these things to mitigate as much risk to the development schedule as possible:

  • Nail down the content as soon as possible and get it in writing. Make sure SMEs commit to being available for questions.
  • Protect the developer’s time. Don’t expect that person to work on several things at once. Clear as many meetings off their calendar as possible. Remember, if everything is a priority, then nothing is.
  • Review early and often. The goal should be no surprises during reviews. Stakeholders should have a clear view of what will be included in the training and how it is structured. Developers should get input along the way to avoid large-scale changes in the final stages of development.
  • Keep the review team small. Keep the review team limited to the key stakeholders and SMEs who are decision makers. Identify a single person on the team to make final decisions when the larger team disagrees.

Want to learn more about how to estimate training development time? We’d love to chat.