In 2004 technology appeared to be coming out of the post-bubble-burst doldrums and into our lives as never before. The technology infrastructure that was laid down, and the tool chest that the training industry can now play with, is impressive.
VoIP companies like Skype and Vonage started a quiet revolution in the telecom industry, making free (or absurdly cheap) phone calls easily available to anyone with a web connection, and prompting pundits to forecast that 40% of all business calls will be web-based within three years. Microsoft came under pressure from all directions. Oracle acquired PeopleSoft for $10.3 billion, a move that surely made LMS vendors nervous.
Google bought Keyhole Corp, a digital mapping business, amid rumours that Google was developing its own browser to compete with Internet Explorer. IE lost double digit market share to the open-source Firefox browser (actually Netscape reincarnated) within weeks of its launch, a classic example of how fragile the status quo can be these days, and of how vulnerable even the most dominant are to innovative competitors. And open-source Linux went from strength to strength, landing a major endorsement when IBM ditched Microsoft and adopted Linux as its operating system of choice. That was before IBM sold its personal computer business to a company in China.
After Google’s massive IPO, Yahoo, Amazon.com and Microsoft all got the search engine bug, and lots of start-ups joined the search for better search systems. And the proliferation of spam and viruses made internet security a very good business to be in. Symantec acquired Veritas for $13.5 billion.
Apple, HP and Dell all rolled out desirable little devices that make the old data-focused grey-box notion of a personal computer redundant. The cell phone became a multimedia mobile computer that serves up music, movies, and images as well as the occasional phone call or text message. The iPod phenomenon made Apple the fastest growing stock of the year. In the US, broadband users outstripped dial-up users for the first time, making web-based multimedia more viable than ever. And wide-area WiFi hot-zones sprang up like mushrooms, with the city of Philadelphia announcing a plan to provide free broadband wireless access to everyone within the city limits.
There was less dramatic progress in social computing. True, new services kept popping up to provide “connections” for those seeking collaboration or just company. Friendster became phenomenally popular overnight, acting as a peer-to-peer social network for (mainly) adolescent gossip sharing. More mature versions have yet to take hold, though Spoke and the repositioned Lycos have promise. Free photo sharing services like Hello and Flickr have blossomed. And blogs and RSS finally made it to centre court, after years of being cult phenomena, suggesting that the emphasis in the application of computing has moved from the personal to the intimate. Perhaps training needs to start following the same path.
So what does it all mean for learning? Very little, if you choose to ignore it. Rather a lot, if you are looking to exploit it. Strangely enough, academic institutions are often more advanced in their incorporation of web technologies than business organisations. Perhaps it is because their primary market is the digital generation. It is hard to ignore the way your students prefer to do things, particularly if they make sense.
Universities are using social networks, WiFi, podcasting, online forums, and virtual collaboration almost as a matter of course these days. They are still semester-bound, which is odd given the inefficiencies of date-based curricula, but for the most part there is a buzz of innovation and experimentation on campuses around the world. Sadly, a similar innovative buzz is hard to find in the training centres of major corporations.
The oft-heard put-down of “solution looking for a problem” is very easy to use at the end of 2004. There are a lot of inexpensive, easily obtainable tools looking for someone to apply them. Technologies are no longer lagging our ability to use them. The reverse is true: our imagination and willingness to reinvent our processes and ourselves as trainers is the major limiting factor in our evolution to more competent professionals.
Ah, but is there a need to innovate, to continuously improve our effectiveness or efficiency, to provide a better service to our learners, and our employers? As an industry, the answer has to be a resounding “yes” but as individuals we tend to be happy waiting for someone else to make the first move. As Microsoft discovered at so many levels in 2004, playing a waiting game is not necessarily the smartest survival strategy.