Wednesday, August 25, 2004

E-learning’s lessons from e-business

I have often bemoaned the fact that training people do not look to what their colleagues in other departments are doing for examples of how technology can be applied to learning initiatives. There’s a bigger picture out there, yet “learning professionals” often get so precious about their perceived uniqueness that they can’t see the valuable lessons in e-business. The truth is that there is nothing that we do in e-learning that has not already been done, and done a great deal better, in e-business.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the issue of standards for LMS and content models. Over the years I have drawn fire from the SCORM lobby and from vendors of LMS systems for my argument that these initiatives have limited relevance and applicability in the expanding world of online learning; and that through the excessive hyping of these initiatives the training market has come to have tunnel vision about what technology can do. Worse, the boundaries of the technology have restricted the vision of what learning can and should look like. Further, and this is probably most important, by solely adopting standards and systems exclusively designed for training, the learning function in an organization has effectively gone proprietary relative to other enterprise knowledge flows. So instead of being integral to the corporate nervous system, learning distances itself. This is not a smart thing to do in a world where real-time integration of data throughout an organization and its partners is a prerequisite for survival.

Trainers have, from the beginning, looked for easy solutions that let them apply internet technology without themselves having to become geeks. They sought to exploit the web at the same time as their colleagues in Marketing were seeking to exploit the web. IT departments were typically reactive rather than pro-active where providing internet programming services was concerned, leading to a great deal of outsourcing by both trainers and marketers. Ten years since the first secure internet e-commerce transaction took place, e-marketing and e-commerce are sophisticated and effective. E-learning is still pumping out mundane canned product, still trying to get its LMS to integrate with enterprise systems. Maybe marketers had bigger budgets or more creativity or more political clout. Maybe marketers had more intense competitive pressure or more immediate ROI considerations. Maybe marketers took understanding and reacting to the needs of their customers more seriously. Or maybe marketers were more willing to learn about and adapt to realities and more motivated to seek opportunities across a broader further horizon.

I am a marketing professional, by education and experience, so I am not altogether unbiased. But I am also a trainer, having spent two decades or more training people around the globe in marketing, sales, and communication. Training is, I suppose, a more honorable profession than marketing. But I feel embarrassed to call myself a trainer these days, because the achievements of that profession over the past few years have, on the whole, been inexcusably dire. It is our responsibility to prepare people to perform well in tomorrow’s world; yet as a profession we seem unable to even grasp the realities of today’s world.

What are some of the realities that e-business is dealing with? Here are a few that might have some bearing on the way we view our training initiatives:

Process interoperability: To be an e-business, your processes need to connect with each other seamlessly and instantly, across departments, up and down hierarchies, worldwide. Not only that, they have to connect with the processes of your suppliers, partners, and customers. To accomplish this real-time flow of data, your systems should be as open, non-proprietary, flexible, and web services standards based as possible. Are your training systems still effectively proprietary to your department, or are they transparent to the corporate knowledge flow?

Value focus: The core competencies of an e-business are defined not so much by those processes that it does well as by the value that it can add to the processes of its business partners, suppliers, and customers. What value do your learning initiatives add to the processes of your corporate customers? What value do they add to the learning processes of your learners?

Context focus: In e-marketing, demographic targeting is losing ground to contextual targeting. You want to present your product in a light and at a time that makes it pop from the background blur for a customer. Marketing messages are tailored to the target customer and presented when that customer’s mind is in the most receptive context. Demographic marketing is too shotgun, too wasteful and ineffective, in a world where technology makes surgical precision possible. Are your training experiences still canned one-size-fits-all affairs? Are they still “events” rather than being woven into the fabric of a learner’s day? Are they at least customized or personalized?

Byte-sized messages: In marketing, it’s commonly accepted that the attention span of your target customer is shrinking exponentially. Thirty seconds is too long for an ad on television. A complex proposition has to be simplified. The elevator speech is over; if you can’t print it on a T-shirt to be read in passing on the street, your message is not clear enough. This blog is already 2,000 words too long. As an e-learning designer who cut his teeth on forty-hour certification courses, I used to believe that you can’t learn anything useful in an hour, because sixty minutes is just too short. Now I think you can’t learn anything useful in an hour because sixty minutes is just too long. The implication is that you have to eradicate all of the content, media, and interactivity that are relatively gratuitous, and focus on communicating as powerfully and economically as possible.

Text rules: A frequent debate in both marketing and training circles is whether text has greater value than images. If words are well-crafted, they communicate more memorably and often more precisely than rich media. Images are open to interpretation; words can be crafted to be unambiguous. Words have immediacy and meaning in a world where seconds are precious. Hence the popularity and dominance of Instant Messaging, SMS “texting”, and e-mail. In the blogging and XML-news world, RSS (basic, unformatted text abstracted from websites) is becoming preferable to actually visiting the original media-rich site. It’s true that well-crafted rich media can often communicate better than text, and where your target group has literacy challenges alternative media are essential. But how much of the rich media in your learning experiences is well-crafted communication, and how much is simply gee-wiz gratuitous creativity?

Community and human interaction: Part of the popularity of text stems from the fact that, among the literate, anyone can communicate instantly with other people using text. Drawing a picture or snapping a photo usually takes time. E-businesses understand the value of human communication in their processes. Every system, every process, every product or service in every corporation is conceived and designed by human beings. As market dynamics change at increasing speeds, those processes have to change too. It’s often claimed that eighty percent of all learning takes place informally; and it takes place largely as a result of interaction among people. So systems and processes have to support human interaction in order to stay viable. Such communities are an important component of context. Do your learning experiences leverage, support, or even allow interaction among the learners, instructors, and subject matter experts? And do you have a commitment to nurturing and sustaining any communities that form so that communication can benefit learners beyond the “course” experience? If you have effective communities of practice in place, do you even need a course experience?

I could extend this almost indefinitely, but that would make me guilty of ignoring my own advice. E-learning should be more than courses online. Look to e-business, e-marketing, and e-commerce for clear examples of how technology can be applied to everything from seamless integration of data, to clarity in message, to targeting of context, to personalization of content, to customer service. You don’t have to re-invent it all. Some great solutions already exist within your own corporation.

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