Falling stock prices, failed LMS implementations, poor course completion rates, slashed corporate budgets. In the face of all that, will e-learning be remembered as nothing more than a late salvo in the dot-bomb campaign?
There is no doubt that for the first time, e-learning naysayers are outnumbering the true believers. As a contrarian, I see this as a bullish sign. Consider recent history through the lens of Gartner’s Technology Hype Curve, depicting how hype that outpaces technology leads to unrealistic expectations, followed by a period of ambivalence from a disappointed market. Darwinian rules then force unsuccessful vendors to drop out, while the strong emerge on top. Buyers and end-users become “enlightened” about which technologies are truly profitable and productive, leading to a period of stability and productivity.
As corporate trainers become intrigued by Internet technologies, technology triggers hit. One such trigger occurred at the 1996 ASTD conference, where a single workshop devoted to intranet-based training was mobbed by more than 500 participants. The one-hour session led to a series of articles, speeches, million-dollar contracts, etc. In 1997, Elliott Masie launched TechLearn and became the torchbearer for the industry, while a group of Oracle executives founded Saba and directed the collective dialogue to enterprise-wide learning management.
The height of expectation, of irrational expectation, was marked by the success of DigitalThink’s IPO and record-high stock price. The focus on learning portals and content aggregation was also the rage at the time, with only a few critics pointing out the problems around an unproven B2C market and a lack of differentiation and barriers to entry.
Then 2001 brought the harsh slope of unfulfilled promises. Several high-profile providers shut their doors, while many more announced large-scale layoffs in the face missed revenue targets and crashing stock prices. E-learning advocates retreated to the more defensible ground of “blended learning.”
This year will go down as the Trough of Despair with the announced merger of SmartForce and SkillSoft signaling both the bottom of the curve and the beginning of something better. Though perhaps a sign that even the giants are stumbling, the new company creates the first $100 million-revenue vendor, with a deep pool of talented employees and a very real business model.
When will we experience enlightenment and productivity? There’s an inherent symmetry to the technology curve. If it took four years to move from the triggers to the peak, it could be 2004 or ’05 before we reach a time of healthy, manageable growth. After all, we still need more supply-side consolidation and must ride out the impending customer confusion related to the cousin disciplines: knowledge management (KM) and enterprise resource management (ERM).
Despite the current climate, the e-learning hype-cycle tells us that just as the highest highs were unsustainable, so too are the lowest lows. Recent events should only serve as reminders that we need to be smart and rational. Despite setbacks, organizations like IBM, Cisco, GlaxoSmithKline and the U.S. military have achieved incredible cost savings and increases in productivity through e-learning.”
Kevin Kruse is the author of “Technology-based Training: The Art and Science of Design, Development and Delivery” (Jossey-Bass) and is a principal at Kenexa. You can reach Kevin at firstname.lastname@example.org.