But far from being the demise of the training and certification industry, this is sparking a rapid evolution of new learning technologies, content and services. It is accelerating the evolution of IT training and certification for three primary reasons:
- The emphasis is shifting away from single product applications to convergent application solutions comprised of multiple applications from multiple vendors.
- Performance monitoring, assessment and improvement technology is being embedded directly in the convergent applications in the form of context-sensitive performance-support content and simulation.
- Information workers access the performance improvement technology in real time, on the job and in the context of specific job tasks.
The rapid proliferation of enterprise application integration, front-office composites and portal technology is blurring the distinction between specific products, particularly at the presentation layer.
Almost all IT vendor certification is currently product-centric. This new convergent environment will pressure vendors to modify certification programs to align to the new enterprise ecosystem.
Large enterprise application vendors such as SAP, IBM, Oracle, Siebel and PeopleSoft have integrated conventional e-learning functionality into their product suites. Large and small enterprise application vendors are innovating completely new product lines that have a direct and immediate impact on performance improvement. Recent advances in learning technology and enterprise technology from several industries make the “learn first, perform later” inherent in conventional training and e-learning costly and inefficient. These next-generation products are being developed in response to customer demand for real-time, tangible return on investment. They want immediate, measurable and observable workforce improvement results (concepts familiar to performance technologists, as well as CFOs).
“Integration and Optimization” is the new enterprise mantra. Fueled by budget crunches and IT downsizing caused by the global recession, customers want:
- Integration of technology.
- Optimization of existing technology and optimization of workforce performance.
In response to the demand for integration and optimization, vendors have evolved the “real-time extended enterprise.” It is the primary catalyst that is accelerating the innovations in next-generation learning technology. It will have a fundamental impact on IT vendor certification because the emphasis shifts away from “learn first, perform later” product training and certification toward real-time remediation and assessment embedded in hybrid and composite application solutions.
The Real-Time Gene
The customer demand for optimization is driving the demand for real-time technology. In the context of this new “zero-latency” corporate environment, there is literally no place or time for courseware or the concept of “taking a course.” There will always be a place for classroom training and courseware, but not in the context of the workflow that occurs in this emerging real-time extended enterprise.
Business intelligence (BI), business activity monitoring (BAM) and business process monitoring (BPM) used to be confined to analyzing system processes. New versions from vendors such as Cognos, Business Objects, FileNET and Lombardi now track and interact with systems and human responses in the context of the workflow in real-time. Cisco uses Cognos’ Visualizer product as part of its business-intelligence-enabled HR system. Managers can view workforce performance metrics by business unit and workforce “demographics.” This is a new learning technology category referred to as “workforce analytics” by vendors such as Docent and PeopleSoft. What you know, how well you do tasks and what you still need to learn are tracked by these systems. But these systems don’t just send reports to managers. Lombardi’s TeamWorks product sends process tasks to the appropriate employees needed to perform specific tasks at a specific time in the workflow. The software provides automated “process coaches” that guide workers on tasks and provide contextual information needed to perform specific tasks. PeopleSoft’s Intelligent Context Manager “proactively” prompts salespeople in the field with relevant information when they initiate transactions in enterprise applications. According to PeopleSoft, “contextual information is automatically displayed enabling users to intelligently navigate through the business process.”
Similar technology is being integrated into workflow automation and workforce optimization technology. Ultimas’ Workflow Suite enables work-load balancing. Tasks can be offloaded to another worker if one worker is too busy. Workforce performance benchmarking tracks the costs of projects and the productivity of individuals and groups. Two enabling technologies that are becoming integrated with these real-time workflow applications are instant messaging and presence awareness.
Instant messaging (IM) has begun to proliferate rapidly in the enterprise as an instant performance support technology. Once the domain of the consumer, it is becoming integral to corporate workflow, knowledge management and collaboration technology.
A new technology called presence awareness is now being marketed by vendors such as Microsoft, IBM’s Lotus and Groove Networks. It is becoming the foundation for “Find an Expert” technology. It takes instant messaging one step further and determines the availability of a worker for tasks, an expert for consultation or groups available for project team collaboration. Mindjet’s Mindmanager product is now integrated with Groove’s platform, allowing users to find experts to collaborate in multi-user mind-mapping events.
The e-learning vendor Hyperwave has integrated IM and presence awareness technology from Bantu into its knowledge management and e-learning platforms. Bantu is already used in the U.S. Navy’s Knowledge Management Portal, known as Navy Knowledge Online (NKO). According to Bantu, “a sailor at sea with a complex electronics repair project searching the portal for the engineers at the design facility on shore can then see their online availability and immediately communicate with them to obtain critical repair information.”
All these technologies are now undergoing intense convergence into integrated application suites. It is this integration that is enabling the extension of the enterprise.
The Extended Gene
There are two meanings implied by the term “extended.”:
- The integration across legacy and new enterprise technologies.
- The extension of user interactions beyond enterprise employees to include customers and partners.
It is the attempt to bridge previously “siloed” applications and isolated user groups. The recent recession has accelerated this trend, forcing customers to integrate and optimize existing technology. The need to optimize workforce performance and supply chains is extending the user-base outside the enterprise to include not only employees but customers and partners as well.
Wireless technology is being used to extend the enterprise beyond back office and front office to employees in the field. Workers across vertical industries who do not sit at computers all day are now being connected to enterprise applications via wireless handheld technology. Those field workers are being provided with real-time performance support in the form of augmented reality, collaboration with experts and automated contextual coaching.
Hybrid Species: The Emergence of Convergent Application Solutions
There are two primary technology drivers that are accelerating the emergence of convergent applications: enterprise application integration technology and portal technology. This convergence trend is creating a new market for new learning technology, content and services. By necessity, it will create the demand for new types of certifications.
Enterprise application integration and convergence is blurring the distinction between branded products. This reflects the first phase in the adoption of industry-wide integration standards, primarily XML and Web services. Microsoft’s new Jupiter project is integrating BizTalk Server, Commerce Server and Content Management Server with Visual Studio .NET, the Windows application server and Microsoft Office within a convergent Windows interface. PeopleSoft’s AppConnect, SAP’s xAPP and Siebel’s Universal Network Application frameworks are examples of current vendor-based application integration approaches. These frameworks are much more sophisticated than adaptor approaches and are used to rapidly develop composite applications built from components from a wide variety of vendors. Microsoft’s new XML-based Office 11 Business Productivity tools called Visual Studio Tools for Office will allow developers to create totally customized Office applications from components assembled or created from existing Word and Excel functionality. Sun will offer similar customization tools in the StarOffice Software Developers Kit (SDK) due out in mid-2003. It will allow developers to use Java to create customized hybrid applications and menus and will be included in the next StarOffice upgrade. Developers will be able to embed highly contextual learning objects directly in the convergent applications. The new Microsoft development environment includes a “smart document application model.” This feature will let developers embed contextual help and performance support for particular tasks in the business process.
These new composite applications will be highly solution-oriented and will be accessed in rich Web clients via new portal technology. Conventional portal technology was little more than a Web content aggregator. New portal technology is highly transactional and evolves the browser into a rich client interface. The transactional portal is essentially a customized Web interface that aggregates not only content but also trans-application functionality targeted to particular users. How individuals interact with those portals is governed by workforce analytics, business process rules and workflow. Selective feature sets of many applications are being blended into a single interface designed for individuals, groups or companies in a particular vertical industry. IBM’s next portal product upgrade, WebSphere Portal 5.0, will allow users to access granular front-office and back-office application functions as discrete “portlets.” This is a fundamental shift from launching separate, specialized, vendor-branded applications. The other leading portal vendors, such as Plumtree, BEA and Vignette, are pursuing similar product upgrades.
Similar to portals, dashboards are composite views and intervention tools that allow users not only to monitor business processes but also to intervene in real time. Charts, graphs, progress indicators and animation are used to simulate a perspective of the workflow. Cognos and Siebel provide interactive dashboards that can be customized to an individual’s job role. They are used by workers to modulate discrete workflow processes and by managers to modulate aggregate workflow processes. They are notoriously efficient at identifying individual productivity and quality of work output. This has prompted the need to integrate remediation content to modify behavior in real time.
Portal technology enabled by Web services and traditional enterprise application integration technology is blurring the brand and interface distinctions between stand-alone applications. An end-user is now focused on workflow, not on an application. This is a fundamental shift from products to solutions.
Evolve or Perish: Learning as Workflow in the Virtual Workspace
There are two kinds of technology and content that are emerging to meet the demands of this convergent market:
- Task-specific, contextual content and simulation embedded in the workflow.
- Real-time simulation-based collaboration and content in virtual workspaces.
Vendors like SAP, Epiance, Knowledge Impact, Knowledge Products and xHLP are providing tools that allow developers to embed performance support and simulation directly into applications. This content is accessed in real-time during a real job task.
Simulations are used for demonstrations and coaching inside applications. They are also used for creating virtual workers and environments for extended enterprise collaboration in what is called workspace (what the military calls BattleSpace). Performance is monitored in the workspace, and assessments can be delivered on-the-fly to workers performing workflow tasks. These assessments aren’t tests with multiple-choice questions; they are direct feedback, coaching and evaluation based on the user’s real-time actions. These products can feed this data to a learning management system (LMS) or directly to a manager’s dashboard, allowing managers to monitor performance in near real-time.
Developers are being targeted with integrated workflow interfaces. Teamplate is marketing a product called Teamplate for .NET that embeds “workflow wizards” in various applications used for integrated development environments (IDEs). Oracle’s IDE is integrated with its iLearning technology. Managers can see in real time what skill areas developers are struggling with. In isolated performance problems, contextual e-learning can pushed to specific individuals. Products like this would seem to obviate the need for training and certification, since an employer could train and track employees while they work. So far, according to Knowledge Products, employers have tended to use the data to decide who needs formal training and certification.
Mutating in Stride: Simulation-Based Advanced Learning Technology
There has been rapid progress in the development of virtual workspaces that integrate messaging, collaboration, business process, content management and learning. Content management vendors are buying collaboration companies and enterprise vendors are integrating virtual classrooms into their product suites. For example, Documentum bought e-Room, and IBM just released its new componentized Virtual Classroom that will be integrated with its Lotus collaboration products and its portal, business rules and content management components.
Vendors have tended to market products in this category with names that indicate a shared time and place such as PlaceWare, e-Room, Lotus QuickPlace and Microsoft’s SharePoint. Intraspect calls it “C-Space” for Collaboration Space, and Groove calls it simply Workspace. In all of these products, simulations of spatial metaphors are the foundation of the functionality and the interface.
The workspace is also being used by workers to create a virtual “water cooler” meeting place. There is a well-known adage in the training profession that over 50 percent of all learning occurs at the water cooler or while employees are socializing at work. Companies like FakeSpace are bringing affordable VR products to the corporate space that take this metaphor one step further and actually provide 3-D immersive virtual collaboration spaces for multiple workers.
The product lifecycle management (PLM) industry, which calls itself the collaboration industry, is the source of extraordinary innovations that merge performance improvement, learning and collaboration with real-time product design and production. Companies like Artificial Life, eGain, Mindful and NativeMinds are marketing virtual coaches. These virtual workers are being used as virtual marketing, sales and support representatives. For example, Ford uses a virtual mechanic named Ernie built with NativeMinds. Ernie coaches dealer service mechanics on specific problems they encounter as they repair cars. The U.S. Defense Logistics agency uses this technology to mentor users and employees. Even civilians can “talk” to a NativeMinds avatar called Phyllis at the Defense Logistics Information Service Web site at http://www.dlis.dla.mil/
Simulation is becoming a common assessment and employee screening technology, particularly in the call centers. Technical support professionals are now encountering these screening simulations. Kaplan is selling simulation-based products used to screen call center employees. Kaplan Professional’s Selection Advantage and Call Center Simulation provide prospective employees a preview of the working conditions in a call center. One interesting note about Kaplan’s simulation is that about 10 percent of people taking the simulation-based assessment decide they do not want to work as a call center representative.
Survival of the Fittest, the Smartest or the Fastest?
Darwin actually said, “It is not the strongest species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the ones most responsive to change.”
Companies that sell training products will have to change entire business models to adapt to this new convergent market. Application training, courseware and certification, as we know it, will not survive. Nimble service-based businesses will be able to aggressively exploit the new opportunities. Large content vendors (the dinosaurs in this metaphor) face the daunting task of migrating product-based courseware libraries to granular solution-based performance support simulations. Technology companies are facing a fierce “eat or be eaten” market. The most unique (and aggressive) pure-plays may survive as best-of-breed point solutions, but they will still need to support extensive integration across the enterprise.
Vendor certification will need to evolve quickly from product-centric to solution-centric and trans-application certification. Inevitably it will need to mutate to next-generation trans-vendor (as opposed to vendor-neutral) certification. This would be the descendent of current convergent certification models, such as the CCNT (Certified in Convergent Network Technologies) and the Convergent Networking Professional (CNP). In any case, trans-vendor convergence-based certification will be the most responsive to the new ecosystem. It is equally likely that more efficient forms of credentialing will evolve to replace certification.
Sam Adkins is an independent e-learning business analyst and a former product planner for Microsoft’s Training and Certification group. The viewpoints expressed in this article derive from his report, “The Convergence of eLearning, Simulation and Enterprise Application Suites,” published by the Internet Time Group.