There is a good deal of confusion over where to bet the budget—and sometimes, one’s career—in the world of corporate online learning. Conflicting visions of the future collide in turbulent whitewater as powerful new streams of change and technology intersect. We yearn for a less volatile, more sustainable business-learning model with predictable, enterprise-related outcomes. We seek guidance in the integration of disparate technologies and divergent sources of knowledge and information. And we need more than vaporous descriptions of a better future. What we require is a crisp picture of an investment-friendly future and a good road map to get us there one step at a time.
The good news is that quite a few people are teasing both a sustainable solution and a coherent map out of the chaos, and they are discovering that our challenges—both technological and pedagogical—appear to come packaged with their own built-in solutions. The chicken and egg are present simultaneously, causing disruption on the one hand while offering salvation on the other.
Take, for example, the question of time. The growth of new technology has dramatically increased the pace of work. Nobody has time for courses any more, just when the need for learning is greatest. Examining this phenomenon, the ASTD/NGA joint report, “Into the Future,” concludes that new knowledge is growing at a rate faster than we can learn it, that we all have a skills gap all the time and that the skills gap is a ubiquitous characteristic of life in the future.
For the first time in history the learning requirement is primarily structured around the boundaries of time and space. We need a new learning model. The “command and control” classroom model designed for sequential learning (learn then do) won’t solve that time-constrained problem. “Just in case” learning may be useful for foundational requirements, but it fails completely as a model for today’s and tomorrow’s on-the-job learning challenges.
Fortunately, the very technologies that created the time constraints can also be used to provide a new model no longer bound by time and space. Instead of getting clawed by that tiger of change, we can get up on its back and ride using new technology to provide targeted knowledge when and where needed. It is what Clayton Christenson calls “a disruptive solution”—abandoning the centuries-old academic model in favor of a more agile and workplace-friendly performance support model.
The power of the new technologies lies in their ability to leverage the knowledge of knowledge workers both individually and collectively. Powerful solutions are driven from the bottom up, not from the top down. Top-down classes don’t leverage the knowledge value of a knowledge workforce; just-in-time, personalized solutions, aggregated in real time around the learner, by the learner, do.
What seems to be lagging is our understanding of how to use the new technologies for maximum value in a business enterprise. We have been gating the innovative value of powerful inventions by using them to drive old models of learning, using pedagogies that are stuck in an older archetype. For example, when the printing press was first invented, Gutenberg was only allowed to print a few bibles at a time because each was illustrated by hand. When the decision was made to allow the new technology to reproduce the illustrations as well as text, the printing press was able to “find its voice.” Tens of thousands were printed, the innovation within the new invention was liberated, and social transformation was unleashed. The take-away here is that no new technology was required to create transformation. What was required was a new way of thinking about how to use the technology that had already been invented.
Often, what keeps us from initially seeing the innovation within the invention is our reluctance to let go of familiar territory. About 100 years ago, when motorized trucks were first introduced, delivery companies employed them along the same delivery routes that had been set up for horse-drawn carriages many years earlier. While marginal value was gained, transformation was not. The trucks required no rest, no watering, no sleep, as did the horses, yet they were treated like horses. Their value was limited by the boundaries of a previous era. The term for them at the time—“horseless carriages”—was a metaphor from a familiar but moribund paradigm. Again, no new technology was required for the giant leap forward—only a realization of the innovative value already present in the new invention.
Many of today’s knowledge-delivery companies are caught up in the same situation as the freight delivery companies of 100 years ago. Clinging to the familiar metaphors of the past—the classroom, the course, academic metrics—they use new learning technologies in ways that gate their real value. “In our haste to jump on the e-learning bandwagon, we have failed to recognize how the integrative and collaborative aspects of emerging Internet technologies can allow learning to flourish organically within and across the enterprise,” said Tony O’Driscoll, learning strategist at IBM On Demand Learning. “So far we have merely leveraged technology to automate existing training approaches and processes within the enterprise,” he observed. “We need to change our own limiting paradigms around how we perceive the role of learning in the enterprise in order to see the true potential for the first time.”
“The technology is already here for learning. We just need a cultural push to get everyone using it to its full capabilities,” added Randy J. Hinrichs, Microsoft Research’s group research manager of learning science and technology.
While grid computing, XML-based dynamic Web pages, personalized portals and service-oriented architectures (Web services) are being glued together by the learning community’s avant-garde, old habits die hard, and many companies and vendors continue to cling to artifacts from the earlier paradigm, including academic standards of success. They are discovering, painfully, that academic metrics are about as applicable to today’s time-constrained learning needs as are the metrics of the post office to e-mail. The market has not been kind to many first-movers who tried to pour old wine into new bottles, but it has rewarded those whose components fit (or can be made to fit) the new model.
“Vendors have erroneously assumed that the economy is the root cause of the diminishing sales of conventional learning technology,” said Sam Adkins, senior director of technology research at the Workflow Institute. “The real cause is the cannibalization of those revenues by a new class of products such as business process management (BPM), simulation, workflow automation, collaboration workspaces, instant messaging, multi-user product design, automated expertise mapping products and, most importantly, workflow optimization products.”
This new model dynamically links content provided by others to proprietary knowledge available only behind the firewall, as required by the user. It homogenizes the potential for human interaction and the potential to access digital chunks (learning objects) within a core taxonomy that allows everything to recognize and talk to everything else, all powered by the flow of daily business activity.
“The new platform will do away with our artificial distinctions of ‘learning’ and ‘KM’ and ‘EPSS,’ replacing them with simply ‘doing a better job,’” according to Jay Cross, managing director of the Workflow Institute. “Workflow is the metronome that will call up training as needed. This will be accompanied by real-time optimization. No more of this prepare-in-advance stuff. Workflow-based learning will gin out real metrics, business metrics. Finally, we’ll be able to connect cause and effect in our business. Bottom-up rules. Traditional training departments will fade away. The reality is that it’s all one big thing.”
“We have yet to comprehend the impact of just-in-time access to information, applications, tools, learning and expertise within the work context as a powerful and productive alternative to just-in-case instruction,” said O’Driscoll. Second-generation portal technologies now coming online—O’Driscoll points to IBM’s WebSphere Portal Server—will have a profound effect on how learning can add strategic value to the enterprise.
Steven Forth, founder and CTO of Recombo Inc., agrees and is betting his company that we will arrive at that turn in the road over the next couple of years. “The time has come to take this to the next step. Learning and knowledge management and performance support all need to be managed as formal business processes, and at the same time each business process needs to incorporate learning. Proper learning design should be a part of all process design,” Forth said, while “performance” metrics become aligned with the organization’s mission and objectives. “The dominant theme business leaders articulate when they talk about workforce optimization is the literal alignment of workforce performance with business strategy and technology integration,” said Adkins.
This new model resets everything we have done so far to zero, for it changes our basic understanding about how knowledge is given and gained. The prime driver is not the supplier, but rather the consumer of knowledge, the learner, who constantly creates a personal “just in time, just what I need, just for me” package in real time. “Our goal must be to integrate learning into the workflow, so that learning, knowledge management and performance support are well orchestrated and combine to provide the support that workers need to improve performance,” said Forth.
Recombo provides one piece of the puzzle through its content integration solution, which ensures that all relevant content is available to learners and that learning is supported from within the context of applications actually used in the workflow. Those and other new technologies are combining to provide both individual and group knowledge solutions in a fraction of the time. Hinrichs cites the time-sensitive need of virtual teams to “work the numbers, the research and the consensus, and deliver faster than the customer expected. Live Meeting enables such connectedness. Wikis over the Web suddenly allow for virtual think tanks to emerge as well.”
Technology companies are not alone among those who “get it.” Some consultants and content companies have also turned the corner. The Monitor Company Group now supplements traditional in-house consulting and advising work with a range of electronic knowledge solutions. Monitor became an early mover in the transformation from consulting company to “knowledge company” by creating innovative electronic tools and programs that deliver required knowledge and guidance to a client’s knowledge workers in real time, extending the persistence and value of Monitor IP beyond the physical client engagement.
Harvard Business School Publishing broke some traditional boundaries as well, repositioning the venerable “Harvard” brand outside the academic paradigm by replacing linear courses with open-navigation, user-driven performance support modules. The time-sensitive solution has resulted in significant margins in a niche market.
But such innovative approaches are not yet widespread. Adkins points out that, in general, there has been growing customer dissatisfaction with first-generation (conventional) e-learning products. “There is a pronounced disappointment with courseware-based e-learning products that have failed to meet the change management expectations of enterprise customers,” Adkins said.
“We need to do a better job of delivering information in the context of the work being done” said Marc Rosenberg, an independent consultant and author of “E-Learning: Strategies for Delivering Knowledge in the Digital Age.” He added, “Knowledge management, collaboration and performance support technologies are now making this possible. What is needed is for the training/learning community to embrace these approaches as strongly as they embrace more traditional training solutions and recognize that not all learning should be packaged in a ‘course.’”
The challenge is for those in the field of knowledge management to recognize that they are also in the field of change management. We have an opportunity to relate to unpredictable change in predicable ways. We can start to leverage the knowledge and creativity of the people who work for us, to put the knowledge workers’ knowledge to work, with next-generation performance-support systems. Such systems react to new issues, to change, in real time, making the needed knowledge available on the spot.
As the boundaries blur between learning objects and knowledge resources, between inside and outside content, between human and digital resources, so too are the boundaries blending between types and styles of learning. Clark Aldrich, co-founder of SimuLearn Inc., said, “Educational content will increasingly be made up of three primary elements: simulation elements to model key aspects of a situation through the filter of learning objectives, game elements to add engagement and volunteerism, and pedagogical elements to frame and assist the learning.” Increasingly, the CLO will create the robust ecosystem in which learning takes place, and the learner will be empowered to choose not only content but also learning venue and style. The context of the business event and individual predilection will determine the choice.
Almost any interface device can be a learning platform. Hinrichs points out that a spectrum of tools, services and technologies is emerging to provide learning support in real time. “Learning happens in context,” he said, “with access to experts and technologies, tools for analysis, synthesis and retention. Smartphones with full enterprise services could transform into online tutors, knowledge management systems and sales tools with some developer innovation.”
And so out of the turbulence of phase transition emerges a clearer image of the future, one marked less by new inventions and more by new innovations, less by new architectures and more by new archetypes. Even small steps in the direction of granular, integrated performance support yield benefits, leveraging both the knowledge and time of those most critical to the enterprise.
I am reminded of a newspaper cartoon possum, “Pogo,” who led a ragtag army of friends on an expedition around his island to discover the source of “enemy” footprints in the sand. When they had circled the island they realized they were following themselves. “We have met the enemy,” Pogo said, “and they are us!”
We have the tools at hand to quickly move to a new level of enterprise knowledge ecosystem. The only “enemy” out there is us.
Jonathon Levy (www.jonathonlevy.com) is senior learning strategist at Monitor Company Group and former vice president for online learning solutions at Harvard Business School Publishing. Jonathon is a corporate consultant, frequent speaker and writer. E-mail Jonathon with your questions and comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.