An ecosystem is an ecological community that, together with its environment, functions as a unit. Extending the definition to the e-learning environment, we can define an e-learning ecosystem as the learning community, together with the enterprise, united by a learning management system (LMS).
If e-learning is truly to provide greater access to education and support educational programs that reflect broader strategic business goals, many believe that the e-learning industry must take the time now to learn key lessons from its early adopters.
Add to this picture a climate of software industry consolidation, and the questions some see as critical for the fledgling e-learning industry are clear. Can it learn from the mistakes of elder siblings (customer relationship management, or CRM, and enterprise resource planning, or ERP), and can it adapt to the golden rule that we all were taught in preschool—the importance of playing well with others?
Today, a fully developed e-learning ecosystem can include a human-resources-integrated, Web-based portal where employees can also check their benefits and 401K statements, make changes to medical plans and access learning programs that teach competencies that tie to business objectives and personal career aspirations. Meanwhile, learning officers can access data that helps them integrate their programs to corporate goals, empower line managers to recommend and track training activity, and apply business discipline to help manage the learning assets and activity of the entire enterprise. Organizations with a systematic approach to rolling out these programs will ultimately benefit from a return on investment (ROI), increased productivity and improved employee performance. For most, the journey toward this goal has not been smooth sailing.
Fragmentation and Frustration
Those who have experienced growing pains associated with e-learning can point to the relative youth of the industry. Analysts cite a mere 30 percent market penetration, while two-thirds of LMS adopters have employed their technologies for three years or less. The initial market thrust three years ago provided examples of companies plunking down $300,000 or more on applications without carefully developed plans for implementation. Such a move often initiated a vicious circle of customization to match their business practices. If the vendor went out of business, it often left organizations with software that couldn’t be supported, and was difficult to integrate and maintain properly. The net result: fragmentation of data, inaccessible programs and course content, and frustrated practitioners and learners.
“[Companies] thought it was about having a lot of classes, getting people registered, tracking the results, and they’re done,” said John Higgins, chief learning officer of BearingPoint Inc., one of the world’s largest business consulting and systems integration firms. As the head of BearingPoint’s global learning initiatives, he thinks too little attention was paid to issues of integrating learning with various systems, business processes and the contexts where learning actually takes place. As a result, he said, these early systems overlooked user experience and employee functionality.
Michael Brennan, program manager of corporate learning and performance research with IDC, the Framingham, Mass.-based research company, likens the state of e-learning to that of CRM applications four to five years ago. “Just as vendors in the CRM and supply-chain-management markets have learned from successful and failed deployments, throwing an out-of-the-box application at mission-critical processes will not get an organization very far,” he said.
Smart companies today identify and establish e-learning goals and outline the steps necessary to achieve those goals before simply buying and deploying technology and hoping it resolves a business challenge.
Selecting the Right LMS
LMS and e-learning budgets have surged over the past year. Total industry investment is expected to grow from $450 million in 2003 to nearly $1 billion in 2007, according to Giga Information Group, based in Cambridge, Mass. Most of this growth will occur within small to medium-sized businesses, while larger companies struggle to untangle the legacy of redundant, “homegrown” LMSs from disparate business needs.
In a rush to show results, some organizations have developed their LMS applications in-house. This often puts CLOs in tough competition for in-house IT resources and support, causing them to deploy “behind-the-firewall” or hosted LMS implementations from specialist vendors. However, this “best of breed” approach is also fraught with danger. Brennan predicts a forthcoming market consolidation, where only 12 to 15 LMS vendors will remain in the market by 2007, providing suite solutions through partnering or developing their own additional component to LMS functionality. In this climate, selecting a viable supplier can be a risky proposition.
Despite its immaturity, the online learning industry can point to many success stories. BearingPoint provides an example of an organization that has successfully developed an effective e-learning program, learned some hard lessons and maintained a clear vision for how an e-learning ecosystem will support overall business strategies.
Higgins’ former learning program at BearingPoint had a staff of classical trainers, instructional designers and presenters—a dynamic unsuitable for his cyclical demands. Now BearingPoint delivers 60 percent of its learning in a digital environment, and a team of 16 technologists supports more than 16,000 learners. But it was Higgins’ early adoption that allowed his program to attain its current efficiency level.
E-Learning Ecosystems in Practice Today
In 1999, BearingPoint, then part of KPMG LLP, embarked on a timely initiative to train more than 9,000 employees on aspects of the Internet and e-commerce. The initiative, called “Internet 101,” sparked BearingPoint’s investment in and integration of learning content, LMS and human resources information solutions (HRIS). After experiencing success, BearingPoint effectively handled its next e-learning business initiative: adding thousands of new employees over a three-month period following a series of acquisitions designed to increase its global footprint.
“That answered any questions about the value of a strong digital-based learning format, especially as a change-management tool,” said Higgins. Today, he cites cost avoidance of $10 million to $15 million a year in travel as a result of his “blended” learning program, of which 40 percent is still conducted in classrooms.
For CLOs, building an e-learning ecosystem with the correct technology solution—one that cost-effectively automates and integrates training features with other systems—is critical to business success. “Companies want to protect their investments. They want to know their content can play on different systems. They want to use, reuse and combine content objects,” Brennan said. “They want to invest in learning solutions that offer tight integration and do not want to be constrained by any proprietary systems.”
Content in an Ecosystem
Content providers also attest to successful integration of a learning management portal. Tim Shriver, director of enterprise learning services at Global Knowledge, said, “A year and half ago, it was very difficult to mass-customize a program and deliver content to 1,000 clients.” He has since been able to effectively combine an LMS, content management system, virtual platforms and content providers. “The technology has progressed to where we have an integrated learning solution,” he said.
A key driver in creating content interoperability has been the development of learning technology standards that allow the mixing and matching of content from multiple vendors, as well as interchangeable content that can be reused, assembled and disassembled quickly and easily. These standards ensure that learning technology investments are long-term.
Leading this charge has been the IMS Global Learning Consortium, a collaborative group of affiliates, including hardware and software vendors, educational institutions, publishers, government agencies, systems integrators and multimedia content providers. Its goal is to promote widespread adoption of specifications that will allow distributed learning environments and content from multiple authors to work together. This is a step in the right direction. Establishing an effective set of Web-based standards cannot be solved by the competitive marketplace alone. Rather, it requires what Michael Havens, NETg’s director of technology strategy and global marketing, refers to as “coopetition.”
Thus far, the most effective standards have been Shared Content Object Reference Model (SCORM) and Extensible Markup Language (XML). SCORM is a reference model that defines a Web-based learning content model. It contains a set of interrelated specifications designed to enable interoperability among various content providers, combining features from other specifications, SCORM enables reuse of Web-based learning content across multiple environments and products.
The value that standards provide is an industry focus and point of reference for content developers and service providers. “It’s akin to what we saw in the networking debates in the ’70s and early ’80s,” said BearingPoint’s Higgins.
NETg’s Havens attests that SCORM has been an effective standard, but from his perspective as an instructional designer with a focus on the back end, he hasn’t seen the “plug and play” applications he so desires. “Once the integration issues have been solved, we need to get more enriched simulations and integrations,” he said.
Havens mentioned that XML is currently helping solve some of the existing issues as well, such as exchanging data between HR systems, old LMS systems, order-entry systems and class-scheduling systems. “There’s nothing off-the-shelf that says Web service will communicate with an HR system,” he said. “We write that interface to do the data exchange.” Still, he said, learning technology standards remain crucial to solving these matters.
Progress on standards will facilitate the integration imperative to a successful, real-world e-learning ecosystem—integration among content and technology systems, as well as integration across a learning management suite and other back-office corporate operations.
In describing a grander vision of BearingPoint’s e-learning ecosystem, Higgins reflects on the value of standards and integration, as he recognizes the challenge of linking employee performance with business results. His current exercise involves pulling statistics out of his LMS and financial system, then tracking results on spreadsheets. “That’s kind of silly in the 21st century,” he said. “I ought to have learning scorecards that are point-and-click. I’d like to look at my ROI and see how that maps against retention, value of content to managers and impact of content.”
Where We Go From Here…
As LMS and e-learning systems continue to mature, they should serve as the foundation for integrated e-learning ecosystems, helping both mid-sized and large enterprises reap strong ROI by better aligning the workforce to corporate goals and vastly improving employee skills, satisfaction and productivity. Executing such a vision will require a continued focus on interoperability standards, a clear vision of learning as an integrated component of an enterprise’s financial, customer and human resource management systems, and a long-term commitment to innovate. Above all, it will require a maturing e-learning industry to learn from experience—and to play well with others.
Chris Pirie is vice president of iLearning for Oracle Corp., where he is responsible for driving the organization’s e-learning offerings. Chris has led a management team that has been instrumental in expanding Oracle University’s Internet capabilities and has developed and successfully launched Oracle Learning Network, the education portal for Oracle. For more information, e-mail Chris at firstname.lastname@example.org.