“Doing it right the first time is insane advice. Nobody does anything INTERESTING…right the first…or the twenty-first…or the forty-first…time. Doing the ‘new’ means screwing around, trying stuff and messing stuff up…again and again and again. That is…WASTE.”
–Tom Peters, author and business guru
An analysis of IDC’s most recent survey of Chief Learning Officer magazine’s Business Intelligence Board suggests that for all its flaws in practice, online delivery of education has emerged and only just scratched the surface as a viable tool for enabling individual and organizational performance.
Every other month, IDC administers a brief Web-based survey to the Business Intelligence Board on a variety of topics to gauge the issues, opportunities and attitudes that make up the diverse role of a senior learning executive. For this month’s installment, respondents shared their thoughts on the current and near-term impact of e-learning, the sources of e-learning content development and the obstacles to e-learning adoption. IDC defines e-learning (i.e., online learning) as the synchronous or asynchronous delivery of learning content over a data network. Some of the more common e-learning vehicles include learning management systems (LMSs), learning content management systems (LCMSs), virtual classrooms, online chats, threaded discussions, self-paced learning objects and courseware, and simulated environments.
E-Learning Has Come Down to Earth, But Is Not Dead and Buried
The skepticism of the early 2000s led many to believe that e-learning would go the way of online concierge services. To be sure, the idea of employees spending several hours at a time latched to a PC happily developing new skills has indeed gone the way of the notion that people would abandon their social tendencies and never leave their homes to buy groceries.
However, the numbers–be they IDC forecasts, vendor revenues or CLO spending survey results–all show that e-learning continues to imbue other means of communication and collaboration to facilitate formal instruction and informal performance support.
In July’s issue, Business Intelligence Board members explained how they plan to invest their money in the near future (see “The Chief Learning Officer’s Investment Portfolio”). When asked the question, “Over the next two years, what portion(s) of your training investment ‘portfolio’ do you believe will grow significantly (i.e., by 15 percent or more),” the most popular answer was learning technologies, chosen by 59 percent of respondents. These results suggest that learning executives are becoming more aggressive in leveraging technologies (e.g., LMSs, content management, simulations, content builders and virtual classrooms) to educate and support both their immediate and extended enterprises.
E-Learning Is Increasingly the Weapon of Choice
These senior training professionals are actually raising their bets on learning technologies. What could they be thinking? Hasn’t any one of them spent countless hours investigating and developing online learning programs only to suffer from abysmal usage rates? How about falling victim to a vendor hit-and-run job? Maybe some of them have heard horror stories from their peers. Figure 1 certainly seems to indicate there are plenty of reasons–often beyond the CLO’s control–why e-learning will not take over the world. Examples include cost (cited by 61 percent of those surveyed), lack of sufficient IT infrastructure (cited by 55 percent) and disinterest on the part of other senior executives (cited by 42 percent) and company employees (cited by 45 percent).
However, that does not mean that many of these same professionals have failed to learn from the mistakes they and their peers have made. It also does not mean that they have been unable to achieve honest-to-goodness business benefits by augmenting their training and knowledge management arsenal with more online learning tools. Many adopters have been pleased by the payback on their e-learning investments, which has largely been driven by quantifiable savings on investment, associated with lower distribution costs, a reduced need for classrooms and equipment, declining direct and opportunity costs associated with travel, and smaller content creation and repurposing costs.
Some have also documented positive returns associated with compression in the time it takes students to become proficient on a topic using e-learning either to replace or augment other delivery methods. Indeed, Web-based technologies have paid dividends for many CLOs IDC has worked with in the past—from a global distributor rolling out a new ERP system that needed to deliver training and performance support to several thousand people across the globe to a large telecom provider using e-learning to compress the time it takes to bring new field workers on board at a time when its skilled, older workers were retiring more quickly than they could hire and train their replacements.
Figures 2 and 3 demonstrate that such accounts of e-learning’s business value are becoming more common. The Business Intelligence Board indicated that e-learning is having a positive influence on the way education in many different subject areas is delivered, and thus in the way they are addressing a myriad number of business problems (see Figure 2):
- E-learning is for IT skills: It is no surprise that hard skills such as application training and IT technical training (e.g., programming) rated highly as subjects on which online content development and delivery is already making an impact. After all, the subject matter and the delivery medium are closely tied together. The majority of survey respondents indicated a current or recent impact of the Web in these two areas.
- E-learning helps organizations sell and support their customers: About one-half, or 48 percent, of the sample population indicated that Web-based content development and delivery is also making a significant impact on product training. IDC has worked with many organizations that have leveraged e-learning to educate sales forces and channel partners on new products. The benefit most commonly cited when instructing these oft-dispersed audiences is accelerating time-to-market.
- E-learning programs can provide a defensible means to certify that staff is compliant with regulatory standards. More than 40 percent also indicated that Web delivery is having an impact on safety and compliance training. Compliance’s “e-learning suitability” is likely due to the cost savings and convenience associated with Web delivery, as well as the ease with which content can be distributed when rules change and employee completion of training exercises can be tracked.
While Figure 2 shows that many survey respondents believe e-learning is already working and that many others believe it will soon make a significant impact, what is perhaps more intriguing is the number who believe e-learning will never have an impact on learning in discrete subject areas. On the whole, these individuals are in the minority.
There is no question that learning professionals are reinventing the way they do their jobs through technology. Even for those areas such as communications and customer relations, where e-learning is often faulted for a lack of face-to-face interaction and coaching, the percentages of respondents who believe that Web delivery will never have an impact on them are low—24 percent and 16 percent, respectively. Many of them have likely been using e-learning delivery as a supplement to classroom training in these “soft-skills” subject areas. Others may have had some early successes with online business simulations related to these topics. (For more information on the role of simulations in training and development, see the Business Intelligence column from the May 2004 issue of CLO magazine, “The Promise and Reality of Technology-Based Simulations.”)
Figure 3 shows that effective e-learning content is coming from a variety of sources, including in-house instructional designers and subject-matter experts, as well as vendors providing both “off-the-shelf” and custom-built content. Survey respondents also indicated that they would ideally like to see the impact of online learning created by each of these sources just about double. For example, the figure shows that 47 percent believe that content developed by in-house instructional designers is having an impact today, and 90 percent would ideally like to see these professionals develop effective e-learning content. Since no source appears to be living up to its full potential just yet, it appears that CLOs will continue to source development to parties who can satisfy their audience, their budget and their time horizon.
Let the Games Continue!
The transformational impact of blended and fully online delivery methods on learning is only now beginning to be felt, and will only spread further as more organizations experiment and learn from their successes and failures. The fact that effective models for delivering instruction online to global audiences have been developed and can be improved upon will fuel this expansion.
Michael Brennan is program director for learning services industry research at IDC, a global market intelligence and advisory firm. You can e-mail Michael at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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