Enterprise learning is undergoing a dramatic shift. Organizations have squeezed all of the efficiency they can from their legacy learning management systems (LMS) and are now starting to ask some tough questions: Is their learning technology advancing the business? Is it connecting their enterprise and partners/customers? Can their employees depend on it to help them improve performance? Does it leverage the value found in informal and social learning?
As forward-thinking enterprises look for answers, they’re finding a significant gap between where they are today and where they need to be with regards to their learning infrastructure. Continued growth in the LMS market — more than 10 percent globally according to Bersin & Associates’ report “Learning Systems 2011” — indicates the desire to acquire more effective learning technologies.
The Problem With the LMS
The legacy learning management system space is well recognized for its low customer satisfaction. In 2010, learning services company Expertus and Training Industry Inc. conducted a survey of learning professionals within 88 Fortune 1000 learning organizations (Editor’s note: the author works for Expertus). The No. 1 challenge for their learners was LMS usability — difficulty searching and finding learning. Further, nearly half of the professionals polled gave their existing LMS a grade of C, D or F.
This usability issue is ironic considering the ultimate value of any enterprise learning system is its ability to help users find the information they need to do their jobs and do them well. Further, that statistic suggests that antiquated learning management systems with ineffective search capabilities — previously disregarded as a usability flaw — are now posing real problems that need to be addressed.
There are numerous other costs associated with poor search, including low productivity, high risk and an organization’s failure to compete.
Low productivity: The cost of employees or partners failing to find the information they need when they need it can be extraordinary when multiplied across the enterprise and extended enterprise. According to studies from Accenture and Bersin & Associates, time spent searching for knowledge and resources averages 20 percent of a worker’s day, which significantly degrades productivity.
Further, a 2010 report by McKinsey & Co. titled “The Rise of the Networked Enterprise” found that fully networked enterprise organizations reported higher operating margins than more disconnected organizations.
High risk: Having worked with numerous learning organizations and their LMS platforms for the past decade, learning management company Expertus uncovered another search issue — external sourcing.
Expertus evaluated data from multiple enterprises and discovered that many user groups — including sales teams, channel partners and marketing personnel — stopped searching for information in the LMS because they couldn’t find it or it took too long to source. More than 50 percent of Expertus’ prospective LMS customers cited ineffective search as one of the key drivers for their decision to replace their LMS.
They reported that users simply couldn’t find what they needed in an easy or timely manner. They were forced to search for information outside of the LMS, and even outside established enterprise information resources. This put their companies at great risk since users could potentially make decisions, follow processes and spread information based on unknown knowledge resources that could be inaccurate or false.
The failure to compete: Today’s workforce is highly networked and operates at an accelerated pace. Yet, within many enterprise organizations, user productivity is stifled by disconnected databases and knowledge resources and an inability to connect and share knowledge informally.
Learners are: forced to bounce from resource to resource searching for business-critical information; unable to leverage the experience, lessons learned and best practices of relevant experts for their daily decisions; and incapable of networking globally. This slows the employees’ pace of business, which, in turn, deteriorates the company’s pace of business and ability to compete.
One way organizations are responding to these challenges is by leveraging Web 2.0 technologies to connect people from around the world, drive knowledge/information sharing and improve the availability of experts and content. The aforementioned study from McKinsey & Co. showed more than 77 percent of companies using Web 2.0 technologies increased the speed of access to knowledge and improved market share.
Forward-thinking organizations are embracing the idea that enterprise learning now extends beyond classes and courseware. They acknowledge the majority of learning happens informally and socially, and that their employees spend a lot more time reading documents, reviewing charts/diagrams, sharing experiences and sourcing experts than going to classes or sitting through hour-long, self-paced e-learning modules.
“Our research suggests that enterprise learning organizations are expanding their responsibility for individual learning beyond formal classes,” said Cushing Anderson, program vice president at IDC. “Facilitating finding the right answer at or near the moment of need is as important a learning and development function as providing application training or leadership development.”
In other words, the learning organization should no longer be the sole birthplace or keeper of organizational knowledge. That type of old-fashioned learning structure is slow, limiting and becoming obsolete. That’s why many progressive learning departments are transforming themselves into knowledge-sharing facilitators and performance consultants to leverage the collective knowledge, skills and expertise across the enterprise.
These enterprise learning 2.0 departments are not only working to identify and leverage subject matter experts across the extended enterprise that can quickly distribute valuable knowledge, they’re implementing new learning platforms and technologies that make it easy for experts to share story-based knowledge content and to shape their learning infrastructure into a more collaborative learning environment.
Most LMS search engines can only search the system’s database, and ironically, that database of content is usually not all that searchable.
“Learning content, specifically self-paced e-learning content, is inherently difficult to index and search,” said Janet Clarey, senior analyst at Bersin & Associates. “This type of learning content generally is a combination of pieces of information that may include HTML elements, XML content, videos and images, that is then packaged as a standards-compliant object to be used in an LMS. This construction makes it virtually impossible to search for keywords or terms within the individual pieces.”
Thus, the searchability of learning content in most legacy learning management systems depends on the organization’s administrative staff — who are usually overworked to begin with — and their ability to gather and input the right information into the LMS for each course and every piece of content.
Advances in Search Technology
There are new advances in search technologies and strategies that can help organizations unite formal, informal and social learning to speed worker access to information and facilitate global collaboration.
Federated search: It’s commonly accepted that 80 percent of learning is informal or social. Yet few organizations provide users with the ability to search formal and informal content. Federated search makes this possible.
Federated search is the ability to simultaneously search multiple resources via a single search query. For example, using the search term “project management” can provide comprehensive search results that include formal Web-based training courses on project management, best practices and lessons learned from a content management system, Excel and Word templates from a knowledge database and a link to an online discussion among established project management experts.
There are a few learning platform providers that support federated search by using Web services to integrate learning platforms and portals with a multitude of corporate systems and databases. This aggregates all of an organization’s knowledge resources into a single location for users. However, many legacy LMS vendors do not yet support this level of adaptability and integration.
Full-text search: This is a valuable, next-gen capability, especially when an organization leverages federated search.
A full-text search is the ability to search all of the words within documents and presentations for the actual search terms used. This means learners can use more comprehensive search terms such as “key issues associated with learning project scope” for relevant search results down to the paragraph or presentation slide.
Adding Boolean capabilities to a full-text search engine can further refine results by recognizing conjunctive words such as “and” and “or.”
Semantic search: A common problem with legacy LMS search engines is their inability to understand what users actually mean. For instance, if learners search for “closing challenges,” do they mean challenges in closing a deal, or challenges in closing a window?
Semantic search corrects this issue by combining search technology with a tagging and taxonomy strategy. Basically, it constructs a scenario-based taxonomy or ontology that focuses on how content is used. This allows individuals to search content with selections that are specifically relevant to their business, job role or other context.
Sematic search leverages this ontology scheme, along with comprehensive user profiling and content tagging, to fully maximize the context and usefulness of search results. When coupled with federated search, it can be a powerful mechanism to provide learners with the on-demand knowledge they need to succeed in their day-to-day work.
All in all, providing robust, expedient search has become critically important to today’s learning organizations. Without the proper connections and technologies, companies can lose thousands of manpower hours, millions of dollars and substantial competitive gains.
Whether an enterprise learning organization has a legacy LMS or it’s building a new learning portal, it’s worth the time to investigate and invest in new search tools, such as federated, full-text and semantic search technologies.
Mohana Radhakrishnan is chief operating officer of Expertus. She can be reached at editor@CLOmedia.com.