posted 8 May 2001 in Volume 4 Issue 8
Knowledge management and e-learning
The potential contribution e-learning promises to make to organisational learning is huge, and the sector continues to grow at an extraordinary rate. Simon Lelic talks to representatives from Click2learn, Microsoft, the Chalfont Project, NETg, the Campaign for Learning, Digital Think and CWB, and explores the relationship between e-learning and knowledge management.
“Unfortunately, in nine out of ten current practices, e-learning provides a false sense of availability of off-the-shelf, just-in-time, instant learning, closer to instant coffee than to a proper Italian espresso.” At this point in time, a number of knowledge management practitioners would probably agree with Leandro Herrero, chairman of the Chalfont Project. But the sector is growing extraordinarily quickly, and for all its current limitations, there is no denying the potential boon e-learning promises to be for organisations intent on developing and fully exploiting the knowledge assets at their disposal.
“A major advantage that e-learning has over traditional classroom-based training is the ability to learn on demand – learning only what you need, when you need it,” says Nigel Howarth, vice president of marketing at NETg. “In the current fast-paced economy, our knowledge needs are constantly changing. We won’t necessarily use the same skills today that we used yesterday. Learning is therefore something that we need constant access to, and by providing a comprehensive e-learning programme, companies can ensure that employees have constant learning at their fingertips.” Indeed, the findings of the Campaign for Learning’s ‘Attitudes to e-learning 2000’ survey suggest that enhanced flexibility and accessibility are widely perceived to be the key benefits associated with e-learning. As Bill Lucas, chief executive of the CfL, puts it: “E-leaning can empower learners, giving them greater choice over what and when they learn.” Many e-learning programmes also incorporate assessment facilities, as Stephen Bennett, vice president (Europe) at Click2learn suggests, which allow employers to monitor success rates, while Sarah Wills, senior consultant for the knowledge management practice of CWB Systems Services, emphasises the cost-effectiveness of distance learning over traditional training methods. According to Adrian Snook, account executive at DigitalThink, for example, DigitalThink customers have experienced a 75 per cent reduction in overall training costs since implementing an e-learning solution, while training completion rates have simultaneously tripled.
In fact, both Bennett and Howarth believe there are very few limitations to e-learning practices, so long as programmes are implemented and marketed effectively. In Bennett’s words: “The only limitations are with companies’ perceptions of what e-learning can do for them.” A common criticism, however, and one raised by David Bridger, business solutions manager at Microsoft, is that e-learning prohibits the level of interaction (between student and student, or student and tutor) that can usually be found in the classroom. And for all the technological advances being made, for example with video conferencing, online discussion forums and virtual classrooms, there remains a wealth of knowledge in cognitive psychology, as Herrero points out, which suggests not everybody is suited to e-learning. Even on a practical level, the shift towards individually-driven learning may serve to empower some at the expense of others, for instance those with extensive family commitments. Lucas refers to the findings of research into lifelong learning conducted within the NHS that support this argument. “And given that 36 per cent of respondents to the CfL’s survey, who were generally positive about e-learning, feel that employers are using e-learning to make employees learn in their own time, this could become a significant issue,” he says. Equally, the challenge of addressing complex psycho-motor and craft skills still remain, as Snook points out. “Until some new form of ubiquitous interface and simulation technology is developed, it will remain a struggle to do this kind of training via a mouse and a keyboard,” he says.
It is therefore unlikely that e-learning will ever totally replace conventional training methods in a corporate setting. In Wills’ opinion, the shortcomings or e-learning already discussed will ensure that traditional methods of teaching will always have a role to play. There is a general consensus that most organisations will rely on ‘blended’ learning – a combination of e-learning and face-to-face teaching that offers the best of both forms of training. “Many leading companies, such as KPMG, are developing blended curricula in order to meet the mix of learning styles required,” says Lucas. “BAe Systems, an early adopter of the corporate university concept, still only offers delivers about 10 per cent if its learning electronically.” However, Bridger believes that the speed, flexibility and low cost of e-learning will be sufficiently compelling to ensure that in five years time it becomes a major component of corporate training strategies. Bennett agrees, arguing that while e-learning will never totally replace conventional training methods, the current ratio will soon be reversed, whereby in the future, 80 per cent of learning will be conducted electronically, with only the remaining 20 per cent taking place in the classroom. According to Bennett, the role of classroom-based learning will be to enhance what has already been learned at the desktop.
Whether this ratio will differ from industry to industry is, of course, difficult to predict. Lucas sees hi-tech, financial services, telecommunications and some manufacturing sectors as the pioneers of e-learning programmes, but, as he says, it is still early days. According to Snook, industries that suffer from the highest levels of staff turnover, combined with geographical dispersion, will ultimately reap the greatest dividends from the low cost of delivery that e-learning offers. “Retail businesses, hotels, restaurants and the construction sector are all huge markets, and they are maturing fast,” he says. Similarly, and as Wills suggests: “E-learning is particularly potent in sectors where large groups of people need to be trained regularly and quickly, for example on manufacturing plants, where health and safety is vital. It may be in areas such as these in particular that e-learning will revolutionise working practices.” Yet Wills, together with Bennett and Howarth, also recognises the potential for all industry sectors to benefit from e-learning, to a lesser or greater extent. As Howarth points out: “E-learning isn’t just about cheap training; it’s about providing a flexible and effective learning solution that can be accessed by all employees wherever they are, whenever they want. Constant learning should be part of all organisations’ culture, to ensure that employees have continual access to the skills they need, when they need them.”
To this end, the development of the technology surrounding the implementation of e-learning will be crucial. Both Bennett and Howarth highlight the potential impact of mobile technologies on e-learning facilitation. “As more employees demand flexible working hours, it becomes increasingly difficult to ensure the entire workforce is kept up-to-date on business-critical information,” says Bennett. “However, as mobile and wireless technology advances, those working from home or on the move will be able to access the same information at the same time as those based in the office.” And as Howarth suggests: “To have learning aides at your fingertips in this way really adds value to the whole learning process.” In other technical fields, the possibilities are equally exciting, particularly in terms of the promised advances in virtual reality, 3D and role playing, as Howarth says. Lucas also sees digital TV as a medium that looks set to support both informal and formal learning opportunities, while Bridger highlights the impact video streaming, intranet-based personal development applications and video conferencing will have on the e-learning industry.
And while many hi-tech firms and online businesses are currently caught in something of a slump, there seems little reason to expect the future of the e-learning industry to be similarly threatened. As Bennett says: “Most organisations recognise the internet as a powerful platform, not just as a means of conducting business. E-learning simply uses the internet as a means of quickly and easily deploying information to both online companies and bricks and mortar organisations.” Although Herrero argues that the continued success of the e-learning industry is dependent on a shift in focus towards psychology and ‘how brains work’, as opposed to the ‘mother of all intranets’ philosophy that he sees dominating the current marketplace, Lucas believes the shift online will continue with alacrity. As Bridger puts it: “People will always need to learn, and in the knowledge economy this will be more important than ever. E-learning is just another way of delivering this, and the benefits are justifiable. One could even argue that in a recession, e-learning becomes more attractive as businesses look for ways to reduce costs.”
In fact, the e-learning industry looks set to continue developing at pace, certainly according to the results of a survey carried out by industry analysts at IDC, which predict that the corporate e-learning market, in Europe at least, will grow by 96 per cent in the next five years. The results of the CfL’s ‘Attitudes to e-learning’ survey also suggest, as Lucas says, that levels of spending on e-learning are set to rise. And according to Howarth: “What we will see more of in the future is intelligent learning, which is adaptive and can change dynamically to meet the exact needs of each individual. We are already able to personalise courses to each individual’s training needs. Now we are developing the technology that will understand individual learning styles and will be able to build personal learner profiles.” But Snook offers a word of warning. As a result of what he describes as the “explosive growth” in this sector, e-learning skills are now in incredibly short supply. “The industry has grown exponentially, and is crying out for individuals who understand internet technology as well as education, training and development,” he says. “Unless the education lead bodies take some steps to ease this growing skills shortage, the e-learning sector within UK plc is likely to fall behind our competitors in the US and elsewhere in Europe.”
It is clear, however, that the potential impact e-learning will have on organisational learning is enormous. While there are certainly a number of issues that need to be resolved, not least the quality of many current e-learning offerings, as well as criticisms relating to the level of interactivity distance learning permits, it is also likely that, as the technology develops, many of these shortcomings will be overcome. For the foreseeable future at least, most organisations will probably rely on a blended approach to training, taking the best of both traditional and electronic mediums. Yet while conventional methods of learning still have a great deal to offer, the advantages offered by e-learning are such that the most organisations will not be able to afford to ignore the progress being made. And if they do, they will no doubt be missing out on a crucial source of competitive advantage.
Stephen Bennett is vice president (Europe) at Click2learn. He can be contacted at: stephen.Bennett@click2learn.com
David Bridger is business solutions manager at Microsoft. He can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Leandro Herrero is chairman of the Chalfont Project. He can be contacted at: email@example.com
Nigel Howarth is vice president of marketing at NETg. He can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Bill Lucas is chief executive of the Campaign for Learning. He can be contacted via: www.campaign-for-learning.org.uk
Adrian Snook is an account executive at DigitalThink UK. He can be contacted at: email@example.com
Sarah Wills is a senior consultant, knowledge management practice, at CWB Systems Services. She can be contacted via: www.cwb.co.uk