posted 14 Mar 2005 in Volume 8 Issue 6
KM Toolkit: Try anything twice
Despite the level of excitement early e-learning initiatives generated, online learning tools have since suffered a series of blows to their reputation. Recently, though, organisations have realised the medium deserves another chance, and several tools and approaches have emerged that promise to make e-learning a vital component of the KM toolkit. By Jessica Twentyman
As head of e-learning at communications-equipment company Cable & Wireless, William Ward is responsible for encouraging the company’s 23,000 employees around the world to make full use of a wide range of training and development courses that they can access from their PCs, laptops and personal digital assistants. Not only that, but he is also a regular user of the technology himself. On a recent business trip to the US, for example, he was able to complete a negotiating-skills course on his laptop from the hotel lobby, just minutes before an important meeting was due to begin. “It was a true case of just-in-time learning,” he jokes.
Cable & Wireless has a highly dispersed workforce and very fast communications links. As such, its use of e-learning is fairly sophisticated – as are its ambitious plans to develop such tools further. “Our e-learning infrastructure is essential for the ‘new fruit’ within the organisation to grow and ripen. Commercial research points to an increasing thirst for more sophisticated services. It will certainly open up the market for more innovation, stretching the imagination and initiating new ways to learning and access knowledge,” says Ward.
Other companies, however, do not share Cable & Wireless’s positive approach to e-learning – and with very good reason, it seems. In a recent survey conducted by IT-market-research company Forrester Research, only 15 per cent of respondents from companies that had made investments in e-learning systems reported that they were satisfied with them. That is not a good track record. Nevertheless, further findings from the survey suggest that the e-learning market is far from moribund: three quarters of respondents said that their companies still plan to increase their use of the technology.
The figures suggest that a more mature and considered approach to how e-learning systems are implemented and managed is needed. This creates interesting opportunities for the information managers who handle the documents and information that make up learning content, says Mike Gotta, an analyst at IT-market-research company the Meta Group. “We find that decision makers typically think of learning content as an afterthought in the process of selecting and delivering learning-management solutions,” he says. “Our research indicates that leading-edge organisations, by contrast, are embracing the notion that content developed for learning is a valuable source of intellectual capital that falls within broader KM efforts.”
Learning content, then, needs to be managed effectively throughout its entire lifecycle, from its creation to the point where it becomes redundant. That is where many companies fall down, according to Steve Thomas, chief executive of learning-management-software company Pathlore. “A large trade organisation recently told me that its first foray into e-learning was a disaster,” he says. “It went to great lengths to make content available to its membership but the organisation had no system in place for managing content. So it duplicated some content, unwittingly ignored attempts to edit courses, made it impossible in some cases to deliver training – and frustrated learners all along the way.”
A new focus on content
Early e-learning failures are now forcing companies to take a different approach to their second and third-generation e-learning initiatives, in which the content itself – and how it is created, edited, managed and stored – is the primary focus.
“A major reason why an e-learning system might fail is the quality of the learning content offered rather than the system itself,” says Kevin Young, managing director (EMEA) of e-learning systems supplier SkillSoft. Buyers, he suggests, need to take time to assess that the content they offer their employees is instructionally sound; will teach them what they need to learn; and, can be mapped to business and individual competencies. “If the content is poor, lacks interaction and interest, and the range of courses offered is irrelevant, the programme is unlikely to be successful,” he says.
But according to Greg Kontusz, vice president of marketing and alliances (EMEA) for e-learning specialist Saba, even companies that are confident that the e-learning content they provide to employees is engaging soon run up against another problem: information overload. “The business problem is that most organisations rapidly find themselves dealing with a content jungle. That is to say that, when we look at today’s enterprises, we see an e-learning content landscape that is complex and highly fragmented,” he says. “You’ve got numerous constituencies and stakeholders, numerous course libraries and content assets, and numerous content systems and tools scattered all over the organisation. And there is also a striking lack of co-ordination and standardisation, which creates confusion and results in costly inefficiencies.”
The answer, say many experts, is an approach that separates the creation and management of content from its actual delivery – and that has given rise to two distinct software categories: learning-management systems (LMS) and learning-content-management systems (LCMS). An LMS will provide an organisation with the administrative tools it needs to run e-learning programmes, such as functions for tracking learner progress and creating reports on which courses are most popular. An LCMS, by contrast, provides a repository of learning objects and focuses on developing custom content, personalised content delivery, learner collaboration and learner testing and assessment.
A successful e-learning programme, meanwhile, depends on the tight integration of the two, says Lucy Ireland, enterprise marketing manager at e-learning content and systems provider Thomson NETg. “By electronically storing content in a central repository, you open up the opportunity to use and re-use the same learning objects over and over again,” she explains. “With simple authoring tools, the cost-effective ‘tailorability’ of content to the needs of specific groups or individuals becomes instantly possible. With close alignment between LCMS and LMS, you ensure that all types of content can be utilised within your programmes and blended seamlessly to provide the perfect learner fit.” That kind of integration, she adds, accounts for the success of e-learning at Cable & Wireless. The company purchases content from Thomson NETg, but then closely integrates it with its own LMS.
Indeed, the results at Cable & Wireless speak for themselves: in the two years since implementation of the LMS and Thomson NETg’s e-learning, around 5,500 employees have used the learning solution and approximately 18,000 e-learning courses have been accessed. That has led to cost savings of around 80 per cent in training. Furthermore, evaluation has shown that 96 per cent of e-learners at Cable & Wireless feel they have been able to put their new knowledge and skills to use in the workplace, with 98 per cent saying they would use e-learning again.
Achieving this level of integration between content management and e-learning delivery was a major challenge in the past, but that is changing, according to Dave Croft, managing director at e-learning-software company ThinQ. “Tremendous progress has been made in the interaction between e-learning content and learning-management systems, in large part due to the evolution of content development standards and specifications such as AICC, SCORM and IEEE,” he says. Still, he admits, today’s learning industry remains far from its shared vision that one day any e-learning content will work with any LMS.
This vision, though, is driving a number of partnerships between leading enterprise-content-management companies and LMS suppliers. In October 2004, for example, LMS specialist Pathlore signed a non-exclusive agreement with storage specialist EMC to resell the EMC Documentum Enterprise Content Management platform for integration with Pathlore’s Learning Management suite to create the Pathlore ContentMgmtPath product. The EMC Documentum platform consists of a common content platform and a repository that enables organisations to manage unstructured content such as documents, e-mail, web pages, records and rich media. By integrating the platform with Pathlore’s technology, organisations can import, manage and publish e-learning content to the Pathlore LMS. This eliminates the need to recreate content in a separate LCMS silo. The Pathlore LMS then delivers the training and tracks its completion.
“This kind of partnership means that organisations can leverage their investment in Documentum for yet another application, while realising key strategic gains such as a single unified repository for all content, improved content re-use (such as the ability to repurpose content like presentations or product images for use in a course) and support for learning-content development itself. The latter is offered through platform features such as versioning, search and workflows that were previously not easily accessible by corporate learning departments,” says Andrew Bates, a product manager at EMC Documentum. “Since our core competency is content management, we have currently partnered with leading LMS vendors Pathlore, Plateau and ThinQ to offer a complete learning solution,” he adds.
“For organisations that produce at least 30 hours per year of their own e-learning courses, an LCMS will provide content-creation efficiencies and cost savings, allowing re-use of components, creation of personalised content and publication of learning in multiple formats,” says Forrester analyst Claire Schooley. And for companies that cannot afford another e-learning failure, that will be an attractive proposition.
SIDEBAR: The perils and rewards of e-learning
When e-learning projects go wrong, they can go very wrong indeed. That was certainly the lesson learnt by the UK taxpayer in May 2004, when the UK’s publicly funded e-learning university UKeU was closed down, having drained public funds by some £62m.
Launched in 2000, the government’s plan was that UKeU would market courses created by academic and commercial partners, including 12 leading universities, to mostly overseas students. But after a year of operation, it had attracted just 900 students at a cost of £44,000 per head.
Barry Sheerman, chairman of the Commons Education Select Committee, described the venture as a “dot-com dream”, which was only allowed to continue to fail for so long because it was in the public sector.
When they go right, by contrast, e-learning projects offer some attractive benefits over more traditional corporate training, including:
· Lower costs – “A typical classroom-based technical IT training course can cost anything between £200 and £350 and, for top-end skills, it can be even more than this,” says Kevin Young of Skillsoft. By contrast, he adds, an e-learning course covering the same material can cost 60-70 per cent less;
· Greater flexibility – “It is no longer feasible to bring every employee into a classroom for training purposes,” says Greg Kontusz of
· Trackability – “The highly trackable nature of e-learning means trainers are able to drill down into student coursework more than ever before, to identify and correct knowledge gaps. For many of our clients, trackability has become the number one reason for a move towards e-learning,” says Ed Stark, IT director at e-learning-systems provider Absolute Training;
· Consistency – Using e-learning, large international organisations can offer a consistent training experience to all their employees, regardless of where they are located. Every employee can access the same instruction and training whenever they need it, even in remote parts of the world. Oil giant Shell, for example, makes very effective use of e-learning in IT to train employees in all of the 145 countries in which it operates.
SIDEBAR: E-learning meets content management
The absence of an integrated framework for learning management and content management makes it more difficult for companies to meet return-on-investment expectations by raising total cost of ownership and increasing technology complexity due to integration challenges. By combining the two, organisations can achieve several benefits, including the ability to:
· Improve co-ordination and collaboration between multiple authors working on various content components related to the same course, aggregating and assembling content from different sources to create new content or courses, and synchronising content for all online and offline courses in one place;
· Deliver the same learning content to multiple delivery channels (such as dynamic HTML, static HTML, training guides, presentation slides, CDs and wireless devices);
· Have instructional designers personalise the same learning content, based on roles and preferences, for multiple audiences such as employees, customers and partners;
· Create assessments that link directly to learning content, giving organisations insight into knowledge of their learners and enabling management to prioritise investment strategies to create the new courses that learners need;
· Create self assessments that link directly to learning content, enabling individual learners to identify knowledge gaps and competencies, and take the initiative to improve themselves;
· Identify subject-matter experts and their locations through the collaborative authoring process, further enhancing the value of a knowledge-management strategy;
· Provide library services (such as check in/out, revision control and audit history) related to training materials, something that is increasingly necessary to meet training certification mandates.
Source: Meta Group