"Cutting Through the Techno-Hype"
Paper presented by
American Society of Training and Development (ASTD)
June 7, 2001, Orlando Conference Center, Orlando, Florida
Good morning and welcome to this, the largest ever gathering of training and development professionals from around the world.
Like many of you, I have been in corporate education much of my career. Though my primary business responsibility has always been that of a marketer, for nearly 25 years I have played all the roles you can play in the world of business education. I have been a trainer, a buyer, a vendor, an author, a facilitator, a strategist, a consultant, a corporate VP, a small business owner, an entrepreneur, an instructional designer, and a systems developer. More importantly, like you, I have been a learner all my life. I am the first to admit that I am a geek, but that’s my hobby. By profession, I work to improve the performance of companies, brands, teams and individuals, and it is with those eyes and those values that I view this industry. The world of applied internet technologies, in the fields of marketing, learning and business strategy, is a world with which I have been fortunate to have a long association. I was part of the development of e-learning from the early 1980’s when it was called Computer Based Training, through it’s evolution to distance learning, Web-based Training, online learning, and now its current label: e-learning.
Over the years I have run companies that have architected systems and learning models, training tens of thousands of professionals worldwide over the Internet with unquestionable success. I have seen e-learning organisations come and go, seen them change their technologies, change their business models, change their names, be acquired, or simply give up and fade away. The hype associated with whatever idea happens to be in vogue today could make you think that perfection has already been achieved. But the rate of change in this industry is alarming, and we are in fact only just beginning.
All of us here have been victims of the hype. We have heard countless companies pushing their box of technology, each claiming to have the "total solution" to problems you didn’t know you had. Very few of those companies even bother to ask you what you perceive your problems to be. Many people have told me that, on having to embark on an e-learning initiative, they feel like they are looking at the emperor’s new clothes. They don’t really know what they are looking at, but they are told that it is wonderful. They see something that appears mundane and feel they have to admire it. They see something complicated and feel uncomfortable admitting they don’t understand it. In the next 90 minutes or so I will try to cut through the confusion, not by defining every arcane techno-term in the industry, but by putting the technology in perspective. You know more than you think you know about e-learning, and what you know is more important than what the technology vendors know.
Scope and Definitions
I will outline the bigger picture, and talk about how technology should be the servant of our strategies, not the driver of our vision. I will describe some viable learner-centric e-learning services that are a step ahead of current thinking, but do not depend on high technology. And I will suggest some guidelines that will help you to get any educational project online quickly and economically, while considerably reducing your risks.
I will not talk about specific products or companies, because once you have the conceptual framework you will have no difficulty in making those associations yourself. Nor will I talk in any depth about standards, other than to say that there are more issues around e-learning standards than generally gets covered at conferences like this, so get registered at a relevant newsgroup and pay attention. Lastly, I will not be advocating One Right Way to deploy e-learning, because there are multiple paths to success once you have a strategic framework in place.
So what is this "techno-hype" that we need to cut through? Let’s start with some definitions. One of the best definitions of technology that I have come across is this:
Technology = that which does not yet work intuitively.
Think about it. One of the most hi-tech things that we all own is a television set. The process of getting programming from a TV station to you in your living room is extremely sophisticated. But we don’t think of TV as technology, because it works. But your VCR is technology because you can’t program it to record your show without the aid of a teenager. Your microwave is not technology, nor is your telephone. Your cell phone is losing its "technology-ness", but it is still not to be trusted. Your PC? These days, it is not technology, nor is much of the software you use everyday. E-mail? Instant Messaging? Not technology. It works. Intuitively. Dependably. Voice over IP? Video streaming? These are still very much technologies.
So what is hype?
Hype = hope / reality.
If something engenders hope, but the reality doesn’t match, it has been hyped. The bigger the gap between the promise and the performance, the greater the hype.
That makes "techno-hype" a promise that exaggerates the abilities or importance of technology. And in e-learning we see it all the time. Sometimes it is our fault, for wanting to believe in miracles, or for not knowing enough to challenge the claims. Other times it is the fault of vendors or the media, who are sincerely over-enthusiastic. Much of the time it is simply the fault of cynical marketing under competitive pressure. But it is a problem, and it has cost this industry a lot of credibility, and wasted tens of millions of dollars in unwise investments.
The hype has caused many educators to rethink their roles, to the extent that we seem to be moving from eduphiles to technophiles. I know there is no such word as "eduphiles" but in the absence of a better word to describe people with a passion for education, it will have to do. We are becoming techno-obsessed, to the extent that technology determines our educational strategies instead of the other way around. If there is one message that becomes clear in this presentation today, I’d like it to be this: do not let technology intimidate or seduce you.
Myths play a vital role in any new community or society that is still forming itself. Myths are folk-wisdom or beliefs without substance that help us to feel like we know what is going on, and help us to deal with the uncertainty of our future. The problem with myths is that if enough people believe them, they become self-fulfilling truths, reasons not to challenge convention, and obstacles to growth. There are a lot of myths in e-learning, and I’d like to quickly touch on some of them to illustrate how our perceptions can become distorted.
Myth: "IT should define e-learning models."
That is as bizarre as having your finance department dictate HR policy. IT may be partners in the process, but it is trainers who should own that process.
Myth: "Requiring plug-ins and client software is OK."
But if you build courses that require software that must be located, downloaded, and installed before learners can access the courses, you are putting technology hurdles in the way of learning. The worst culprit in this regard, incidentally, is Flash.
Myth: "A software package can create a learning service (and run it for you)."
How many of you are here to find the perfect LMS, believing that it will make your e-learning initiative a breeze? Never forget that software is a tool, and e-learning is a human service.
Myth: "CBT can replace human interaction."
Still today, the vast majority of e-learning courses are CD-ROM-on-the-Web, which is just CD-ROM-but-slower. The lonely Orwelian scenario of an isolated person being taught by a machine may be appropriate in some situations, but this is the Internet age! It’s all about communication and community! Build courses that connect people.
Myth: "Lively graphics improve learning quality."
This is a myth kept alive by Web designers, graphic artists, relics of the CD-ROM era, and vendors of animation software. On the Web, people are totally ungenerous with their time, and are very unimpressed with unhelpful trivia. Some of the biggest wasters of time online are slow-downloading animations. Alienate your learners, and learning suffers.
Myth: "Corporate campuses should be closed, intranet-based sites."
Another bizarre notion fostered by empire builders and control freaks, and supported by network security administrators who are afraid to expose cracks in their competence. A university should be open, so knowledge and ideas can flow and so the best resources in the world are available to its learners.
Myth: "A tightly controlled learning environment is essential to developing a workforce."
As with the previous myth, you have to be suspicious of the motives of those advocating this idea. The Internet liberates and empowers learners. Many don’t like that notion. Some trainers fear that it may marginalize their role. Some learners don’t like to take responsibility for their own development, or lack the discipline to actively learn. Traditional development professionals like to map out training paths for people, and don’t like the idea of letting them find their own way. E-learning requires a new maturity in thinking at so many levels.
Myth: "The Internet is simply a broadcast medium or an information repository."
Not true. Anyone who believes that is missing the point. The Internet connects people with people, and e-learning should accept that fact and leverage it.
Myth: "Corporate campus infrastructure requires major investment."
Yes it does, if you accept some of the earlier myths. If you let your IT department control your strategy, if you want a closed campus, if you want tight control over your learners, if you want to buy a software package to run your learning service for you. But if you look at e-learning as an e-business, you don’t need the huge infrastructure. You can outsource just about everything, from course development to hosting to tech support to management. That’s what an e-business would do. It’s a modern medium, manage it in a modern way.
Myth: "Corporate security and WBT are incompatible."
So many people still believe that if you let learners take courses online, you open up security holes in your corporate network. Again, a myth from the early days of the Internet. You should insist that your security people build systems to match your learning strategy, rather than defining your strategy around existing security standards.
Myth: "Everybody’s got broadband."
Yeah, right. At last count there were 11 million people in the
Here’s one final myth, though there are many more out there.
Myth: "E-learning cuts training costs dramatically."
Yes, it can. But at what cost in learning quality? E-learning should be deployed to achieve the same or better learning objectives that you thought were right for the classroom. That may mean that you don’t save money. The other aspect to this is that, while the operational costs per learner may be lower than the classroom, the up-front investment is higher. So cash flow is skewed to the front end, which means your risks are greater. You can reduce risks by following a clear strategy, avoiding the mistakes that come from being techno-focused, and challenging the myths that can lead you astray.
E-learning in Perspective
E-learning is more than just a fad looking for a market. It is an evolutionary step forward that helps corporations (and individuals) to survive in a world that is changing at an increasingly accelerated pace. We now live in a world of perishable competencies, as companies and as individuals. Lifelong learning is no longer an Arcadian ideal, it’s a survival requirement.
Time is compressing and fragmenting. There is less and less time between points of significant change in our lives. And the intervals of discretionary time available to us seem to get shorter and less predictable. There is more to learn than ever, and it’s not going to stop. But out available training days are not increasing. To survive, corporations must make training continuously available and continuously evolving.
Learning solutions must be instant. I don’t mean the oft-touted "just in time" learning that is usually just a kind of intelligent help system. That is eventually going to fail because of the time that it takes to define and author content for central knowledge repositories. I believe that learners must create content on the fly, or be able to tap into the expertise of their colleagues anywhere in the world on a corporate social network. I keep saying that the Internet connects people with people, and this is another example of where that functionality can play a powerful role. E-learning should facilitate the sharing of experience, not simply collect and re-broadcast information.
The Internet’s educational power lies in its ability to network learners and experts with each other. It facilitates communication — which is incompatible with much of yesterday’s teacher-centric dogma. I urge you to think of e-learning NOT as an alternative product, but as a totally different service business. That means rethinking the roles of the gatekeepers of knowledge.
It’s Not About Technology
The "technologies" used in this learner-centric learning community are not technologies at all, because they work. They have been around a long time, and most people use them intuitively. They don’t require special technical support, work through most firewalls, on most operating systems, in most browsers, at any bandwidth. They are very inexpensive, and more often are free. They are the communications tools that have made the Web so rapidly adopted. They are tools that focus on the need of the learner to connect, not with other machines, but with other people. They allow the sharing of ideas and experiences. They are the nervous system of communities.
To try to further illustrate my contention that e-learning is not about technology, I’d like to talk about it as an e-business, specifically as a learning service. Your business is defined by its processes. In an e-business, all internal processes are integrated in real-time with the online processes of partners and customers. To run an effective e-learning service, you need to do the same. Good courses and an LMS alone will put you on the Web, but they will not make you an online service business.
Learners online are micro-conscious of time. They are easily irritated by slow sites or unanswered email. They expect efficient online experiences. They demand efficient offline processes. They have shopped at Amazon.com, Ebay.com, and Landsend.com, and their expectations are high. They want their e-learning experience to be as professional as their other e-experiences, and you will be judged by that standard.
In creating your e-learning strategy, never forget to value learner intimacy more than you would in a classroom. The internet is an intensely personal place, and those who think it is cold and impersonal should not be entrusted with designing for it. Be sure that you provide instantly customized experiences, and wherever you can, add value beyond the content of a course. E-learning is not courses online, it is learning online. Make the learning environment MORE personal than the classroom, not less.
E-learning that dispenses with a people-to-people interaction has missed the point. And make sure that all of the processes that link from the learning process (accounting, billing, help, support, etc.) happen in real time with full transparency to the learner. Customer care is particularly important. Credible online customer care cannot be slow, un-informed, or impersonal, as it so often is in telephone call centers. Using e-mail is not an excuse to procrastinate responding to queries. Where possible, you should even be using instant messaging or live chat for customer service.
Dealing with Techno-hype
So how do you find your way through the techno-hype to make sound strategic decisions? The first step is to understand the totality of what is involved in putting your learning service online.
Going online is more than simply authoring courses and attaching them to an LMS. The major processes you will have to design and fulfil are:
Web-enabling those courses
Deploying them in a dynamic learning environment
Hosting the courses and a related learning community
Building resources, both people and technology
Administering the courses and the learners using them
Supporting learners, instructors, and other customers
Upgrading technology, design, and content over time
Marketing the idea of learning online, overcoming the resistance of many
Whatever you do, don’t jump into action. Your first step is NOT to select the technology for creating your courses. Before you even think about technology, define your vision, business and operational strategy. Then define learning objectives by curriculum and course. Next, examine your existing business processes, and decide how they need to change to support your vision. Remember, if you live at Web-speed, you can die at Web-speed if you do not function like a well-integrated e-business. So make your information flows frictionless and real-time.
Think like a real e-business, not like a technically enhanced old business. That means, above all, that your information flows must be real-time, not batch time. You are looking to create intimate relationships with each customer, not treat them like herds of sheep. You want to be more efficient than traditional companies, and provide a higher quality customer service.
While formulating your strategy, revisit your competencies. If you are an "offline" company, you probably define your competencies by your internal processes, the things that you know you do well. But online companies are starting to define their competencies by the value they add to their customers’ processes, because e-businesses share the same nervous system as their business partners. Think about what that means to you as a training service. What value are you adding to your learners’ learning processes?
Obviously, part of any strategy evaluation is to look at costs and competitive advantages. But remember the myths about e-learning saving money. If you have to find savings, don’t look for savings in courses themselves, look for the savings that an e-learning service can bring to your business processes. And note also that a competitive edge based on internal systems is more sustainable than one based on innovative products or business models. The major cause of fatalities among online learning operations is not technical failure or pedagogical failure, it is process failure flowing from a failure in vision. Short-sightedness, tunnel vision, and technology focus can leave you very exposed.
A sound e-learning strategy is built on sound business goals, not on your e-business aspirations. It is driven by business opportunities, not by technology availability. It brings efficiencies to internal and shared processes. And it exploits opportunities for market growth and competitive advantage. Your strategy should tell you how you will..
Service is becoming more vital than ever. In fact, in e-commerce, customer service has become second only to cost in vendor selection. Poor customer service can kill you faster than a viral marketing campaign. But service is more than just responding when a customer has a request, it also includes security and privacy. Security (fear of losing money, status) and privacy (fear of losing anonymity) are unfortunately low on the list of priorities for e-learning providers, but high on the list for e-learners.
Here are the things you have to get right if you are going to get online effectively and stay there successfully. Note that technology selection is not the first step, nor is it a major one:
Question The Techno-Hype
In all of this, technology is a consideration, but not a starting point. Most vendors would have you buy a package then build your vision around its functionality. That’s not only restrictive, it’s dangerous given the low life expectancy of most vendors. But at some stage you are going to have to look into what is available to see how easily your already defined needs can be met. Always question the hype. Ask questions, both broad and narrow, that help you to see the relevance of the product to your strategy. Here are some questions you should ask when examining authoring software, LMS software, LCMS software, or outsource services. And if you don’t know what an LMS or LCMS is, interrupt and ask!
What browsers and operating systems are supported? If at least the last few generations of both Internet Explorer and Netscape are not supported, you have a problem. Ideally, AOL and Opera will be supported too, but they are truly marginal browsers. More important, are Mac, Unix, and Linux supported, or can you only target Windows-based learners? What versions of Windows will work? If you are targeting IBM users, particularly in Europe, is OS/2 supported?
What is the target platform and bandwidth? Does the solution (all vendors sell "solutions") demand high processing power, or will a regular desktop suffice? A critical question is bandwidth requirement. So many vendors are pitching streaming video or voice over IP or animation, and can demonstrate it working fine on a T1 line, but ask to see it on a 28k dial-up or a restricted LAN, and it grinds to a halt. That’s fine if your target learners have fast connections, but most do not.
Are there any required plug-ins or clients? A client is a piece of software each learner has to download and install before they can access the course functionality. Some, like RealPlayer or Windows Media Player are simple to install and fast to download, and are widely supported by your LAN managers. Others are large, proprietary, and mess with your system settings, and your LAN administrators will refuse to provide support for them. Ideally, any solution should work in just about any computer anywhere without the need for specialized client software.
What types of gate-keeping and registration can the solution handle? Think through all the permutations that you may need, from departmental authorizations to credit card e-commerce, from internal charge-backs to open purchase orders. From approving learners manually to auto-registering; from interfacing with your finance systems to providing transparency to your customer support people. Can the solution do it all for you, real time, in a user-friendly way?
Can it handle real time browser based administration and reporting? Can you get any reports that you need, and can you drill down on individuals as far as you need, all from a secure browser-based reporting and administration system? Or do you have to engage in periodic batch processing using rigidly defined templates?
Is it open architecture? This is currently a more important question than is it standards compliant. Open architecture is easily adapted and integrated with other non-proprietary systems, and can help you to be an e-business. In e-learning (at least as of this date) standards are yet to be defined, and most of those are focused on RLOs or reusable learning objects. Keep an eye on what happens, but don’t let the ongoing standards debate get in the way of moving ahead. If you are buying open systems, they can be made to conform should standards ever crystallize.
How complex is it to integrate the solution with existing systems, especially HR systems and finance systems? You will always be told that it is really simple, but don’t take a glib answer to this question. Anyone who answers the question without first asking about your existing systems is not giving you an accurate response. More big-ticket LMS purchases have foundered on the integration costs than on any other issue.
What are the security issues? I already said that if security is an issue with e-learning, it is probably already an issue with everything else. But find out what potential problems may be posed, because solving them may take time and money, or it may mean that your network administrators forbid you from operating. The more rich media or software downloads that a solution uses, the more problems you may have. Ask if the vendor will work with your network people to build solutions, and at what cost, or are you on your own once you sign the contract?
Is the vendor a software developer or a learning company? You will find it easier to work with educators who have software expertise, than to work with software developers who have education expertise. Even if they had identical solutions, you’d think they were completely different because of the language and the culture of the people you are dealing with. And the focus tends to be different, though this is not universally true: software developers want to sell technology, educators want to create happy learners.
Which brings me to another area you should ask about: support and maintenance services. Will you be left struggling to make it all work, or will you be guided, even helped, through the process? Will you be buying a box of CDs and a manual, or will you have a dedicated team of real people at your disposal? Will your sleepless nights end once you make the purchasing decision, or are the nightmares just beginning? Remember what I said about e-businesses valuing customer service? Is your vendor a real e-business, or just another vendor?
In an industry where everyone is selling the future, be careful not to buy a box of daydreams. Ask if what you are buying is vaporware or a real product? So much software is sold on what it is going to be like, or on what the demo looks like, but frustrates you when you try to make it work for you in a real environment. Do not be afraid to ask for references, and talk to all of them. Ask to see the solution in actual courses that are running on the Web, not in a sealed demonstration environment. And ask to see it running in your own environment.
I’d like to briefly talk about outsourcing, as opposed to hiring your own internal team, buying your technology, and developing your expertise. Outsourcing is what many, many e-businesses are now doing, and for good reasons. Outsourcing is a partnership that integrates seamlessly with your business-— and contributes to your strategic evolution. Far from complicating the transition, it helps in streamlining your internal processes, and helps in compressing your planning horizons.
Why outsource? To build a new house, you don’t order a truckload of bricks and enroll in a bricklaying course. You get an architect and a builder. Experienced professionals can get a project defined, managed, and executed on time, on budget, to your standards. An outsourcing company, if they are any good, is an agent of change, who can make things happen faster, better, more economically, and with less risk.
The major benefits of outsourcing are to be found as follows:
Briefly, if you want to outsource, you should follow these steps:
How do you evaluate prospective outsourcing partners? That is a minefield as dangerous as making a technology purchase. But here is a simple process that minimizes your risk:
A Future of (e-)Learning
I’d like to close with a personal vision of where this e-learning industry is headed. The "e" is already irrelevant, as everything we do is pretty much online already. Within a few years, using the "e" will just sound quaint and ridiculous, like talking about "electric" lights or "wireless" radios.
Success in e-learning, as in e-business, comes from creating and operating your own markets, developing communities, and providing speed, convenience and efficiency.
Failure comes when you execute good ideas badly, deliver frustration instead of satisfaction, confusion instead of clarity, and alienation instead of community.
While much of e-learning today is that horrible person-learns-from-machine stuff, the Internet can liberate learning by connecting people. P2P (or peer to peer) learning is where we will see the biggest breakthroughs in learning. The Internet is not a network of computers, it is a network of people. It is the power to communicate that made the Web such a rapidly-growing and rapidly assimilated technology, and educational professionals need to understand that and design for it. Computers are merely the means by which people communicate.
To understand this communication power, it helps to look at the value of a network. That value can be defined as the number of unique connections that it facilitates. In a classroom of say 20 people, all learning from an instructor, the network value is 20. Maybe a little more if people exchange comments with their immediate neighbor. In a peer-to-peer network of the same 20 people, the value of the network is not 20, it’s more than one million. The number of one-on-one connections is 2n-1 where n is the number of people on that network. Now think what that means if you connect a whole department, or a corporation, or all the members of a profession. The value of that system is immeasurably bigger than the value of the classroom, so the value of the network lies in networking people’s experience, not in centralizing knowledge. When you think that the more people who know what you know, the more valuable that knowledge is to your company, you start to get a feel for the power of e-learning.
As Napster proved to the old established record industry, if you give people the power to directly access the resources and discoveries of other willing people, bypassing any central control and distribution entity, you can move huge volumes of data. At its peak, just before the courts intervened, Napster users worldwide exchanged more than 3 billion files in a single month. Napster was peer-to-peer. The P2P Napsterization of e-learning can change our world.
E-learning should harvest and redistribute experience and the wisdom that is derived from it — instantly, in real-time, 24x7, world-wide — and it will probably happen sooner than any of us think.
Godfrey Parkin is the President of MindRise, a consulting firm in Washington, DC. In 25 years as a marketer and performance improvement specialist, he has run companies and divisions in the US, UK, Switzerland, and South Africa, including the international management services operations of A.C. Nielsen, world’s largest marketing research and consulting firm.