Those who forget the mistakes of history

…are condemned to repeat them, said philosopher George Santyana.

Steve Wheeler’s excellent post on Learning Technologies in London described the vendors at the show as stuck in a time warp, maybe on another planet. What does the future hold for these guys? Let’s look back to 1999.

For those of you too young to remember, a dozen years ago venture capitalists, mainly in Silicon Valley, fell in love with the concept of eLearning. Money gushed into learning start-ups.

Merrill Lynch Capital, Goldman Sachs, Bank of America Securities, Hambrecht & Co., SunTrust, Morgan Keegan, Piper Jaffray, Wit Capital, Thomas Weisel Partners, and others wrote hundred-plus page analyses of why eLearning was the hottest investment opportunity out there.

Fueled by the boom, absurd projections from Gartner, and John Chambers’ observation at Comdex that eLearning would be so huge as to make email look like a rounding error, investors lined up to put money into companies promising to automate learning.

Here’s the universe of companies and their area of specialty by Hambrecht’s Trace Urdan and Connie Weggen in one of the most reasonable reports out there:

The reports usually explained that eLearning scaled without increasing cost. Most of them touted the savings from forcing people to learn on their own time. Everyone extolled the value of slashing travel and classroom real estate cost. Many eyed big savings from eliminating instructors entirely. (“Blended learning” was the rationalization used by companies that found out that people-less training does not work.) Often, vendors were happy to play these economic “benefits” to make a sale whether or not they could be realized.

Here’s who is still around as an independent company ten years later:

Some outfits were swallowed up in mergers but many simply vanished.

You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but eventually time runs out for stuff that doesn’t work.

Most of the vendors I’m betting on today don’t think of themselves as learning technology companies at all. They are social network companies like Socialcast and Jive, content management firms like Xyleme, communications platforms like Citrix and Skype, social business advisors like Dachis and Altimeter, web 2.0 companies like Twitter and Diigo, do-it-yourself enablers like Jambok or SpacedEd, providers of lightweight web tools like Rypple, performance consultancies like TULSER, and so forth.

I find it telling that when David Mallon of Bersin Associates interviewed dozens of LMS vendors toward the end of last year, he found one common thread: none of them wanted to be known as an LMS vendor. If you are not comfortable in your own skin, maybe it’s time to change what you’re doing.