Alumni Presentation

This evening I had a 90-minute dialogue about eLearning with 36 members of the Harvard Business School Alumni Association of Northern California. Since a lot of you have to explain eLearning to "outsiders," Iíll share the structure and content of the talk with you here.

After introductions, I opened by saying we'd changed tonight's topic from this:


To this:

I always look at eLearning as a tool for generating business results.

The major points of the presentation were:


Donít confuse learning with education or training or classes or school. I introduced a video of ďa learning authority from Marin County,Ē Father Guido Sarducci, describing his ďFive-Minute UniversityĒ (where you learn everything the average college graduate remembers five years later). Peals of laughter over the ineffectiveness of rote memorization.


eLearning was born of the convergence of learning and the net. To appreciate the full-blown, wonderfully optimistic vision for eLearning, we walked through a two-year old SmartForce presentation describing a robust global infrastructure populated with 35,000 learning objects, reconfigurable into personalized learning paths for each learner, and customized to the look, feel, and needs of the customer organization. Too bad it never worked quite that way.



Only six months after SmartForce unveiled this vision to the world, virtually every former training company positioned itself as an eLearning company. Most had changed their labels, not what was inside the package. Often they simply automated the worst aspects of schools, as if computers could replace instructors without sacrificing quality. They missed the opportunity of making things better for the learners.



In time, organizations rejected these first missteps in favor of eLearning that dramatically boosts revenues, improves customer service, shortens time-to-performance, and increases market share. Unisys boosted revenue $100,000,000/year by accelerating certification and billability of its consultants. Dell turned a customer service nightmare into a competitive advantage with free software training. eBenefits turned a 95% customer rejection rate into a market leadership position by helping small businesses learn HR procedures. Sun cut the time-to-proficiency of new-hire sales people by nine months, generating hundreds of millions of dollars in new business.


At this point, audience questions pointed where the discussion went next. In response to questions about learning, I pointed out that:


    Learning is social. 90% of corporate learning is informal yet 80% of corporate investment is in formal learning. Building community, fostering collaboration, and setting up virtual water coolers returns a bigger bang for the buck than loading on more courses. IBMís Big Blue training is successful not only because itís well crafted but also because the learners form enduring networks that last for years.

    Learning is ephemeral. Wait a day or two before applying what youíve learned and half of it will have disappeared. Itís best to integrate learning into work. Unused knowledge atrophies.

    Learning requires engagement. Two groups were given the save paper to read. The group that was told the information in the paper was controversial remembered it better Ė because theyíd tossed it around in their minds. Shouldnít all learning events begin by asking the learners to become engaged?



Can eLearning teach soft skills? Of course, assuming they are well-designed courses. We laughed our way through a few ridiculously poorly designed examples of how not to do it.


Who should be in charge of eLearning? Well, itís more important than itís usually given credit for. Perhaps you need a Chief Learning Officer at the top. If eLearning is decentralized Ė thereís a lot to say for marketing/sales being in charge of customer eLearning for example Ė then a single CLO may not be so hot an idea.

What about performance support? Is that part of eLearning or is it something separate? My take on this is that performance is the bottom line. eLearning is going through an evolution.

    Allow me the latitude to compare eLearning to food. The first eLearning was like an old-time sailorís diet: the same hard crust of bread day in and day out. Then came ďblended,Ē a sandwich of on-line and off-line, computer and classroom, sometimes piled into towering Dagwood sandwiches but always on, off, on, off, online, etc.


    The next step is bouillabaisse eLearning, where the learner can pluck out lobster or sea bass or performance support, knowledge bites, online instruction, or whatever suits his or her taste. This is bad news to people who sell measurement systems but a stronger boost for performance.


Whatís the role of motivation? Most eLearning fails. People donít sign up and those who do drop out. This is not universal but it is common. Why? A host of reasons. Motivation plays a role; eLearning isnít internally marketed well. Technical problems are rampant. The learning environment is crummy. The host organization lacks a learning culture. Itís like Napoleonís march to Moscow. Learning needs management attention. Learners need to be treated like customers.


Cross-posted* to Learning Circuits Blog.

*Double entendre.


Lnks to additional information:

Communities of Practice, especially the work of Etienne Wenger.

K12, The 21st Century Learning Initiative (UK)

Colleges, The Chronicle of Higher Education

Online education issues, The Technology Source

Technical Horizons in Education


Posted by Jay Cross at January 15, 2003 12:58 AM | TrackBack
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