David C Forman is founder and president of Sage Learning Systems, a consulting company dedicated to the effective use of technology in learning.
It is time to face the cold, hard reality that the training business, as we know it today, is out of touch with customers and changing market requirements; and is therefore floundering, if not failing, as a business itself. While this analysis focuses on corporate training vendors, particularly those that supply technology-based training products, I suggest that the same condition pertains to classroom providers and those suppliers that serve other audiences as well.
The training business has finally escaped from being viewed as being on the periphery to achieving newfound recognition. International Data Corporation (IDC) estimates tell us that e-Learning will grow at 50% annually and be a $18 billion dollar segment by the year 2005 (Rossett, 2002) . Major business leaders such as John Chambers, Larry Ellison, and Jack Welch talk about the criticality of continuous learning in the workplace and using technology to foster these changes. Economists and policy makers all acknowledge that the enduring competitive advantage of companies and even countries is the knowledge and skills of their people. This is the ideal stage, the perfect recipe for success for the training business.
But this vision has failed to materialize. The evidence is too overpowering to ignore. Training company revenues are stagnant. All significant vendors in the technology-based training segment are losing money. The often-frequented prediction that classroom training as a percentage of total training delivery will fall below 70% is simply not happening. Usage rates for technology based courses within large courseware libraries hovers at 20% (Islam, 2002). The courses themselves are boring, generic duds that simply automate the linear classroom model of instruction.
Thirty years ago the two major content suppliers in the technology-based training industry carved out a $300 million business. Today, in spite of all the technical advances, population growth, and rise of the knowledge economy, the size of this segment is essentially the same. The only difference between these two snapshots in time is that 30 years ago these two companies were profitable.
The training business is in trouble. It is running on past fumes. It is wasting the best opportunity it has ever had to be successful, and it has lost both its way and its passion.
Why did the U.S. automobile industry lose its way? Why are telecommunications companies struggling? There are painful lessons from others to inform our plight. Rule number one is: do not lose sight of the needs and preferences of the real customer. Rule number two is: be agile and adapt to changing market conditions quickly or risk being marginalized. Training is 0 for 2.
The training buyer is very different from the training user or learner. There is a very real distinction between the two audiences; motivations, interests, experience, and agenda are all very different. The training industry?s focus is almost exclusively on the buyer and not the learner. The preponderance of resources, personnel, marketing materials, and executive coverage is directed at making the sale, not about meeting the needs of the learner or achieving results. We have had a problem understanding who the real customer is.
The buyer historically has been frequently more interested in providing the broadest coverage possible to meet any possible need that could arise across various business units. The buyer also usually wants to go with a safe, proven supplier, and is interested in negotiating the best possible price per unit. The buyer likes to talk about the generic organizational advantages of courseware that are available anywhere 24/7 and the money saved by reducing travel costs.
The learner is not interested in any of these issues. Learners are concerned with relevance, and the quality of the learning experience. Instead of a broad library of courses, they want targeted and specific courses that meet a particular need and that do not waste their time. Learners could care less about coverage, infrastructure, and contracts; they want to learn something valuable and meaningful for their personal and professional development.
The training industry has developed systems and models that are advantageous and convenient for the vendor and buyer, but not for the learner. These development, sales and marketing systems are not forward looking; they are inward facing. They serve the training industry, not its real customers. While these approaches may have been effective twenty years ago, they do not stand the test of time. These approaches are part of the problem, and they are not changing fast enough.
The Business Model: The prevailing business model for technology-based training companies has been a multi-year license for a large courseware library. This decades old approach worked because it met the needs of the buyer, not the learner, and it made the vendors a lot of money. Depending on accounting practices, a multiyear contract could be counted in the first year as revenue or at least toward quota. Nice deal for someone?s balance sheet, but a bit divorced from reality.
If this model ever worked, it no longer does. The reasons are many. First, in this economy buyers do not want to sign multi-year agreements, even if the price per unit is infinitesimal. Second, data about usage for large product libraries are getting more public airing and company executives are alarmed. Why pay for a library that gets used only 20% of the time? If one bothers to compute the cost of multi-year course libraries based on courses used as a percentage of all the courses in the library, pricing becomes less attractive. Third, the much more relevant pay for play model is replacing the library card metaphor. The culture of the web is to pay for what you want; put a book or a travel reservation in the shopping cart and buy it. Training should work the same way. And fourth, because of the increasing pressure to demonstrate results, the ability to access a large undifferentiated mass of courses is not only no longer important, it has become a barrier to achieving results.The Product: Because of the prevailing business model, product strategy and design were based on coverage and quantity. The more courses, the better; measures of success related to fatter catalogs and more shelves in the library. The best way to build up libraries was simply to repurpose what already existed in another medium. Consequently, videotape courses became CBT courses, which became CD-ROM courses, which became e-Learning courses. Even if new development was undertaken, it often followed the standards based on repurposed courses so that everything could remain consistent. Course engines and content management systems became very proficient at producing the same thing over and over again.
The product architecture, just like the business model, is old and outdated. There have certainly been modifications, but the basic tutorial structure has essentially remained the same for decades. It is characterized by:
· A didactic approach in which information is presented followed by an interaction or two and then more information, and then this cycle is repeated again and again
· Courses are text-driven, sometimes with audio versions of text available; and still use the page or screen as the primary geography
· Graphics are an adornment, usually an afterthought
· Interactions require very little thought
· Feedback is rudimentary
· Simulations and interactive case studies, when present, are limited and often trivial
· Treatments are not particularly interesting, appealing, or creative
· The training product is one-way and self-contained
This model has become very suspect. The majority of courses produced within this framework are neither compelling nor effective. Some have estimated that 80 to 90% of the courses now available are sub-standard. There are many new techniques and capabilities that current courseware models simply ignore, because they are different or present production challenges. The current product mold is based on an instructional framework developed tens if not hundreds of years ago, emphasizes quantity over quality, is linked to a business model that is outdated, and is not what customers use or want.A Comprehensive Learning System: Decades ago, the course was the defacto learning system, with perhaps a few job aids thrown in for good measure. It was all there was. With creative thinking about the use of powerful new tools and technology, we can move beyond the course as the only vehicle to convey knowledge and skills. New technological alternatives permit entirely new models, but yet these are rarely seen.
Most current technology-based courses are still self-contained entities. All knowledge worth knowing, as determined by the vendor, has been captured and presented on the CD-ROM or online course. The information exchange is one-way, uniform, and impersonal. It is also assumed to be current, which it may not be at all. Learners do not really have to do anything, except change screens and answer the occasional questions. The link between the training taken and work requirements is tenuous at best.
Learning and performance problems are way too important and complex to be left to typical asynchronous courses to solve. Courses cannot and should not be asked to be the only vehicle to present knowledge and impart skills (Rosenberg, 2001). Instead, think of a seamless and integrated system of tools and technologies, each doing what it can do best. Five examples follow:
· Meaningful Job Aids: These should form the backbone of any training experience because they pertain to how training should impact the world of work. If a meaningful job aid cannot be constructed, then perhaps the course should not be created. Teach backwards from the Job Aid. Job Aids, themselves, should be more than trivialized lists or checkboxes. They can be interactive, personalized, dynamic performance support tools. Content can be linked to these job aids and accessed by learners at the moment of need.· Knowledgebases: All content should be synthesized, easily accessible and searchable so that learners can get their specific questions answered without having to take (or retake) an entire course. Courses do not have to teach everything if the content is available in a knowledgebase. Emphasis can then shift to what courses do best and how to use the knowledgebase to get information when and where needed.· External Content: The Web is an indexable and searchable database of billions of documents. It is the largest and most comprehensive content repository ever developed. There is no reason not to include this resource in learning programs to provide depth, currency, and diversity of information and perspectives. There is more to learning than pre-packaged courses.· Two-way Communication and Exchanges: Open up learning and put human touches back in. One reason Instructor Led Training has continued to be the dominant delivery medium is that learning is a social activity and people enjoy personal contact. Early attempts to provide this type of contact through technology were lame and ineffective. A chat room or message board is aimless and woefully inadequate. Instead, learners should always have the opportunity to get their questions answered, receive expert coaching, interact and collaborate with others, and solve problems with real-time guidance and support.· Personalized and Current Treatments: Packaged courses are not very personal; everyone receives essentially the same treatment. New technologies enable a greater degree of personalization and currency with My Learning Homepage which can include presenting dynamic information and resources based on who I am, what I have done and where I want to go. The highly personalized, sticky, and intelligent Amazon.com model is a good beginning.
Learning Outcomes: Fifty years ago attention was brought to the differences between teaching and learning objectives. As the names imply, teaching objectives refer to what is presented, taught or delivered to the learner, while learning objectives relate to what sticks with the learner and results in behavior change. The training industry?s rhetoric supports learning objectives, but our practice does not. The training industry has never accepted or even understood that its job is to produce learning results, not simply provide access to courses.
This fundamental folly is easy to understand from the training vendor perspective. Learning is complex and messy. It always takes work, care, and support to achieve. There are factors outside of one?s immediate control. It is much easier to simply provide materials than to be held accountable for learning. It is easier to devote most of your resources to making the next sale as opposed to making the current one work.
But this too will change. Individuals and executive sponsors are demanding greater accountability. The murkiness of large, undifferentiated course libraries will be replaced by the fewest, not the most, courses to solve a business problem. Relationships and accountability will be clearer. The training companies that will assume a leadership role in the future will not only accept the responsibility that their job is to produce learning outcomes, but will actively embrace it as their only reason for existence (Forman, 1999).
Business Results: Much talk, very little action. There have been more articles written on Return On Investment (ROI) than actual findings of positive ROI and business results. It is, of course, hard to achieve business results when the training business is structured around libraries of generic products and does not even take responsibility for achieving learning outcomes, let alone business outcomes.
The key to achieving business results is a targeted point solution, not broadcast generic ones. It is a narrowcast, not a broadcast. It is fewer courses, not more. It is an integrated, seamless performance system, not just courses. And it is clear thinking about the business problem that is being addressed and how training can improve the situation, add value, and contribute to revenue growth.
The preponderance of business cases for e-learning focus on distribution efficiency: reducing travel and living costs associated with seminars or classroom-based training. This can be a significant figure because 40% of all training costs are related to T&E, but it is not enough (Moe, Bailey, and Lau, 1999). Cost reduction measures can get a program funded initially, but executives quickly move beyond first-year cost reductions to more enduring business value. Effectiveness, value-added, and strategy dimensions are far more valuable over time (Forman, 2002).
Training companies must be able to play in this arena. They need to take responsibility for business as well as learning results. They must become knowledgeable and conversant with measures such as those displayed in Table 1.
Table 1: Key Metrics for Business Results
Time to market
Talent acquisition costs
Time to competency/quota
Span of control
Capacity to innovate
Life Time Value
Time to hire
These are not simply interesting or academic measures. They are core to the future success of training initiatives and of training companies themselves. Without them, training will be increasingly marginalized and on the periphery of the customer?s business. With them, training can become part of the value chain that produces and contributes to growth, earnings, and value.
There is also a real possibility that this theme will radically alter the way training companies do business in the future. Not only will clients start to demand information and progress reports on achieving business results, but they will start to pay for results. The business model then is shifting from Pay to Access (a library or catalog), to Pay for Play, to Pay for Performance or Results. Training companies that embrace this change and do not resist it will be in a market-leadership position. Training companies that deliver learning outcomes and business results, and stand behind this charter, will not only survive but thrive.
We?re lost but making good time.
Change and especially significant structural change is difficult to accomplish. The weight of tradition, long-standing systems, and cultural inertia is hard to overcome. It takes vision and courage to recognize a problem, let along fix it. Currently, there is little indication that the training industry is going to correct itself. More of the same is on the horizon.
Two of the most frequently discussed advances in the technology-based training industry are 1) learning objects and 2) human capital management systems. These both have merits, but they are built on a foundation that does not work. Learning objects, which take hour-long courses and break them down into 6 to 8 minute objects, may simply give us more little bad things, unless innovation and creativity are applied to the process. The few current courses that are high quality, coherent, and have soul may get so chopped up that they lose their momentum and value. We have to insure that learning objects provide meaning to our real customer and are not merely internal training solutions that make courseware production more efficient. We must also differentiate between chunks of content that can stand-alone and instructional designs that require weaving content carefully into a powerful, cohesive structure.
Human Capital Management Systems (HCMS) are in danger of creating the opposite problem: one huge bad thing. By rolling Learning Management Systems, Content/ Delivery Management Systems and Knowledge Management Systems all into one, we will have created a technological medusa. The market is already telling us that each one of these individual systems is way too expensive, is as difficult to implement as an enterprise software system, and takes many months if not years to become operational. It is clear why training companies want to sell more infrastructure, but is this another example of a technology in search of a problem and customers?
There are pockets of innovation and creativity all throughout our industry. They are not to be found in the big bureaucratic companies that simply want to emulate each other. They are small, agile companies that stay close to their customers and core skills. They have the vision to think of new approaches and products to meet specific needs. They are not trying to be all things to all people. They iterate immediately and are smart enough to learn from their mistakes, the first time. They can build on their core skills to reinvent themselves as the market changes.
Some of the most innovative and effective training programs being delivered today are not from training companies but from public, private, and for-profit universities. These models are built around faculty intervention, student communities, work products, declared schedules, and different types of learning materials. Learning is two-way, personal, and relevant. There are now 150 institutions offering online undergraduate degrees and nearly 200 offering graduate programs (Pethokoukis, 2002). The University of Phoenix has more than 37,000 students studying online. There are successful lessons here that can be transported to the training business if and when it reinvents itself.
New models are needed for new times. The training industry can continue to bumble along or it can take a tough look in the mirror and get angry at itself. Finally the stars seamed to be aligned as others recognize the value in learning and using technology to enhance the skills of the workforce, but we cannot deliver. We are out of step. We are in danger of becoming a vestige.
The necessary changes will not be easy. It means busting a-part models and systems that have functioned for decades. The size, complexion, and compensation of the sales force changes drastically. The effort, tools, support and mentoring aimed at users, learning outcomes, and business results must increase dramatically. Content editors must continually update, refresh and find new sources of information for knowledgebases, job aids, and external content sites. The structure of the course becomes less meaningful than the reach of the entire learning system. Learning materials must cease being generic and neutral. They must be relevant to the learner, compelling, minds on as well as hands on, challenging, practical, and real. Learning needs to be personal, two-way, and dynamic.
The training business is in trouble. Unless core issues are resolved, the tree will continue to whither. Given limited resources, time and talent, it is vital that we set our aim on the most important problems and issues, even if they are the toughest to solve. Only then can the potential and passion of the training business, which attracted so many of us to this business years ago, be realized.
David C Forman is founder and president of Sage Learning Systems, a consulting company dedicated to the effective use of technology in learning. He has also founded e-learningjobs.com, the first Internet job board for e-learning professionals. David has held management and executive positions in the training industry for 25 years. He has worked with many of the country?s leading corporations to design, develop and implement technology-based training solutions. David has written over 30 articles and books in the fields of training, evaluation, return on investment (ROI), and instructional design; and has presented at most of the major industry conferences and seminars, both in the United States and abroad.
Forman, D. C. (1999). Perspectives on the training industry. Journal of Interactive Instruction Development, Vol 12, Number 1. 3-9.
Forman, D. C. (2002). Benefits, costs and the value of e-learning programs. In: A. Rossett (Ed.), The ASTD e-learning handbook. New York: McGraw-Hill
Islam, K. (2002). Why e-learning is floundering. E-learning. May, 2002.
Moe, M., Bailey K. & Lau R. (1999). The book of knowledge. Merrill Lynch. April, 1999.
Pethokoukis, J. (2002). E-learn and earn. US News and World Report. June 24, 2002.
Rosenberg, M. (2001). E-learning: strategies for delivering knowledge in the digital age. New York: McGraw-Hill
Rossett, A. (2002). Waking in the night and thinking about e-learning. In: A. Rossett (Ed.), The ASTD e-learning handbook. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Originally printed in ISPI Performance Improvement, January 2003
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