Winning Approaches to Corporate Learning on Internet Time

Jay Cross
Internet Time Group


"eLearning" is a model for what corporate training can become in the next three to five years. It is the convergence of:

a vision of loosely organized corporate ecologies, a business climate of permanent white water, breathtaking advances in technology, high-speed broadband networks, and a shift of power and responsibility from organizations to individuals

today's emergent best practices, from performance support through training to knowledge management. As novelist William Gibson observes, "The future's already arrived; it's just not evenly distributed yet."

eLearning is not a prediction. (Half of all major corporate software projects fail, as do two-thirds of all knowledge initiatives -- and eLearning is an even greater challenge.) Rather, eLearning is a target to shoot for and catalyst to spark fresh ideas.

Who needs it?

Business people are so consumed with the day-to-day that they have little time to think about the future. They are "too busy chopping down trees to sharpen their ax." But in a scant three years, what we're calling eLearning will be a survival skill for corporations and individuals alike.

In the original version of this document, the font jumped up to a larger size here, and all my graphics disappeared. That's Moorphy's Law* in action. I had saved a Microsoft Word 8 file as as a Web document (HTML). Microsoft changed font sizes, doubled the amount of code, switched a few things around, and added some syntax I'd never seen before. Life in 2002 will not be a day at the beach.

*Moorphy? Moore's Law + Murphey's Law = Moorphy's Law. "Everything that can go wrong, will go wrong, on Internet Time, in spades."

Hop in the Internet Time Machine with me to survey the scenery ahead. Zot! It's 2002. Successful leaders inspire members of their organizations to work smarter. Collaboration, learning portals, and skill snacks have replaced Industrial-Age training. The Web is revitalizing personalized learning and meaningful apprenticeship. Learning is merging with work. People build upon one another's ideas. As the line that separates customers from employees blurs, learning initiatives embrace clients and suppliers.

Today's executives, IT managers, and training professionals are investing heavily in intranets, satellites, multimedia, and knowledgebases. Some are locking in on quick fixes and dead-end technologies. Many are automating the past rather than bridging to the future. Plug-and-play "poof" corporations spring up out of nowhere. Training directors receive a dozen calls from vendors touting new "solutions" every day. It's impossible to keep up with it all. We need to get up to speed right away to avoid the pitfalls and take advantage of the opportunities the future holds. That's what the eLearning project is all about. Research methods

Freeform interviews with 50 high-tech, training, and Internet thought leaders.
Extensive, multidisciplinary review of literature and Web.
Hands-on experience taking web-based courses.
Scenario learning exercises to push thinking.
Findings posted for peer review on the Web.
Reality-check presentation at TechLearn.
On-going review cycles

What matters In the training jungle, corporate performance is the elephant. Training's only function is to hunt the elephant. Focusing solely on employees' learning needs does not bag elephants. The "e" in eLearning is not only for electronic; it's also for elephant.

All together now, what's the purpose of eLearning?
Improve corporate performance
Solve business problems
Strengthen competitive position
Improve customer relationships
Increase stakeholder value
(= Bag the elephant)

Let's hop back in the time machine to look at the economy, business, organizations, technology, and learning three to five years in the future.

The Network Economy (circa 2002)

Networks changed everything. We're all connected. Nothing is ever finished. Old authority has given way to individual autonomy. You play by new rules or drop out of the game.


Industrial Age

Just in case

Age of Networks

Learn by doing
Just in time
In perpetuity

Business & Organizations (circa 2002)

Business is in permanent white water. Passengers on the clue train know that hyperlinks subvert hierarchy, markets are conversations, honest conversation drives out hype, and power flows to the customer. Markets are global. Changes are rapid.

Business Climate

Everything increasing exponentially
Half life of knowledge shrinking
Front-line staff make decisions
Services provided in real time
Teams, not individuals
Customers are on the team

Corporations used to have the life cycle of a box turtle - about 40 years. Now they're fortunate to live a dog's life - two decades. CEOs focus on corporate evolution and new-business incubation. (Back at the turn of the century, the business community realized that "reinventing the corporation" is impossible; an inventor creates an original only once.)

Organizations are organisms, not machines. Ecology replaces bureaucracy. Responsive hyperorganizations replaces rigid organizational structures. Large organizations perform like schools of minnows, not whales. Members replace employees. Caring human beings replace mechanical jobholders.


Traditional Organizations

One time
Mass production
Central authority
Teacher-focused training


In context
Mass customization
Distributed intelligence
Learner-focused learning

By 2002, the bottom line is no longer the bottom line. Leaders recognize that in an information economy, it's inappropriate to value intellectual capital at zero, to look at training as a cost rather than an investment, and to use industrial-age yardsticks to report performance. Qualitative, customized Balanced Scorecards replace explicit but misleading financial statements formulated under Generally Accepted Accounting Principles.

People (circa 2002)

Responsibility is shifting from organization to individual. Everyone makes decisions on the spot. Organizational members help customers help themselves. We are each responsible for our own learning and development. (Pull learning has largely replaced push training.) People concentrate on problem-solving and customer service. Computers are delegated the linear, repetitive functions people used to do back in the twentieth century.

Technology (circa 2002)

All of us are jacked into the Internet 24/7. Broadband and fiber have put interactive video on most desktops in the office and set-tops at home. Virtual private networks and individualization have eliminated firewall problems. Cornea and fingerprint scans insure that people are who they say they are. Wireless connectivity frees people to work wherever they please. We run applications and store files on the Internet, making them accessible from anywhere. Swarms of personal software agents continuously crawl the net, screening and feeding information to individual personal portals. An unimaginable array of connected gadgets and gizmos both complicate and simplify our lives.[1] The toaster talks.

Just as porn provided the critical mass to put VCRs in training departments, the Internet juggernaut funds eLearning's adoption of mass customization, collaborative filtering, object-orientation, production on the fly, easy-to-use authoring software, cheap video, rapid application development, plug-and-play modularity, wireless connectivity, and more.

The adoption of standards - XML and its children - enables computers to process routine tasks without human tortoises bumping up costs and slowing them down. Learning standards creating learning Lego-like objects - interchangeable, reusable, interoperable -- that slash costs and development time.

eLearning (circa 2002)

As Charles Handy points out, "Real learning is not what most of us grew up thinking it was." Information is not instruction, telling is not teaching, schools are dysfunctional. Learning isn't pouring knowledge into heads; it's igniting a fire. A true learning organization is foremost a doing organization.

eLearning rests upon solid evidence, old and new, about how people learn. Hearts, heads, and hands learn differently - using different parts of the brain, so they require different sorts of schooling. The "soft stuff" is the hard stuff but it is also generates the greatest return.

Hard Skills

Learn facts, e.g., Programming
IQ = intelligence

Soft Skills

Change beliefs, e.g., Selling
EQ = emotional maturity

By 2002, people will be breaking free of the obsolete, inefficient model of learning imprinted on them by the school system. Real learning starts with the learner, not the teacher. People learn by solving problems, by making mistakes and correcting them, by hearing stories, by engaging multiple senses, and by following the call of their innate curiosity. Learning need not take place in classrooms, classes need not last an hour, and the strongest motivation comes from within. Pages, documents, classes, and files are anachronisms, vestiges of a bygone era of factories and smokestacks.

All learning is social. People learn what works by conversing with one another informally. eLearning gives them freedom, unstructured time, and encouragement to learn this way (rather than stuffing their calendars with repetitive exercises and tests.)

Learning styles and multiple intelligences are a given. Howard Gardner says that differences in learning style "challenge an educational system that assumes that everyone can learn the same materials in the same way." While eLearning can't determine the right method to present this particular lesson to this individual, it does increase the odds of success by providing multiple paths for learning.

Amazon's model is
customer focus
customer obsession

eLearning treats learners as customers. eLearning's credo is learner-focus, learner-centric, and learner obsession (as long as the learners are hunting the elephant.)


Learners = Customers
Lessons from e-Commerce

Know the lifetime value of a well-trained employee
Open feedback channels galore and listen hard
Take action on suggestions immediately
Learn more about how each person learns, what they've mastered, and what they need next
Tailor learning to the individual learner
Get sticky. Make learning so relevant and exciting that learners clamor for more.
Do what you do best & outsource the rest.
Focus on people and projects that generate the greatest return.
Put the fear of God into executives who support "training as usual."
Offer fresh courseware to instill learner loyalty.
Employ guides to help learners make choices and link up with the right resources.
Couple online learning to on-job learning, coaching, mentoring, apprenticeship, buddy systems, study groups, electronic libraries, and trying things out in the "real world."

We don't need no stinkin' classrooms

At our place of work, high resolution surround-screens flash with images and pulse with sound. On screen, the latest version of Windows makes it look as if you're really looking through squeaky-clean windows at people you're talking with and scenes you visit. It feels more and more like You Are There.

Personal portals connect us seemlessly to customers, colleagues, and learning resources. Smart systems and personalized bots track our preferences, performance, accomplishments, and learning signature in order to recommend learning experiences we may enjoy. Learners bozo-filter content whose evaluations by others fail to meet their standards. Collaborative filters suggest links enjoyed by others in one's professional and social communities. One link may call up an informative customer comment, the next a celebrity lecture on the net. An entire world of learning is but a micropayment away.

Not that all learning takes place on a desktop. People learn in smart rooms, from wireless portables, anywhere they please. Receiving learning or being entertained or "going" to work, all these are as easy as turning on the tap.

Putting it together

Investment analysts appear to think that reaping the rewards of computer-assisted distance learning is a no-brainer. Convert your content to digital form, throw it up on the corporate intranet, and immediately save millions in travel, bricks and mortar, and instructor salaries while training all those IT workers everyone's needs.

Alas, real life is not so simple. eLearning won't work well unless we maximize learner choice, encourage participation, link learning goals to personal values, set positive expectations, prepare learners, employ genuine and empathic coaches, put learners in charge of their own learning, explain what the competence is and how to acquire it, break goals into manageable steps, provide opportunities to practice, give frequent feedback on performance, rely on experiential methods, support with groups and mentors, model best practices, encourage the application of skills on the job, and develop an organizational culture that supports learning.[2] Put a CBT program on autopilot and it rapidly morphs into shelfware.

"Knowledge Management"

"Information and knowledge are the thermonuclear competitive weapons of our time. Knowledge is more valuable and more powerful than natural resources, big factories, or fat bankrolls," writes Tom Stewart In Intellectual Capital. If your company knew what your people know, profits would soar through the roof.

Get your crap detectors out. Anything this valuable generates hype beyond belief. "Knowledge management" itself is an oxymoron: knowledge is unmanageable.

Let's call knowledge "know-how," to emphasize its practicality and informality. Rather than managing know-how, what's really important is to generate it and to put it to use:

1. creating know-how takes slack time, trust, and an environment conducive to teamwork and communities of practice.

2. putting know-how to good use entails making maximum use of information that adds value for customers and handing off everything else.

Different situations call for different means of leveraging intellectual capital. The consensus is that most organizations should pick this low-hanging fruit:

Set up a corporate yellow pages database that describes who knows what & how to find them
Establish a best practices system to capture lessons learned
Formally gather and maintain competitive intelligence
Implement groupware and an intranet for collaboration and sharing
Encourage experimentation, don't punish it
Internalize a spirit of sharing and collaboration.

Just do it

Free or cheap software is so plentiful that virtually anyone can prototype a learning or know-how application for next to nothing. As part of our research, we've experimented with video conferencing, shared applications, collaborationware, shared calendars, threaded discussions, chat networks, buddy lists, chatterbots, list servs, web logs, surveys, and more. For free. Do it, try it, fix it.

Every knowledgeable person is a potential eLearning author. Anyone with good clerical skills can knock out eLearning web pages almost effortlessly. I'm writing this with pre-release Office 2000. Every application supports on-line collaboration. Word 8.0 spits out HTML pages that look great (although they may be a bit convoluted underneath). PowerPoint publishes a presentation to the web with a couple of keystrokes - including streaming audio narration!

Let's eat!

Learning is food for thought. Elliott Masie describes classroom events as the gourmet meal of training. They're fun, but you wouldn't want to make them your steady diet; they're expensive. Elliott also talks about junk food training (empty calories) and the need to stamp expiration dates on learning just like milk cartons at grocery stores.

While talking about the future of learning, Internal and External Communications' Suzanne Biegel started a riff on learning as food. I've expanded the analogy to dramatize the differences between conventional training and eLearning.

Training Diner 1980

Nothing la carte - all meals take at least 50 minutes
Limited menu - chef only cooks basic skills
Nothing is prepared to order
Open only at meal times
No self service - the waiter delivers the meal when it's ready
No take-out - learn in the classroom, not on the job
Unneeded fat - e.g. travel, rehash what's known, overkill
No substitutions -you eat what everyone else eats
No eating between meals - learn only in class
Eat your peas - because you should, not because you want to
Wine choice is "red" or "white" of unknown origin
Menu is "conventional" - and therefore out of step with the times

Frozen ingredients - for convenience of the kitchen

eLearning Bistro 2002

Smorgasbord - choose what you want
Stay as long (or little) as you like
Broad selection -- food for everyone's tastes
Chef also prepares dishes to order
Salad bar, desserts, and other items are self-service
Eat at the table, at your desk, at home, while commuting
Eat when you're hungry, open 24/7, have a snack
Attractive, wholesome, fresh ingredients draw you in
Menu is experimental, seasonal, accommodating
Less fat/more fuel - more signal/less noise
Waiter can describe six boutique chardonnays for you

If you were joining a new company, where would you rather eat?


Predicting the future is like teaching a pig to sing. You'll never do it, it's a frustrating experience, and it's not much fun for the pig either. Nonetheless, it's valuable to speculate on the possibilities. "To create the future, a company must first be capable of imagining it," Gary Hamel and C.K. Prahalad tell us in Competing for the Future. "Scenarios aim to stretch thinking about the future and widen the range of alternatives considered," writes Harvard's Michael Porter.

So, what can you do about all this? Use this material as a launch pad for envisioning your organization's eLearning scenarios.

Some organizations find "scenario learning" useful to drive this process. (The open box in my diagram represents mixing ideas together and thinking out of the box.) This needn't take a long time. At the end of the day, you prepare newspaper stories from the future. Some groups mock up a future Annual Report. The written outcome is always less important than the journey that leads to it and the controversy it creates. The more widely shared the conversation, the more thorough the awakening.

July 1999

Author Jay Cross is a problem solver, marketing executive, out-of-the-box business thinker, information architect, web enthusiast, team leader, product champion, change agent, and occasional author. He provides advice and services through Internet Time Group, but he'd join the right Internet start-up in a heartbeat.

He holds an MBA from Harvard Business School and a bachelors in social sciences from Princeton. He resides in Berkeley with his wife, sixteen-year old computer-fanatic son, and two miniature long-haired dachshunds. You may reach Jay at 1.510.528.3105, jaycross@internettime.com, or www.meta-time.com.


Thanks to everyone who gave so freely of their time, advice, and ideas, especially Sam Shmikler, Eric Vogt, Lance Dublin, Wayne Hodgins, Marcia Conner, Sonja Sakovich, Paul Hennessey, John Ryan, Brandon Hall, Sandy Rand, Suzanne Biegel, Valorie Beer, Mark Johnson, Peg Maddocks, Linda Waldon, Michael Aronson, Bob Clyatt, Diane Hessan, Jon Gornstein, Chris Boyd, Rick Baron, Tom Kelly, Roger Addison, and Dawn Zintel.

I am deeply indebted to the following brilliant authors, whose ideas I have shamelessly appropriated: Stan Davis, Kevin Kelly, Tom Stewart, Dan Goleman, Elliott Masie, Howard Gardner, Harry Dent, John Seely Brown, Ikojiro Nonaka, Tom Davenport, Art Kleiner, Peter Schwartz, David Weinberger, Alan Webber, Peter Drucker, Robert Ornstein, and a host of people who write for Fast Company, Wired, The Standard, and Forbes ASAP.


[1] New developments appear so rapidly that I've given up trying to describe them. Last month I hypothesized a wearable PC - voice-driven, size of a pack of cigarettes, i-glasses instead of a screen. This morning's New York Times had a picture of IBM's prototype of my fantasy.

[2] Laundry list from Daniel Goleman & Consortium for Emotional Intelligence.

© 2003 Internet Time Group, Berkeley, California