KM and Elearning: A Powerful Combination

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"In two years, KM will be a subset of elearning. Or elearning will be a subset of KM."

That Gartner prediction, cited in Rosenberg's book e-Learning, was made three years ago. Neither variation has come to pass.

Instead, the interactions of the two fields continue to increase and there seems to be a widespread agreement that KM and elearning are converging. And, perhaps more importantly, consensus is growing that this convergence is a good thing, that it should continue and intensify, and that both fields can benefit from a greater partnership. There have a been a number of works and articles exploring how and why elearning and KM are converging, including the Rosenberg book cited earlier, and a number of very good articles in KMWorld by Judith Lamont and others.

There are also numerous examples of this growing convergence. One place KM and elearning are merging for a more powerful result is in the pharmaceutical industry according to Paul Sparta, CEO of Plateau Systems, a vendor of LMS infrastructure software. According to Sparta, "The pharmaceutical industry was an early adopter of both elearning and KM technology and is on the leading edge of their convergence because of the industry's rigorous regulatory requirements."

Other areas seeing a great deal of activity at the intersection of KM and elearning are call centers and technical support. Sparta also sees energy, aviation, transportation, chemical, and financial services as growth areas for this convergence. He says, "Any industry where knowledge must be delivered to people in real time, and then tracked and assessed, must consider strategies that merge KM and elearning."

Separate and Not Equal
It is clear then that there is a great deal of activity at the intersection of KM and elearning, but that raises the next set of questions: Which of the two possibilities that Gartner raises should it be? Who should lead the integration of KM and elearning and how best to achieve that integration?

Clark Quinn, director of user experience at Knowledge Anywhere, says the driving force should be "Whichever has greater credibility in the organization," though he admits this to be a "cynical answer." In some organizations, Quinn has found that training (and consequently elearning) "is viewed as an appendix—an essentially useless organ. In others, it's viewed as a core strategic contribution to organizational innovation and competitiveness. In some enterprises," Quinn says, "KM is viewed as little more than AI voodoo, whereas in others it's viewed as the key to intellectual capital and consequent organizational advantage."

Yet it seems that, if KM and elearning are to achieve more than a superficial integration, KM would be a better-equipped leader because it provides the necessary foundation and broad scope for the integration. Not surprisingly, a number of representatives of KM companies agreed with this assessment. What is perhaps more surprising is so did most of the elearning people with whom I spoke.

As Andrew Pery, CMO and SVP of Hummingbird put it, "Elearning may be considered a KM application. The foundation of elearning is access to knowledge sources. KM provides the tools and facilities to index, organize, and manage know-how. Therefore," according to Pery, "an effective KM implementation—methodologies, best practices, and incentives—created the foundation for re-usable content in support of elearning applications."

Dale Zwart, CTO and founder of Generation21 (which has its roots in elearning, especially where it intersects with KM ) points out that "The KM side tends to be more focused on supporting business objectives and therefore," he believes, "it will probably be the catalyst for the integration."

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