KM and Elearning: A Powerful Combination

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BEST PRACTICES SERIES

Vive les Differences
The question arises then, if this convergence is so clearly recognized by vendors and enterprises alike, then why hasn't the Gartner prediction come to pass?

To most organizations, KM and elearning are still seen as separate. Jack Battersby, CEO, president, and cofounder of mGen, Inc., a learning company, noted that mGen is simply not seeing KM in any of their RFPs. Battersby says, "Organizations as a whole have not made the connection between learning, knowledge, collaboration, portals, and so forth. Just the fact that there are titles for chief learning officer and chief knowledge officer magnifies this fact." As Battersby says," In a perfect world, a CKO would be accountable for all facets of knowledge—including learning, knowledge management, collaboration, and other aspects of the human capital development. When all of these initiatives work together, the sum is far stronger." At present, however, KM is largely driven by CKOs or CIOs or some enterprise-wide, cross-organization group. Training, on the other hand, more likely originates from a dedicated training group associated with specific business units. There are a number of fundamental differences that have prevented a more complete integration of KM and elearning: historical and cultural factors, functional factors, and even vocabulary factors.

First, historically, KM has the elevated status of dealing with higher-level knowledge and information, while training has been seen as largely concerned with lower-level knowledge, information, and skills. A general belief persists that you can't teach high-level skills; you can only teach the basics and then the real learning takes place on the job. In this stereotype (which, like so many stereotypes does contain an element of truth), new employees are sent "back to school" to learn the basics and then sent out to the job where they promptly forget 80% of what they were taught while learning how to really do their job.

As training has begun to move out of the classroom—evolving to include elearning and, more importantly, to offer performance support, just-in-time training, and just-for-you training—this old stereotype is fading, but it's not gone yet.

Second, another major difference between KM and elearning is in their respective views and approaches to content and user communities, particularly in terms of the amount and type of structure and levels of metrics that they gather about content and people.

For example, within corporate intranets and desktops, it is still a struggle to get authors to add metadata to their content, much less to develop a coherent and consistent metadata practice. But when material is prepared for training purposes, not only is it understood that metadata will be added, the amount and structure of metadata is far advanced beyond what is normally seen on the corporate intranet.

In addition to the differences in authoring skills and backgrounds and types of content, another key reason training includes metadata is that there are, by contrast to KM, relatively few content authors. The content is rarely revised, but instead essentially reused time and again. This means that the economics of adding structure or metadata is vastly different for training versus intranet or desktop content, which has many authors who write independently and for a variety of purposes, and who generate content that is only occasionally reused.

This difference in the amount and depth of structure also applies to the view of the user or consumer of content. In training environments, you usually find well-developed models of learners, what they have to know, what they have previously studied or been certified for, and you measure how well they understand the content they are currently interacting with.

Who's Learning?
In the more informal world of corporate intranets, typically very little is known about the consumer of content. The metrics that are typically measured on a corporate intranet are, quite honestly, pathetic in comparison to those of elearning. For a given document or Web page, you might have a measurement of how many people looked at it, how that number compares with other documents, and a few other very general measurements.

However, concerns about privacy (actually, more often than not, cultural and historical differences) mean that you have no idea of the specific people or communities who have read that document, what other documents those people have read on related subjects. As a result, you have no sense of their general level of understanding and no idea how well they understand the concepts within a given document. It is the twin structural elements of more complete profiles and understanding of content consumers and significantly deeper metrics on all aspects of content consumption that constitute a major difference between training and KM.

For example, when I asked one LMS vendor how its clients might typically handle unstructured content, the answer was simply: They add structure. This is not true for all LMS vendors, though. For example, Zwart at Generation21 downplayed the importance of metadata and cited studies that demonstrate the difficulties of adding metadata and also showed that customers were not seeing benefits from metadata. Knowledge Anywhere's Quinn, on the other hand, "would recommend that companies make every effort to structure data. The initial overhead in structuring, which necessarily implies associated metadata, pays off in the ability to add value." In any case, metadata associated with content is only one type of structure and an LMS system that supports the creation of learning objects combined with well-developed models of users is still operating within a much more highly structured environment than most KM projects.

Third, KM and elearning/training are separated by vocabulary. A simple example is how the content consumer is referred to. In training circles, they are learners and in KM circles, they are users. This seemingly minor difference is associated with significant cultural differences. Another example is at the training vendors sites, even those who emphasized the KM connection, performance support, and elearning, it was quite clear that I was reading training material and that the KM connection was on the level of the importance and/or usefulness of training for KM rather than a deeper connection.

It was, however, around this deeper connection that everyone was most interested. And there was a surprising amount of agreement as to how to achieve that connection.

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