KM and Elearning: A Powerful Combination

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Integration and Infrastructure
While I was researching this topic, I talked to representatives from training companies, LMS vendors, KM software vendors, Content Management vendors, and practitioners of training projects. Two ideas kept coming up in virtually every conversation: integration and infrastructure. I found widespread recognition that standalone applications and separate departmental projects were not the optimal way to do KM, CM, or training. And, when the topic was how to merge all three, the consensus was even more profound that the only solution was an integrated infrastructure solution.

There was some disagreement about the particulars of that integration, but in general, there were three areas that needed to be solved to move the convergence of KM and elearning to the next level: organizational integration, technological integration, and intellectual integration.

There was some disagreement about the particulars of that integration, but in general, there were three areas that needed to be solved to move the convergence of KM and elearning to the next level: organizational integration, technological integration, and intellectual integration.

Who's The Boss?
The first step towards organizational integration, as in so many process transformations, is to develop a strategic vision that incorporates both KM and elearning and then to socialize the idea and achieve widespread acceptance of a philosophical reorientation. Sparta from Plateau says to "involve the highest levels of your IT organization, including the chief information officer."

Battersby of mGen suggests that organizations ask line managers—marketing department, human resources, engineering teams, etc.—what they would and would not use a system for. And Pery at Hummingbird recognizes that there's "no single individual that ought to be responsible for such an initiative. The management of intellectual capital requires a cross-functional approach involving HR, IT, and line managers. Ultimately however, there must be a top down executive endorsement of the importance of managing intellectual capital as a mission-critical corporate resource." Pery believes that "The chief executive must become the impetus behind and the champion for such an initiative."

The fact is that there's still no recognized organizational structure for such a cross-organizational group. Some companies report seeing more and more CKOs leading a dedicated KM department, while others are seeing CKO and CLO positions going away and being merged into existing departments with IT and HR as the main two homes. This seems to imply that the organizational platform for merging KM and elearning is still uncertain, and it is not clear that there will be or should be a single answer to how best to organize KM/training within a range of enterprises.

While Zwart believes organizational integration is important, he notes that "in larger organizations, most business units operate with a high level of autonomy that effectively negates the value of trying to share all information across the entire organization. What is truly important," according to Zwart, "is to identify the information that must be shared across the whole organization while at the same time identifying information that must be shared within each business unit." In other words, integration does not imply uniformity, but rather calls for a more sophisticated blend of local and global, one that goes beyond business units to the entire range of formal and informal communities within today's enterprises. This level of integration requires not only attention to information needs, but also organizational support that provides the context for both KM and elearning projects and, in many cases, personnel to support and facilitate those projects.

The second area of integration is technological. In many ways, this is the simplest aspect and also where there has been more measurable movement than the other two. Technological integration seems to be largely driven by the realization by vendors that they need to expand their offerings and provide a number of ways to integrate those expanded offerings. For example, Content Management vendors like Fatwire and FileNet are expanding their offerings to include search and retrieval, portal APIs or components, along with the ability to track how people are using the content.  

In other words, there is a growing recognition that it doesn't make sense to treat the creation of and publishing of content separately from finding and utilizing content.

KM platform software such as Hyperwave and Hummingbird have been pursuing this path for some time and seem to be moving toward what Gartner calls the Smart Enterprise Suite. This also suggests a movement towards building enterprise platforms designed to support a broad cross-organizational, infrastructure solution.

The same trends can be seen in training software vendors. LMS software is being extended beyond the classroom to include performance support and as it does so, employs sophisticated models of users/ learners. LMS software is also being extended with LCMS (Learning Content Management Systems), which Sparta at Plateau called a tweener application—a bridge between CM and LMS.

The third component of an infrastructure solution is intellectual integration. From my own consulting experience and from the comments of many of the people I talked to for this article, this is the component that could provide the push to both enable a greater integration of KM and elearning and to provide the justification for that convergence by delivering on the promise of such technologies as CM and search.

The intellectual integration necessary to achieve the broader integration that vendors and clients alike seem to be thirsting for consists not only of well-structured models of content, but also well-structured models of users/learners. In both of these arenas, training groups have been taking the lead and this is where they can provide the greatest value in an enterprise integration effort.

As noted earlier, training groups have traditionally been more advanced when it comes to adding structure to content. For example, one of the training metadata standards, SCORM, incorporates the more generic Dublin Core standard that can be found on some (but not enough) corporate intranets. However, as discussed, it is not always easy to put a large effort into adding metadata and it is important to do it well or the cost will outweigh the benefits. For example, it is impossible to predict the significant relationships between metadata values and some means of dynamically relating them at the time of search/ retrieval or other utilization is essential. Fortunately, the technology is available and work is being done to provide the right type of metadata and taxonomies.

Take the Lead
Training groups lead the development of well-structured models of learners and, just as importantly, of measuring the activities of those learners. I would look, then, for them to lead in generalizing from learners to users, but this transition is not simple. As Quinn of Knowledge Anywhere put it, "we have well-developed models of learners in a classroom context, but when you move to things like performance support, we need much more flexible and general models of people in a variety of contexts outside the classroom."

And finally, not only are better models of KM and elearning users needed, but even more important (and more difficult), there is a need for much richer models of activity or business process contexts—models that can capture the dynamic and social elements of those contexts. The development of richer models or schemas for dynamic content, people outside the classroom, and activity contexts is perhaps the frontier of the integration of KM and elearning, where training can add sufficient rigor to KM initiatives and KM can add the strategic breath and experience with real-world social activities to training approaches that we will see the two fields achieve their long looked for integration and in so doing create a new foundation for both fields.

And who knows, perhaps we will see the promise of KM and elearning fulfilled to a degree that could have a truly major impact on how we do business and how we communicate in all our communities—business, social, political, and intellectual.

Companies Featured in this Article
Knowledge Anywhere
Plateau Systems

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