Corporate Learning Gets Digital

During the past year, elearning has been on the rise with more companies than ever before launching or enhancing digitally-based programs. According to Bryan Chapman, an analyst with the elearning research and advisory firm Brandon Hall, a survey of 600 major companies found that 60% are now offering some form of digitally-based training, up from 49.4% a year ago. Not surprisingly, a lot of the leaders are IT firms. Chapman says, "The ones that have done an exceptionally good job include Cisco and IBM." Other companies offering technology-based learning include Motorola, Oracle, Toyota, Home Depot, and McDonald's.

Many companies have focused on expanding elearning efforts through their corporate universities. The Motorola University, for example, now offers more than 30% of its training in an elearning or mlearning (mobile learning) format. "We expect to be well-beyond 50% in the next 12 months," said Jill Brosig, the organization's director of strategic marketing and business development.

But although most major companies have launched or expanded initiatives during the past year, elearning is not as ubiquitous as the statistics might initially indicate. According to Chapman, of the 60% of companies that reported they are involved in elearning, 45% said it represents less than 10% of the overall training they provide.

"So what those numbers tell me is a lot of companies are experimenting with it, but a very small percentage of their learning is currently online," Chapman said. "Only 8.4% of these companies have more than 70% of their training online."

There are a number of reasons elearning in general and online corporate universities in particular are not more widespread. The technology can be expensive and confusing, and designing courses that fit digital media can be challenging. But for companies willing to tackle the tasks involved, elearning can provide not only a cost-effective method for meeting the training needs of employees, but also an innovative way to strengthen relationships with suppliers and clients, to reach new markets, and even to build a new profit center.

Too Many Options; Too Few Solutions
One of the first hurdles to implementing an elearning program is sifting through the multitude of proffered solutions. There are more than 650 vendors of elearning products, according to Chapman, who believes that to be far more fragmented than the industry should be for it to experience significant success.

Leigh Watson Healy, vice president and lead analyst for the education and training market at the research firm Outsell, Inc., agreed the market is fragmented and confusing. "It's just a big mess," she says. "There are way too many platforms and solutions right now. There's a lot of confusion on the buyer's side. For some, elearning has been a bit of a fad, and a lot of organizations jumped on the bandwagon, implemented solutions. Then they found that, oops, the technologies don't interface with other content solutions in place in the organization, the implementation cycles have been way too long, and companies are still looking to get payback on substantial investments they've had to make. So," she continues, "what we're seeing on the buy side is a demand for accountability, a demand for the vendors to demonstrate that a system will produce a return for the company quickly."

Even the terminology used to describe elearning tools can be confusing, according to Healy. There's a significant difference between a learning management system (LMS) and a learning content management system (LCMS). "Basically," she explains, "a learning management system is an administrative system designed to help organizations keep track of which employees have been trained and what courses they've taken. Some LMS systems also take into account assessments and certification." LMS vendors include Docent, SmartForce, Click2learn, Saba, and many others.

A learning content management system "is designed to literally help manage the training content itself," Healy says. "So an LCMS will have authoring and design tools—things that help people designing curricula to create and reuse content." LCMS vendors include Docent, Click2learn, and Centra. "It has been interesting to watch the LCMS trend develop because it's indicative of a change in the role of the training professional," says Healy. "There is an increasing awareness that learning content assets need to be integrated with the whole content management solution, along with knowledge assets and maybe other information resources deployed by information centers."

In the learning and training department, Healy is seeing a convergence of roles where increasingly the chief learning officer and training professionals are working closely with people in knowledge management, the IT staff, the chief information officer, and information professionals. According to Healy, a good example of this role convergence is in the SunLibraries at Sun Microsystems. She says, "The library reports organizationally into Sun University. So they've recognized that these roles are all related in terms of how content and knowledge assets and intellectual capital are leveraged in an organization."

Chapman says he believes more companies would start managing knowledge and elearning assets better if the price of the technologies were not so prohibitive. "The biggest barrier to getting into it is cost," he says. "We're seeing learning management systems ranging from a half-million to several million dollars, but I've done my own focus group surveys, and out of about 400 respondents, only 14% have budgets to do those large enterprise-level systems. Everybody else is working on a budget of less than a $100,000 and has to figure out what to do from there."

Money Isn't Everything
There are, of course, less expensive, special-purpose elearning technologies available. For example, Presedia offers Presedia Express, a software application that leverages PowerPoint presentations to quickly and easily create, deliver, and track Web-based, multimedia elearning content. The software lets users create interactive multimedia presentations combining slides, audio, animation, quizzes, and surveys for delivery on a range of platforms and devices. Companies using Presedia's technology include KPMG Consulting, Sprint, Wells Fargo, Intel, and Novell.

But money isn't everything. Putting together the right team with time to get the system in place is also a significant hurdle for elearning implementation. "Right now the average time to develop an elearning course is around 200 to 250 hours," according to Eric Vidal, Presedia director of marketing. "You have to bring in an IT person, a course developer, a multimedia person, and your subject matter expert. If you have the time, that's great. But if you have information about products or corporate initiatives that has to get out in a few days to your sales staff or another geographically dispersed audience, how do you do that?" Vidal continues, "We're trying to make it as simple as possible so subject matter experts or trainers themselves can create online, multimedia presentations very quickly."

"There's seems to be a trend now to get away from the big clunky systems," Vidal added. "People are saying, 'We don't want elearning to be complicated. We want to easily and quickly develop content, send it out, and track it.'"

Keeping It Real
RealNetworks is another company making presentation products that can be used in elearning applications. The company's RealOne Player, for example, gives companies "amazing opportunities to create a very contextually rich interactive learning experience," says Janinne Brunyee, enterprise segment manager at RealNetworks. It provides a three-pane experience. You can have video with contextual information beside it in an integrated media browser.

Real, according to Brunyee, allows you to have video of a speaker, PowerPoint slides and, in the browser, she says you can "have pretty much anything. It could be, for example, a chat window. If you were doing a live classroom session you could have your video running and then have people interacting via chat. You also could use that area for polling and quizzing." Brunyee points out that elearning to date has been very much text-based and HTML-oriented. Brunyee added, "but I think the pendulum is really going to swing to content that is more contextually rich."

RealNetworks offers a virtual classroom solution through a partnership with HorizonLive. That company's software works with the Real Server to allow for the integration of content, chat sessions, whiteboarding, and other applications in a live, interactive classroom environment. RealNetworks also offers RealPresenter Plus, which is designed to let people easily synchronize audio and video with PowerPoint presentations and deliver them on the Web.

Oracle is an example of a company that uses RealNetworks technology in its elearning initiatives. "Ease of content creation is important to them because of the volume of content they're creating and the number of people involved as subject matter experts," says Brunyee. "They need to have a process that involves no post-production work. So the synchronization and the encoding and the capture all happens at the same time, and they're able to move everything to their site." Another important factor for Oracle is to be able to offer a reasonable experience in low bandwidth because a lot of their customers access the content by dial-up.

Creating Creative Content
Of course, getting the technology in place is only half the battle; you also have to create content that promotes retention. Detailed suggestions on the best ways to do that are far beyond the scope of this article, but Chapman at Brandon Hall offered some tips: "Know your audience. Give them what they need," he says. "And don't just convert paper-based materials to elearning by putting them online. Stay away from page turning at all costs."

Brosig at Motorola University agreed with that advice. "When you repurpose something from a different medium, you have to really understand what you're repurposing," she says. "One of the issues elearning had in the beginning is that people just took a hardbound book, put it on the Web, and say, 'Okay, we have elearning,' but they didn't understanding the environment in which the individual would be using the information." According to Brosig, the companies that have been successful in repurposing classroom-based material are those that have recognized it needs to be interactive. "In many cases," she says, "it might even have to be in real time because people still need that interaction with other people."

According to Vidal at Presedia, "one of the things our customers always find is their audience wants a concise presentation. They want it in ten or twenty minute chunks that are easy to digest. That's why our product includes a linkable table of contents that lets users go to a specific area within a presentation. If it's a one-hour presentation and you want content only on XYZ, you can go directly to the slide where it talks about XYZ."

Vidal added that simplified online quizzes can be used to aid retention: "We have customers who put a slide with one multiple choice question into a presentation after about every five minutes of material. They're not trying to be strict about testing their employees; they're just trying to break up the presentation and engage the employees so they'll retain the knowledge."

Although many elearning tools have been designed to let subject experts develop their own online presentations, a word of caution comes from the academic side of elearning from Ken Sutton, president of the Art Institute Online a division of The Art Institute of Pittsburgh, which has been offering online classes since October 2000.

"When we create courses, we find that it's necessary to have an instructional designer, a graphic professional team, and a subject matter expert involved," he says. "If you take a faculty member with little Web experience and ask them to create a course—I don't know how that could work for anyone. There are some faculty members who can do it. Our experience was that about one in twenty could, but in general we found that it just didn't work for us." The Art Institute's solution is to provide a six-week program that teaches faculty how to facilitate in a virtual classroom.

First, Sutton says, they teach them how to engage and make sure the students are participating. "Our virtual class uses a threaded discussion board," he says "and a good class, with about 15 students, will generate 200 to 250 messages a week. Another thing we teach is how to handle problems in the virtual classroom" because as Sutton points out, "there are students who get frustrated or upset, and the instructor has to deal with that."

Another issue to keep in mind, as Brosig from Motorola University points out, is that as you expand your elearning efforts, you shouldn't neglect your traditional training approaches, or overlook ways the different delivery methods can complement each other: "What we find to be most powerful is a blended approach of different types of learning—for example, elearning along with classrooms along with communities of practice along with team activities and workshops," she says.

Making Elearning Pay
When companies get their elearning content and technology in place, they often begin exploring ways to make it available to people outside the corporation. "We're expecting this trend to continue," says Healy at Outsell. "Organizations are trying to figure out how to reuse and get a better return on content they develop, so it often makes sense for them to try to figure out how to leverage the training they've made for their own employees by turning that content outside the institution on a for-profit basis." According to Healy, a good example is Cisco's corporate university, which operates as a global profit center and is probably one of the most visible manifestations of this trend.

Motorola also offers elearning to suppliers and customers, and while making a profit is a goal, Brosig pointed out that it also can help "strike up strategic relationships. Many times we find that the university can get us in the door with new customers quite effectively."

Some companies even offer free elearning primarily as a marketing and promotional tool. "Charles Schwab is a good example," says Chapman. "They're building elearning as a value-added proposition to their customers. It's called edusales. It's a way of educating consumers to develop a more loyal brand of customers."

As this trend continues, there may be new opportunities not only for the companies that create online universities, but also for many other, different types of content providers. That's because numerous corporate universities outsource all or a large part of their content creation needs. (For example, Motorola outsources about 70%.)

To take advantage of this opportunity, companies don't necessarily have to consider themselves elearning content providers. "A pure content vendor can have a play here," says Healy. "They don't have to be an elearning company, but they do need to understand the technology trends. They need to understand learning styles and methods and how to create content that can be used in an elearning environment. The content is moving away from text into rich media, and that's probably a key consideration for content companies to be aware of and be thinking about if they want to take advantage of opportunities in this space."

Clearly, compelling, effective content and technology are the keys to elearning success, and whether a company is providing online training only for their own internal needs or making it available to the world, the benefits may make it worthwhile to take on the challenges of putting the right content and technology in place.