re-learning e-learning

Thomas Koulopoulos thinks e-learning technology can help turn staid skills-training into learning on the fly.

Your high school and university days might be a distant memory, but we bet you can instantly recall the sweaty palms and racing pulse you felt before taking the HSC or a final exam. It may have been no fun, but still, it's all a part of the learning process: You listen to the teacher, study and get tested on your knowledge.

But what if there was a way to make learning less linear? What if you could learn what you need to know at the moment you need to know it? That notion has been getting some attention during the past couple of years, as technology has made learning on demand feasible. Proponents say it's the next phase of e-learning and that it has the potential to revolutionise how people gain and share knowledge.

E-learning's predecessors have been around since Plato, first in the form of instructor-led classroom education and more recently in computer-based training or programmed instruction via audiocassettes, videoconferencing and CD-ROMs. What's different is the shift in thinking from a traditional classroom exercise in learning to the concept of obtaining just the right amount of knowledge, at just the right time and in just the right setting. Next-generation e-learning differs from other forms of education in that it eliminates the barriers of time and distance, and personalises the user's experience.

Thomas Koulopoulos, author of The X-Economy and president and founder of Boston-based research consultancy The Delphi Group, says that e-learning shows great promise - analysts predict that it will be the next big thing - but it's not there yet. "A combination of poor platforms for personalisation, immature Web-based delivery, and most notably, entrenched culture and old attitudes about training have held it back," he says. Koulopoulos also thinks that could change. "To wring the full potential from e-learning, executives need to rethink training, personalise it and slice it into smaller chunks for just-in-time delivery," he says.

In a wide-ranging interview, Koulopoulos shares his thoughts about the state of e-learning.

CIO Government: We have e-commerce, e-strategies, e-tailers and e-solutions. Why do we need another e-anything?

KOULOPOULOS: Two words: volatility and velocity. Markets and business relationships have never been so uncertain, and they have never changed so rapidly. The number of opportunities - despite the economic climate - has never been greater, but each opportunity has a shorter and shorter duration. When you act, you have to act immediately. Latency is dead. Yet the information available with which to act has never been more abundant.

CIO Government: Why can't good old-fashioned training do the job?

KOULOPOULOS:It can, as long as you have the time and can keep the rest of the world at bay. I'm not being flip here. There are times when you can - and should - unplug from the world. But most of the time, all hell is breaking loose; employees, clients and business partners are playing a game of musical chairs; and none of us can afford to walk away from the tasks at hand. Yet we still need to learn continuously in order to do the task - especially when the task changes from day to day. That's why I refer to e-learning as just-in-time learning.

CIO Government:What's just-in-time learning?

KOULOPOULOS:I define it as the application and deployment of just the right amount of training at just the right time to those who need to possess the knowledge or learn the skill.

How is it different from computer-based training - what some call CBT?

Simple. E-learning may have had its origins in computer-based training, which was mostly an attempt to automate traditional education without changing the model. But e-learning differs from that and other forms of education - such as academic education or distance learning - in that it eliminates the barriers of time and distance, and personalises the user's experience for the moment of need. Computer-based training is really nothing more than recorded education; it's a solution looking for a possible problem. E-learning is the solution to the current problem.

CIO Government:So e-learning is more than an alternative means of training?

KOULOPOULOS:With current attention focused on issues such as collaborative commerce, market and economic volatility, and demand-chain optimisation, e-learning has attained a far more important role than its robot-like predecessors.

As markets get more complex, our tools for sustaining our people need to get more sophisticated as well. Don't dismiss that. We will come to recognise e-learning as a crucial weapon in attaining competitive advantage.

CIO Government:E-learning, a weapon? Isn't that just more technology hype?

KOULOPOULOS:Not really. Today, in the wake of so many ERP [enterprise resource planning] debacles of the 1990s, organisations are beginning to realise just how ill-equipped they are to deal with major changes in technology and processes. As competitive pressures escalate, companies will grow less tolerant of the critical skill gap that exists between the abilities of their average workers and peak performers. In that context, just-in-time learning becomes a mandate for maintaining some modicum of sanity and efficiency.

Even if you don't buy in to the competitive mandate - maybe everyone in your industry is similarly inept at learning - consider the toll of velocity on your people. We are exceeding any reasonable person's capacity to adapt through traditional means of training. The result is that a lot of people feel inadequate. The reality is that we have the groundwork in place to create a generation of failures if we don't do something about the way we learn.

CIO Government:So how do you suggest that we change our current thinking about corporate training?

KOULOPOULOS:First, accept that learning is no longer simply a matter of continuous improvement but rather a fundamental part of corporate strategy. Then think about taking a blended-learning approach.

CIO Government:What's blended learning?

KOULOPOULOS:Think of blended learning as using the right tool for the right job. Our ability to learn has always been a direct function of our ability to communicate knowledge in an asynchronous mode - to record knowledge and then share it with someone else in another time or place. From storytelling to the etchings on cave walls to e-mail, we have seen a consistent and steady acceleration in our ability to communicate in asynchronous terms. Yet we all agree that the most powerful learning happens in synchronous mode - real-time learning. For example, when your father or mother taught you to drive they didn't send you off with a tape recorder.

CIO Government:How does blended learning work in an organisation?

KOULOPOULOS:Imagine Sue is working on a widget machine that suddenly breaks down in the midst of a critical production run. Without missing a beat, the e-learning system scans the network for a widget machine operator expert. It finds one halfway across the globe. He is able to receive the specs of the current situation and routes a videoconference call with Sue back at her location. The expert walks Sue through the repair process then records the whole session for future reference.

CIO Government:And capturing that information is key to corporate learning?

KOULOPOULOS:As organisations grow more complicated, it's not the information that has value - information is abundant and even overflowing - it's the information about the information - that is, the knowledge of when the information is useful, what to do with it and how to reuse it that is most valuable. That's where e-learning, especially in a blended mode, can help by applying know-how to where it is needed, when it is needed.

CIO Government:It sounds as if e-learning essentially morphs into knowledge management.

KOULOPOULOS:Absolutely. The best definition of knowledge management I ever heard was from a client who said to me: "My organisation is just a bunch of answers, all waiting for the right question to be asked".

CIO Government:But is the technology that supports e-learning soup yet?

KOULOPOULOS:We've started down the road. The Internet is a huge assist as a common platform for sharing experience and knowledge, but these are all baby steps. I am passionate about e-learning, but I am not leading a revolution - not yet, anyway. Traditional learning is just too embedded in our individual and collective psyche. We can't exorcise the models we have grown up with overnight, nor should we. As I said at the outset, there is something magical and necessary about being able to unplug from your day to day and just learn, for its own sake. We need to blend the best of both worlds and slowly find the mix and the metronome that works best for supporting our businesses and ourselves.

CIO Government:So what are your suggestions for getting started?

KOULOPOULOS:The good news is that starting is nowhere as difficult as it sounds. One of the easiest ways to start is by deploying a portal learning environment that allows for individual and workgroup customisation. That technology is here today. And with nearly 40 e-learning vendors out there, you can realise substantial near-term benefits right away.

CIO Government:Would you say that culture and conditioning pose the greatest challenges for e-learning initiatives?

KOULOPOULOS:Yes. But I'd prefer we did not hide behind that excuse, which applies to every new technology, method of work or institutional change. Clearly we are not going to flip a giant gestalt switch on this issue. The key is to acknowledge that academic learning is not the role model for all learning. We can keep the west-end elementary school, Harvard and Yale intact while radically changing the methods we use to continue the learning experience outside those hallowed halls.