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KM and e-learning: a growing partnership

This article appears in the issue July/Aug 2001 [Volume 10, Issue 7]


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When you have finished this article, you should:

  • know why e-learning is critical to today’s enterprises;

  • understand how e-learning is affecting key trends in training;

  • recognize options for integrating e-learning into enterprise processes;

  • feel enthusiastic about the potential for combining e-learning with knowledge management;

The real value of e-learning

Yes, e-learning saves travel time and is available 24/7, but those often-touted advantages of e-learning miss the point. Enterprises that use e-learning as a part of their training strategy can do things that are just not possible with classroom training. The real value of e-learning lies in its ability to integrate into enterprise business processes and to better leverage intellectual capital. Using e-learning, a company can automate training delivery and offer customized training. New software tools allow knowledge located throughout the enterprise to be more easily captured and distributed as e-learning modules.

That’s not to say that classroom training is doomed. Estimates for the amount of corporate training delivered in the classroom range from 80% to 90% in terms of training time. But large organizations, which are more likely to use e-learning and which benefit most from its cost savings, project that classroom training will drop to 63% by 2002 (The 2001 ASTD State of the Industry Report from the American Society for Training and Development,) .

Projections for e-learning are impressive. IDC predicts a market size of about $12 billion by 2004, up from just $2.2 billion last year. That includes content, which currently accounts for nearly two-thirds of the e-learning market; technology, such as authoring software; and services, which is the fastest growing segment, predicted to double each year for the next several years. However, it includes only training purchased outside the organization, not expenditures for in-house development. The overall workplace training market is pegged at about $60 billion by the U.S. Department of Education.

Key trends in training

Blended training hits the spot. The controversy over whether e-learning is more effective than classroom training has subsided, with most experts supporting a mix of techniques. The best mix depends on the skills being taught. Team building and role playing are best accomplished in the classroom, for example, while IT training lends itself to e-learning.

Timely delivery in smaller chunks. Training delivered on the job and in smaller chunks is better absorbed than intensive training delivered over days or weeks. E-learning does this far more easily than classroom training--it’s not cost-effective to bring students into a classroom for 20 minutes. One good application for delivery of short modules is “downtime training” in manufacturing, when the production line is stopped. E-learning also allows delivery of individualized training geared toward filling competency gaps.

Decentralized and pervasive. Rather than being developed by a corporate training department, more custom training is being developed by content experts in business units. New e-learning authoring tools that incorporate good instructional design principles make it possible for content experts to prepare effective training. Tracking training requirements and competencies may be handled centrally, but content development is moving closer to the front lines.

Distinctions are blurring. The differences between training and performance support, between formal and informal learning, are becoming less meaningful. A broader view of “knowledge transfer” is taking hold. No longer relegated to the first few weeks of an employee’s tenure at a company, learning is being incorporated into all stages of an individual’s career. Some tools, such as collaboration software, play a strong role in both e-learning and knowledge management, and are providing an infrastructure where the two can meet.

Knowledge transfer opens doors to KM. A philosophy of knowledge transfer provides a natural path for the convergence of knowledge management and training. Moreover, to the extent that an enterprise has automated its knowledge management processes, e-learning can become a fully integrated partner.

Experts can be authors, too

One straightforward strategy for making better use of a company’s intellectual assets is to tap directly into the knowledge of experts. The ReadyGo Web Course Builder (WCB) was designed to make authoring simple enough so content experts could use the product easily. The product uses a series of dialog boxes that guide content experts through the authoring steps. The feature allows development of training by business units rather than requiring specially trained staff.

Anita Rosen, CEO of ReadyGo, started the company three years ago to fill the need for a user-friendly e-learning tool. She also had determined a corporate demand for e-learning that did not require plug-ins or the latest browser. Finally, many authoring tools did not allow course content to be printed out, a feature which many users desired. WCB provides a solution to each of those issues.

The product’s ease of use speeds up the development process. A safety engineering manager at a manufacturing company, for example, used WCB to author 20 training courses required by OSHA in less than three months. With a price of $495 and no royalties on the end products, WCB is accessible even to small companies. The product also can integrate with e-learning portals and learning management systems. With the WCB course material indexed and available online, learners are not limited to using the material for formal training. They can type in key words that relate to their area of interest, and then find the section that relates to their immediate need.

“A lot of healthcare people are using WCB,” says Rosen. “An experienced nurse just needs to look for the new information and does not need to repeat training on areas of a subject that were covered in previous training or learned on the job.” This capability shows the value of e-learning in providing customized instruction.

Training module to suit job descriptions

ClubCorp uses information about the job status of trainees to determine e-learning delivery content. The company manages country clubs and trains its employees on proprietary software applications as well as professional skills such as sales and lead management. ClubCorp selected Lotus LearningSpace to deliver its e-learning content.

“We wanted our training to be very specific to managing a ClubCorp country club” says Mary Kramer, learning technologies manager at ClubCorp, “so we liked the fact that the interface could reflect our branding.” In addition, Kramer uses a blended approach to training: “We like to combine traditional KM components such as best practices with stand-up training and e-learning,” she says. “We still find that some skills are best reinforced in classroom or on-the-job training.”

Depending on his or her job title, a trainee automatically receives a set of e-learning modules. Different versions of the same topic, such as training on a sales forecasting tool, are delivered for different job categories. The system knows which version should be presented, and the learner can see only the appropriate version.

“We talk to experts and put their knowledge into a reusable container for various employees,” says Kramer. She opted to add reference manuals online when the company made the move to e-learning. That reduced printing costs and improved availability of those resources to employees. Manuals can also be accessed from within the e-learning module, thus integrating corporate references with the training function.

Adding e-learning to KM, or vice-versa Some companies that offer KM products are adding e-learning components. Hyperwave, for example, sells a knowledge management product that originated in a university setting. Browser-based from the beginning, the Hyperwave Information Server (HIS) is designed to make it easy for people to discover information and locate experts. It also provides for collaboration by linking up with Microsoft NetMeeting. More recently, Hyperwave added an Information Portal and an e-Learning Suite to complement the HIS.

The e-Learning Suite is designed as a virtual training center, with a “foyer” that supports registration and provides course summaries, course rooms, a study room where learners can select courses and hold discussions, and an administrative office. Learning materials in any format can be integrated into the system, and an indexed background library contains related material from internal and external sources.

Telekom Austria plans to implement the e-Learning Suite as a corporatewide online learning platform for its 10,000+ employees. The company provides telecommunications services for telephone networks in Austria. It will use the e-Learning Suite to train employees in sales, customer service and support.

One of the features that attracted the company was the potential for easily integrating a KM system at a later time. “Companies want to leverage their existing information,” says Tim Kounadis, VP of North American marketing. “Our product allows companies to package existing information into a learning module.” That approach can provide a combination of formal and informal learning opportunities.

The convergence

At Generation21, there is no debate about whether learning and KM are converging--the corporate definition of KM unites the two. “Knowledge management is the structured and intentional collection and distribution of information to support learning,” states Dale Zwart, founder of Generation21. From its inception, the company’s Total Knowledge Management (TKM) system has been oriented toward integrating training and knowledge management. TKM is based on a process of breaking down knowledge into chunks of information called dynamic learning objects. The learning objects are then stored in a relational database and are searchable when employees need an answer. Some clients are already using the wireless capability to access reference materials and common troubleshooting information from the field.

At Cape Canaveral, employees who assemble, check out and launch rockets go through a demanding training regimen in order to attain certification. The overall training process includes working with mentors who directly observe and guide the learner’s performance. In addition, employees receive classroom instruction on specific topics critical to vehicle processing and mission success. Training managers were exploring alternatives to traditional classroom delivery in order to reduce travel time and make the technical training information more accessible.

“Our mission is to provide relevant, quality learning opportunities that would enhance the skills and technical knowledge of launch operations employees,” says Kevin Cox, manager of training at Cape Canaveral, “and to provide internal consulting services to achieve the training and performance goals of the organization.” Generation21 had worked with Lockheed Martin Astronautics in Denver and was familiar with aerospace manufacturing processes. That was an important factor in selecting the company as the vendor.

“A lot of training systems are focusing on professional development or soft skills, but few were looking at technical training and manufacturing certification,” says Cox. “Their philosophy of using learning objects fit with the manufacturing process requirement for performance measures better than other learning models.”

Curriculum developers worked with subject matter experts to identify training requirements, design learning objectives, and develop courses. Using Generation21’s TKM product, the curriculum developers are able to enter the content directly into the system; the process is template driven, and development does not require programmers. Video clips and graphics can be pulled in easily.

“It is a natural evolution in the training field to recognize the value of information that is in the enterprise, storing it and making it available to everyone,” says Cox. An initial phase of performance support has been completed which links documents that relate to safety with the training curriculum. That step ensures that the individual not only understands procedures but can also access related policies. “We are starting to identify all the pieces that support the work once our students are on the job,” says Cox. “When we expand our performance support resources to include technical information,” he adds, “our workers will have access to a comprehensive repository of materials to assist them in performing skilled tasks.”

The organization is now working on training for the next generation of launch vehicle, the Atlas V, to create a program that manages all of its resources electronically. The system will be able to verify training and certification of employees, track relevant documents and manuals, and monitor workload to be sure human resources are available for the required tasks. It will be the next step in the move toward integrating training with knowledge management.

Automate training delivery with LMS

Learning management systems are becoming more popular as a way to track employee competencies and manage career progress. The Enterprise Learning Management System from Plateau Systems handles those functions, but also integrates with other applications to incorporate training delivery into enterprise business processes. At Federal Express call centers, Plateau’s software is automatically notified when a call center representative’s performance falls below a target level. If satisfactory resolutions to customer problems are not being achieved, for example, the representative’s calls are suspended and Plateau’s software delivers a training module relating to the desired behavior. Real-time performance monitoring allows just-in-time delivery. Plateau is not an authoring system; rather it provides the infrastructure for managing content and coordinating it with other business processes.

At a manufacturing plant that requires employees to be certified on precision machinery that can only be activated by a swipe card, Plateau’s software can prevent the worker from using the equipment if his or her certification is not up to date. Integration with a document management system such as Documentum, which identifies new certification documents, provides the means for notifying the system that new training is needed. Again, the integration of e-learning into enterprise systems relies on automating those business processes.

The need for careful analysis prior to implementation is apparent. In order to use a product like Plateau’s effectively, the enterprise must make its standards explicit and decide on an action if it is not attained.

“The real value of Plateau’s solution is integrating knowledge across the enterprise,” says Paul Sparta, Plateau’s chairman and CEO. The product can be integrated with a wide variety of enterprise software to monitor processes and deliver training.

The future is bright for synergy between e-learning and KM

“Companies in the e-learning industry have a fairly strong consensus on where we need to go in the future,” says Ted Henson, chief learning strategist for Global Knowledge, which provides both content and an e-learning infrastructure. “We are moving toward increased granularity of content, greater flexibility in delivery and interoperability through adherence to XML standards.” The emergence of XML as a standard for e-learning will provide strong support for integration with knowledge management.

When you come right down to it, automation is not required for either training or knowledge management. However, if an enterprise has automated its processes, e-learning can be integrated in ways that support business objectives. And if training content and enterprise knowledge both flow from the same source, the organization can achieve a level of responsiveness and consistency that will give it a strong edge over its less well managed competitors.

Judith Lamont is a research analyst with Zentek Corp., e-mail jlamont@sprintmail.com.


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