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Special Section: e-Learning World: Bridging the worlds of e-learning and KM

This article appears in the issue February 2003 [Volume 12, Issue 2]


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By Judith Lamont

Knowledge management and e-learning have much to offer each other, but are not yet integrated in practice. Generally, knowledge management initiatives have been driven by strategic planners who want to make the most of the intellectual capital in an enterprise.

Those initiatives may be supported by one or more of the following activities:

  • organizing documents, databases and other resources (content management);

  • analyzing operational data (business intelligence);

  • automating business processes (workflow);

  • locating and capturing tacit knowledge (expertise management); and;

  • facilitating interaction among team members (collaboration).;

E-learning (and training in general) is most often driven by specific lines of business or by the human resources department. As a result, e-learning has not reflected a strategic, enterprisewide vision, but a tactical and departmental focus.

Increasingly, however, those in the e-learning environment and the KM environment are finding that the distinctions between the two are artificial, unnecessary and undesirable. For the most part, proponents of integrating the two disciplines tend to see e-learning migrating to become a part of knowledge management, although they may also see knowledge management as a tool to be used in e-learning. Advances in software are facilitating that integration, although organizational and cultural gaps remain. In another indicator of this strengthening relationship, companies in the knowledge management market are systematically acquiring e-learning companies.

Trends in e-learning content development are making the link with knowledge management more feasible. The most significant is the move over the past few years toward “chunking” learning content into smaller units, which may be referred to as reusable learning objects (RLO) or knowledge objects. When learning content is broken down outside the context of a single course, not only can it be reused in the development of other courses; it can also be repurposed for such applications as performance support, help desk, or proposal writing.

Learning content management systems (LCMS) provide support for the use of learning objects in the development of courses. In addition, software products that began as administrative systems to track student registration and grades evolved into solutions that tied into other enterprise systems such as document management or customer relationship management. Events in other enterprise systems—for example, the arrival of a new document--can trigger the delivery of learning content. These software solutions, now referred to as learning management systems (LMS), serve as de facto integrators of e-learning with knowledge management.

Economic pressures have placed increasing pressure on trainers to be more results-oriented, moving from just-in-case to just-in-time and just-for-me training. Object-based learning content can be delivered in segments that relate to a particular job issue, or personalized and packaged to suit the individual needs of the learner. Documentation of low retention rates for information presented in training but not used regularly on the job also has reinforced the rationale for pushing training closer to the workplace. When training time is minimized and relevance is maximized, the learning experience is more productive.

Important similarities

The advent of the “learning organization” helped blur the distinctions between training, learning and working. A philosophical shift toward a more learner-centric approach in presenting information helped underscore the irrelevancy of those distinctions.

“Users do not care if their problem is solved by ‘information,’ ‘knowledge’ or ‘training,’ ” says Brook Manville, CLO of Saba. “They just want to solve it.” He believes that the differences between knowledge management and e-learning are less important than their similarities, and that bringing the two together more effectively can have a dramatic impact on achieving business goals.

On the knowledge management side, portals began to serve as a gateway to e-learning, as well as to resources classified as knowledge management systems. Sometimes the relationship was no deeper than the interface—the knowledge management system content was not related to the e-learning content—but at least e-learning was longer set apart from other enterprise activities. In those cases where learning content was placed in a central repository, search and retrieval tools could operate on them and include them in a results list delivered to the user along with other enterprise content. Enterprise infrastructure systems provide another way, therefore, to pull together the two disparate worlds of e-learning and knowledge management.

Few organizations have integrated e-learning completely with knowledge management, but significant progress has been made over the past few years. Today’s solutions tend to combine e-learning with one aspect of knowledge management—for example, with centralized content management, or one KM-related function such as customer relationship management (CRM) with collaboration. More comprehensive solutions await both vision to imagine them and easier-to-use technology to support them. E-learning innovators

A few e-learning companies, most notably Generation 21 Learning Systems and LeadingWay, developed software products that were designed to provide a common repository for e-learning and knowledge management. At Generation 21, founder and CTO Dale Zwart has long believed that e-learning is a part of knowledge management. That belief was manifested more than a decade ago in the development of the company's Total Knowledge Management (TKM) system, which is based on Universal Knowledge Object (UKO) technology.

"Learning objects can be linked to courses, performance support systems or knowledge management systems," says Zwart. "A key concept is that when the learning object is changed, the learning content can be automatically updated anywhere that object appears." That dynamic approach is fundamentally different from the static course development model that is still prevalent.

“The advent of learning content management systems has been a good starting point for this integration,” says James Li, CEO of LeadingWay. “The development of a common vocabulary for tagging so that content is interchangeable between different systems has also been useful.” He points out that using smaller learning objects makes them more versatile in other applications such as data sheets, sales presentations and online help. If all the content is stored within a course, it becomes less accessible.

The downside is that with smaller learning chunks, the development overhead becomes much higher, up to 40% higher, according to Li, if tagging is done according to the standards set forth by the Sharable Course Object Reference Model (SCORM).

“Technology is needed to automate this process, or costs become prohibitive,” Li notes, “and this is where LCMS technology can be very helpful.” Even so, he adds that right now, the breakdown method is inconsistent--one developer may design a chunk as two hours of content and another may opt for much smaller objects. He believes that a more specific methodology on how do deal with knowledge objects would be useful.

Moving tacit knowledge into e-learning

One way to integrate knowledge management and e-learning is to create a path for a knowledge object to become a learning object. The Evolution Intelligent Learning platform from OutStart allows creatio


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