At TechLearn 2004, I interviewed industry analyst and futurist Elliott Masie to find out how he thinks the e-learning industry is evolving. Here’s what he had to say.
RE: I wanted to start by asking you how you learn?
EM: I learn through conversations. I learn by aggressive use of Google and the Internet. But I also like some structured learning opportunities, so I go to formal classes. I thrive on being in the presence of an awesome instructor. Like most people, I thrive on a mix of different types of experiences.
RE: You’ve been part of the workplace learning industry for several years. What holds your interest? How do you stay passionate about this field?
EM: I think there a few things. If you define the industry in a broad sense, I’ve been in two parallel industries: the learning industry and the technology industry.
The learning industry holds my passion because, ultimately, learning is about changing behavior, which is how we change organizations and change society. It sounds almost overstated, but what is exciting about learning is the way it can change the world.
Technology holds my passion because I think it’s a metaphor for innovation. So, when you intersect these two phenomenon—one that changes behavior and one that drives innovation—the potential is limitless.
RE: The past few years, though, the e-learning market has seemed stalled. Do you see that happening in the organizations that you work with?
EM: Let’s be direct. E-learning is often an overstated term. The bottom line is that learning and performance is what people pay for. Even at our e-Learning CONSORTIUM, 70 percent of our conversations are not about e-learning; they’re about change management, OD, the process of graphic development, etc.
So, the marketplace, if you will, is a marketplace for assistance in making learning decisions. What’s really interesting is being able to answer the question, "What’s the learning decision that organizations have to make?" It may be a technology decision, it may be a methodology decision, it may be a strategy decision. Therefore, companies that define themselves in the e-learning marketplace are way too narrow.
The average company doesn’t get excited about buying an LMS, it gets excited about managing learning. It doesn’t get excited about buying a new e-learning course, it gets excited about changing an employee’s performance.
RE: Based on that, do you think that the term e-learning is going away? Especially when you take into account that until recently e-learning seemed to refer to an online course or an LMS, but now collaboration tools and the like are becoming more mainstream?
EM: The term e-learning won’t evaporate, but it won’t be the big conversation anymore because it won’t get funded. E-learning, as a term, is too narrow. It’s too systems-centric. It’s too constrictive. For example, when a large company signs a contract for an LMS, it doesn’t put out a press release that says they just bought an enterprise-wide learning management system. The press release says that the company can develop personalized learning plans for employees or that it can track compliance to federal regulations.
Think of it this way: companies no longer talk about e-commerce, they talk about commerce.
RE: So, will people stop using the phrase e-learning in favor of learning?
EM: It’s more comprehensive to use the phrase learning because what we do is more about learning than about e, and all learning will have some technology element to it. The point is that it’s about talent—it’s about performance. It’s all of that.
RE: How do practitioners relate those terms—performance, talent, and so forth—to executive management inside their organizations? While management understands the term training, they may not understand performance and talent—or even learning.
EM: Actually, I think the profession has to make some distinctions. Here’s a good example:
I recently spent some time with the CEO of David Weekly Homes. [David Weekley Homes has been named one of the "Top 100 Companies to Work For" three years by Fortune magazine. In 2003, David Weekley Homes closed more 3,549 homes with revenues exceeding US$945 million.] And it’s unusual for a CEO to spend half a day with someone like me, but he did.
Now, David Weekly can talk to his people about PVC piping, cement pouring, or granular modular plans, all of which are construction phrases that people building homes understand. But he probably won’t use those same terms and phrases when he talks to people buying a home. Those people don’t care about PVC pipes, they want to be in the home of their dreams—a home that will keep its economic value, a home that may have energy-efficient windows, and so on. When you apply that analogy to our industry, training, learning, and performance are terms that the profession can get together and talk about—as the builder not the buyer.
But the CEO isn’t interested in any of that. Do you know what David Weekly is interested in, though? He wants to know how he can bring people into his company more rapidly. How he can ensure that people in the field are doing things that keep his company legally compliant and really targeted to the mission statement. Any CEO is interested in how to find efficiencies, how to grow, how to keep the best talent, how to go global, how to stay competitive in a turbulent market. They never ask, "What’s our human capital management strategy?" or "Should we use an EPSS for this?"
Now, what does the training/learning/performance professional have to do in response to that? That person has figure out what portion is traditional training, what portion is e-learning, what portion is performance management. Again, those are the construction terms. The problem that many of ASTD’s members face is the notion that they’re on the construction teams. They aren’t always the architects, and they certainly are not the buyers. Your members don’t even get to meet the buyer sometimes.
RE: So what do workplace learning professionals do?
EM: The profession has got to transform its language. But I hope that it doesn’t transform it from training to performance because that’s just substituting one set of jargon for another set of jargon.
RE: You used the terms talent and human capital management. I see a lot of press releases from suppliers using these phrases. Is it really a new concept or is it a new buzz word?
EM: I think human capital management is a faux category that people can slap on their systems. In my opinion if something is true innovation, it doesn’t need a buzz word. Personally, I get real annoyed with the alphabet soup, and so do the practitioners.
RE: So if the next big thing isn’t human capital management, what is it? What will you focus on in 2005?
EM: In 2005, I will focus in on learning decisions.
RE: That sounds like a broad concept, what do you mean?
EM: It means, for example, that organizations need to start making some critical decisions about how to take e-learning from being a moderately successful experiment to doing it on a massive scale.
Consider the e-Learning CONSORTIUM. It has 191 companies representing 54 million employees worldwide. How do you reach that many people? If you’re McDonalds how do reach 1.5 million employees.
Another learning decision is to look at do we develop it ourselves or outsource or send it offshore?
Another learning decision is to review old models and determine which ones still work. For instance, I’m in the conference business, and I’m not so sure that model works anymore.
RE: Who are you trying to reach with this idea of learning decisions? The CLO?
EM: Multiple levels—training managers, line-of-business managers, HR managers, IT managers. But it doesn’t have to be management level—some of the best learning decisions are not made by senior executives, but by training professionals in the trenches.
And I mentioned the title CLO, but I don’t think that it’s a reality in most companies. Many people that use the title CLO, aspire to be a CLO. Also, those that actually are CLOs, don’t care about the title.
RE: To finish up, what’s the biggest shift you see happening in the industry?
EM: In the future, I don’t think the big conversation is going to focus on the products an organization buys. The shift is being able to move from talking about products to talking about decisions. To do that, people have to ask—and answer—much harder and riskier questions.
Publsihed: January 2005