How hands-on e-learning can bridge the gap between theory and practice.
Linguistic and cultural differences have always existed in large corporations, and they’ve always been a drag on learning, not to mention job performance. We’re not only talking about the difference between French and German, but also between British English and American English, marketing and R&D terminology, teenager and senior citizen customer lingo. The Internet exacerbated the problem because search engines typically are unaware of information context. They don’t know that an English solicitor is equivalent to an American attorney or that architecture means one thing to a builder and another to a computer scientist.
However, it’s possible to make search engines smarter by giving them access to a thesaurus, and it’s possible to add such reader tools as A – Z indexes, glossaries, and Web site directories (sometimes called “taxonomies”). Conquering the corporate Tower of Babel requires a collaborative effort between software vendors, librarians and indexers, IT staff, content creators, and business process experts. The objective is to strike a balance between enterprise consistency and legitimate local variations, between an efficient computer structure and a variety of user-friendly applications.
The learning/doing challenge
Before they can solve the problem, team members must develop a common vision and plan. This is a challenge because no single discipline or software program provides all the answers. Team members’ terminology reflects subtle but important cultural differences (i.e., user, reader, visitor), and discussions can quickly veer off into a thicket of technical jargon.
Available learning options¾software vendor seminars, conference presentations, books, and discussion groups¾are helpful but they often fall short in bridging interdisciplinary gaps and getting to a feasible action plan. In other words, team members may learn something useful, but they still have trouble communicating with their colleagues, selling an action plan to senior executives, or promoting a solution to business unit managers.
How it works
To overcome these limitations, the Montague Institute switched from a lecture/demo seminar format to a hands-on, Web-based format for our course offerings. In the new format, participants learn by using an online lab to create a variety of search tools¾thesaurus, A – Z index, directories, glossary¾for a specific application in their own company. The lab environment (see Figure 1) is vendor-neutral, which means that people can apply what they learn to a variety of commercial and home-grown computer systems. At the end of the course, they receive their Lab data as a series of Excel-compatible files.
Participants, either individually or in teams, work one-on-one with an instructor at their own pace. They receive a printed course book, electronic worksheets for gathering data, a password to an online library of readings and a private work area in the Lab. The time spent varies depending on the project, the amount of “homework” needed, and the amount of data entered into the lab. Most participants complete the equivalent of a three-credit semester course.
Most people opt to jump right into a project, absorbing the conceptual material and background readings as they work through the Lab activities. The project definition phase is the most challenging because most participants must unlearn some of the concepts they've absorbed in their professional education and experience. We have to spend time debunking some common myths, such as there is only one “right” organization scheme for a company (see “Ten taxonomy myths”). Following data collection, participants enter their data into the Lab (see Figure 2) and view it in one of two formats¾tabs (see Figure 3) or frames (see Figure 4).
Seeing is believing
The lab makes learning about linguistic tools and information models concrete. Participants learn what data is required, where to find it, how it gets stored and structured, and how it can be presented in a variety of user-friendly search tools. Managers and colleagues don’t need to know about “faceted classification” when they can see how it’s possible to limit the scope of a search by geographic region or product family. U.S. and U.K. employees can see how to expand a search using a “bankruptcy see also insolvency” link. Human resource managers can see how training time for new hires can be reduced though lists of departments, products, and acronyms¾complete with cross references to alternate or obsolete names. Financial managers can see how management reports can become more complete and consistent by harmonizing data from multiple business units. E-commerce managers can see how metadata and linguistic tools can increase sales by making it easier for customers to find information and reduce both costs and time delays in the supply chain.
Most important, IT staff can see how to create an information architecture that is both efficient from a storage and processing point of view and flexible from an application point of view. Everyone learns that achieving enterprise consistency through standards and accommodating both linguistic and cultural variations are not mutually exclusive goals.
What participants say
The most valuable lessons reported by participants are the following:
Expanding boundaries. “I learned how to apply my [library, IT, journalism] skills and adapt familiar tools in a new environment to solve a new kind of problem. I have a better understanding of how all the pieces fit together.”
Starting with the user. “Instead of starting with what the content is about, it’s better to start with what the user is trying to do. This may mean that we’ll have more organization schemes, but the trade-off in terms of employee productivity will be worth it ¾ and we can show business units how to extend the benefit to their own information archives.”
Separating structure from applications. “My favorite lesson is that the goal of the computer system is efficiency in creating, updating, and storing data, while the goal of the search tools and other applications is usability. You need both.”
Envisioning a solution. “The most important thing we got from the course was the ability to visualize how we could expand beyond our existing organization schemes and see how we could integrate them through links and relationships.”
The niche for hands-on, Web-based learning
University degree programs will continue to be necessary for professional preparation and credentialing. Conferences, seminars, and other face-to-face events will continue to fill a need for introductory learning and networking. Vendor training is necessary for effective software implementation. Hands-on, Web-based learning is a cost-effective solution for practitioners who need to get up to speed quickly on a topic, work in an interdisciplinary team, and meet a business deadline. The experience not only teaches learners skills and concepts, but also equips them to transfer their knowledge to managers, team members, and colleagues.
Published: February 2005