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E-Learning Brain Trust


Each year, ASTD brings together e-learning experts to find out what’s old, what’s new, and what’s next.

TAYLOR: We know that the e-learning business has taken some hits since the downturn in the economy. Yet, we’re beginning to hear that economy is starting to perk up. In light of that news, which areas in e-learning are poised for growth when the economy turns around?

ROSENBERG: Depends on what you mean by "areas." If you mean "courseware," then I think we'll see more custom work, especially simulations and programs designed to address very specific corporate or industry issues?things that could not be purchased from a library. More interesting, I think, will be a renewed interest in non-training e-learning activities, such as knowledge management, communities, etc. I know some folks think of these as buzzwords, and that may be true, but more and more, line executives are concerned with learning in the context of work rather than in the context of training. Another area is customer-centered (as opposed to employee-centered) e-learning.

MAXEY: I like what Marc has to say. One of the things we’re seeing is that people are using a lot of custom content—and use the term content somewhat generically because it does include proprietary information that’s in the form of courses. But many organizations are looking for just-in-time information, which could fall into the categories of knowledge management, communities of practice, and so on. I do see that people are looking for useful solutions to do their business, and they’re not enamored with libraries of courses, so to speak.

ALDRICH: What if we look at it differently. I do agree that custom is a focus, but I think there’s an intellectual abandonment (and I don’t use that term loosely) of traditional learning technologies?both very traditional (10 years ago) and recent (4 years ago, such as courseware). There’s a real looking for “something else.” The way that Gartner looks at it is that there are a lot of new things that are appearing high on the hype cycle, including workflow-management e-learning and stuff that converts with knowledge management. So, I think that we have a whole lot of new things on the hype cycle, which is important because it displaces things that have been at the top of the hype cycle.

ADKINS: Everyone’s talking about the rise of custom. I don’t know whether it’s really the rise of custom content or the demise of packaged content. When you look at some of the revenues coming off the main catalog companies, you’ll see that they are hemorrhaging cash right now. It’s really tough for them to sell off-the-shelf catalogs. In retrospect, people are saying the rise of custom, but there are other technologies such as contextual collaboration—chats, IM, Presence, conferencing. All of those things are booming right now. So, I agree that people are looking for something else—cheaper, faster, better.

LEVY: I see that companies are beginning to behave more and more like publishers. Although many aren’t acknowledging that this is what organizations are doing, the reality is that many are taking on all of the responsibilities that resided only in publishers and universities. I see companies starting to repackage and publish content, and organize content into a personalization model.

CONE: I want to talk about what’s happening inside larger companies: the movement of e-learning out to the hinterland. A phenomenon that I’ve seen and talked to other people about, though they may not describe it that way, is that the learning center has quietly abandoned a lot of e-learning technologies. They might describe it as “going back to their roots.” Back to the four-day workshop. Back to the off-site seminar. Back to ropes courses. But when you look at the larger organizations, you find that the sales department or customer service or especially in customer training, technology is being embraced and used with a lot less concern for ISD principles and instructional integrity. In some cases, it looks like using a spanner to pound in a nail, but the nail’s going in.

CROWLEY: The custom work that Cisco’s doing is focused on the higher-level strategy of how you solve business problems with specific solutions. That’s where we’re investing a lot of the formal instructional design methodologies. The biggest bang for buck that we’ve seen is capturing that informal training or knowledge. Techdocs is a really good example. The problem with them is that they’re not broken up into consumable objects. You have to go through the whole book or search through all the chapters. From Cisco’s perspective, what we’re trying to do is find even better ways to capture all of the information for even the informal training. We’re arguing that nearly 99% of the learning that happens in the corporation happens through informal means.

ADKINS: Is that a bottom-up approach?

CROWLEY: Yes. It’s capturing best practices, or trying to figure out the templates or tools to provide to the typical subject matter experts, in whatever areas, and to be able to tag it in such a way that people can find it.

ALDRICH: How is that different from knowledge management of a few years ago?

CROWLEY: It’s kind of a provision of the two for us. KM is still one of those words that people 40 or older kind of shiver, because they had it as an MBO in the 80s.

ADKINS: I don’t believe in KM. I don’t believe that hardware and software can do KM. I only believe wetware can do KM.

ALDRICH: We’re calling it intellectual capital management—capturing any of the processes. Anything as simple as how to navigate solving a problem that is in front of the person right now is something that we want to teach people to do better. And if we do that, then when the economy turns, there will be some people that leave Cisco and there will be a need for other people to be hired on to extend the workforce. We can expedite the learning curve when they come in the door.

HESSAN: One of things to think about here is that as the economy has tanked, the other phenomenon that has changed learning forever is Google. It’s no longer difficult for anyone, including senior executives who are usually the slowest at this, to learn that learning can take place at one’s desk—without a course. They understand that learning is something that you access. Very often, learning is simply an issue of accessing something when and where you need it

There’s a whole push-pull thing here. One of the problems with e-learning is that everyone’s been pushing content out to people. For example, the amount of time that I have to read Learning Circuits is minimal. So people are beginning to understand that learning needs to be informal. It’s going to come in chunks that are much smaller than we’ve traditionally defined as learning objects.

I think that people need to embrace this notion that we can create content fro here to tomorrow, but if we push it out people rather than creating processes by which people can access the knowledge, it’s not going to matter whether the content’s good or where it’s developed. A perfect example is customer learning. I think that everyone is talking about customer learning, but they need to crack the code in figuring out how customers want to learn from them because customers don’t have any more time than we do to sit around and read content.

A final comment, I think that custom is going to become synonymous with expensive. In that way, we can learn from software: Learning needs to be configurable not customizable. If you can basically customize the front office, standardize the back office, and make learning configurable so that the perception is that it’s customizable, you can get the best of both worlds.

LEVY: That’s what we did at Harvard. We had this moment of shock and surprise when customers said that context is more important than content and brand. To a place like Harvard where it’s all about brand, that was a huge awakening. The content now is more customizable, more granular, more contextual. Content is initially assembled by the enterprise and eventually by the learner. Rather than two people going on Google and getting the same results, they would get very customized results, relying on the notion that the Google of the future will know who you are.

ADKINS: I approach content from the technology side. I see four form factors: courseware, simulations, workflow, and collaboration. Collaboration technology is becoming native to all major software—IBM, Sun, Microsoft, etc. All are embedding native, contextual collaboration: instant messaging, chat, application sharing, and conferencing. It’s no longer an extra expense; it’s a button on your desk. This means that the human-to-human collaboration becomes the dominant learning object again.

ALDRICH: Indeed, the first two big apps of e-learning have been Google and IM. We’re seeing variations on that now.

CONE: To pick up on the human element, I find it interesting that people who are picking up on this are the consultants. They may not say it consciously, but they’ve always been apprenticeship organizations, where learning takes place person-to-person. Although not the apprenticeships of 500 years ago, it’s very dependent on an expert communicating with a person that strives to be one. Person-to-person connections seem more natural to them. I’m watching with interest to see whether this is a new form of apprenticeship that we’re getting into.

ADKINS: From another angle, you can look at IBM’s four-tier framework for e-learning. They’ve turned all the definitions on end. They’ve redefined classroom training as “informal,” and collaboration, e-learning, self-service, and such are all classified as “formal.” Meaning they’re in the moment, in real-time work-flow. As the tech becomes native, it will be background. We won’t worry about launching applications.

ALDRICH: Can I say one thing about simulations? There seems to be four different types of simulations: 1) protosims (e.g. the branching story); 2) B-School spreadsheets; 3) games; and 4) virtual products (customer-focused, flash-enabled).

ADKINS: I’m flashing on something that Diane said about custom equaling expensive. We need to do a lot of educating the customer. When most people hear simulations, they think “flight simulators” or they think “a lot of money.”

ALDRICH: Sure, this is why the 80/20 rule is so important.

MAXEY: We’re having a different experience in terms of cost. Back to the conversation about content not being courseware and simulations. We’re creating large amounts of content, not going offshore, focused on business information in context with what they’re trying to do for single digit $ per learner hour. We can do this because it is contextually related, it’s not this branching-simulation or level-three in terms of complexity, but it is info that people are using in small bits.

TAYLOR: What about the technology side of e-learning? What’s poised for growth?

ROSENBERG: I think the entry of the enterprise vendors is mostly good. It puts a real business context to our industry, which is very much needed. It will be interesting to see if LMSs are absorbed by ERP and other big systems and if LCMSs are absorbed into KM solutions, though. The question becomes whether LMS and LCMS technologies are really stand-alone tools?

ADKINS: I see innovation coming from outside our blinders: expertise management, unstructured KM, automatic categorization. These are converging in enterprise applications suites, and it’s the big enterprise vendors combining all these suites. I know that pure-breeds claim that these are watered-down versions of LMSs and LCMSs, but I contend that what they’re doing is fundamentally different than pure-breeds. I also think that the pure-breeds will co-exist quite nicely with the enterprise vendors, though.

URDAN: There’s some element of truth to that. But I don’t think that we’ve seen enough from enterprise suites to know how it will evolve.

MAXEY: That’s because they’re trying to stay alive, too, and can’t pay too much attention to this new venture.

URDAN: I think that companies have continued to do what they’ve needed to do with content, so we’ve seen delay in the enterprise software purchase. Enterprise software may benefit from the release of pent-up demand when the economy turns. Tech purchases have been a deferrable purchase in a way that the content has not. When economy tide turns, there may be a disproportionate upset in software purchases.

ALDRICH: Here’s a thought: If a bunch of companies got $1million to spend on technology related to e-learning, how would they spend it?

URDAN: LCMS. People would be shocked to see the sort of growth that Outstart, for instance, has been experiencing. Companies want the ability to work with their own content. I don’t see resurgence with outsourced custom content development.

CONE: Who in the company did you give $1million to? If you gave the money to the CFO, with stipulation it had to be learning-related, it would go to sales or customer service. We could agree that companies are having trouble managing the real knowledge or tacit knowledge in the organization. I don’t think that they’re discovering that yet, or placing a value on it. Companies are realizing that they’re having difficulty retaining and managing knowledge that they need to transfer to customers.

CROWLEY: The challenge is that content isn’t necessarily learning.

CONE: I think that it’s about technologies that make learning information available on demand to customers—capturing that and making sure that it doesn’t get lost. I see it very much analogous to the quality movement. Quality started in manufacturing, and smart organizations then moved it to other parts of the org. Where e-learning is going to take root is in customer service or sales, and smart organizations will figure out that they should be managing information effectively throughout the org. I fear it will become fashionable to do this, and then we’ll see many companies fail at doing this

LEVY: I’ve been working with a South American company that hunts out people with this inherit knowledge in the company, and captures it and publishes it in the form of learning objects. It’s an in-house, customized program, of course.

ADKINS: Other cool companies are doing that: Tacit Knowledge, AskMe, Autonomy, and all the major portals have expertise-finding capabilities. Also, new social network analysis software finds experts. The good news is that these work well at finding people. The bad news is that when the system IDs you, you get overwhelmed. You become the elected amateur trainer. And social network analysis software is getting so sophisticated it can be a dangerous tool. Managers could conclude that half the staff doesn’t do anything, that one out of ten people does everything in the shop. These tools generate mind maps, content maps. The danger is the interpretation. Managers need training on how to read the diagrams.

HESSAN: I think that’s a good example of the larger problem with lots of cool technology: There are enormous amounts of unintended consequences. Of course, I’m not objective because I live in the collaboration space. I can’t tell you how many times we set up collaboration spaces and communities that no one used. How good the software is doesn’t mater. The way to do this is not about who has the coolest tools wins. Expert locaters have unintended consequences because they find experts who don’t have time to help. There are tons of collaboration spaces for sales people, and expert sales people don’t share their secrets. The reasons don’t relate to technology. The reasons relate to having a fundamental understanding of learning principles. Why would you want to go into a group of people with whom you have no trust or context?

What’s going to be important to these technologies is thinking about how people will use it and how to engage them. Again, it’s not a technology issue. But if a solution is related to technology, more often than not, the person wills say, “You need to talk to IT.” It’s about getting people information, and often you can use primitive technology for that.

TAYLOR: So what are some of the hot issues among our customers and clients right now?

ADKINS: Cost

ROSENBERG: Yes. For example, post-training support through knowledge management and performance support is hot. But being hot does not necessarily mean they want to spend any $$.

ALDRICH: I think that is because there’s a failure of formal training to pay off. And I don’t think that ASTD should abandon formal training or pretend this problem doesn’t exist. ASTD needs to renew focus on nature of formal training. How in a scalable, controllable way can you change behavior? Something like Quality, which seems to be the last great training initiative. Training worked very well, but nothing else has captured interest or improved management since. I think that’s a failure of ASTD and people who are working in the area of training.

ADKINS: I think for the first time we’re going to start getting hard data on how well training actually works with the new workforce analytics tools from Saba and Docent. This goes beyond ROI and reveals links between productivity and training. I don’t know what the data will say. It could say that training doesn’t impact productivity. Then what are we going to do?

TAYLOR: That’s the metrics movement. Do you believe that metrics is being driven by customer demand and expectations for better measurement, or is it being driven by new and cooler technology?

ALDRICH: I think it’s being driven by a failure of training to be relevant and, therefore, lots of other things have to happen to either justify or kill training.

ADKINS: At a higher level, I think it’s just business intelligence.

MAXEY: We actually do work with clients on a very tactical level. We no longer bring instructional designers to meet clients but people who can actually impact productivity. We’re changing from being totally design-focused to being productivity- or performance-focused. Whether you bring a new technology or content, it’s really about lining up shoulder-to-should with the line of business person and providing some centralized service and asking the middle manager to understand the training world.

ADKINS: I think this points to a fundamental shift in our industry. I get nervous when I read articles on ISD that say we need to get back to basics. It’s professional suicide. Instead, we need to start talking about key performance indicators and business processes and lose some of our esoteric jargon.

CONE: Two points: Many people will say that congress is full of bozos, but their representative is good. The same principle applies to training. Managers say training is useless, except for the programs they’ve selected. I relate this to the metrics movement, which exists to meet a real need. Metrics can show us the good stuff, but I don’t think that it has arrived at a level of sophistication yet. For example, plumbing only accounts for 10% of the mass in your home, if you’re measuring for mass. Is a measurement of mass useful? How crucial is that 10% of plumbing? I think that a lot will happen in the next three to five years around metrics, but it will be business people helping metrics people get smart about they should really measure.

LEVY: Metrics seems to be a holdover from the academic model. As people get smarter about that and realize it’s a performance-support model and real-time change management model, they can adequately prepare for predictable situations. For unpredictable situations, metrics changes.

CONE: I think what you’re alluding to was brought up earlier, formal training initiatives have failed to meet expectations. We, as a profession, made huge promises that we never should have made.

ALDRICH: I think the profession has failed the outside customer as well as not meeting our own expectations. And that’s the challenge.

HESSAN: From where I sit, I find that customers are less interested in measurement and more interested in learning how to build the business case. In other words, measurement that anticipates results is hot. I don’t see interest in measurement unless something didn’t go well. Measurement after the fact is often a red herring.

MAXEY: I agree. At a recent client meeting, an executive vice president of HR was squawking about measurement. Then when I asked the CFO what categories did he want us to measure impact, he said, “I don’t think you can measure it. It’s just the right thing to do.” He knows that training is important, it’s not something he’s going to measure the same way he measures analytics in the organization.

CONE: Consider the example that you spent a $half-million for a 5000-user license and only 200 people ever took a course. If the reason you bought that license was to get 100% of sales people to a certain quota and they got there, chances are no one will ask why only 200 people participated.

ADKINS: Agreed. I moderated a panel recently with some 23 vendors, and everyone said that course completion was not a valid metric.

HESSAN: They say that because they’re having trouble getting completion rates.

ADKINS: My analogy to that is that it’s a product design issue. We’re developing courseware but people don’t use it as courseware. It would be as if I bought a VW and used it as a planter. Why do we have this emotional attachment to courseware if we know that users don’t use it that way? They use courses as reference materials. Isn’t there a form factor that could get at the info quicker without making them navigate through all the other stuff designed into it?

ALDRICH: It is worth noting, though, that universities require completion. And compliance courseware requires completion.

ADKINS: That’s a situation where courseware will be here forever.

CONE: A lot of companies are moving from proof that you’ve completed a course to proof that you know what you’re supposed to know.

LEVY: Here’s a horror story. A CLO wanted to justify his purchase of courseware and linked completion rates to bonuses. And everybody won except the industry. The CLO could tell his boss that everyone received training, but they may not have actually interacted with a single page other than the final assessment. The company that sold the content was happy. The CEO is happy because he thinks his people are learning. And who got hurt? Everyone.

TAYLOR: Can we go back to the topic that came up a while ago about outsourcing? Is this a major trend?

ROSENBERG: Major, mostly driven by cost issues but also by the perception that some training groups cannot respond fast enough or well enough. Companies are buying the outsourcing claim that training isn’t their competency, so why not let someone else do it. And, by the way, this is not just for e-learning.

ALDRICH: I have to mention one word: India. It’s breathtaking to see that India is to e-learning what Japan was to manufacturing 20 years ago, in terms of knowledge, in terms of building as a core competency, in terms of strategic acquisition. Interesting to watch.

LEVY: Regarding India: I was recently at an e-learning conference in China. Everyone there was doing major moves in e-learning. And what about NIIT buying Cognitive Arts?

ALDRICH: That’s sort of like Datsun buying Mercedes.

MAXEY: Not quite. One last thing about going off-shore. One of their challenges is penetration into the US market. And the reason for that, in my opinion, is their lack of ability to provide valid, effective, and nimble context for the content that they’re trying to create. I think that they’re very good at producing large amounts of content for content libraries but they really struggle in the case-by-case situations of how businesses really struggle in making content in order to run business.

ALDRICH: Yes, some car manufacturers are good at copying but they can’t innovate or make quality vehicles.

ADKINS: Can I set up the context. There are three types of outsourcing: total outsourcing of training, which IDC says is #1; outsourcing of a business process, such as IT; and offshore outsourcing. All point to demise of the training professional.

ALDRICH: Is IT outsourcing a useful analogy for outsourcing training?

ADKINS: In the old days there used to be an ebb and flow between centralizing and decentralizing training. Now, the ebb and flow is between decentralizing training and centralizing training and outsourcing it to an Accenture or Braxton. There will be no reverse flow once it’s taken outside, though, because no company can compete with the efficiencies and economies of scale.

ALDRICH: Well, there were companies that outsourced IT and then brought it back in-house. It’s worth noting that early companies that outsourced IT were desperate and often went bankrupt. Only after time did better companies outsource IT. Is the same thing happening with learning?

ADKINS: What I’m worried about is that when a big outsourcer sees a centralized training department, they put some numbers on the table and say we can do this for much cheaper. Then they bring it into their production-line, mass-scale environment. They take staff, but very few survive the M&A redundancy crunch. Then they migrate the customer away from low-margin training formats, such as classroom, to high-margin e-learning self-service solutions. That means that trainers are an endangered species. And where does that leave the user?

ALDRICH: In IT outsourcing there’s a differentiation between legacy and new solutions. And all the EDSs and Lockheed Martins of the world started off outsourcing the legacy stuff and then moved to new initiatives.

CROWLEY: From the Cisco perspective, outsource is now a negative term. The challenge was that people thought they could outsource core businesses, but what became apparent was that if you broke the partnership with a major group by outsourcing it, you were in trouble. Now we use the term out-task. Out-tasking is moving the contextual stuff that you have to do to perform the function where there’s not a whole of learning curve. For example, a lot of the training we were doing for our LMS application was for administration tasks. We have 440 trainers that use it; forty needed no support and 400 needed support all the time. So we out-tasked the administration task of adding courses to an off-shore company, and it pays to enhance the LMS application for its own performance. And I don’t have to train anybody. All Cisco does is make a Web request, and it goes off shore. It’s an out-tasked necessary evil, and 440 people are now performing high-level tasks rather than adding courses. It’s an opportunity to break these things into pieces.

CONE: Historically, centralized vs. decentralized was never a strategic discussion. It was always an archeological discovery. The reason that it happened was that the centralized function didn’t meet certain needs, so gorilla training would spring up in different departments. I think you’ll find that even with companies that have outsourced training, there’s still this movement towards gorilla training. Also, if you look at IT or HR outsourcing, it’s usually routinized tasks—mass numbers with modest change over time. I’m not sure that that’s a bad thing.

ADKINS: No, it’s just business. And we should keep in mind is that we haven’t talked about the higher education market. E-learning is booming in higher education US market and there’s a massive movement for global e-learning. Those India, Chinese, and Eastern European companies are looking at lots of revenue for quite some time.

ALDRICH: I see that outsourcing was the thing that made IT competitive. It broke the glass-house monopoly. It could be a good thing if that happens to training.

ADKINS: But we have a lot of employees with their heads down just trying to pay the rent and they’re not aware that their career is in danger.

PG: So what can ASTD do to help these folks?

CONE: I think that ASTD should create ways for people to scan their own organizational environment. How to measure the imminent need for change.

ADKINS: ASTD needs to introduce the new vocabularies that other departments around them are using. Give them taxonomies or classification systems that allow them to see what’s going on in the organization.

CONE: I also think ASTD should do research on emerging or new roles in organizations. I look for evidence of the role of the human guide. Yes, some people can Google, but plenty of others cannot. One thing that learning professionals have mastered is the ability to look at all that could be learned about something, and selecting what people need to know. Well, if we’re not building courses anymore, is it possible that we use our ability to scan the environment to be a guide or coach or facilitator.

ADKINS: But I’m always surprised that training professionals are just as resistant to change as any other group. I think because we technically understand change, we have a better chance of recognizing the need to change. One career that I see coinciding with CLOs, (by they way, there are few CLOs), is the CIPO, which is the Chief Improvement Performance Officer to meet the growing need to find proficiencies for various performance indicators. ASTD could start moving people into getting their Six Sigma Black Belts so that trainers could at least relate to other C-levels.

TAYLOR: Any last comments about what’s hot on your radar screen?

ALDRICH: The poor quality of middle-management training is the Achilles heel of training.

ADKINS: I agree. Relate this to the workforce alignment problem. Franklin Covey says that 20% of workforce is actively disengaged. Maybe it’s just a communication problem, but it’s a huge opportunity for learning professionals to prove our mettle.

MAXEY: I’ll take a completely different issue: using content management systems for productivity and business process improvement

ROSENBERG: Much better search capabilities that will lead employees (why do we call them learners?) to the content they need, when they need it. Disposable learning, Synchronized content that contains, in one place, instruction, non-instructional and human resources.

CONE: The thing that I’m paying attention to as a student and observer is whether there ever really was such a thing as blended learning. I think blended was a term invented by trainers to indicate that they had added technology or vice-versa. Indeed, what I’ve seen called blended learning has in several cases been like dropping an apple into a glass of water and calling it a fruit smoothie.

ROSENBERG: The term means well but is too often oversimplified, focuses only on training and, unfortunately is used instead of instructional design in some places. If I "blend" bad e-learning with "bad" classroom learning, I have VERY bad learning, so just having a "blended solution" may not actually be a "solution" at all. And, btw, it may not cut costs, as widely perceived. The idea is right, but what we’re really after is the development of overall learning and performance architectures. That is, a combination of instructional and non-instructional strategies "blended" (ugh!) together in the right way.

ADKINS: Blended learning erupted as a backlash to first-generation e-learning. Like other things—simulations, workflow, etc.—there’s just not a lot of clarity around it. When it goes away, there will be another term that sifts to the top of marketing. Next, it will be contextual collaboration.

Published: September 2, 2003

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