Question: How should companies get started with e-learning?

Andrew Sadler: "Think big, start small, grow fast."

The thought here is to apply a systems thinking approach, so you know where you want to be at some future point. Think about the state you want to arrive at two or three years down the road. This may not be your final destination; it doesn't need to be exact, and it doesn't need to be fixed, but it gives you a general direction towards which to aim. This always reminds me of the Yogi Berra line: "You better be careful when you're going somewhere, because you might end up somewhere else."

Envision a big picture of your ultimate goal. Then figure out what the first couple of steps in that general direction need to be. Pick out something that is both bounded and will have a high positive impact when successful. Select a project that will show return on your investment so you'll realize concrete results. When you can demonstrate the business benefit, it's much easier to get to the next level of investment, and then to the next level of investment, until eventually you get to the point where you're ready to convert everything. If you've been smart, your final step is not a huge change, just pulling together everything that's been done along the way.

Question: Are you aware of any well-known pitfalls that companies should watch out for as they get started with e-learning?

Andrew Sadler: The major pitfall is trying to jump to the final objective without taking the necessary incremental steps to get there. There have been a few people who have been successful taking this approach, but many fail.

What usually happens is that an organization decides to put in a brand-new infrastructure in order to deliver e-learning. This means implementing an LMS as the very first step—a rather daunting task. A goal is set to, say, deliver 80 percent of all content via e-learning within a year. But what happens in most cases is that delays are inevitable. For example, consider the process of acquiring an LMS—there's usually a fairly formal method for purchasing a large piece of infrastructure in a corporation. After six months or so of evaluation, a vendor is selected, followed by a couple of months to negotiate the contract. So it's six to nine months before implementation is commenced. An enterprise-wide software implementation can take six months or more. With even a very aggressive, fast-moving company, you're a year or more along before the software is installed. Somewhere along the way, budgets get cut, recession comes along, a sponsor leaves, and people start asking "Why are we doing this?" and "What have you done for me lately?"

I see a lot of implementations get stalled or canceled in this way. It's reminiscent of what was experienced by many when the first ERP implementations failed—there are not a lot of large-scale ERP implementations that happened seamlessly the first time through. Almost all of them were delayed, canceled, or put on hold, and then restarted. I don't suggest that e-learning is of quite the same complexity or scale as ERP, but it is of the same nature.

Question: Have you taken e-learning courses yourself? What was your experience?

Andrew Sadler: My experience has been mixed. I've taken some e-learning that's been very engaging and worthwhile, and some that's been really boring.

For example, some e-learning curricula—especially those that came out three to five years ago—simply asked me to read a book online. Why would I want to read a book on a computer screen? There's no advantage to that.

I think what's happened over the last two years is that the general quality of the content has improved significantly. And that's the result, I believe, of lessons learned from a number of failed implementations. About five years ago there was a movement, particularly in IT training, that said "You don't have to do this anymore . . . just buy a large library of courses and stick it up on your network, give it to everyone, and you're all set." And that didn't work for the vast majority of people.

What I see today is much better instructional design and production values that encourage me that we are headed toward much more engaging and higher-quality content.

Question: If you were sharing a taxi to the airport with a CEO of a company who wanted your recommendations about e-learning, what would you tell that CEO?

Andrew Sadler: If the CEO says to me "Should I use e-learning in my company?", I would say "Yes, but take the time to figure out why and how." The best way to figure this out is to engage somebody that understands the big picture of e-learning, who can look at your specific environment and business requirements, and who can then make recommendations about how to get started, how to grow, and where you should end up.

I would also make the point that the big picture can be entirely different with e-learning. E-learning can give your workforce the training it needs to be successful in a just-in-time fashion, just when it needs it. E-learning liberates you from the traditional event-based training approach and, when used appropriately, improves your business results.

Question: If you were to look ten years into the future, what do you think the e-learning situation will be like in companies?

Andrew Sadler: First of all the "e" will have disappeared entirely. We won't be calling it e-learning anymore.

As a general trend we're going to see training much more tightly integrated and imbedded into work processes. Also, the fields of learning and knowledge management will have completely converged by that time.

Here's the situation I see happening—as an employee, I reach a point in a work process where I can't proceed because I don't know something or I don't have the necessary skill. At that point, in this future scenario, I will be able to call up a variety of interventions that will help me past the sticking point. It may be a formal learning object where I can go off and learn about the topic, or it might be an informal intervention where I read a document or ask an expert for help. And that somebody I ask may or may not be a real person—it could be a computer avatar. If, for example, Joe is the only person who knows how to do something, then Joe is going to get a lot of questions. But if we can capture Joe explaining his answers to somebody else, using a combination of knowledge management and AI techniques, then we'll be able to present that in an engaging way to someone else seeking the same answer in the future. All of this will be integrated seamlessly into the workplace just like the help function in a word processor today.

That gets us back to the "time to performance" that we started with. If I'm a CEO and my employees never have to take another training course, that would be a good thing. If I never have to provide formal training for them, that would be a good thing. I can simply provide them "just-in-time learning interventions" so they get the help they need embedded into their workplace processes. Then I start to wonder, "Wouldn't it be good if the people I'm hiring from the schools and universities were prepared to work this way?" I think this will start to have an impact on our educational systems. But it won't replace the traditional education system until we figure out how to deliver keg parties, find your life mate, and all the other nonacademic activity that schools and colleges provide as they teach you how to learn. More work for the simulation technologists!

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