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

James Sharpe: If I were hired to get e-learning started for a company, I'd first start looking for the low-hanging fruit, the first hit that proves the model. If you're just getting started then that means that you've already had some false starts or there have been some things that have prevented you from getting into this pervasively. I wouldn't first try for the "end all, be all" but try to quickly show the applicability of the approach.

The other thing I would do would be to keep a balance and make absolutely sure that the skills being addressed actually generate business value. And this is hard to do. I'm not talking about an automated skills-management system, but really meeting with the business people and making sure that the programs being developed have high, immediate business value. And if not, don't do it.

Those are the two things I would do—I would say find your easy hit to prove out the model, and then evolve that to three or four key high value initiatives that have very high business impact.

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

James Sharpe: I think the pitfalls are less so now that the market is getting more experienced with e-learning. But for the uninitiated, the common pitfall is the too-heavy emphasis on self-directed e-learning modules and too little emphasis on the connection between the people who know and the people who don't know.

What you have to avoid is building a large mass of self-directed e-learning content, putting it out there and hoping everyone finds it and gets it.

Make sure that what you do has business value, make sure it's accessible, and make sure it's in a volume that keeps it relevant. Don't just buy a big library of e-learning content and just put it out there.

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

James Sharpe: Yes I have, but most of the e-learning courses I've actually taken have been of the self-directed type. I actually learned a lot of the IBM office applications with the self-directed e-learning available at that time. And I continue to use informal learning collaboration.

One of my ongoing goals is to take more of the collaborative e-learning courses to see first hand the pluses and minuses for myself in that environment. I wish the IBM management development e-learning program had been available for me when I first became a manager.

Question: Do you think it's important for the upper management of a company to have first-hand experience with e-learning?

James Sharpe: Even though you might think "of course they need to experience e-learning," it's really not the most important thing.

What's important is executive sponsorship for e-learning. If the only way you can get buy-in to the approach is to actually have the executive experience it, then that's when it's important for the executive to see it. But if the executive supports the business initiative of e-learning, that's what you're really interested in.

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

James Sharpe: I'd start with "What keeps you up at night?"

Prior to the recent downturn of the economy, one of the key things that CEOs were worried about was talent, keeping good talent and attracting new talent. At the moment, however, it seems to be getting the most out of the people you already have.

Depending on what he says keeps him up at night, I'd explain how e-learning can help him get a better night's sleep. I'd explain how e-learning solutions can attract talent, retain talent, help gain share, train your partners, train your channels, or train your customers in a way that can really differentiate your business.

I would end with the cost ramifications. It's much more important to look at the business pain, and make sure that the problem he's having is really a training problem.

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

James Sharpe: I see a merger of university and corporate training. I see companies actually giving degrees, in partnership with universities. This is much like how corporate research partnered with universities in the 1940s and 1950s. The facilitation between those institutions will be of a higher fidelity because of the technology.

I think that the merger of professional education and higher education will just become stronger. The behind-the-scenes technology will be more utility-like, the technology will be semicom-moditized, and what will remain as high value will be the expert and relevant content (not the volume of content, but the relevance of content) that can be leveraged across both the corporate and the academic space.

Corporate education in its role of attracting and retaining employees will still be important, but it will be much more in cooperation with the higher education space.

What I mean by utility-like is this. What's going to happen is that the technology will turn into a reliable set of services that will level the playing field on the technology side for almost all the players. This will provide a stable and robust platform, and by this I mean a utility kind of environment, for learning transactions and learning interactions to occur. So the environment becomes more commoditized from a utility standpoint.

But the competition around content and expertise will always be there. The content will not be commoditized. The only content area that will be commoditized will be in the 100 percent self-directed content. That will be a battle of efficiency and landing good authors. The case study for that is MIT, which put much of its course content online, but still turns away thousands of people each year who want to go to the university.

So any content commoditization will be only around the lower-tier, self-directed content, which will turn more and more into free content. The online collaboration with experts will be the real value.

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