In today's Internet-driven business climate, there is nothing so important as an educated, well-trained employee. We have come to realize, as Arie DeGeus, former executive vice president of Royal Dutch/Shell, says, "A company's success no longer depends on its ability to raise investment capital, but on the ability of its people to learn together and to produce new ideas." Ideas are the raw capital of today's enterprise. Idea aggregation creates knowledge, which builds the corporate mind. The knowledge wealth of the corporate mind leads to innovation, which produces the products or services needed to stay competitive. None of this can occur without intellectually stimulated, continuously educated people.

Yesterday's worker was trained to perform a repetitive task; work today is far more complex, often requiring the development of a wide range of skills – many of which change on a more or less continuous basis. For example, knowledge- workers are expected to be able to multitask in a highly technological environment while maintaining an overall understanding of the business process or goal. The cost of developing the requisite skills is great, often running into hundreds of thousands of dollars; thus, no employer wants to lose an educated employee to a competitor.

E- learning has assumed a front-and- center role in enterprise-wide skills development. E-learning is a suite of technologies used for a variety of skills development initiatives such as recruitment, retention, optimal staffing and career planning. Perhaps most important, e-learning technology helps integrate skills development and education into the organizational fabric, applying and deploying it at just the right time, in just the right amount, to precisely those workers who require it. Ideally, it does so by capturing digital learning assets and storing them in an object-oriented repository where they can be reused and deployed up and down the value chain. In doing so, e-learning technology partners with two other technologies, knowledge management and enterprise portals, to create an extraordinarily powerful corporate asset.

What is E-Learning?

E-learning has its roots in traditional training and education which, based as they are on industrial era precepts, simply cannot meet the needs of today's information and Internet era enterprises. When we think of training, we generally think of developing the individual's abilities to perform specific tasks. To paraphrase an old Chinese proverb: Give me a fish, and I eat for a meal. Military training is an example of training at its finest.

When we think of education, we generally think of a teacher, a classroom and a text. Instruction in ideas, concepts, points of view and illustrative examples conveys information that is intended, at least, to instill the ability to learn and, at best, to create a modicum of knowledge.

When we discuss e- learning, we are really talking about skills development: Teach me to fish, and I eat for a lifetime. E-learning embraces various delivery methods including instructor-led learning, classroom learning, distance education, self- paced learning and on-the-job learning. Bear in mind that the key differentiating factor is that e-learning injects just enough (JE) learning, just in time (JIT), to just the right learner. Otherwise, e- learning includes all the same components as conventional training or education: the content, pedagogy or instructional design, a delivery method, and testing and assessment. A straightforward example of e-learning is teaching a new employee how to perform a specific task, such as how to configure information views in a desktop mini-application in the enterprise resource planning (ERP) system.

What is Enterprise E- Learning?

Enterprise e-learning is emerging as the corporate response to the shortcomings of public education, as well as to the learning gaps endemic in traditional enterprise training. Enterprise e-learning takes complete responsibility and ownership for training and educating people who must work together to accomplish business objectives, both within and without the organization. Enterprise e-learning does not turn its back on traditional training and educational methods; rather, it extracts what is best about them and synthesizes them with cutting-edge technologies to create a new learning paradigm based on the premise that any knowledge worker associated with the value chain, whether a professional, manager, employee, business partner, supplier or customer, at some time has a need to acquire understanding or knowledge about the ways in which your firm does business. This often involves a learning process that, in its simplest form, translates into routine business procedures. In more complex situations, it means learning how to perform a detailed procedure or a new reporting function. More often than not, it isn't necessary to send an employee to a three-day, off-site training seminar to learn every nuance of the application. Indeed, the more common scenario is incremental skills development on an as-needed basis.

In enterprise e- learning, means of acquiring the learning necessary to understand that particular information must be available to people on an anywhere, anytime basis. The means of delivering that learning must be ubiquitous and multifaceted so that learners can study and comprehend it on their own terms. However, it doesn't stop there. The information or knowledge the learner acquires can be captured and stored for reuse by others, rather than remaining trapped in the learner's head. Put another way, static information is transformed into dynamic knowledge.

E- Learning and Knowledge Management

The ability to rapidly impart contextually rich information throughout the extended enterprise is no longer considered a competitive advantage. Indeed, it is what the enterprise must ante up just to lay claim to being a viable player in the chaotic game of 21st century commerce. Most companies find themselves wallowing in a morass of info- glut: information that is unclassified, unfiltered and inefficiently organized. Therefore, it is taking the next step – from information acquisition to knowledge management – that distinguishes real business viability. This is where the greatest payback from e-learning technology can be found: in accelerating the transfer rate of critical knowledge to specific constituents up and down the value chain.

E- learning fits into knowledge management by providing multiple inputs to the knowledge management system, informing it with the results of many more minds and processes. The knowledge management system (KMS) can be enlightened with information from specific learning events, as well as with vast amounts of information concerning the value chain and business processes within it. By informing the KMS in so many ways at so many levels, we are in effect creating and continually enhancing the corporate knowledge repository – the corporate mind, if you will.

E-learning can proffer the tools to critically dissect, organize and repurpose learning knowledge so that it can serve more than one audience. It does so by interfacing with the KMS, building knowledge objects from both structured and unstructured learning and making it available on a JIT, JE basis. A number of e- learning vendors recognize this and are integrating knowledge management functionality into their solutions.

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Figure 1: Enterprise e-learning, when augmented with knowledge management, informs the value chain in profound ways unimagined by other systems or technologies.

E-Learning and the Bidirectional Portal

Facing both internally and externally, bidirectional portals provide the means with which to maximize innovation and distribute knowledge acquired through e-learning. The idea of a bidirectional portal is new but holds the promise of becoming indelibly woven into the value chain, linking the demand chain with the supply chain, in effect turning them into a continual knowledge-feedback loop. If your information technology (IT) organization has already deployed internal or external portals, only a small step is required to create the bidirectional portal.

A well-configured bidirectional portal provides a platform for acquiring tacit knowledge from the e-learning loops, followed by executing knowledge chain activities and gathering and building unique core competencies from the lessons learned. That is followed by creating internal and external e-learning links to the bidirectional portal. The first might be specific to an external relationship with a business partner or to an internal group. All business processes and links in the knowledge chain ought to be strategic, with an e-learning component built in so that they can be made intelligent as well. Taking our previous enterprise resource portal example a step further, the knowledge worker creates a shortcut or improved procedure in the procurement process. Rather than explaining it to others verbally or in an e-mail, the individual uses a simple online tool that turns the procedure into a macro and a knowledge object that pops up whenever someone else invokes the task. That knowledge object can, in turn, be linked to its antecedents in production, where it becomes an enhanced methodology and a distinct competitive advantage.

In order to take full advantage of the bidirectional portal, the first step is to deploy components that knowledge workers can use to refine and add value to it. They will create more knowledge, more affiliation and more feedback loops in and around the enterprise business processes. In short, make the e-learning-enabled bidirectional portal self-propagating. Over time, we expect to see integrated e-learning as an essential portal component.

Personal E-Learning Portals

Since portal technology was introduced, we have seen its incredible transformation from a marketing gimmick for the "me" generation to a substantially evolved primary point of contact for most business communications and transactions. At the same time that personalization is maturing, the portal is also becoming much more multifunctional and pervasive. Indeed, some software vendors are building personal portals for the student, instructor and manager directly into their e- learning solutions.

Personal portals can be configured to establish a workspace integrating the most relevant sources of information with a network of connections into the knowledge management system. When this is accomplished with the addition of e-learning, the personal portal becomes the intelligent personal portal.

There is great value in having all e-learning resources available from a single point of access. Intelligent personal portals learn about our work habits, preferences and roles to provide a personalized experience of the business environment. They are also adaptive and self- learning, so they constantly update themselves through the knowledge base. The intelligent personal portal is not just for employees; it also provides a personalized, single-point-of-access environment from which each external channel partner or the direct sales force can more effectively perform key day- to-day tasks such as promotion management, lead management, request for proposal (RFP) response and new business development. The result is a collaborative commerce environment always sensitized to its workers, customers and partners – and the differences among each. In short, imagine learning- directed, knowledge-disseminating systems that actually know you.

E-Learning Systems: The Market

E-learning systems are usually comprised of tools for authoring and content management, instructional delivery methods, a database linkage component and administrative tools (often called a learning management system, or LMS). E-learning solutions are found in many different flavors such as:

  • Homegrown, using a mix of tools and utilities.
  • Off-the-shelf components cobbled together by IT.
  • Integrated, with an emphasis on content management.
  • Integrated, with an emphasis on administrative tools.
  • Integrated, from content through administration.
  • Integrated, delivered from a host or ASP – which Delphi Group terms an LSP (learning solution provider)

These systems, or solutions, are in a great deal of flux right now as the market takes shape, morphs and sorts itself out. In addition, we are seeing LMSs that provide a complete system with the exception of content, which these vendors will help obtain from external sources or by configuring local content. We are also seeing LMSs that offer to create content and instructional design. This is healthy, because it means vendors are overlapping and cross-fertilizing the market. Indeed, there are nearly 300 e- learning vendors. The Delphi Group e-learning index of 11 e-learning vendors has returned six percent in the first quarter of 2001, the only vendor segment we track that shows growth in the current economy.

Not the Emperor's New Clothes

Unfortunately, the way that some organizations implement e-learning is little more than training with a fancy new name. The result is often a disappointment: software tools that attempt to automate existing training but add no value, point solutions that cannot be reused or transferred to other e- learning objectives, and poor or ineffective knowledge exchange between enterprise information systems.

Producing the results DeGeus speaks of requires thoughtful management and a way to channel knowledge and expertise back into the organization as corporate knowledge. This means a highly granular integration of the e-learning system with the knowledge management system, deployed in a personalized context through portal technology that links the business with its business partners. The marriage, properly consummated, results in the creation of learning objects that propagate up and down the value chain, satisfying knowledge needs. This is no small feat; however, as in most endeavors, hard work and great risk-taking are required to produce profound rewards.

Markets Aren't Always So Smart

One way in which e- learning can have a profound impact on an enterprise's ability to recognize new opportunities is to quickly rally people around a new idea. Due to ever- decreasing life cycles, products for today's market must be continuously reinvented. Market forces which seem distressingly similar to Adam Smith's invisible hand are commonly believed to drive business.

These purportedly blind, raging market forces present an enormous challenge to organizations in the form of the need to continuously ramp up human resources on the latest trend, technology or product. It is what management expert Peter Drucker refers to as organized abandonment – the ability to literally cannibalize your greatest successes in order to deliver the next successful product before your competitors. In truth, sometimes the reality of the market prevails over what is seemingly a good idea for a product or service; one is reminded of how e-commerce was going to put brick- and-mortar retail out to pasture. Other times, an idea will rush into the market like a tsunami, as did the Razor scooter, completely baffling every industry and marketing prognosticator.

Enterprises that do not have a strong e-learning program in place probably won't be able to practice organized abandonment. Lacking the tools for and focus on continuous reinvention, they are likely to drive everyone to extreme frustration as they constantly change the rules of the game.

On the other hand, successful Internet age enterprises that have incorporated e-learning into their strategies and business processes will regard supply chain awareness in terms of core competencies, asking "What did we learn?" as opposed to industrial age dinosaurs who still ask "What do we make?" or "What did we sell?" For example, an architect's work may be described abstractly as a series of tasks that translate human needs into aesthetically pleasing and functionally responsive structures. However, most people would describe an architect's work by accentuating a specialty, saying, for example, that a residential architect designs ranch houses or split-levels. But what happens to the architect if demand for these types of homes declines or disappears? Clearly, someone or something must quickly provide the shift in focus of the requisite skills needed to morph the competencies into new products and services.

The comfort in this is that core competencies always outlive specific products. Despite the volatility of markets, the Coca- Cola Company did not go out of business because New Coke was a market dud. E- learning, because it stresses continuity and incessant learning feedback loops, helps imbue workers and organizations with confidence in their ability to keep up with the market.

In many organizations, existing training systems and educational institutions actually undermine opportunities for ideas and organized abandonment. They are geared to react to, not initiate, change. One might say they are not marketing-oriented. E-learning provides essential infrastructure support systems for high-velocity innovators. It can be especially valuable when it is deeply integrated into the marketing business processes, extending to your business partners and customers where it becomes a catalyst for innovation and an infinite generator of new ideas. Thus, marketing itself becomes a student of e-learning initiatives and gets smarter in the bargain.

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