I3 UPDATE / Entovation International News

a free monthly briefing on the knowledge agenda

No. 56 December 2001





David J. Skyrme


David Skyrme Associates


Contents - Main Feature - Next Feature - Knowledge Digest


E-learning: Which Side of The Coin?

David J. Skyrme

One cannot help notice the increasing attention being given to e-learning. Interestingly, although this Knowledge Connections website is predominantly about knowledge management, one of the most popular pages remains Insight No.3 The Learning Organization (first published in 1995). In the report Creating the Knowledge-based Business (co-authored with Debra Amidon) we described knowledge management and organizational learning as being two sides of the same coin:

"learning comes through creating and applying knowledge, whilst learning increases an individual's and organization's knowledge asset"

Today, learning is a key feature in many KM programmes and practices, for example:

  • The use of online communities to learn from the experience of others
  • After Action Reviews - where lessons learned on an activity or project are systematically gathered
  • Open Learning Centres where individuals can access various knowledge resources

Yet in many organizations, training and learning are seen as quite separate from knowledge management (though I do know several where the KM programme now comes under the auspice of a corporate university). Some of this separation is historical, since the traditional view of learning is that it takes place in courses held in classrooms. For many types of learning this is increasingly unrealistic (how many of your senior managers go away on courses? What is the drop out rate of course or seminar attendees?). Enter E-learning.

The Contribution of E-learning

Read any literature on e-learning - especially vendor's brochures - and the following points are usually made:

  • Learn when the individual needs it
  • Avoid the time and travel need to go on courses
  • Deliver best content irrespective of source, in a consistent way
  • Record and monitor the performance of learners
  • High user interactively and customization - taking learning routes dependent on responses and action of the learner.

So far, so good. Now take a closer look at what many suppliers of e-learning are promoting

  • software that development of 'courseware'
  • Access to e-learning resources - both on CD-ROM and over your intranet, the Internet

Too often, they are translating the prevailing idiom of 'courses' into the new environment.

The Wider View

One of my early experiences of e-learning was in tutoring on what was then a highly innovative Open University course Managing the Competitive Environment. A key feature of this course - apart from the use of scenario planning to develop alternative future scenarios which was relatively new as a core management practice then, though more so now -- was the innovative use of computer conferencing (using CoSy software). In this several types of forums (or communities) were used to address several different learning modes:

  • Local student-tutor groups - groups of 4-8 students would work in groups to develop a particular scenarios e.g. the future of Europe, the future of the automobile industry; tutors acted as moderators and coaches but did not take part in the actual development of the scenarios
  • National communities - different groups of students working on similar scenarios would come together in large forum in which ideas were exchanged and recognized subject matter experts consulted. These would also house core documents in libraries
  • Tutor-tutor groups - all tutors on the same course would compare experiences of how well the scenario process was working and raise and share issues between themselves and also with the OU Course Leader and administrators.

Today, such combinations of content (course material, learning resources) and communities (student groups) are more commonplace in e-learning environments provided by many business schools.

From Whole Courses to Bite Sized Chunks (Learning Objects)

Such tools and techniques need to be adapted for the everyday working environment, not just for those who are embarking on an MBA or other courses. Learning and work are converging. Busy professions need learning in byte sized chunks - a help screen when using a computer application, one or two web pages when they need some specific guidance, a response. In other words, much on the job learning will take place in 2-3 minute chunks, not 2-3 day courses. Hence, there is a growing interest in 'learning objects', small self-contained modules of content to aid learning. Now look around and see how well all your learning material is packaged as objects for 'just in time' learning? Look also at your KM activities - are the outputs packaged in a way that others can also learn? Here are some things to think about:

  • Different people learn in different ways - some prefer reading, others learning through doing; some people prefer visual constructs, others step-by-step tables and so on (e.g. see the Honey and Mumford Learning Styles Questionnaire - http://www.peterhoney.co.uk). Do your e-learning approaches cater for these different needs?
  • How well are your learning resources - of all shapes and sizes - catalogued?
  • What guidance and training material do you have that is packaged into 2-3 minute chunks (learning objects)?
  • Do these objects provide both explicit content but also the opportunity to interact with people e.g. subject matter experts?
  • What communities and access to experts are accessible via your e-learning tools?
  • Do you refine the output of community conversations into reusable learning resources?
  • Do you make full use of personal development plans, addressing knowledge and skills acquisition beyond immediate needs?

One useful thing that e-learning does provide is a framework and set of tools to place learning resources and to think in a pedagogical way about learning. However, until E-learning tools (and some KM tools as well) moves away from thinking of it as simply repackaging courseware to making available learning resources in various sized chunks, in different formats to meet different learning needs and styles, then it will remain as something apart from KM - and that would be a pity.

Some commentators see the convergence of e-learning and KM as the Holy Grail (see, for example, the interesting white paper of brandon-hall.com 'Learning Management and Knowledge Management: Is The Holy Grail of Integration Close at Hand?' - http://www.brandonhall.com/public/whitepapers/lmkm/
). What are you views on the relationship of e-learning and KM? How has your organization integrated learning and knowledge management initiatives? Are they both on the same coin or not or different coins in a related set? (Think about the new Euro coins - they have one common side while the other has national variations). Share your views and experiences with other I3 UPDATE Readers.

Email: David J. Skyrme

© Copyright, 2001. David Skyrme Associates Limited and Authors - All rights reserved.

I3 UPDATE / ENTOVATION International News is a joint publication of David Skyrme Associates Limited and ENTOVATION International Limited - providers of trends analysis, strategic advice and workshops on knowledge management and knowledge innovation®

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