Web Services/Web 2.0: The Next Big Thing?

Top vendors discuss how their organizations are addressing the future of e-learning.

It’s a cutting-edge issue among bigger LMS vendors.Web services (also known asWeb 2.0) dictates that learners pool training (rather than having it “pushed out” to them) by providingWeb portals into a client company’s learning resources (LMS’s).

A panel composed of representatives from leading vendors took time to discuss the impact of “Web 2.0” on the learning market via an e-mail questionnaire originating from Elearning! magazine’s editorial offices.

Participating on Elearning! magazine’s panel are:

>>Don Duquette, senior vice president, Learning Solutions, General Physics Corp.
 >>Jim Riley, CEO and president, Learn.com
>>Julie Ogilvie, vice president of corporate marketing, SkillSoft
>>Massood Zarrabian, CEO and president, Outstart Inc.
 >>Sanjay Dholakia, senior vice president and general manager, Learning and Talent Management Business Unit, SumTotal
>>A.G. Lambert, vice president product marketing, Saba
>>Frank Russell, CEO and president, GeoLearning Inc.
>>Steven Shaw, chief learning officer, Eedo Knowledgeware On to the discussion:

Is it more efficient and convenient for vendors to enable a customer’s employees to pool their training (rather than have it pushed out to them) by providing Web portals into the company’s LMS’s?

Profile-driven portals that offer personalized access into an employee’s individualized information needs provide access to a variety of enterprise systems based on the individual’s profile. It streamlines access to information and makes employees more productive, so it should be extended to an employee’s learning needs. Bringing learning into the main interface will help drive increased adoption. Rather than threatening the learning industry, this trend is clearly a major signal of learning becoming more integrated into the life of the enterprise — which should be the ultimate goal.

LAMBERT: It isn’t a question of what is convenient for vendors, but of meeting customer and learner needs.

Employees need to be able to access learning in the context of their daily jobs. To this end, Saba supports a variety of ways for customers to make learning available: They can prompt learners via e-mail to link directly to a course offering or curriculum that has been assigned; employees can view their ‘My Success Plan’ on the Saba portal; or components of Saba interface can be embedded in customer portals to enable training to be presented with broader customer Website information.

ZARRABIAN: Rather than vendor convenience, let’s look at users’ convenience. Having Web portals as the go-to-place for anything an employee, customer or partner needs is clearly a great idea. Pooling should provide a wide variety of necessary services like connecting employees to IT services or providing support for customers. E-learning can and should be a part of the Web portal.

But keep in mind that a Web portal is really only as good as the content within it. This will equally apply to an LMS or to e-learning. Pooling makes useful content better. If there is no useful content, then pooling won’t matter much.

DUQUETTE: I refer to this as the portalization of learning, which is significantly more efficient for accessing learning and development needs. Today, it is critical to be able to get the information you need when you need it from a centralized place. Our approach is to create a learning or talent management portal, allowing a unified view of multiple applications that are important to the user.

Portals are effective vehicles for personalizing Web content and directing applications and application outputs to target groups and individuals. In their most active form, portals can also be used to build communities of practice, share team projects and foster collaboration.

DHOLAKIA: Both methods need to exist for a business to operate efficiently. Employees need to be able to ‘pull’ quickly when they need something, and the company needs to be able to ‘push’ efficiently to deal with compliance measures and business-critical information.

In knowledge-intensive industries where schedules are less uniform, it is more convenient to have employees access a pool of training through a portal of their choice. This self-directed development gives younger employees a more Web-2.0 feel in terms of access, but with the LMS providing the platform, or ‘engine’ behind the portal. However, in labor-intensive industries or highly scheduled environments, our customers find it more efficient to have directive learning.

SHAW: [With] numerous LMS systems, content silos hide available content from different parts of the organization, leading to unnecessary duplication. The schedule for mounting new courses or replacing existing courses with updated versions is largely determined by the schedules of IT or LMS administrators, not the needs or requirements of learners. Users must often access different systems: an HR system, an LMS system, separate virtual classroom tools or collaboration platforms, and/or subscription-based information services.

On-demand, just-in-time, just-enough learning is generally believed to be more efficient and more effective. For most organizations, on-demand learning is a dream, not a reality. They simply do not have the right technology of infrastructure to make the dream reality.

RUSSELL: Anything that makes it easier, faster and more efficient for customers and their learners to access training resources will undoubtedly increase their overall satisfaction. Creating Web portals into the larger company’s LMS can be done in several ways, most commonly by user groups or domains. User groups require a technology platform with very advanced permission capabilities in order to be flexible enough to meet an organization’s business rules. Creating a new domain is essentially like creating a ‘mini- LMS’ or ‘storefront’ for a particular division or entity. It should enable each new portal to have its own look, feel and business rules. It can also be set up with ecommerce functionality to facilitate training commerce transactions.

To that end, is it your impression that on-demand learning is becoming more critical to the success of your customers’ overall e-learning programs? If so, why?

OGILVIE: As learning becomes more aligned with business needs, the need for on-demand learning and information is increasing dramatically. [This need] has been a driving force in our continued investment in ‘informal learning’’ products, as well as our Open Learning Services Architecture (OLSA) that allows learning of all kinds to be embedded into a variety of enterprise systems. Informal learning makes up the majority of on-thejob learning, and it’s extremely important for organizations to provide tools that support this.

LAMBERT: On-demand learning has been a reality for several years. The new trend that is emerging today is learning based on Web 2.0 principles, or the ‘read/write LMS.’ [These] technologies enable e-learning programs to capture knowledge and contributions from the community of learners, and not just push pre-defined courses. For example, virtual classrooms and communities of practice can incorporate blogs, wikis, discussions and more, to build an informal knowledge base that captures the institutional knowledge of the enterprise. The interaction of formal and informal learning programs enriches the knowledge conveyed by formal courses and provides structure that makes informal learning more accessible.

SHAW: Apart from the technology, the real obstacle is entrenched models of training and development. The move to on-demand learning requires changes in how content is organized, how it’s structured, and how success of L&D is measured. On the business model side, getting to on-demand learning requires an investment in new infrastructure at an enterprise level. Most organizations are reluctant to make this investment. Basically, the shift to on-demand learning has to be motivated at a very senior level in the organization with the support of business lines. Effectively, L&D must be a partner in this initiative, but may not necessarily ‘own’ the initiative.

RUSSELL: On-demand learning is certainly critical to an organization’s overall learning strategy success. The extremely brisk pace at which job roles, individual responsibilities, the marketplace and even whole companies change and evolve make it absolutely necessary for learners to access just-in-time resources.

Organizations and employees can no longer wait for the planning, creation and rollout of formal training programs. The world just moves too fast. To be successful, companies must be able to incorporate on-demand learning opportunities, justin- time training, on-the-job-training, as well as the technologies that enable informal learning like blogs, wikis and instant messaging. In this free market of learning, learners will find the best solutions to their learning and development challenges.

RILEY: Absolutely. As the talent pool of skilled professionals shrinks, demand increases exponentially. If organizations are to compete in today’s global economy, they need to implement a strong trainingand talent-development program to maximize the potential of their employees while retaining them for future growth.

With the war for talent, you might have to change your mindset and bring the desired skills to the employee instead of finding the person who already possesses them. On-demand access to world-class training technology makes this more accessible for all companies, not just the Fortune 1,000. With on-demand software, there is no hardware to buy or software to install, which means there is less of an upfront investment.

DHOLAKIA: The business value of ondemand learning to customers lies in the speed with which they are able to achieve their objectives as well as ensuring that the right information is available to an individual at exactly the right moment. Information is retained far better and is more valuable to the business and the employee when it is delivered closer to the point of need. This concept is also being driven by a demographic shift as more people in the workforce become more comfortable with new technology and social networking. It is exciting to see this movement in the marketplace, as it allows organizations to derive greater value from their learning and talent investments.

ZARRABIAN: Without question, ondemand learning is a critical success factor for a rapidly growing percentage of our customers. Their view is that the key to success of their learning initiative is availability of up-to-date knowledge, independent of it being offered as a formal training module. In fact, they tell us that when the overall e-learning program includes interaction among the users and training professionals, the e-learning program becomes more dynamic and interactive and the value increases exponentially.

In this environment, training and development professionals get first-hand knowledge about the training module and can continue on improving the content. At the end of it, the more dynamic the content is, the more collaborative the environment, the more impact it can have on the users, and the more effective and efficient they become

DUQUETTE: Technology-based learning is a critical component of a learning strategy, because it provides training when and where you need it. ASTD’s 2007 State of the Industry Report shows that technology- based learning delivery now accounts for 30.3 percent of the learning hours available, up from 11.5 percent five years ago. Self-paced online learning continues to be the most frequently-used type of technology-based learning, at 19 percent. With the introduction of new technologies with advanced design capabilities, manufacturing techniques, cycle times and a seemingly limitless host of other efficiencies, the challenge of maintaining a workforce with the proper skill and knowledge sets has fundamentally transformed corporations’ view of instructor-led training (ILT). If you have to train your entire sales force every 60 days on a new product or technology, there’s no way that classroom based ILT can work.

How is your company accommodating this new approach to elearning?

RUSSELL: Our GeoEngage module facilitates communities of practice (CoPs), enables social networking and provides access to Web 2.0 technologies like blogs, wikis and instant messaging. These are all integrated with our LMS platform so that informal learning can still be tracked, managed and measured as easily as more formal training programs.

Clients like Cabela’s and Computer Associates are using these tools to great success because they enable learning to occur with the flexibility and at the speed their marketplaces require.

DUQUETTE: We are producing more custom on-demand learning than ever before. Our customers recognize that training that is directly applicable to employees’ jobs is the best way to gain competitive advantage and maintain employee skill and knowledge levels. We are tasked with taking classroom-based curriculum and developing blended learning solutions that employ classroom and on-line delivery modes.

In addition, we have been working with our customers to develop strategies on building learning portals that take advantage of the Web services offered by learning management systems, learning content management systems and other training applications. These strategies are utilizing various online services such as blogs, social networking, wikis and podcasts that are known as Web 2.0. These Web 2.0 technologies are gaining traction and allow companies to communicate with customers and encourage collaboration inside the company.

LAMBERT: Saba is the only major LMS vendor that provides a comprehensive and unified Learning and Virtual Class – room/Web Conferencing solution. This allows us to capture the knowledge of the enterprise through automatic publishing of Web conference content and refine that content through integrated content management and authoring technology. We also provide comprehensive search and learning recommendations that allow employees to find content and training whether it be formal learning courses, community-published content, or links to documents and URL’s.

In addition, Saba offers sophisticated communities of practice that provide discussions, wikis and other group-publishing tools that help employees build a network around their role, an assigned curriculum or a corporate initiative. The combination of online collaboration and Web conferencing, community publishing, sophisticated search and communities of practice allows informal learning processes to be ubiquitous and effective.

DHOLAKIA: We began investing in this evolution many years ago. We saw this merging of the traditional ‘formal’ learning with the ‘informal’ (now encompassed under the umbrella of Web 2.0) learning and information exchange as the next wave. As a result, we added collaboration and discussion capabilities to our suite, along with portal-like searchable access to ‘learning nuggets.’ This allowed folks to not only take a course when appropriate, but also engage in a discussion thread with experts or find a small bit of information when they needed it.

We are evolving the LMS as the information management and deployment platform and the central system of record that helps to connect communities of practice and like-minded people in informal settings. We are doing this through a variety of mechanisms, including: (1) mobile technology, which is pushing the network out; (2) impromptu connections around specific topic areas; and (3) linking talent development with formal learning with Web 2.0 to help the individual take control of his or her own career path. All would be accessed through a customized portal that can be a MySpace-like paradigm.

ZARRABIAN: OutStart’s goal is provide solutions that help knowledge workers easily get the information they need, when they need it. This crosses the spectrum from formal and informal learning to sharing knowledge through social networking and expertise exchange, all in an integrated fashion. No one way of learning, of getting knowledge, is best or right. It’s the combination that gives users the breadth of knowledge they need.

OutStart [offers] a portfolio of solutions, including LCMS, LMS, informal learning, social networking software, and expertise exchange.

We feel that traditional e-learning is competing with ‘knowledge management’ (KM) when it shouldn’t be. Combining the set of capabilities that are considered KM technologies with learning technologies creates a single dynamic environment of interactions, information exchange and collaboration.

OutStart TrainingEdge.com, is our new on-demand SaaS e-learning platform that integrates traditional learning capabilities (LMS, LCMS) with Web 2.0 functionality including communities, wikis, private messaging, expertise exchanges and expert events. A second new offering, OutStart SellingEdge.com, is a SaaS solution that addresses the learning and knowledgesharing needs of the sales organizations. It focuses less on formal training and more on providing them with the just-in-time knowledge required to facilitate and accelerate buying cycles.

OGILVIE: Search functionality is key to the on-demand approach to learning and is available to other systems as a Web service via OLSA. Our Books24x7 product line is a great example of an on-demand resource that enables enterprise agility. It provides a database of over 18,000 titles, including business and technical books; summaries of best-selling business books; articles authored by leading executives; and reports from leading analysts. Using the patented Books24x7 search engine, users can effectively pinpoint the precise piece of information they are looking for in an extremely efficient manner.

In addition to Books24x7, SkillSoft also offers many other resources that can be searched and quickly identified by learners. It is increasingly common for learners to use formal resources (such as courses) in informal ways.

For clients who want to be able to track learning usage data no matter how the learner accessed a Book or course, SkillSoft offers an On-Demand Communications service. This Web service allows clients to maintain a single data repository, important especially if the content was launched from an enterprise system other than an LMS (e.g., portal, HRIS, ERP, etc.).

Finally, the OLSA asset integration feature allows for automated content importing and updating into any system. This allows customers to provide richer, up-todate learning faster.

SHAW: Our technology is designed to allow organizations to develop, manage and deliver on-demand learning. We offer a best-of-breed learning content management system with rapid authoring capability and knowledge management type functionality.

For example, end-users can use a Knowledge Share portlet to contribute content in the form of relevant URL’s, journal or book references, stories, best practices or lessons learned. Once approved, the information is available to end-users through a search portlet. [That] portlet also allows end-users to search for courses or learning objects (on-demand, just-in-time learning), along with knowledge- share objects. Content is stored in the LCMS in an object format: Text and graphic objects are aggregated into pages, pages into learning objects, learning objects into modules, modules into lessons, lessons into courses.

Our technology uses a dynamic publishing paradigm [that] integrates LCMS and LMS platforms. Once a course is catalogued in the LMS or an HR portal, users will access the content from that point of entry. However, in delivering the content, the LMS will reach back into the LCMS to serve up the latest content.

The LCMS makes content available through search to users based on profiles that can include elements such as role, department, region, language, experience. We can also make content available in an appropriate format to devices [like] Blackberrys.

In addition to the LCMS, we offer other products to support on-demand learning: a taxonomy management tool; a federate search and retrieval and metadata harvesting tool; a tool to develop performance support and deliver workflow-based learning resources; and tools to monitor the efficiency and effectiveness of both formal and informal learning support strategies (Dashboard analytics tool).  

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