E-learning rot to stop

30 Apr 2003

The e-learning sector has taken a real mauling in recent months but it has not been alone in this regard.

“I think that all organisations have been forced to re-evaluate the return on investment from all IT projects,” reflects Tim Madeley (pictured). “I would include CRM, e-commerce and e-learning initiatives within this group.”

Madeley is the new vice-president of R&D at one of Ireland’s best known e-learning software developers, WBT Systems. Before that, he spent seven years as head of development and product management at another blue-chip domestic software house, Cognotec.

E-learning firms fall into two camps: either they provide the e-learning content or they develop the technology to deliver it. WBT falls into the latter category. While it develops no content of its own, its TopClass product suite includes a content management engine which gives customers a template into which to place their own content. “It’s an application that allows you to basically drag and drop Word documents, PowerPoint, Dreamweaver, Flash and so on into a template and then to add questions, correction marks and so on in order to build up a learning system,” explains Madeley, adding that the management tool has been a key selling point as it allows customers to rapidly create and run simple e-learning programmes.

One of the ways in which the e-learning industry has gone wrong, Madeley believes, is that it has focused too much on doing end-to-end implementations covering a range of disciplines and operational areas. This type of blanket implementation can be costly and unwieldy, he says, and it is an approach that WBT has been careful to avoid.

“WBT’s bottom-up investment approach is in sharp contrast to the typical top-down model. It is based on a phased investment plan that initially focuses on key ‘hotspots’ where we can deliver substantial value and justify the implementation on the basis of these hotspot projects alone. This allows us to implement and demonstrate results in days and weeks, not months and years, at far less risk to the customer,” he explains.

Another failure of the industry has been its inability to persuade more businesses to adopt e-learning as a route to more cost-effective training. A recent study from the Information Society Commission showed that e-learning is still struggling to find mainstream acceptance, with almost half of the companies surveyed being either indifferent to or uninterested in it.

Madeley sees the ASP (application service provider) model – where software is delivered over the internet and rented rather than bought by customers – as one way to boost the appeal of e-learning, particularly among small businesses that may be reluctant to invest in the necessary software platforms. WBT has two resellers in the US that offer an ASP service to customers and the response has been encouraging, according to Madeley.

To crawl out of the hole in which it has found itself, the e-learning industry will need to identify growth opportunities and then take full advantage of them. One of these, Madeley feels, stems from the new mood of regulatory compliance sweeping global boardrooms and stock markets in the light of financial scandals such as Enron and Worldcom. Financial services organisations are coming under increasing pressure to give staff the necessary training to comply with financial regulations.

While compliance issues are becoming increasingly important in the financial services sector, they have been standard practice in other industries for many years. One of WBT’s largest customers is Dow Chemical, which uses WBT technology to provide a paper trail to show that it has complied with a range of safety and other regulations. “Our learning management system tracks who requires what training, when they completed it and when they will need to renew their training,” says Madeley.

Other customers include Credit Suisse, Volvo, Diageo, Danish telco Belgacom and Swedish cement company Holcin.

As for the outlook for the e-learning sector Madeley is resolutely upbeat on the basis that organisations cannot indefinitely defer investment in new technology forever. “Although the e-learning concept has been damaged by what’s happened over the last few years and the downturn in the market, the bottom line is that organisations are now more focused on how efficient they are and how they measure their performance and for this reason I think e-learning solutions are going to be a necessity. So long as companies want to train their staff they will need e-learning systems.

“You’ve heard of just-in-time manufacturing. I think just-in-time learning is going to be just as important as organisations look to deploy new products quickly and change direction quickly and e-learning is the only way I can see this being done,” he concludes.

By Brian Skelly