Understand your audience

IT professionals form the biggest challenges to trainers when it comes to
e-learning, says Iain Smith of IT consultancy Diaz Research

Once upon a time, people learned in only two ways: by making mistakes and by
listening to other people describing their mistakes and conclusions. You could
call the latter p-learning.

Eventually, classes were set up so that one mistake-maker could teach more
than one learner in a group, and c-learning was born.

After a long time someone had the idea of writing things down in books:
b-learning. This meant that you could still learn from others, even if you were
not in the same room as them – or even not alive at the same time.

There then followed hundreds of years during which making mistakes,
p-learning and b-learning were the only learning options. Until the 20th
century and v-learning: the educational video, the Open University, for example
– a major advance.

Now, of course, we have e-learning. It is illuminating to consider the
future of e-learning by asking how coaching actually happens in the information
technology sector itself.

IT employers have long had a poor-to-indifferent record on training and
development. Many prefer to buy in skills, not develop them. That has not
changed with e-learning, but research from Taylor Nelson Sofres (carried out on
behalf of SkillSoft) indicates that the IT community uses e-learning more than
others. Why?

The answer partly lies in economics, not IT’s zeal for training. Despite
some claims, good e-learning products are not cheap, but they are
cost-effective if the costs can be shared by large numbers of learners.

They are well-suited to mass learning, and mass learning means generic
skills such as English language, financial, customer care and, of course,
mainstream computer skills – common applications, operating systems and

This makes it relevant to people in IT, but it does not extend
cost-effectively into specialist technologies – there the e-learning product is
obsolescent before it is launched and obsolete before it has broken even.

So, e-learning has its place in IT, and elsewhere, when aimed at generic
needs. But specialist needs – and they are dominant in IT where there are
scores of tools, at multiple release levels – remain untouched. This primitive world
is stuck at 3,000-year-old technology: learning by making mistakes, and by
p-learning (when all else fails).

The reasons are primarily economic, but also cultural. Many IT people are
puzzle-solvers who prefer to "try it and see". Don’t send them on a
training course – you’ll only stop them learning. That is the challenge that
remains for training professionals, despite the e-learning revolution.

Iain Smith is founder of IT human resources consultancy Diaz Research www.diazresearch.com

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