Weather the storm

When new ideas break in the US, you can be sure that they will hit our
shores soon after. David Falkus looks into the future as forecast by the recent
TechLearn conference in Florida

TechLearn delegates flying from London to Washington DC and on down to
Orlando, Florida, with British Airways and United Airlines were treated to a
double helping of the disaster movie The Perfect Storm. This in-flight
entertainment is in turn the perfect metaphor for the business world as it
enters 2001 under the impact of the Internet, itself less than 2,000 days old,
and became a theme to permeate the whole conference proceedings.

Addressing his audience of some 3,250 delegates, mainly trainers from 42
countries, representing over 100 million workers, TechLearn 2000 speaker Tom
Peters warned, "We’re in the midst of a hurricane, a white-collar
revolution in which over the next few years 95 per cent of white-collar jobs
will go or be transformed. And no-one knows where we’re going."

Said Peters, business thinker and lifelong trainer, (quoting management guru
Peter Drucker), "The period 2000 to 2002 will bring the single greatest
change in worldwide economic and business conditions since we came down from
the trees.

Forgetting the past is essential. As one US delegate put it, "The
problem is not how to get new thoughts into your head, but how to get the old
ones out".

TechLearn 2000 – organised by Elliott Masie, business entrepreneur and
skills adviser to the US government – developed a number of themes. These
included the need to "focus on people, performance and business models.
E-learning is more than a smarter way of training. It is about changing our
lives and the way we do business".

So the task is not merely to train staff, but to train customers and to
train suppliers; to train in a interactive peer-to-peer way (known as P2P), in
which trainees train each other, with content created by users (so it needs to
be as easy as Powerpoint). What began as simple e-mails between students and
trainers, and between students in chatrooms, is being replaced by two-way
broadband versions.

Participants were advised that trainers presenting proposals to top
management should avoid referring to "e-learning" and "getting
involved in technology". Instead they should focus on the business model,
on "ROI" – return on investment – on shorter time to market of new
products, and on shorter time before newly-recruited staff are up to speed and
productive.

The vision, in the words of Wayne Hodgins, strategic futurist for Autodesk
Inc, is "to have the right stuff", with just the right content, to
just the right person, at just the right time, on just the right device, and –
because the scene is so fast-changing – to have great "course correction"
capabilities in order to stay "on target."

Advice for those entering this e-learning new world included:

  • Start with a small project,
    rather than putting the most popular classroom programme on the Web, only
    to find that attendances drop
  • Talk to in-house IT
    professionals, getting them on-side, and "borrowing" existing
    delivery mechanisms where possible
  • Outsource web-hosting and
    learning management systems (LMS)
  • Don’t dismiss classrooms as
    dead, see them as part of "blended learning"
  • Buying in modules is more
    realistic, although standards like Scorm (shareable courseware object
    reference mode) with metadata attached to course modules describing
    contents and ownership. The just-launched version 1.2 allows course
    modules to run under different Learning Management Systems, reducing
    development times and costs of new courses. Students who have taken a
    particular module previously need not take it twice.

Among the delegates was Donald Clark, CEO of UK e-learning content
production company the Epic Group. He compared the development of e-learning in
the UK to the US and predicts that in the UK, "The current phase is one of
‘laying track’, in that intranets and learning management systems are being
bought. In the second phase, content will be king."

As he points out, we ignore the Internet at our peril. "The Internet is
already the largest learning resource on the planet, with content and delivery
climbing to new levels, as we re-conceptualise learning by focussing on good
design, simulations and learning by doing."

Of course the US approach gives us an insight into a frantic world. What can
we make of a conference where delegates enjoy an evening out at Disney’s The
Magic Kingdom, and on the final morning welcome Mickey Mouse on to the
conference stage?

But in many respects we have similar tastes. Recent research by Epic, in
conjunction with the Department for Education and Employment, predicted that
the UK take-up of on-line learning will be over 22 per cent within five years
from its current usage by 5 per cent of UK organisations. The current standing
in the US is that 25 per cent of that continent’s companies use on-line
learning. So are we really so far behind?

Five forecasts for 2001

From the UK perspective, information technologies will continue to define
how business is done here and impact on workers in a new global marketplace,
according to British business coach John Middleton, the founder of the Bristol
Management Research Centre. Here are his top five predictions:

1 The Internet is experiencing growing pains, not death throes

Middleton quotes the president of Intel Andy Grove, "Companies not
using the Internet to improve just about every facet of their business
operation will be destroyed by competitors who do."

2 The new economy is a work-in-progress

"Globalisation has made such spectacular progress that today you
couldn’t talk of an international division of labour as we did before the
1970s," says Middleton, quoting historian Eric Hobsbawm.

3 The new economy supplements the traditional economy.

It does not supplant it.

4 Size really doesn’t matter

There is no longer irony in the phrase "a one-person global
business"

5 Blue-collars have felt the pinch – white-collars will be next

Middleton points out Tom Peters’ prediction that 90 per cent of white-collar
jobs in the US will be destroyed or altered beyond recognition within the next
15 years

(Taken from Writing the New Economy by John Middleton, published by Capstone
and distributed by Wiley. More on www.wiley.co.uk
or phone 01243 779777)

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