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

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

– 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
or phone 01243 779777

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