From E-Learning to We-Learning

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The corporate training industry is undergoing some major changes. Over last few months we have been involved in many discussions with organizations about the tremendous needs to build, manage, and formalize their social and collaborative learning programs. This is being driven by many factors: the slowing economy, the "always-connected" nature of the workforce, and the explosion of social software tools and platforms now available.E-Learning to We-LearningIn many ways, this transition is very similar to the last "big thing" to hit corporate training – the "e-learning" era. The word "e-learning" started in 1998 and we went through a radical change in thinking about training over the next 10 years.

I think today's transformation is very similar and we have much we can learn from that history. This blog will give you come context, as we examine: today's transition – "from e-learning to we-learning."

The History of E-Learning and What We Learned

E-learning radically changed the training industry. In 2000 and 2001 we had two major shifts take place: the internet emerged as a new computing platform and we had a recession. These two factors together created a tremendous focus on moving training programs and materials away from "instructor led" to "online." As many of you probably remember, there was talk about the end of brick and mortar universities as we all rushed to do all our training and education online.

Today of course as e-learning has matured, there are many forms of online training and education. We can implement "Rapid E-Learning" (often PowerPoint to Flash), application simulations, business simulations, character simulations, audio, video, and a wide variety of instructional interactivities.

Most high schools and universities use the internet for distribution of class materials, communications between instructors and students, and distribution of key training tools. Today "instructional media" is everywhere: from YouTube to the California Driver's License Exam (and also, by the way, to "traffic school"). And we can now view and interact with these materials on cell phones, laptops, and computers everywhere.

In addition, the original "concepts" of e-learning have changed. In the first few years companies rushed rapidly to take existing slides and instructor materials and put them online. In fact, SkillSoft, the largest player in the content market, pioneered this approach. Today's e-learning programs are very different than instructor led training: they act and behave like online movies, online video games, and immersive virtual experiences.

And as we, as training professionals, have demanded more applications, the tools industry has grown up as well. Adobe's acquisition of Macromedia was largely driven by Macromedia's amazing success selling Breeze, Dreamweaver, and other tools to the instructional media industry.

So this twelve year evolution of "e-learning" has been exciting, innovative, and transformational. Today many corporate clients tell us that 70% or more of their corporate training (measured by instructional hours) is done online. Such a concept was unthinkable in 1998.

Enter "We-Learning"

Now here we are again, in the middle of a whole new era. People are calling it "social learning," "informal learning," and "collaborative learning." (Our research actually shows that "informal learning" is actually a whole set of new approaches, which include learning on-demand, embedded learning, as well as social learning. Our Enterprise Learning Framework, which took us almost two years to finalize, brings all these elements together.)

So as companies get excited about the whole concepts of "we-learning," what can we learn about this evolution from the one just before?

1. We-Learning will shift some focus away from traditional training, and create a need to learn new disciplines.

"We-learning" embraces the simple and profound concept that any organization has a collection of knowledge and experience which should be shared. It respects the fact that the training department may, at most, have 5-10% of the knowledge needed and used in the company. And organizational learning is taking place on a real-time basis – always changing and becoming more valuable.

Just like "e-learning" took the power away from the stand-up instructor, "we-learning" is going to take some power away from the instructional designer and training developer. We need to think about our roles as the facilitators, organizers, and drivers of collaborative learning – not necessarily the authors or designers.

And we have to give up a few old paradigms. I remember many arguments with instructional designers telling me why "rapid e-learning" was a terrible idea. Well let's learn from that experience and just get on with this new approach. Many of our clients are re-thinking their instructional design models now – making sure that all learning programs are really "learning environments" which have collaboration and social learning features "built-in."

We can still add a lot of value here – our research shows that there are a set of new disciplines for the modern L&D team which we need for success. Just as we had to learn about Flash, media design, and content development during the e-learning era, now we have to learn about community management, tagging, information architecture, and analytics.

(These are detailed in our research and in our new High Impact Learning Practices® industry study, a detailed report and set of assessment tools you can use to help embrace the new disciplines for L&D.)

2. E-Learning did not, despite predictions, kill traditional training and education. Nor will "We-Learning" totally replace carefully designed training programs.

I remember many articles about the death of brick and mortar education. It was all great PR. Now, in hindsight, we know that traditional training is not going away. Organizations still need formal training and certification to build a base level of knowledge and skills in many roles. But we now respect that in fact 80% or more of individual learning will take place through others – coaches, experts, managers, and peers.

Similarly, "we-learning" is not going to kill the need for formal instructional design, formal training, and instructor-led training. Rather it will extend and enhance traditional training – and in many cases make formal training even better. If you, as a subject-matter-expert, can tap into the collective wisdom of hundreds of people actually implementing what you already know, you will get smarter faster – enabling you to build even better tools and programs into your formal programs.

But let me add that there truly are some revolutionary effects taking place. At Sun, BT, the Federal Reserve, Network Appliance, Cisco, EMC, and many of the other companies collaborative learning strategies are creating even faster product cycles, better customer service, and new ways of developing people. BT believes that their "Dare2Share" network (a completely open YouTube for Learning program) saved more than $15 Million in the first year. These savings came from people no longer asking silly questions of their manager and re-solving small problems which others had already solved.

3. We-Learning will create markets for many new tools and platforms.

Just as e-learning spawned the modern LMS, a wide variety of development tools, and huge amounts of investment in content management – "we-learning" will spawn and support a tremendous number of new tools and systems to manage, track, and facilitate people working together online.

In this era we have some big companies to help us: Google is investing in Google Wave; Microsoft is investing in Sharepoint and Live Services; Adobe is investing heavily in Adobe Connect and other products: Cisco is investing millions in Webex, Citrix has launched an amazing set of new tools in GotoMeeting and its family, and there will be much more to come. We can thank Facebook, LinkedIN, Ning, and the rest of the social networking websites for many innovative ideas which will be rapidly copied into our corporate learning systems.

What we learned in e-learning was that the tools will change. While today you may use Jive or Sharepoint for your social learning platform, get prepared for something new and radical to appear down the road. Taleo's new development planning module, Saba's new Social Learning environment, and Plateau's new Talent Gateway are all giving us new tools and paradigms to facilitate communication and knowledge sharing. And I truly believe we will find ways of harnessing twitter and other "message-based" communication tools for learning very quickly.

4. We-Learning will change our behavior in corporate training.

Just as e-learning enabled us to stop flying people all over the place, we-learning will change the way we think about where and how people learn. Consider Sun Microsystems' new Sun Learning Exchange. This platform lets people browse and watch videos, audios, and other media from experts; it lets them download and subscribe to areas of interest on their cell phones, and it lets them receive updates and post responses via email.

Just as e-learning freed us from the classroom for all our learning, we-learning is going to free us from the computer. I would not be surprised to see more and more collaborative learning taking place on cell phones and other mobile devices.

When I wrote The Blended Learning Book I examined 17 different elements of instructional media and how it all could be tied together. Now let's add "we-learning" to the mix and add the ability to collaborate to almost every other form of formal training. Before class get people together online to discuss their objectives. During the class let's collaborate with each other to share experiences from the instructor. After the class let's create a community of practice and share information about how we are applying what we learned. The options are endless.

5. We-Learning will demand a change in culture and leadership.

I remember days in the 1980s and early 1990s when people were actually afraid to spend too much time in front of their computers. We learned, through 10 years of experience with e-learning, that we had to give people time and place to "learn online."

Similarly, we have to give people the support, culture, and motivation to engage in "we-learning." Does your organization have a culture of knowledge sharing? Are experts rewarded for sharing their best-practices? And more importantly, do you have incentives and career models which tell experts that "we expect you to contribute to the collective knowledge of the organization?"

Our research actually shows that the single biggest driver of success in today's modern L&D world is culture. No matter how well you design the programs, systems, and experiences – they only "stick" when the company itself values a continuous focus on organizational and individual learning. More and more top executives are thinking "how can I get people in this organization to more rapidly share information, talk to customers, and learn faster." These types of conversations lead to a discussion about the organization's learning culture – one of the biggest drivers of success in this new era.

Bottom line: We have a lot to learn.

Let's embrace the world of "we-learning" with the same fervor and excitement we had for e-learning. If we just remember the lessons of the past, we will find this new era of corporate training one of the most important and transformational changes in our industry.

Josh Bersin

Josh Bersin writes on the ever-changing landscape of business-driven learning, HR and talent management. His favorite topics include strategic talent management, creating high-impact learning organizations, and how organizations drive business change and competitive advantage through talent strategy and technology.

23 thoughts on “From E-Learning to We-Learning

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  2. Josh,

    Great insights here and I agree 100%! We (Maryland Association of CPAs) have been working on more ways to incorporate social/informal learning tools and techniques into our professional development activities for CPAs. We regularly use slideshare, blogs, YouTube, twitter hashtags to engage our participants and create two way conversations that share and capture insights. Love the idea of e-learning to we-learning!

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  5. Thanks! It’s really helpful. Actually I, as a L&D people, do feel that "we-learning" is more and more applied in my company, esp. in economic downturns. And to foster the culture, supporting from top management is very very important.

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