The Wisdom of Crowds – E-Learning Guild’s Annual Gathering 2009 (Part 2 of 3)


I attended the e-Learning Guild's Annual Gathering last week. This week I am using this space to share a few of my observations from this year's event.

In this post, a few words on some of the sessions – first, two of the keynotes, and then highlights from the concurrent sessions:

Wednesday's Keynote

Wednesday's keynote featured Jeff Howe, Contributing Editor at Wired Magazine and author of the book, Crowdsourcing. The title of the session: "Crowdsourcing: Why the Power of the Crowd is Driving the Future of Business (and Learning)"

Howe defines crowdsourcing as "the act of taking a job traditionally performed by a designated agent (usually an employee) and outsourcing it to an undefined, generally large group of people in the form of an open call." Alternatively, he sometimes defines it as applying opensource principles to fields other than software development. Either way, the point is that network is doing much of the work.

Howe covered several examples of how companies have used the internet to crowdsource a given task, the first of which was photography. The rise of photo sharing sites like Flikr and inexpensive, easy-to-use semi-professional digital cameras has brought a rapid commoditization to stock photography. In the recent past a digital image might cost as much as $200 to $300; now sites like sell them for as little as $1.

new InsightBookReader(‘preview’, ‘9780307396204’, ‘Crowdsourcing’, ‘Jeff%20Howe’, ‘0’, ”, ‘’);

Another example Howe shared is – a novelty t-shirt company. Threadless is one of many examples of companies that use their audience to design their products. The result is that they never have surplus inventory, because they only make what they know their audience wants.
Of course, the idea generating sites that Dell and Starbucks have popularized are also similar examples of using the crowd as a source of innovation. (BTW: What would you think if we used an idea sharing tool to help decide on research topics?)

At the end of his talk, he touched briefly on how crowdsourcing might apply to the corporate training world. The sourcing of stock photography for learning content was an easy leap. He alsos suggested using the public to help contribute to or shape customer-facing training.

While not entirely open to the public, I immediately started thinking about an extended enterprise example: LMS provider Media Defined's Ensemba product is a enterprise social software platform designed to support corporate social networks for extended enterprise audiences. One of their first customers, Adobe, has at least kicked around the idea of using their partner network as a generator of official content.

A completely internal example: Business Objects (part of SAP) uses a wiki community made up of software developers to handle some aspects of e-learning development. Theses developers are already generating content as part of their own collaboration. The training team mines these communities for its formal content.

I have also heard of global companies experimenting with using wikis to localize e-learning content for global audiences. These are all examples of how the crowd (internal or external) could be tasked with training projects.

During Q&A at the end of the session, one questioner nervously asked about the possibility of crowdsourcing replacing the graphic designers that many companies have on their e-learning teams. Joking that he should perhaps hide behind his podium, Howe responded that it might be possible. Other design-centric businesses have experimented with this idea, but it is highly controversial. In fact, a protest site: was started to dissuade companies from the practice.

In many ways, this debate feels similar to some of the reactions I have heard from instructional designer friends to the growth of rapid and SME driven training development. No one wants to be replaced, or give up control for that matter. But the power inherent in crowds is hard to ignore. The topic of crowdsourcing and training departments definitely bears further discussion. Your comments are welcome, but now on to Thursday's keynote…

Thursday's Keynote



Thursday's session featured Bill Tancer, author of the book, Click: What Millions of People Are Doing Online and Why It Matters, general manager of global research at Hitwise – a leading online competitive intelligence services company, and self-confessed data geek. At Hitwise, Tancer has access to a massive store of data on pretty much anything and everything that people do on the internet. This data is collected through partnerships with the major internet service providers. Anticipating audience concerns about thie existance of this data, Tancer addressed privacy issues early in his talk.  According to Tancer there is no cause for concern – as the data is only collected in aggregate. Individual identifiers are not kept.    

Privacy concerns aside, Tancer's presentation was a fascinating look at the power of data to describe and to explain human behavior. Tancer came prepared with some analyses of recent internet searches related to the learning industry. His number crunching confirms that social and collaborative learning really are the future – for higher ed, for the consumer-facing training industry, and for corporate training. You can keep an eye out for Tancer's work in his column in the Wall Street Journal.


A Few Highlights from the Concurrent Sessions

Of course it makes sense that the concurrent sessions would all relate to overall themes of the conference (See my last blog post for more). Three general topics seemed predominant:

  1. Social and informal learning – the most popular category.
  2. Mobile learning – Mobile is mainstream now, not just for the cutting edge.
  3. Learning tools and processes – the basics are still important.

Social and Informal
Within social and informal category, the highlight for me was the presentation by Qualcomm of their blending of formal and informal learning. Their department's motto is "Making Learning Faster Better." Both Josh and I have had the opportunity to talk to Qualcomm before, and they are truly setting the bar for what formalizing informal learning can be.

They began their presentation by asking the audience two simple questions:

  • Did you learn something new last week? Everyone raised their hand, yes.
  • Did you learn this something via formal training (such as in the classroom)? No one raised their hand.

What a devastatingly simple reflection of the reality facing corporate training today?  Qualcomm conducted a similar study of its internal employees and came away with real data drawing the same conclusion.  In response they are now completely rethinking the role of their corporate learning functions. They see tremendous opportunities where many other training departments see chaos and risk. Qualcomm believes that the training department should do whatever they can to connect people to resources and people to people. We agree, and we can help. Check out our newest case study on what Sun Microsystems in doing for another very-repeatable example of formalizing informal learning.

Our most recent Corporate Learning Factbook numbers show usage of mobile learning remaining steady over the last few years; but – based on the buzz around mobile at this event – I expect we will see a marked increase in next year's results.

Judy Brown had some great data to share on mobile learning. For instance:

  • The compounding annual growth rate for mobile learning for next 5 years will be 21%.
  • An iPhone now has more processing power than did the North American Air Defense Command in 1965.
  • Nokia is thelargest manufacturer of digital cameras in the world.
  • 5X as many mobile devices were sold last year as computers.
  • According to the October issue of Info Week –a mobile devise may be your next computer.
  • According to an IBM study: almost half of desktop users would give up desktop for a mobile devise.

I spoke with the folks at mobile content development platform provider, OnPoint Digital. They confirmed that the mobile learning development platform side of their business is seeing increased growth.

The folks from Intuition were creating a lot buzz around the conference with their demonstrations of mobile compliance training. The e-Learning Guild also used Intuition's technology to allow participants to submit keynote session evaluations via mobile devices.

Are you ready for mobile learning? Comments please…

Check out the third and final post in this series for thoughts on my presentation of the latest LMS market data…

Dani Johnson

Dani Johnson, Vice President, Learning & Development Research, writes about the evolving L&D function. Specifically, she focuses on the necessary changes in how L&D approaches its responsibilities and allocates its resources (people, time, and money) to have a lasting effect on both organizations and individuals.

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