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Courseware = Thanksgiving Dinner

February 19, 2009

Some of you may know that I have a bit of experience in the custom content development world (12 years in the space, Director for the Firefly product during its formative years, speaker at over 48 conference sessions, etc…) so it might surprise you to know that I’ve never been a huge fan of courseware.  For a lot of years, I tried hard to push clients to electronic performance support systems (EPSS) as a way to address real organizational performance needs instead of yet more courseware that just placated corporate expectations without ever really changing anything. We even went so far as to build out EPSS technologies that could launch courseware from the context of real work. In 1999, we extended this to include Ask the Expert features, a searchable FAQ database that could be updated directly by subject matter experts, a discussion database, “share an insight” features that allowed users to contribute best practices… Does any of this sound familiar? Yeah, kind of like this Web 2.0, user-generated content, crowd-sourcing thing we have going on now.

Needless to say, in 1999, we were way, way too far ahead of the curve. For a lot of companies (mostly the ones that are destined to fail), this vision is still too far ahead of the curve. That said, there are also some fundamental flaws in the vision – for one, it’s just as time-consuming to create a good EPSS as it is to create good courseware, and it requires just as much, if not more time from subject matter experts.  Pure knowledge and file management solutions aren’t much better.

Unfortunately, since these approaches never really delivered on their promise, we’ve pretty much stuck with training all these years. Along the way, we’ve done a fair share of innovating: software simulation tools like Firefly, collaborative authoring tools like Firefly Publisher, social simulators like NexLearn’s SimWriter, virtual classroom paradigms, and PPT converters like Articulate to name just a few.  But none of these have really changed the game.  It’s still courseware — better courseware, differently-delivered courseware, but courseware nonetheless.

So what’s the problem with courseware?  Simply put, the problem is that courseware is very much an aberration. Courseware is to learning what Thanksgiving is to dinner. It’s episodic; it’s big; it’s expensive; it requires many hands and some level of expertise; it requires planning; it frequently blows up in your face (especially if you are deep-frying it – the turkey, not the courseware), it frequently takes longer to cook than you expect; when you are done creating it, you are too tired to enjoy it; and when your guests are done consuming it, they all want to take a nap. Not exactly a sustainable model, neither for dinners nor for learning…

For my “non-Thanksgiving-dinner” meals, I basically make some variations on about 10 different dishes. They are good; I know how to make them; there is enough variety to keep dinner interesting; and most importantly, I can throw them together quickly and without a degree from a culinary art school. Where is the equivalent in the elearning space? Where is my everyday diet of healthy but simple food? For years, I thought this was EPSS, then I thought it was knowledge management. Then I just gave up for awhile and basically said the “hell with it” and built what customers wanted even though it was the wrong answer. And then along comes this user-generated content movement and Web 2.0 technologies, and BAM! here we are again, this time with a real opportunity to affect some real change.
Web 2.0 is going to completely change the learning and development game. We finally a few good meals that SME’s can whip up themselves: blogs, wikis, discussion forums, podcasts, microblogs, online file repositories, and movies (recordings of webinars). Most SME’s, with little to no training, can create any of this content. In other words, what we have is an opportunity to transform learning from an episodic, infrequent, overstuffed feast to an ongoing, sensible, sustainable series of meals. What we have is an opportunity to transform our experience of learning from “something that happens to us” to “something that we collectively create.” What we have is an opportunity to transform our perception of learning from “something that interrupts our “real” work” to “something that is intrinsic to our real work.”

No one in corporate America thinks twice about searching Wikipedia or Google for a nugget of information about the world at large so why aren’t we doing this internally within our own massive collections of corporate data? Blogging, Wikipedia, YouTube, iTunes, Twitter, etc… have made it possible for all of us to be producers with almost zero technical skill. So why the hell are we still creating courseware? At least 50% of the courseware I helped build over the last ten years would have been better suited to blogs, wikis, file repository reference at time of need, FAQ’s etc… This is where we need to be pushing the learning agenda.

The best part of this transformation, like all good Web 2.0 stories is that it’s win / win. It’s a win for the training department personnel who are buried in projects and probably need a boat load of help (so why not turn the whole company into producers and let the trainers mentor them?). It’s a win for SME’s who hate doing courseware (look at the graph again – web 2.0 authoring is just a variant on what they do everyday whereas courseware is just the opposite). It’s a win for the learners who regard training as an interruption (while simultaneously Googling and performing Wikipedia searches multiple times per day). And best, it’s a win for the organization that needs to be faster, leaner, more flexible, more efficient – all of which come from deeper, more pervasive adoption of best practices and skills, which are delivered most appropriately in small packages delivered repeatedly and in multiple formats.

What we need to finally realize is the vision that we have been dancing around for years with EPSS and Knowledge Management and now Workflow Learning. All of these movements have been a rebellion against traditional elearning approaches, and yet all of them have failed. Why? It’s simple really — in every case, they have required someone other than SME’s to figure out what the SME’s know and then turn that knowledge into “mana for the masses.” In other words, a model that is completely unsustainable in the real world. Time by itself is the killer, let alone that you are asking SME’s to do extra work on top of their “real” work. This is the equivalent of going to a bank teller every time you want some cash. And who does that anymore? In every facet of our lives, we see the removal of the intermediary; yet, we as trainers still feel the need to process every transaction. The bad news is that we’re the bank teller in this equation. The good news is that if we play our cards right, we can help design the ATMs that empower our SME’s and user populations.

None of this is to say that we need to eliminate Thanksgiving. We all enjoy a fantastic meal now and again, and it helps to give us ideas about improving our everyday meals too. We will always need to do “real” courseware for compliance and product rollouts and a whole host of other stuff where real, demonstrable skills or behavior changes are key. But for a whole lot of other stuff, I think we should be saying “hey kids, here are the ingredients, here are a few simple recipes, there is the stove; now go make your own damn dinner…” I think we’ll be pleasantly surprised with what they make and how often they make it. It may not be fit for a gourmand, but in total, there will be a hell of a lot more of it, delivered more frequently, and by a larger percentage of the population. And that would be something we could all be thankful for.

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