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Learning to work with IT

By MaryAlice Colen / May 2005

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E-learning champions—vendors and customers alike—have been tirelessly working to entrench technology-enabled learning throughout organizations. The obstacles to success have been myriad—funding "dry-up," re-orgs, changing business-unit initiatives, and lack of IT support. That is the bad news. The good news is that we're starting to see the funding problem dissipate, organizations stabilizing, renewed interest in initiative-driven learning, and, perhaps most importantly, dramatic changes in IT's role in and support of e-learning. This results in e-learning deployments with accelerated and increased adoption rates.

Following Y2K, IT departments identified and consolidated technologies that had been deployed in the outlying business units. The initial purpose of this mission was cost control, leverage, and standardization. Typically, e-learning was last on the list of IT's priorities throughout this process.

We have seen more than one e-learning organization broken up into two or more pieces, with e-learning technology personnel reporting into IT and e-learning designers/developers either remaining in a centralized learning group, such as a corporate university, or increasingly returning to the business units they support. And slowly we saw IT's priorities begin to shift as it became more interested in the bits and bytes of our e-learning technology.

We were resolute—most of us saw IT's involvement in centralizing the e-learning infrastructure as an opportunity. At last! E-learning no longer flew below the radar! IT would do what they do best—keep our great systems up, running, and strong! We could return to our core competencies, providing results/producing learning programs, and be confident that we would be ready to move into next-generation effectiveness with the opportunities that abound in these new technologies.

But…there is an interesting phenomenon emerging that could potentially leave us learning people outside the technology decision-making process—again.

It should be no surprise that IT looks at e-learning technology differently than e-learning people do. With the best of intentions, IT's approach is often to think of either corporate-wide business applications or individual productivity tools, not learning tools. These are, of course, fundamentally different. I would bet that when IT thinks of e-learning, they lump it into communication—and there is a new class of live communication tools, such as instant messaging, IP-based voice conferencing, web conferencing, portals, etc. e-learning is looking at all of these, PLUS virtual classroom, virtual labs, LMS, competency proximity matchers, knowledge repositories, content management, and others. The hitch is that while learning departments may use some or all of these types of applications from one set of vendors, other business units (and IT) probably use similar ones from completely different vendors.

If I sound a little "doom and gloom," don't worry—there is good news here, too. These other technologies are taking the forefront in IT for the simple reason that enterprises are starting to free up funding for technology and programs that will increase employee productivity. There are clear indications that we are slowly moving out of the expense-cutting mode of the early '90s and departments across the enterprise are now clamoring for those dollars. Learning people need to be on this bandwagon: working with IT.

For instance, some specific examples of how to work with IT are:

  • Since IT focuses on the entire organization, form a training council from throughout the company to advise IT.
  • Link what you're doing to a corporate initiative already supported by IT. If the company is rolling out a new version of SAP, show how your e-learning software will make this process go smoother and cost less.
  • Get the business leaders who have the CIO's ear to support your initiative by advocating for it or financially supporting it.

When e-learning and IT work together the benefits are immense. In one example, a global consulting organization used enterprise conferencing to deliver very effective global e-learning. The learning group stayed focused on their initiatives and results and asked for very little IT interaction. Meanwhile, the corporate communication department began to work closely with IT to evangelize their choice of voice/data conferencing software. IT, mostly unaware of the learning initiatives and the similarity of the technology being used there, went ahead and made a decision to use the communication department's platform as the corporate standard. The learning group, left out of the decision, is now in the unenviable position of either: switching to the new standard (a move that would severely limit their functionality), continuing to self-support their technology choice, or trying to convince IT to reopen the decision after the horse has left the barn, so to speak.

The opposite outcome can be seen in a large chain of retail department stores. They used enterprise conferencing to create a very successful MBA program for their store employees—thereby creating extra value for their employees and severely reducing turnover in a previously high-turnover employee base (their key business objective). The learning people behind this ingenious and important program had, like most of you, created and launched the program by themselves. What made their process different was that they knew the longevity of the program was contingent upon getting their technology embedded into the rest of the organization, fully supported, and fully realized across business units and functionality. What's amazing is that because the learning group took this into consideration from the outset, the process of engaging and convincing IT to support the learning group's choice as the enterprise standard took less than 90 days.

The point here is that the movement is afoot. A proactive approach by learning people will ensure that your requirements will be considered and met as corporate standards are being set up and supported by IT. Equally important is that we learning people understand the concerns and requirements of IT and talk to the decision-makers directly to create a comprehensive evaluation process.

When IT adopts the technology you have used for successful learning initiatives as a corporate standard, the resulting feeling is pure pleasure. It is so gratifying to have all your hard work acknowledged and complimented in this way. It puts your learning initiatives in the forefront and paves the way for future successes.


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