As you board an airplane for, say, a business trip, you’ve no doubt craned your neck toward the cockpit to spy the pilots running their hands across a dizzying array of instruments. To an outsider, the cockpit’s panel is a puzzling picture. But training and organization bring it all into focus for the crew. In fact, pilots aren’t the only ones who have to know the ins and outs of these switches and systems. Mechanics, ground crews and flight attendants hold varying levels of know-how about this stuff, as well as the workings of life-support systems and emergency exits.
In any business of any size, systems (formal or informal) are in place to organize the way work gets done. Training–whether for the crew of a Boeing 777 or for the staff of a health care network–must be organized, too. But what’s the best way to pull together the content that underpins training? Call this job climbing “Mount Content,” if you will. With the right tools, you can make the ascent.
Following Other Footsteps
One example is offered by a Midwest-based airline. In order to train its employees, the airline’s executives invested in, among other things, a learning content management system (LCMS). As part of the investment, they spent more than a year tagging and cataloging the instruments in one of their jet’s cockpits. The goal was to create a repository, or library, from which to take content for online training. By the time the airline’s executives were finished with the project, they’d assembled more than 18,000 pieces of data. And that was just for the cockpit. To the airline, the investment of time and money was worth it.
That’s because, according to industry experts, the lifespan of a jet airliner is 25 to 30 years. In the opinion of the Midwest-based airline’s brass, a vast repository of learning content could be tapped to train generations of pilots, flight attendants and mechanics. While executives could have divvied up training in any number of ways, the airline chose to organize much of its learning content around each of the planes it flew.
“Organizing online content with a learning content management system is a strategic business decision, with a sizeable investment up front,” said Bill Kline, who retired in 2003 as CLO of Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines. “But it’s worth it because content is easily updated and aggregated in different learning mediums, which drives training productivity for multiple audiences who need ongoing training and certification.”
A learning management system (LMS) is the route Minnesota-based St. Cloud Hospital, part of CentraCare Health System, plans to take to organize its content. According to Roxanne Wilson, St. Cloud’s director of training and professional development, her organization not only buys content from vendors but also authors its own. A content management system alone wouldn’t suit the hospital’s needs. Wilson wanted a system that offers tracking capabilities, too.
“We’re concerned with reporting on and measuring what people know,” said Wilson, “as well as delivering and organizing content.” Building a large repository of learning content isn’t high on Wilson’s list of things she needs to do. So her organization decided that an LMS could more than handle the piecing together of the health care systems’ learning content.
A third way to organize content is by tapping an enterprise content management system (ECM). Some organizations buy ECMs because they must manage a large amount of internal documentation. For example, throughout the lifecycle of a particular drug, a pharmaceutical company might use a content management system to control the workflow, manage revisions and store the documents required by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
Other organizations buy ECMs because they have Web sites that are updated constantly. Any media organization posting news as it breaks on a minute-by-minute basis might favor an ECM. These systems support the controls and processes that allow quick, consistent updates to news sites. If a reporter scoops his competitors on a story, then he can fire off copy to his editors for review. Once edited, the journalist’s article goes to those managing the news site’s Web pages. Once there, the ECM bundles together the writer’s copy with the new Web site’s graphics, photos and ads.
If these systems for organizing content appear to overlap a bit, that’s because the delineation, especially between LMSs and LCMSs, is a bit fuzzy. In fact, Forrester Research Analysts Claire Schooley and Robert Markham, in a January 2004 report titled “The Challenge of the LCMS Decision,” write that, “The line between a learning content management system (LCMS) and a learning management system (LMS) is blurring.”
Beginning the Climb
In spite of this overlap, there are guideposts you can follow as you climb to the top of all this content. First, evaluate your commitment to content creation. If, for example, you intend to create a vast array of learning objects (i.e., the building blocks of training like video clips, an image or a paragraph of text), then, of course, you’ll want a system in place that can develop, assemble and store large quantities of online content. And an LCMS would be the likely choice. In fact, if you’re creating more than 50 hours of online content a year, you’ll probably opt for an LCMS to do the heavy lifting of organizing reusable content. If you outsource most of your content development, an LCMS won’t be a fit. “If you’re not building a large repository of online content, then organizations should lean on an LMS to structure training,” said Kline.
Second, look at how your organization conducts business. If, for instance, your company is a network of independent business units, then you may want a content repository for each entity. That said, your organization could be far-flung, but still face a standard set of regulatory issues or training requirements. In that case, you might opt to create one repository around issues that cut across the organization.
“For us, organizing content depends in large part on who our audience is, as well as their competencies,” said Wilson. “The makeup of our organization not only drives the type of training we offer, but also the way we plan to manage learning content.”
Last, think about the type of content you’re creating. When developing a strategy for managing learning content, it’s important that the strategy not just focus on online content that’s delivered through a browser. Your strategy must allow for reorganizing and reassembling all learning content, which speeds the job of repurposing instruction.
Each of the three systems mentioned above has a unique role to play in an overall content management strategy. The examples tied to these tools offer a few anecdotes, and the guideposts highlighted above sketch out some of the questions a CLO might ask before setting out to put a company’s content in order. But what, specifically, are these systems designed to do? Knowing that can also help a business make plans for organizing enterprise content.
Without diving into the nitty-gritty of each system’s features and functions, here’s a high-level pass at how these tools work.
Learning Management Systems: The Learning Hub
A learning management system is the hub of any strategy that involves managing learning content. The simplest way to think of an LMS is that it is the central catalog of all learning content that an organization makes available. “All” means learning in the classroom, learning in a virtual classroom (e.g., WebEx, Centra or Microsoft Live Meeting), courseware (whether purchased from a publisher or internally developed) and reference material that may or may not have been created as courseware. No other product category manages learning content without regard to delivery of the content.
Of course, LMSs have another major role in the learning strategy: managing people and what they know. LMSs allow learners and their managers to create individualized development plans, track progress against those plans and even track employees’ overall skills and competencies at they relate to their jobs.
Enterprise Content Management Systems: The Content Hub
Another important piece of the puzzle is an organization’s content management system. Unlike LMSs and LCMSs, ECMs are not usually purchased by the learning organization. They are usually already in place within an enterprise due to different business needs. Organizations buy ECMs to manage the flow of electronic information above and beyond that which is used for learning.
An ECM system manages all of a company’s electronic information. However, there is a lot of information that is not relevant for learning or may need to be transformed a bit before it can be used for learning.
Learning Content Management Systems: The Transformation Hub
LCMSs are transformation systems. Instructional designers use them to transform little bits of information into learning. Bitmaps, sounds, animations and text are mixed in an interactive way to change these “information nuggets” into learning content. One difference is that LCMSs are designed to streamline and reduce the time it takes to create online learning content.
The foundation of a good LCMS is a content repository (i.e., a place to store, track and find the information nuggets). When the authors are building a course, they have one central, approved place to find the corporate logo, for example. They save time because they can find it by doing a search of the repository. They don’t have to scour the network, rework the marketing logo or start from scratch.
A good LCMS truly reuses nuggets in the repository. When the course is delivered, it always uses the nugget in the repository. If someone changes the nugget, it is automatically updated wherever it is used. If pages are built on a template and the template changes, then the course changes appropriately.
An LCMS should also incorporate a workflow (i.e., you can divvy up the work in a project). Some authors can work on overall course structure, some on building templates for pages, others on adding the right nuggets to the page and still others on finding, building and adding nuggets to the repository.
The Next Peak
As businesses put together plans for organizing the learning content tied to training, the state of e-learning may well be changing. According to Forrester Research, workers in the not-too-distant future will begin creating their own content to learn from. A March 2004 Forrester report, titled “E-Learning At Your Fingertips,” says, “Within three years learning will experience a paradigm shift to being performance-based, with the employees in charge of the kind of resources they need.”
The employees’ role within the company will help the organization’s learning technology serve up classes, databases of experts the employees can call on, Web addresses for online communities of practice and learning content that can be used to help employees build their own classes. Forrester’s analysts say the content is based on the context of work. Instead of training departments firing off predetermined classes to workers, a system will “see” the employees’ training transcript and preferences, and will suggest training.
The “contextual learning” system that Forrester refers to will likely draw from the ECM system, LCMS and LMS mentioned above. So an investment in these technologies lays the groundwork for the content and learning that’s sure to come.
Thus it is vital to select systems that meet both of the following e-learning standards: the Aviation Industry Computer-Based Training Committee (AICC) and the Sharable Content Object Reference Model (SCORM) specifications for interoperability and delivery. Investing in tools that are buttressed by AICC and SCORM standards serves another purpose. A company with a standards-compliant LMS can easily bolt on a standards-meeting LCMS if, for example, the business decides it can’t create custom content fast enough to meet its workers’ demands.
Organizing the learning content possessed by a company is a climb that takes a systematic approach. But if executives think about not only the type of learning content they want to produce but also the way they do business, they can help workers get the training they need.
Leonard Greenberg is vice president and chief technology officer of Columbus, Ohio-based Pathlore Software Corp., a maker of learning management systems. Leonard and his team plan and direct the development of Pathlore’s products, including its enterprise LMS suite. For more information, e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.