Wednesday, November 30

Off to the Wiki!

Well! Hopefully revisiting Sam's We Are the Problem: We're Selling Snake Oil post and the comments that followed got your juices flowing. Or maybe it took David Grebow's blunt Back to the Future post from yesterday to get you fired up. But hopefully you have an opinion on the current state and future of our profession. So get fired up and head over to the Beyond the Blog Discussion Wiki we've set up to have some fun debating the issue. Maybe we'll even come up with a solution or two by the end of the whole shebang!

The other posts which were a part of Snake Oil Revisited:
Snake Oil Revisited

Summary of Original Post

Summary of Original Comments

And a post from Australia that also summarizes the original post and comments Special Report: Is Training Snake Oil?

Evolution of E-Learning

I feel a need to chime in. I think the whole e-learning space has gone through an evolution in the last 4-5 years, and we've created a four-stage taxonomy to describe it (

In stage 1 (Getting Started) organizations adopt e-learning to save money. And yes, e-learning does reduce the cost per delivery of instructional hour. But we now have data to prove that in reality e-learning does not save money, it increase reach and range. Costs which were variable (instructors) become fixed (LMS and infrastructure), allowing greater reach - but total costs dont go down. Most organizations spend a year or two in this phase and they often start with catalog programs.

In stage 2 (Expansion) organizations expand, they build lots of custom programs (beyond the typical catalog content) and start implementing blended programs. They realize they need an LMS, so they bite the bullet and implement something. Yes, the LMS market is evolving and LMS systems do not do everything, but they do manage learning programs well. Here they find that the demand for online content far outweighs capacity and organizations start to realize that much of what they build is not being consumed.

This leads to stage 3: (Integrate and Align). In this stage the organization now realizes they have so much content available that it has grown out of hand, and they spend time on competency-based learning, more focused job-related content, integration with the performance management process, and perhaps the implementation of an enterprise-wide LMS. This is the toughest stage, and I think most mature organizations are here today. At this stage organizations realize that their e-learning programs are more than programs, they are "content" which can be reused and repurposed for many uses. They also realize that the traditional concept of an online course must be complemented by communities of practice, coaching, and other forms of online support.

We call Stage 4 Learning on Demand. This is the stage which vendors like to write about but few organizations have yet reached. At this stage companies have to build or buy a true content management system and they develop standards for content development. These standards enable searchable learning and the deployment of small pieces of content, rather than complete courses. The problem most organizations have today is that they are locked in stage 2 or 3 and find that it will take 2-3 years to "unlock" their content to get to stage 4. Nevertheless I believe this is inevitable, and we talk with many organizations working hard right now to implement an on-demand learning model.

Throughout these stages, vendors tend to try to fit their products and solutions. Some vendors try to stay true to the market they serve, others try to create visions of reaching across all four stages. For each stage there are challenges and opportunities, and frankly I have not found any organization that can jump from Stage 1 to Stage 4 in less than 3-4 years. I recommend anyone trying to understand all these trends to read our report, it is designed simply to help people understand this complex space and form a basis for making decisions.

Tuesday, November 29

Summary of Original Snake Oil Comments

Initially, the thought of summarizing the 60 comments that came in reaction to Sam Adkins’ Snake Oil post was daunting. But the reality turned out to be a joy. As I worked my way through the 39 pages of comment for the 3rd time over the weekend, I felt some how privileged to be taking the time to listen to such passionate, well reasoned arguments. A comment by Peter Isackson seems, at least at first, to be delighted with the diverse dialogue:

Sherlock says you are what you sell. Godfrey says you are what you design. And Dave says you are what you get lost in. I think Godfrey would agree with the even more existential proposition that you are what you learn and that, as a training professional, it’s also possible to sell what you learn (once you have learned it).

Peter also happened to hit upon four of the major themes ran throughout the comments.


First Sherlock (one of those masked bloggers who give the Blogosphere some of it’s character) chimed in with a post in what I’m calling “What’s wrong with snake oil” theme. He takes a pragmatic, but somewhat cynical position by saying, “I've long since stopped thinking in terms of learning - these days I see myself as a solution provider. I sell things that appeal to training managers, regardless of whether or not they ACTUALLY work!!!” I almost like his, ‘hey I’m just a guy trying to get by” tone. Almost.

Frank Hughes too has a cynical read on the situation but takes it much more negative tone that was more inline with Sam’s thinking. Frank said,” Most trainers/teachers want to be a star, standing in front of a class, no matter how effective it is. Most managers want to "track" their employees learning, and the only way to do that is with formal classroom and elearning courses. Most employees like classroom classes not because they learn, but because they are social occasions that get them away from their desk.” Ouch!

Then there were a few folks that fell in line with Beth Friedman who said that of course we’re selling snake oil. It’s early in the game for elearning. It’s still new to us.

Graeme Dobson summed up yet another group who said:

My experience shows the old 80:20 rule applies - that is only 20% of performance problems are fixable or should be addressed by a training solution.
So you see it doesn't really matter how good (or bad) a training method is - if you apply it to those 80% of performance problems where training is the wrong solution IT WON"T WORK!


Godfrey Parkin chimed in with, “My point is that “training” is not at fault, but the design and implementation of it is clearly (on aggregate) inadequate.” Lisa Galarneau agrees, “Sure a lot of what professes to be training is terrible, but he end result is simply reflective of the approach.”

Jack Pierce rallies to the defense of the designers by pointing out a program he’s involved with that had trained almost 40,000 learners in two years with 95% reporting greater sales, better product understanding. “What’s the secret?” he asks. I’d say an understanding of the user, combined with an understanding of the technology, and hard work.”

Vicky Fisher (processes) and Jennifer Turner (salaries) blame cuts to design budgets as to blame.

Howard Davis says that he holds hope for eLearning and Blended Learning, but not the way they are being used. “The irony of course is that even with our latest tech tools we’re still stuck in using ineffective teaching and training models.” Marcuss Oslander agrees, “A delivery mechanism is only as good as the material it intends to deliver. We need to lighten up—to stretch the technology—to make learning fun!”

Although, I think my Blogmeister’s Choice award for best metaphor goes to Keith with this one, “Would you use a Ferrari to go to the store?? Maybe, but would you use the Ferrari to take all the neigbourhood kids to soccer. I guess not. It remains a question of the right tool for the job.”


Godfrey Parkin points out that first generation products seldom live up to the expectations set for them. He continues by saying, “The internetworked world gives us an opportunity to rewire the corporate mind, and to change from within the way an organization thinks and behaves. To me, that is the real promise of e-learning. And I think we will all survive the snake-oil phase of our evolution.”

“Only when the corporate training world gets back to the basics and understands that each student has a unique learning style and that only a training approach that recognizes that fact will succeed, will we, the instructional designers and trainers, also succeed,” was the challenge C. Michael Hecht set down for us.

Chris Brannigan says there’re a cause waiting for a leader and tries to recruit Sam! “Thus we come back to us - what can we, the 'believers' (in some cases) or 'committed citizens' do to break the complacency? Do we want to? I think that a lot (enough) of practitioners would. Articles like yours may herald the start.


Right after the quote from Peter Isackson that I used to open this post he adds,

The irony of our business – and the terrible paradox Sam has highlighted -- is that efficiency rather than performance dictates its inexorable law: it’s better to invest in designing and selling than in learning about what customers really need. Profitability dictates that we should spend our time and money on marketing what we’ve already designed (or decided to design) than to discover what we should be designing…. So before we can “learn” anything that will go towards meeting the “need” for learning, we find ourselves in the position of “teaching” the buyers to believe in our goods, from which we’ve learned nothing (apart from how best to market them).

Vicky Fisher seemed to like that answer, “I wholeheartedly agree with Peter. There are learning products out there that suck, and there are (some) learning products out there that work.”

And David Fisher piles on, “The economics and vested interests of classroom training make it difficult for training suppliers to reengineer their offering to really be blended. Adding in non-integrated e-content cannot compensate for this. In this form, it will inevitably fail.”

The last nail in the coffin comes from Alan Stewart, “Why are we taking the heat for the failure of providers to give our organizations/clients the learning solutions they really need. If you're not sure what the need is then aim for a solution that delivers 'Just-in-Time', 'Just-Enough' and 'Just-for-Me' learning and you won't go far wrong. Like any market, training/e-learning etc. providers are demand-driven so perhaps its time we started to be more demanding.

Now don’t you feel better? Those big bad vendors can’t hurt us any more!

DEFINITIONS: Can We Agee about what We’re Talking About

Finally, the last of the most common theme we’ve chosen to tease out of the original debate is an age old one in argumentation – definitions. Some commenter accuse Sam of having too narrow of a focus when talking about training or elearning. Other terms that were discussed as having been ill defined included: blended learning, training, what should be evaluated, e-content vs. e-learning, mentoring, etc.

These five categories composed a great portion of the discussion two years ago so we thought they’d be great topics to renew a discussion around. Tomorrow we will introduce the Learning Circuits Blog’s Beyond the Blog Discussion Wiki in which Don Clark, David Grebow, Godfrey Parkin, Mark Oehlert, and myself will moderate discussion around each of these topics for however long you which to discuss them.

So check out the new wing of LCB tomorrow!

Friday, November 18

Summary of Original Snake Oil Post

“We are the Problem: We’re Selling Snake Oil” came at time of great tumult in the workplace learning world. The bubble had popped and promising companies were disappearing, dramatically being downsized, or being acquired by larger competitors. At the same LMS/LCMS’s were being adopted by company after company as the backbone of renewed investments in learning. More frequently, the top-ranked learning official was being given a seat at the corporate strategy table. But the now expected performance metrics to demonstrate the value of training were hard or impossible to develop. When metrics were attainable, they weren’t always supportive of the learning function’s plans.

It was into this environment that Sam Adkins post on the evening of November 16, 2003 was published. Sam’s post was actually a collaboration between several people - a calculated attempt to stir up a sleepy profession which was struggling with some of the realities mentioned above. The post raised concern about the emerging trends in workplace learning. Sam’s intent was to publish a second post that woud provide suggestions and predictions of what the future held for our profession. Due to the overwhelming reaction to the first post, the second post was never written.

The original post can be found either by
  • using this link Snake Oil Post.


  • going to the LCB Archives in the side bar on the right of the LCB home
    page. In the 2003 dropdown menu click on November.

What follows is a summary of the original post as it appeared two years ago.
Sam began with 4 simple, but powerful statements:

· Training does not work.
· eLearning does not work.
· Blending Learning does not work.
· Knowledge Management does not work.

We are the source of the problem because we are selling snake oil. It doesn’t work but there is still plenty of money in it.

The sole measure of training’s effectiveness in the corporate setting, according to Adkins, “is rated on whether you save or make money (or both) for the company. Your value as ‘intellectual capital’ rests exclusively on that.”

In the remainder of the post he gives is evidence in each of the four areas identified as not working above. Here we present very brief summaries of his arguments. For detail, please see the original post.

Training – 80-90% of training fails to make it through to on the job application. This is compounded with Bloom’s data that demonstrated that students who receive one-on-one instruction perform two standard deviations better than students in traditional classrooms. Training is both inefficient and ineffective.

eLearning – Dropout rates = 70-80% and we continue to ignore this. Adkins posits several reasons for these high dropout rates:
It is learning product that is incompatible with the workplace
it is generally meant as “do-it-in-your-own-time”, not on the job
While the vending machines (LMS/LCMS) work perfectly, they are vending snake oil.
Adkins identifies six learning form factors that comprise the eLearning market:
Text Based was seeing success when using XML to fuse this content directly into the workflow.
eBook accelerating at 6 to 8 times the rate of traditional print texts.
Contextual Collaboration (IM, chat, webconferencing, expertise mining or presence awareness) 40-50% of knowledge needed is on the heads of other workers.
Simulation – Gartner estimated by 2006 over 70% of elearning would be simulation. Adkins asks why call it elearning when it’s really simulations.
Wireless - handhelds had initial success in streamlining business processes causing efficiency gains and eliminating error rates.
Workflow Learning - business process management systems were selling like hotcakes while courseware products were suffering from lower demand and cheaper outsourcing offering.

Blended Learning - is only snake oil rebottled in to different containers. But it’s still snake oil.

Knowledge Management – Knowledge cannot be housed in hardware or software and then moved about. What was being put forward as knowledge management are migrating to expertise management, social networking, advanced data visualization and enterprise content management.

Adkins concluded with a statement saying that the technology vendors were not doomed to, if they move to the new tools like Simulations and workflow learning.

Next in Beyond the Blog: The Reaction

Thursday, November 17

Snake Oil - Revisited | Beyond the Blog

Two years ago today, a post to a quite little blog rocked the training and development world. The quiet little blog was Learning Circuits Blog and the post was by Sam Adkins. In his post entitled “We are the Problem: We’re Selling Snake Oil, Sam outlined how much of what eLearning had set out to accomplish and had claimed to have accomplished was all “snake oil.”

His post angered and scared many. But it also intrigued and emboldened many others who saw a need for our profession to change. Emails were sent to colleagues saying ‘you’ve got to go read this article.’ Passions ignited to protect training/learning professionals or to tear them down. Blame was spread around to everyone – it was the vendors/designers/theorists/customers/our/the technology’s fault – depending on who was commenting.

When it was all said and done, there were 60 comments in reaction to Sam’s “Snake Oil” post. To put this in perspective, the other 283 posts to Learning Circuits Blog between May 2002 and the end of October 2005 have averaged 3.19 comments per post. The list of commentors includes many of the thought leaders in our industry – Jay Cross, David Grebow, C. Michael Hecht, Tom Abele, Godfrey Parkin, Fred Nickols, Jerry Ash, Diana Royce Smith, etc.

What did he say? What was the reaction? Has it had any impact in the past two years? How does Sam feel now? These are all questions we will be answering in Learning Circuits Blog’s first Beyond the Blog.

In a comment on November 19, 2005; Andrew Williams wrote, “hopefully we will all look back on this provocation/post in a couple of years and view this as an inflection point in the industry.” All too often, we don’t come back to reflect on key moments. But that’s exactly what we will do in the next couple of weeks with your help.

Here’s what you can expect from Beyond the Blog over the next week:

  • Today - This general introduction to the Snake Oil Revisited Beyond the Blog
  • 11/18 (Fri) – Revisit Sam’s post
  • 11/28 (Mon) – Revisit the comments and the themes that arose through them
  • 11/29 (Tues) – Are we still selling snake oil? Over the past two years have things improved? worsened?
  • 11/30 (Weds) – Launch of thematic discussion wikis focusing on the themes

Each of the discussion wikis will be moderated by a member of the LCB Blog Squad.

From that point on, Beyond the Blog: Snake Oil Revisited will live as long as the discussions continue to develop. We’ll give you opportunities to vote in mini polls, create mini panel sessions, present content – text, graphic or podcasts to enhance the debates – whatever is doable and makes the debate more robust. We’ll be tracking all the activity in the summary box in the sidebar of LCB. And if you see the value in this debate and want your friends and colleagues to know about it, we will even have a Beyond the Blog: Snake Oil Revisited logo that you can cut and paste onto your own website.

It is our hope that you will feel free to jump into what should be a collection of spirited discussions about what we have been, what were today and what we will or won’t be as a profession in the future. It’s our hunch that by the time that glittery ball drops in Times Square in six weeks or so, we all will have learned something about ourselves, our colleagues, and perhaps what the new year holds for us.

Tuesday, November 15

Beyond the Blog

One of the unfortunate effects of the traditional Post-Comments format of a blog is that topics tend to be focused upon only as long as they stay in the #1 position on the blog’s front page. This is tough enough for some individually written blogs to manage. But it is a far greater issue with a team blog like Learning Circuits Blog. The result is a very fragmented seemingly haphazard coverage of topics.

Tomorrow we will launch our first effort to break away from the Post-Comments format with a feature entitled “Beyond the Blog. Beyond the Blog will appears several times a year focusing on different major topics of current interest to the learning community. This feature will break from the Post-Comment format in a effort to create a more sustained set of discussions and activities. Furthermore, each Beyond the Blog event will follow a format appropriate to the content and context of the conversation. We’ll provide different ways for you to interact with the Blog Squad and each other.

We hope you will find the first of our Beyond the Blog features stimulating, edifying, and ultimately motivational to re-think the way you learn and the ways you ask your clients to learn.

If you do, then we will have begun to fulfill our mission to use collaborative environments, like blogs, to help you learn like you’ve never learned before.

Saturday, November 5

Corporate informal learning culture

Dave Grebow sees a danger in meddling with the processes of informal learning, and I have to agree. But I contend that it’s also possible to be pro-active without meddling. The aim in all cases is to respect informality but because the efficacy of the means employed doesn’t depend on elaborate control systems, those means should be theoretically less difficult to implement. The real and very formal challenge is to “teach” decision-makers what to do because everything revolves around a gradual but radical transformation of corporate culture.

If we're going to "teach" (whether through training or publishing), we need some ideas. I have a few of my own and have borrowed others from various places. To kick off the brainstorming, here are a some suggestions (remembering that no one idea will get us very far; to succeed you need to commit to the full monty):

  • Begin modifying the physical (and virtual) working environment with the idea of moving away from a functional individual productivity model to a social model (this is sometimes done for other reasons and the two objectives can be made to merge).
  • Encourage collaboration through the widest variety of means.
  • Don’t conduct any formal training without envisaging some form of mentoring, including peer mentoring.
  • For the mentoring provide a permanent collaborative learning environment that can be used for purely personal purposes as well as official or unofficial collaboration (storage of documents, data, links with other communication tools such as audio or video conferencing).
  • Do some formal training, especially at the managerial level, on the complementarity of formal and informal goals.
  • Define what I would call “evolutionary learning themes” that can be informally monitored over time by line managers, but without fixing pre-determined objectives (and devise ways of accounting for their evolution). No reporting… other than collaborative!
  • Start talking about long-term learning projects without any specific constraints attached to them.
  • Refer all formal training events or activities to long-term projects (a variation of the e-portfolio concept).
  • Appoint not a “CLO” (as intimidating as a CEO or CFO), but rather a Learning Culture Coordinator (and Communicator).
  • Start thinking about performance support systems.

Finally, don’t go looking for vendors of the latest ILMS (Informal Learning Management Systems)! You can bet they'll be lining up for sales appointments as soon as they see decision-makers committed to the concept. They'll be far worse than the "formal learning developers" Dave has warned us about.

Friday, November 4

Searching for Competitive Information

How many organizations about which you know do competitive analysis in the area of formal learning programs? "Competitor X is killing us in the marketplace, and they do program Y?" My gut feel is not that many, but I would love to hear about examples where they do.

Tuesday, November 1

Characteristics of Formal and Informal Learning Episodes

Allen Tough, a Professor Emeritus at the University of Toronto, focused his research on the adult's successful efforts to learn and change; and in particular the 70% that are self-guided without relying much on professionals or institutions (informal learning). During his research, he discovered that people spend an average of 15 hours per week learning on their own.

In the late 1970s, Patrick Penland, a library school professor at the University of Pittsburgh, became quite interested in Tough's research. He performed a survey in which a section of it pertains to why learners prefer to learn on their own, rather than in a class or course. The main reasons, in ranking order, are:

  1. Desire to set my own learning pace.
  2. Desire to use my own style of learning.
  3. I wanted to keep the learning strategy flexible and easy to change.
  4. Desire to put my own structure on the learning project.
  5. I didn't know of any class that taught what I wanted to know.
  6. I wanted to learn this right away and couldn't wait until a class might start.
  7. Lack of time to engage in a group learning program.
  8. I don't like a formal classroom situation with a teacher.
  9. I don't have enough money for a course or class.
  10. Transportation to a class is too hard or expensive.

What is interesting about the survey is that for the most part, it is not that learners lack resources or hate attending formal classes, for these items are at the bottom of the rankings, but rather they prefer being in charge of their own learning.

In addition, the top items in the rankings show that while learners prefer to take charge of their own learning, it does not mean that they enjoy solitary learning. Tough discovered that within each informal learning episode (where the primary motivation is to gain and retain certain knowledge and skill on a task or thing), the average learner interacts with an average of 10 people. In fact, there may actually be more social interactions during informal learning episodes than there are in classrooms. Thus, we begin to get a picture of why blended learning became the next step in the elearning evolutionary process.

While the last two items pertain to a lack of resources, the first eight items show a desire to take charge (learner control) of one's own learning episodes. These eight "design" characteristics control or impact most learning episodes:

  1. Desire to set my own learning pace = self-pace.
  2. Desire to use my own style of learning = personalized.
  3. I wanted to keep the learning strategy flexible and easy to change = tactical.
  4. Desire to put my own structure on the learning project = empowerment.
  5. I didn't know of any class that taught what I wanted to know = complex.
  6. I wanted to learn this right away and couldn't wait until a class might start = just-in-time.
  7. Lack of time to engage in a group learning program = flexibility
  8. I don't like a formal classroom situation with a teacher = casual.

The chart below shows each learner control characteristic that leads to informal learning and its opposite -- the corresponding designer control characteristic that leads to formal learning.

Click to Enlarge

Note that these characteristics are not set in stone, but rather they are the norm. This is because formal and informal learning episodes borrow from each other, for example, some formal classrooms are self-paced and some informal learning episodes are off-the-shelf.

With the focus nowadays turning more towards the learner, learning characteristics from both the informal and formal sides have naturally gotten more informal. At times, this has interesting consequences, for example, focusing on learning style preferences, which are often incorrect for the type of learning taking place, rather than a style that will actually enhance the learning taking place.

How do you see the joining of formal and informal learning episodes?