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


Rosanna Tarsiero said...

Hello there.

I strongly disagree with the implications of Sam's point, aka that training/elearning/KM are snake oil because they don't work for the majority of the people, or situations.

It has as much rigor as mantaining aspirin is placebo because it doesn't cure 80-90% of illnesses.

If we (as KM professionals) want to understand something about what we do, then it's time for Schon's reflective practice, ie: "in which situations and for which people does it work?" and "how can I logically explain it".

The "problem" in figuring out when, why and how it works is, hear this, a problem of complexity. That is, we might not know our clients and their situations, either because they don't tell (say, they don't know what the problem is, or they can't see it, or they can't explain it), or because we can't understand it (see, biases about ourselves and our impact or lack of thereof in a situation AND about the client). More or less, it's like taking insulin for a kidney stone and blaming the insulin if the kidney stone didn't go away.

In other words, before saying something works (or doesn't), it's always better to *reflect* on a situation, our way of framing it INCLUDED.

Sam's entry is hugely lacking of:
1. a rigorous reflection on why training/elearning/KM didn't work in a given set of situations;
2. a rigorous reflection on why training/elearning/KM did work in a given set of other situations.

Note: all these provisions might be snake oil (and I admit there are MANY practitioners in the field that either have no clue on why they do what they do, or apply Senge or Wenger as if they were the authors of the Bible), but lack of rigor in arguing it is yet another snake oil.

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