Scale the e-learning curve/ Getting savvy

The staff of the Advanced Distributed Learning lab helps federal buyers test new technologies against emerging government and industry standards.

Tom Fedor

"Last year ... there was a lot of excitement and hype about the promise of e-learning, how it would revolutionize business. [Now] it's more down to earth." ? Jamie Watt, Blackboard Inc.

Olivier Douliery

Mistakes and failures convince agencies to drive before they buy

Jack Battersby recently experienced an e-learning contract bidding process unlike any other. The State Department put his company, mGen Inc., and several others through three days of onsite product demonstrations, essentially allowing the agency's user community to test drive the software before making a buying decision.

"It was a crash tutorial. Six months ago that never happened," said Battersby, president and chief executive officer of mGen, a Foxboro, Mass., e-learning solutions provider.

The State Department's approach to purchasing e-learning software is part of a larger trend Battersby and other e-learning providers are seeing among government customers. Federal agencies, they said, are becoming much more savvy and careful about their purchases of electronically delivered education than they were even a year ago.

"Last year ... there was a lot of excitement and hype about the promise of e-learning, how it would revolutionize business," said Jamie Watt, associate director of government solutions at Blackboard Inc. in Washington.

But today, Blackboard's customers are focused on more immediate needs, such as meeting training objectives in a short period of time.

"It's more down to earth," Watt said. Blackboard, which provides learning management systems, gets about 8 percent of its business from federal, state and local governments.

According to Input Inc., an IT research firm in Chantilly, Va., the federal government spends $1 billion on education and training, including computer-based training and education, computer-aided instruction and user instruction in operations, programming and software maintenance. Input expects federal spending on education and training to increase to $2 billion by fiscal 2007.

Government spending on e-learning is growing faster than e-learning spending in all other corporate and professional sectors, said Abigail Callahan, a senior analyst with Eduventures Inc., a Boston firm that tracks the education industry.

Federal customers have matched the increased spending with more attention to what they are buying. It's not unusual for a team of 10 or 12 agency employees to use a product for several days before making a purchasing decision, said John Alonso, chief technology officer for Outstart, a Boston company that makes software used to create e-learning content.

Also new is the attention of agency chief information officers, Battersby said.

"They are becoming much more involved," he said. "For the last three to four years, there have been a lot of failed implementations, and a lot of implementations grossly exceeded budgets. That probably would not have happened if the technical folks were more involved."

Outstart lost several accounts to a competitor, but after the competitor's implementations failed, the former customers -- both federal agencies and private-sector firms -- have returned to the company, Alonso said.

One federal department bought content from two different vendors, only to find the second vendor's content could not be shared across the agency's platform. Fixing the problem was too expensive and too complicated, so the buyer had to start over, said David Grebow, a marketing manager for Armonk, N.Y., IBM Corp.'s e-learning business, IBM Lotus Mindspan Solutions.

"People have had to pull out of very expensive technologies and very expensive libraries. You don't want to do that very often. ... In the future you'll have 20, 30, 40 vendors who have content you want to use, and you want to support that," Grebow said. "This is why we have standards [such as the Sharable Content Object Reference Model], so many content providers can play across a single platform."

Both vendors and customers are to blame for failed e-learning implementations, said Mike Brennan, program manager for corporate learning and performance research at IDC, a research firm in Framingham, Mass. Vendors overpromised, and customers didn't have explicit requirements.

"A lot of customers felt they had a good idea of what they needed, but a lot of that was based on hyped-up marketing," Brennan said. As a result, their training was not aligned with their business. Users became disillusioned and didn't use the courses, he said.

Now customers are taking longer to make decisions, with sales cycles lasting up to 18 months. E-learning buyers are demanding specific functionality, such as integration with human resources systems by a specific date, Brennan said.

Government buyers also are using proof of concept or pilot projects as a way to ensure success, said Ron Freedman, vice president of government and security solutions at VCampus Corp., an e-learning application service provider in Reston, Va.

"It's their way of making sure they have selected the right vendor, who is able to deliver on what they have promised and that what they have promised is a good fit for their employees," Freedman said.

Agencies are being careful not only to clearly articulate their e-learning needs, but also to contract with stable companies, said Elliott Masie, president of the Masie Center, a Saratoga Springs, N.Y., e-learning think tank.

"There is more due diligence," he said. "The financial stabilities of the companies worry [buyers] a lot more" because of previous e-learning firm failures.

Masie said numerous federal agencies are contracting with large systems integration and consulting firms in order to protect their investments in e-learning services and content. Those firms include Booz Allen Hamilton Inc. of McLean, Va., and PwC Consulting, now part of IBM .

Integrators "act as a safety net," Masie said. "A content provider is less likely to go under if they are the choice of IBM or Booz Allen or Deloitte and Touche, and if they go under, at least you have an intermediary who will find a transition for you."

Consulting firms can help agencies not only implement e-learning technologies, but also ensure that they are accepted and used, said Mike Parmentier, a principal with Booz Allen Hamilton. As organizations move from a traditional classroom setting to one that uses e-learning, they must build a strategy for infusing the new learning technologies into their operations.

"If you are going to an e-learning program that allows anytime, anywhere learning, you have to change not only when you do learning, but also your business day," Parmentier said.

Last month, Booz Allen was awarded two contracts, worth a total of $3 million, to develop, implement and manage Web-based training for about 130,000 health care providers in the Military Health System. The training will support compliance with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996. Plateau Systems Ltd. of Arlington, Va., will provide its learning management system.

Booz Allen is also under contract with the Office of Personnel Management to oversee program management of the five cross-agency e-government initiatives that OPM is leading, including e-training, said Stuart Weinstein, a senior associate with Booz Allen's learning system and services team. Booz Allen staff members help the agency with program planning, budgeting, and creating the right environment for successful implementation, Weinstein said.

Mike Fitzgerald, OPM's e-training project manager, said the agency's e-learning site, www.golearn.gov, should grow into a one-stop shop for federal employee education.

The site launched in July and offers more than 30 free courses to federal employees. Course topics range from project management to government ethics. As of September, more than 21,000 people had registered to use the site, he said.

"If they love [the courses], it helps us with the business case to move forward with something more," Fitzgerald said. *

Staff Writer Gail Repsher Emery can be reached at gemery@postnewsweektech.com.

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