Friday, 17 February 2012

Updating e-learning

In my 2009 book, Delivering E-Learning, I made a number of forecasts, and as I wrote those three years ago, it seems timely to review them.

Arguably, the most glaring omission of the book is its complete lack of reference to Twitter, or micro-blogging. Given the relatively recent explosion of this phenomenon, I beg leave to be excused. I did say that social networking was “just the beginning, and people will find more new ways to interact with a much wider community of contacts, using digital technology”, so I spotted the trend, just not the way it would manifest. As an aside, this may sound a cautionary note to those rushing to buy shares in Facebook – have you seen the bell curves (growth then decline) of Friends Reunited, MySpace and Bebo? Why should Facebook be any different?

Back to my crystal ball. Essentially I made four predictions:

Virtual reality. I think I got that one wrong. I’m not aware of significant new developments in this sphere is the past thee years, and if anything I think its prospects have receded. I’m not clear why that should be, and I’d be interested in others’ opinions – the potential remains massive.

Mobile learning. While deploring the term “M-learning”, I argued that “mobile learning must surely grow in scale of use and in complexity”. I see that as a tick in the box, as more and more of us are using smartphones and tablets for learning.

New interfaces. This has not moved as fast as I hoped, but the huge take-up of touch screens and voice recognition is a clear sign that we are on the way. I stand by my claim that “more intuitive user interfaces are surely just around the corner”.

Personal learning environments have not grown as I predicted, but we can certainly hear the death-knell of proprietary online learning environments, with a flight to open source versions or (more significantly) away from dedicated learning software to more generic, and more flexible technologies, which are easier to embed in organisations’ systems and which employees adopt more readily.

Overall, about 50-50, which I’d argue is not a bad average for predicting. And I don’t think I missed any significant new trend other than Twitter.

Any views?

Sunday, 5 February 2012

Case study, part two

In 1998, it looked as if Pearson had established a launch pad for a new management education business that could compete with, even outstrip, the university business schools. Within five years, that management education business no longer existed. What went wrong?

First, brand value was destroyed. Within two years, all of the acquired brands were dropped, and although their replacement, Financial Times Management, was strong, there was no coherent strategy for transferring customer loyalties from the old brands to the new.

Second, perhaps as a consequence of the rebranding, incomes fell, as the whole proved to be smaller than the sum of its parts. The various niche selling propositions were lost in a grand vision that lacked detail.

Then things started to spiral out of control. Inspired by new market developments in knowledge management and e-learning, and supported by a multi-million pound investment from Pearson, Financial Times Management reinvented itself again, announcing at the end of 1999 that it was rebranding as FT Knowledge, its second major name change in two years, and for most of its existing customers, the third name they’d known their supplier by in less than three years.

Pearson had made a big acquisition of Simon and Schuster, and shoehorned one of its subsidiaries, the New York Institute of Finance, into FT Knowledge. Then came the leveraged acquisition of the much bigger Forum Corporation. Like a car that replaces all its body parts and its engine, it was hard to tell whether this was still the same entity.

It was a confusing time for big publishers. The dot com bubble burst, nobody could explain their e-learning strategy, or why they had spent so much on it to no obvious gain. Ten years after Pitman first embarked on its expansion plan, the company, and most of the value in it no longer existed*, and nobody quite understood why. Pearson, like McGraw-Hill, News International and others, withdrew from e-learning, licking its wounds.

* The original book publishing business continues to thrive within Pearson, mainly under the Prentice Hall imprint.

Saturday, 4 February 2012

Case study, part one

In the 1990s, Pitman Publishing Limited, wholly owned by Pearson plc, was the biggest business book publisher in the UK – by far. Its nearest rival, Kogan Page, was about one third of its size. Pitman wanted to grow, but felt it had exhausted the possibilities for organic growth, and so it turned to acquisitions.

Pitman re-examined what sort of business it was in, and made a decisive shift in thinking, from book publishing to management education. It was already involved in publishing of periodicals and learning resources, contract publishing and electronic publishing, but the new thinking opened up new acquisition targets.

Pitman looked within the Pearson empire first, and acquired Training Direct, formerly Longman Training, which had already swallowed up Rank Training and others. This added capability in management training videos, in DVD format. Then it looked for a management training provider.

Its first management training acquisition was HDL, formerly Henley Distance Learning, which had recently acquired Taytech. However, Pitman rapidly felt it had made the wrong acquisition, as everywhere it turned it found HDL out-manoeuvred, and beaten to prestigious blue chip contracts, by an unlikely competitor. This was The Open College, which despite its name (the legacy of start-up public funding) specialised in management development programmes for corporate clients.

When Pitman acquired The Open College in 1997, it felt it had completed its moves, and set about restructuring the new company, by now double the size Pitman had started with. In 1998 the new business was rebranded, drawing upon one of the most formidable names held by Pearson, the Financial Times. The new company, which dominated the UK market for management education, outside university business schools, was called Financial Times Management.

I had been Manager for Scotland of The Open College, and now held the equivalent position in Financial Times Management, with twice the staff and resources, and double the customer and income base. I was proud to be part of the new company, and excited by its prospects.

(part two to follow)