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Great Companies Listen To & Meet Customer Needs, Brilliant Ones Anticipate Them

Continuing with our Knowledge Sharing Series, we took great pleasure in chatting up with yet another stalwart of the e-learning industry – Mr. Bill Rosenthal.  He is the CEO of Communispond, which works towards actively developing communication skills to strengthen the talent within an organization. Bill has worked in learning domain for over two decades now. Among his many accomplishments, he has served as President of Kaplan College, part of Kaplan Inc, where he was instrumental in developing and launching the online college. Prior to that as CEO of Element K f/k/a ZD Education (which acquired Logical Operations co-founded by Bill), he oversaw growth of the company from a start-up to one of the largest e-learning solution providers in the world. Apart from USA, Bill has also worked extensively in China & Singapore, giving him a well rounded ‘world perspective’ of learning domain.

Here is an excerpt from our discussion.

Since the beginning of your career, you have helped organizations across domains with their learning needs. How would you say corporate training strategies have changed over all these years?

That’s a really good question. Fundamentally, what people need or how they want to learn has not really changed much. The major shift is how people are trying to capture much of that into the space of e-learning. In the early days of technology, e-learning was very flat and linear. But as technology got more sophisticated, the shift is to arrive at an approach to e-learning which is closest to one-on-one learning.

In a way, they are now almost replicating the classroom environment with building more interactive courses and by having someone who they can react to or someone who can clear their doubts.

What would you say are the major challenges that L&D organizations are facing today, and how can some of these challenges be addressed?

The biggest challenges are people thinking too narrow and too small. Great companies listen to and meet customer needs and brilliant ones anticipate them. The biggest challenge is to then think about future learning needs and anticipate them, as opposed to just providing for the learning needs of today.

Taking the iPod as an example, nobody was thinking beyond CDs and Cassettes ten years ago. But inventor Steve Jobs came up with the idea of a device that stores all your music and can be carried around in your pocket. The iPod was thus born, not out of any specific customer need but anticipating the need.

I know you are quite enthusiastic about m-learning, but haven’t we been talking about m-learning for almost five years now without any real success. Why hasn’t m-learning been successful so far, and what makes you positive about m-learning this time?

The reason for this is nothing new, it’s happened before. In the early days of e-learning, there were learning disks, which required specialized hardware and software. And it was also quite expensive, so learning centers would have just one or two computers for the learners. What really made e-learning take off was not that e-learning got better. With easy internet accessibility and desktops being able to play audio-visuals, we were able to leverage it for e-learning.

The same thing applies now with mobiles too. In certain countries the majority of phones that are sold are smart phones, which have the access to high-speed data networks and can play audio-visuals. So it’s a case of reaching that magic tipping point and I believe we are at the cusp. When the majority of customers will be carrying smart phones, we can deliver some kind of meaningful e-learning to them.

So is it just about the number of people carrying smart phones reaching tipping point or is it also about creating smart content?

Its both, we can argue all day about which one is more important but the reality is that we need content as much as we need the network to be able to deliver it. While the ability to make and deliver meaningful content over the mobile phone is increasing, so is the number of people who are carrying the devices which support such content. So it is really about time that m-learning catches up.

The greatest challenge in developing content would be that some people might just make the mistake of taking what works at the big screen and adapting it to the small screen. But I also hope there would be people, who realize that they can use the mobile technology in many different ways to deliver content more effectively.

Another hot topic of discussion these days is ‘social-learning’ and how it is the next big thing. What’s your take on it?

While we are all social learners, whether in a classroom or through e-learning. We tend to talk to our friends about our experiences and often share knowledge. Social learning structures this, but it also exposes the danger of learning from a source which might or might not be accurate. Also social learning is mostly about topics that are of personal interest. And the reality is that e-learning for most people is the means to an end and they might not be in love with the content! e-learning is about content that one needs to get their job done, but do not have a pure affinity to it.

It might work for certain scenarios like for a sales team across the globe, selling the same product – they might have a common shared interest. But most training topics are not so enthusiastically received! So while we spend all our energies into building social networks for learning, it is difficult to find active participation – it is like you have a party and nobody shows up!

With so many technological advancements happening in learning domain, what future do you see for classroom trainings or is it increasingly going to become a dying art?

No, not at all. At the end of the day, there will be certain topics which will be delivered best on-demand and only when people need them. But then there are topics which can only be effectively delivered in a classroom. So the reality is that the two (e-learning and classroom learning) will go hand in hand, indefinitely. I would never want to be operated by a doctor who has never operated on a human being. Or board a plane flown by a pilot who has experience, but in a simulated environment.  But if I was going to China and I would want to drive on my own there, there is no need to take a two-day course on it when I can learn about all that I need in a simulated environment in 2 hours.

So both e-learning and classroom learning coexist and in some cases even, overlap. This brings us to the whole idea of blended learning. There are times that you begin in a classroom, go on to e-learning for a refresher course, and then head back to the classroom after some time.

You have headed learning organizations across the world and worked extensively in Singapore and China. What are the major differences that you see between audiences across the globe that a learning developer or a deliverer should keep in mind?

It was a belief that once a product was developed, it was first introduced in the First world, then the Second world and then the Third world. Lesser developed countries could just be sold the old stuff, but that is not true anymore.

Even in the remote reaches of China, I have seen people using smart phones and having an access to the Internet. So the idea of a differentiated product does not sell well, as buyers all around the globe are getting more sophisticated. There is no first, second or third world when it comes to how people think or how they gather information, its just one world.

This is good news for developers who do not have to think up different set of products any more.

And my last question – e-Learning development is being substantially outsourced to countries like Ireland, India etc. From an American company point of view, what are the benefits one can look at, and what should one be careful against?

For the need of a better term, it is the fear of the unknown. For some people, outsourcing becomes a challenge because the people are far away, there are in different time zones, there are some language barriers – but mostly its just fear. The main thing is to get beyond that fear. Agreed, that for most people it is the cost savings that drive them to outsource e-learning development, but it is also true that if it was not good, they would not stick with it!

Technology is enabling a lot of fear to diminish. Tools like web conferencing make people come together and feel not ‘far way’ from each other.

Also, mainstream media is so multicultural nowadays, that the cultural differences are fast fading away. Young people are getting used to communicate with each other all over the world. Thinking back, making an international call was a huge deal even a few years ago, but not so anymore.

The world’s a smaller place today and it certainly makes it easier for us to work together

Arunima Majumdar

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