Getting Beyond e-Learning Gridlock

By Kimberly Woodward

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As companies strive to keep an edge in a highly competitive economy, educating customers, employees and partners on product and service offerings can become a costly and time-consuming proposition, particularly when the e-Learning infrastructure is not able to provide optimal value.

However, if implemented right, e-Learning can cut costs and increase worker productivity; though today's standards really only serve as guidelines for enhancing an e-Learning infrastructure. Standards are not yet the "Holy Grail" the industry touts.

The Myth

An e-Learning initiative requires a learning management system (LMS) to launch and track content. There are many vendors offering these components, which is good because it offers choice but it also creates a multitude of interoperability issues since most e-Learning vendors claim to adhere to one of the competing e-Learning standards that enable interoperability.

The problem is, most vendors also interpret the standards differently. Too often, this leads to content e-Learners cannot launch, as well as incorrect training data populated into the LMS. Even when the standards work and a standards-compliant LMS can launch and track standards-compliant content, the results often do not meet expectations.

The location of e-Learning components is another factor not contemplated by e-Learning standards. In today's distributed enterprise, different e-Learning components may need to be located in separate locations. For example, an e-Learning infrastructure might include an LMS located behind the organization's firewall, content hosted by a courseware vendor, and other content that customers or partners access from an extranet. In this example, training results are often blocked from updating in the LMS by the firewall of the organization.

As these examples illustrate, courses and LMS applications can all claim to support standards but they still may not be able to properly communicate. This lack of integration is one of the key adoption hurdles of enterprise e-Learning initiatives. It is, in effect, the dirty little secret of the e-Learning industry.

Waiting Game

If you don't have time to wait for standards to catch up and solve the content integration issues facing your organization now, what are the options?

Some vendors offer custom development services or tools to "wrap" content so it can be launched and tracked properly in an LMS. This is a great strategy if the content will be used in only one LMS or if you plan to continue using the current LMS for the next several years.If standards and wrapping content are not the immediate answer to e-Learning integration issues, organizations may also consider Web services; the latest seeker of the integration throne.

Web services is often hailed as the bridge among applications, processes and information across the enterprise. Using accepted XML and SOAP standards, Web services can create links between outside services and applications.

Unfortunately, it does not help if the Web services-linked applications can't talk to each other. With Web services, there is still a large custom development effort involved in getting both applications to speak the same language, which is, in this case, the language of content integration.

Content Integration Technology

The basic concept of content integration sets aside worries about the standards compliance of your e-Learning components, as well as concerns over how to modify these components to work differently than they were originally designed. CIT solutions create a middle layer that performs the translations among e-Learning components so they speak the same language. To modify the integration, you only need to modify the middle layer.

Another key distinction of CIT solutions is the resolution of firewall issues inherent in a distributed content infrastructure, which provides organizations greater freedom of choice and larger opportunities for cost savings.

The bottom line is that it may be several years before e-Learning standards begin to deliver promised value. As the world of e-Learning expands to include applications that span across an enterprise -- such as regulatory compliance training -- CIT offers one way to enhance the value of existing investments. CIT solutions help companies integrate both new and legacy training components, regardless of vendor, content location or industry standard and the solution is available today, not tomorrow.

Kimberly Woodward is vice president of Product Strategy at Chicago-based Trifus, a provider of content integration technology solutions, and can be reached at (312) 373-7000.