The strategic inflection point

Only the paranoid survive. Andrew Grove’s 2003 book by the same name reflects on the strategic inflection point when something in the environment changes in a fundamental way that is not so apparent in our daily chaos of survival.

Andrew writes of how a 10X change in any one force (following Porter’s classical competitive strategy analysis and recent developments around this analysis), namely:

  • Power, vigor and competence of existing competitors
  • Power, vigor and competence of existing complementors
  • Power, vigor and competence of existing customers
  • Power, vigor and competence of existing suppliers
  • Power, vigor and competence of potential competitors
  • Possibility that what your business is doing can be done in a different way

can result in profound changes to our business. What is hard is to pinpoint the start of this change, predict how gradual it is going to be, filter out the noise from the signals for this change and how we can adapt to it.

Is there a strategic inflection point? 

In the context of the recent developments, we need to take a hard look at social constructivism, connectivism, the writeable web, complexity theory, chaos and Web X.O. Are these signals pointing to a new way of teaching-learning that is here to stay? Do we need to adapt our business to this new way? Will it be our competitive advantage? Can we derive an RoI from it for our customers?

Let us look at the challenges facing organizations today to try and see where this fits in a Learning and Development division for a large organization or a university with hundreds of thousands of learners, massive base of content, thousands of teachers and millions of dollars of expenditure on education and training. In essence, we are talking about two things – the behaviour and predictability of a system of learning, and, the process of learning and teaching itself.

If we study the objectives of any educational system, they have to do with developing the individual. How that development is defined is subjective – it could focus on mind, body or soul or any combination thereof and by whatever philosophy or means that are thought the most effective for that development to be brought about. The development also has to be measurable – insofar as the individuals can demonstrate completion of their development goals unambiguously.

Predictability 

The challenge that the system faces is to bring about predictability towards achieving that end goal and to track that progress. Human capital management systems allow you to do that in the current space. They allow you to identify roles, competencies and abilities in a structured fashion and allow you to target certain sections of learning to employees in order to develop and align them with business objectives. These systems also offer analytics behind the mass learning process in terms of course completions and scores. However, they rely on standards such as SCORM, to provide intelligence on the learning process itself.

So that brings us to the process of learning and teaching itself. There are many approaches to a structured design of the process, of course, and the limiting factors are skill and budgets. Organizations face a continued downward spiral in terms of cuts to the training budgets and despite having skilled learning managers that understand the teaching-learning process, are hard pressed to conform to those budgets. For those organizations where Instructor-led training or Labs/Activity led learning is a large component, intelligence is difficult to obtain in a SCORM-like fashion for this kind of training, making already partial intelligence more partial. This is where traditional teaching-learning starts to depend upon individual heroics of teachers, administrators and learners to make learning engaging and effective.

The common objection that I have heard revolves around control of the teaching learning process itself and this comes from managers who need to be able to predict the behaviour of the system of teaching learning.

Content quality

Another common objection is around the quality of content for educational purposes. When talking to an academic recently who is fairly well up in Web 2.0, of the concept of a third world e-journals repository, he was not too convinced of what would determine the quality of content. In his opinion, unless content is certified to be of a certain quality (say, by an editorial expert board), it is not something you can expect to be used as a source of learning.

These are not academics who want to control and structure all content on the web meant for learning, but simply ones who state that content needs to be validated before it can be passed into a learning environment.

People 

The other objection in a networked world revolves around people. Who can be considered an authentic source of knowledge and learning? A learner can collaborate to learn from another person, but is it the other person’s responsibility to be able to ensure that what he/she shares is accurate and a valid source of information? Is it the responsibility of the community?

In Indian mythology, in the story of the Mahabharata, Yudhisthir, known for his pious and upright nature, actually lies to his guru (his teacher who he is fighting a war against), that “Ashwatthama (the name of the guru’s son) is dead”. The incitement comes from Lord Krishna (a revered hindu god) who actually gets Bhima (Yudhisthir’s immensely powerful brother) to kill an elephant by the same name.

The example is one of wilful deceit, but many learners who take on the mantle of a teacher or guide in a X.0 world may actually end up giving the wrong advice, sharing the wrong experience – all, entirely unknowingly.

Intellectual Property 

Yet another common objection is around the proprietary nature of knowledge and security restrictions on sharing of intellectual property specific to an organization. With the highly competitive landscape, it is imperative for organizations to determine boundaries for what may be shared and what not. It presents difficulties for or constraints on communities and the open nature of the collaborative paradigm we are in today. It cannot be left to each individual learner’s discretion. However, within closed communities within an organization, this information could be shared and collaborated upon freely.

Hype 

I really believe the new X.O wave is a good thing to happen. One of my personal discomfort around this is the hype around the technology and the rush to brand the traditional way as inadequate and/or wrong. Technology can only be an enabler, not the decisive force behind the change. Again, before we look at discarding one technology or system and adopt the other, we must look at what worked in the traditional systems, what could be extended or enhanced to suit the new X.O thinking and what must absolutely go.

SCORM and X.O 

One of my own personal objections is around the branding of standards such as SCORM as non-elearning 2.0. This because of some very cogent reasons.

Firstly, the sheer volume of learning information on the web coupled with the menace of spam, is going to necessitate invention of new ways to locate that information. At some point, we will have to start discussion how this information is to be tagged and exchanged for anybody to be able to meaningfully use it and to avoid good, useful information getting “lost in the ether”.

Secondly, to be able to understand and learn from how the new techniques can benefit the teaching learning process, there must be a way to garner that intelligence. The neglected part of SCORM is the run-time environment – the mechanism that allows information about the learning process itself to be transmitted to a back-end system for analysis.

Thirdly, re-use is good! It saves money and effort if done well. You cannot re-use if you cannot structure content. Of course, I get routinely peeved that we do not structure content granularly enough to really be able to use it efficiently, but that is another story.

In the end 

Coming back to Andy’s strategic inflection point theory, I think we have some questions raised now that may in part be asked to determine if this really is an inflection point at all that we, as providers of learning content and services, must recognize early on and adapt to. I don’t claim to have raised the right questions/objections or have made any sound judgments in this post (perhaps I will refine these into a real argument some day), but I hope I have provided some food for thought in these meanderings!

One thought on “The strategic inflection point

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  1. I like your comments about SCORM. I agree with you. Re-use is good. I think most people don’t realize this but in using the web we are constantly using Re usable learning objects. Most content is reusable in some way shape or form. SCORM simply attempts to formalize our re-use. After participating in a failed corporate effort to use RLO’s, I realized that we were going about things the wrong way. We assumed that we could break down each content piece into immutable forms that could be reused interchangably, but we forgot the simple fact that the systems that these ‘reusable learning objects’ were designed for actually were in a constant state of flux. The objects themselves had to change accordingly. I still firmly believe that RLO’s are possible. Unfortunately, the group I was working in was still struggling with the idea of establishing a well-organized business process. Without this B.P., true organization of learning content was not really possible, and the group relied on a hodge-podge of training resources and tribal knowledge to get by.

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