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The Roots of Workflow Learning
Friday, February 11, 2005

Defense Acquisition University

Last week, Gary Dickelman and I conducted a workshop on Workflow Learning for Defense Acquition University.

P7180010DAU is a big operation. They train the DoD Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics community to make smart business decisions and deliver timely and affordable capabilities to the military. DAU was established fourteen years ago, long after the military procurement horror tales of the early 1980s -- immortalized by the $435 claw hammer, the $640 toilet seat and $7,600 coffee makers. DAU coordinates education and training programs to meet the career-long training requirements of more than 130,000 people. In addition to courses, DAU provides performance support, rapid deployment training, a continuous learning center, and an active cadre of communities of practice.

They called Gary and me in to explain what workflow learning was, how it fit with DAU's ambitious plans, and what to do to get several pilot programs off the ground this year. Many in the audience were confused by the term workflow learning, so I kicked things off with stories of how it came about.

A little over five years ago, the eLearning Forum began meeting monthly to explore ideas at the convergence of technology and corporate learning. We’ve had meetings with Doug Engelbart, Wayne Hodgins, Cliff Stoll, Jon Levy, Peter Henschel, David Sibbett, Bob Horn, David Gray, Marcia Conner, Jim Spohrer, Ellen Wagner, Este Solomon Gray, Chuck Fred, David Bateson, Michael Carter, Kevin Wheeler, Sherry Hsi, Michael Allen, Clark Quinn, Sally Crawford, and a variety of people from Stanford, Berkeley, Cisco, Google, Intel, Microsoft, Nokia, PARC, Qarbon, ADL CoLab, NIST, the Meta-Learning Lab, Global Business Network, the Learning Economics Group, the Brain, Tacit, SAP, Intrepid, HP, Novell, Chevron-Texaco, SocialText, PeopleSoft, Blogger, Ninth House, and others.

In June 2002, financial analyst Trace Urdan, then with ThinkEquity Partners and now with Robert W. Baird & Co., gave us his take on the state of the eLearning marketplace. His talk, Crossing the Desert (Trace has a knack for tell-it-like-it-is titles): eLearning Faces its Biggest Challenge, described what he’d found at the recent eLearning Conference in Washington (R.I.P.). Buyers were nervous about vendor viability and wanted to see stronger players in the market that could result from ongoing industry consolidation. The names of SAP and PeopleSoft came up most often as potential LMS providers. One buyer had told Trace she’d turn in her three LMS if SAP could provide but 75% of their functionality.

eLearning Forum has never shied away from controversy. We invited SAP and PeopleSoft join us two months later. To keep them honest, Eilif Trondsen (Eilif is chairman of eLearning Forum; I am CEO.) invited an independent consultant named Sam Adkins to set the stage.

Sam Adkins

By telephone (Sam is based in Monroe, Washington), Sam walked us through a tale of enterprise integration, automated workflow, and of content morphing into workflow experiences. Ubiquitous computing drives pervasive learning. Sam opened our eyes to content that was embedded in workflow as it was created and real-time learning fused into the flows of an interoperable real-time extended enterprise. SAP showed us how they could do the LMS task; the rep from PeopleSoft let political correctness get in the way of telling the real story; and Sam’s introduction knocked my socks off.

It took some time to put together the obvious next chapter in this story. Fast forward to June 2003. Microsoft graciously loaned eLearning Forum a wonderful meeting room at its Silicon Valley Campus. We invited all the players to give us their views of the future of learning technology. I doubt this cast of characters had ever appeared beneath the same roof before. SAP, PeopleSoft, Oracle, Saba, Docent, Click2Learn, Plateau, Knowledge Products, Siebel, Sun, Thinq, vCampus, and Global Knowledge (now OnDemand) all sat at the same table. (IBM was supposed to come in by phone, but technical glitches put the kibosh on that.) The room was packed.

Sam Adkins and I realized we had a potentially volatile situation on our hands. The day before, J.D. Edwards had sued Larry Ellison personally for being a jerk in the then-iffy PeopleSoft takeover attempt. Several others at the table considered one another back-stabbers. Up front, Sam and I explained that we were assuming the personas of Mel Gibson and Danny Glover in the Lethal Weapon movies. This wasn’t good cop/bad cop; this was good cop/crazy cop. Sam would play the docile Danny Glover role; I would be Mel Gibson. Rather than hopping off buildings, I would control the microphone.

Sam described a world of interoperability, drip-feed contextual learning, real-time response, self-documenting systems, business process nirvana, and complete enterprise integration. Everyone agreed. There was some discussion about whether learning objects would ever meet expectations. We had different timeframes in mind for the transition (right around the corner? Two years out? Five years?) All in all, people agreed that everything would eventually be part of one big system.

ThinkEquity gave this analysis:
Last Friday, we attended a symposium of major enterprise software vendors hosted by the Silicon Valley-based eLearning Forum. An all-star panel of product managers representing Click2learn, Docent, Global Knowledge, Oracle, KnowledgePlanet, PeopleSoft, Plateau Systems, Saba Software, SAP, Siebel, Thinq, and VCampus ensured record attendance at the Microsoft campus in Mountain View. Topics addressed by the panel included the future role of learning management systems within the broader enterprise software market; the evolution of enterprise learning within organizations; integration, globalization, and consolidation trends in the enterprise software market; corporate purchasing patterns; and customer demands. In addition, we had several one-on-one conversations with attendees and sensed great enthusiasm for the market potential of LMS products and strong strategic commitment to the category by large and small vendors alike. All of the vendors represented offer learning management functionality within their application suites, both as a standalone product and as part of a fully integrated platform. All the participants expressed their belief in accelerating demand for LMS functionality, driven by the desire for workflow optimization and its ability to drive down training costs. We were unconvinced by the happy assertions of room for all and left with the continued impression that the larger vendors lag the best-of-breed players significantly in terms of functionality.

Here's an overview of the event.

Come November, Sam had shaped up his research papers, we were involved in several consulting gigs, I had shortened the name of our new field to Workflow Learning, and I founded the Workflow Institute to promote the understanding of real-time enterprise level learning in business and government. Gloria Gery became the Workflow Institute’s first fellow and joined us in a consulting assignment.

The next milestone began half a year later. VNU invited us to conduct a conference within a conference, a Workflow Learning Symposium to be co-located with Training Fall/Online Learning in San Francisco in October 2004. Gloria and I would give the keynote address, The Debut of Workflow Learning.

The Symposium was a success! Gloria and I gave a joint keynote. I presented an amalgam of service-oriented architecture, business analysts seizing the reins from IT departments, loose coupling, network effects, complexity science, agility, the inevitable global network big bang, and an overview of workflow learning. As Gloria came on stage, the audience joined me in singing Gloria along with the Grateful Dead. You know, G- L- O- R-r-r-r-r I- A, Glo-oh-ri-ah, Glo-ri-ah. We followed up with six sessions over the next three days. (If you’re interested, you can see most of the Symposium in streaming video on the Workflow Institute site, www.workflowinstitute.com.)

Bottom-line: Workflow Learning is the convergence of work and learning. And so it goes.

In a future article, Gary and I will describe the how-to portion of the workshop.


Anonymous Meir Navon said...

Hi Jay,
What a great way to explain the concept of Workflow learning! I believe that the joining hands with the ERP people was one of the turning points in your saga. It certainly made it for me.
I've been speaking about having work and learning together for about 7 years and although everyone agrees very much with me ,my success was not so spectacular...How do you actually make it happen?
Meir Navon

1:54 AM  
Blogger Vikram said...

Mr. Cross must be very priviliged to have earned that Reserved Parking space :)

Sorry to post such a silly comment on such a professional blog like yours but just felt the need to.


- Vikram Mohan

4:13 PM  
Blogger jay said...


No problem. What gave you the idea that this blog is so professional? I'll have to try harder to lighten it up.


11:54 AM  
Anonymous Gaby said...

Hi Jay, I really like the ideas and the way you've made things happen. I very much want to be a part and would love to publish something in Learning Review a magazine I write for, any material you feel worthwhile would be galdly recieved. The pictorial analogy however worries me as zippers work both ways and things often get cought up in them ;)

1:35 PM  
Blogger jay said...

Gaby, I love the "zippers run both ways" thought. In fact, that could be another story: how learning already fused into work can unravel into training that has nothing to do with the work at all.

9:39 PM  

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