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The Industry that Wouldn't Learn

Originally published March, 1998

I went to a technical presentation the other day. It was sponsored by a local multimedia company and Macromedia, a prominent maker of multimedia authoring software. Although it showcased the many talents of the multimedia company, my interest was to see a demo of Macromedia's new package called Attain, a web-based training administration package.

Training administration is a relatively new category that helps you assign, deliver, and track CBT lessons that students use over the web. For instance, accountants might automatically be assigned a course on new tax rates by virtue of belonging to the auditing department; they could securely access the course over the web using their user ID; and the system could report successful test results and students who have not yet passed. This type of system has been available at very high prices, and on a fee-for-service basis, but has recently come down from the stratosphere. I had already committed to implement and learn a competing product, Asymetrix Librarian, on a pilot basis, so I needed to keep one eye on the alternatives.

The Attain demo was interesting, but unremarkable. Apparently my selection of Librarian was safe, at least for the moment. What was remarkable however, was a comment the presenter made: "This software will reduce the amount of traditional, classroom-based, instructor-led training (ILT)." I've heard this statement so many times now that I've taken it for granted. The rationale is that by making distance learning easier, no one has to spend work time traveling to class, spend all that money on fuel and lodging, and so on. You've probably heard it all, too.

As I was listening, sirens started blaring, and lights flashing. How could we continue to fall for this nonsense? I interrupted the smooth-talking vapor-vendor (just kidding... Macromedia and Asymetrix spend so much time bashing each other that they don't have time for embellishment) to ask this: "Will it reduce ILT the same way that PC's eliminated printed paper in the office???" And that's my problem with this industry. We just don't get it. With rare exceptions like typewriters, enhanced tools generally don't reduce, let alone eliminate their predecessors. They simply make the old way more targeted, sometimes better, sometimes not.

Consider the very meeting I was attending. I was notified of it only three business days beforehand. It was at a company I never heard of in a business park I never saw, even though I drove down that very road many times. But I attended—brick-and-mortar style—happily, because of email... Internet registration. It was absolutely a training class, it required travel, and it was face-to-face like ILT. How ironic... the technology fostered a traditional face-to-face session that in years gone by never would have happened because it was too small to be feasible.

Here's why our knee-jerk assumptions are wrong. We have psychological amounts, presets, allocated to certain activities and ways of doing things. If I'm willing to go to five days of ILT per year, technology might make those five days more productive, or it might give me five extra training days that don't require ILT. I will compensate by still going to five days of ILT, because I like it. Or consider software. If I'm expecting to spend $500 dollars on home software this year, and the price of software drops in half, I'll probably buy twice as much software. In the case of training, the most likely result is that organizations will have the chance to greatly improve the quality of the ILT that they provide. Teachers can concentrate on less repetitious work, help more students, and be more creative. Whether this occurs or the savings are simply shifted to other pockets depends on the culture and values of the specific workplace.

What is it about the software industry that makes us—or is it just the pundits?—so predictably tempted by fairytales? I don't know, but in the spirit of the software world, I won't let that stop me from telling you. Perhaps it's the newness. We haven't had the years-and-years of trial-and-error of other industries. We have no collapsed bridges, exploded mines, safety recalls and so on. Or perhaps it's mass. Our products, no matter how vast they are, are so feather-light, so malleable that one expert can be master of the universe. It all creates an environment where expectations of sea change are the norm.

We all need to do our share to give this industry some humility. We must look at ourselves and our products with a more critical, questioning eye. Remember, this is the industry that caused the year-2000 problem and then made money solving it. And if that's making you feel all warm and fuzzy, think of this: most Y2K solutions are based on using four digits instead of two. What's going to happen in the year 9999? The Y10K problem?

Won't we ever learn? jb

"My interest in usability arose from the pain and tears of patching the wounds of suffering interface designs with the inadequate bandages of help files and user guides." — Daniel Cohen

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