I realise that there’s only one thing more ‘dead’ than yesterday’s newspaper and that’s yesterday’s conference, so I apologise for the gap of two days between the end of the Online Educa Berlin conference and this report, but it’s a long way from Berlin to Vancouver, and like many other things in life, jet lag and travel fatigue get worse as you get older. Anyway, enough excuses. (For my first post on the conference, see Posts from a foreign land: Online Educa 2011, No.2)

There was a whole strand of sessions at the conference focused on online learning in the business sector. One of my main goals was to see what the public post-secondary education sector can learn from the use of  online learning in the corporate training sector. I managed to get to four of the 14 sessions in Business Educa (including the two plenaries for the Business strand), but I also wanted to attend some other sessions that were highly relevant from outside the Business Educa strand, so I had to make some compromises. Here’s what I picked up from the Business sessions. I will focus here on straight reporting, and I won’t report on every speaker, just those that were of specific interest to me (hey, it’s my blog). Nevertheless apologies to those that I have omitted.

Plenary session: Preparing for the Future

The topic of the session was: “What will learning and development look like in the future and how do we prepare for success in these new worlds?” Good questions, and so relevant to the public sector as well.

Laura Overton, Towards Maturity, UK.

Laura Overton reported on a benchmarking study of issues in corporate learning from leading companies across Europe. Here are the main points that I took from this presentation:

  • the use of learning technologies for corporate training and learning is broadening, both in the extent to which they are used, and in the range of tools being used
  • the focus is more on staff sharing knowledge and reaching out beyond departmental boundaries
  • part of this is a focus on identifying and disseminating new ways of doing things to respond to rapid change in the business environment
  • improving efficiency – but this was NOT the main priority (a significant change from several years ago)

In particular, European businesses face the following challenges:

  • uncertainty in the environment (this applies to the non-profit as well as profit sector) and the need to innovate
  • can the workforce change fast enough for companies to survive?

In other words, the focus is on learning to better prepare the organization for change.

Norman Kamikow, MediaTech Publishing, USA

MediaTech is a large US publishing house. Kamikow reported on another benchmarking study of Chief Learning Officers in ‘successful’ companies in the USA which focused on:

  • learning strategy
  • leadership commitment to training
  • learning execution
  • learning impact
  • business performance results

The main challenges identified by CLOs were:

  • understanding the business they were in
  • better integration of training with work activities
  • being agile enough to deliver new training quickly
  • scaling training across the organization
  • delivering training to virtual/global workforces
  • using business intelligence to identify training needs and identifying appropriate metrics to measure success in training.

Main strategies for meeting these challenges

  • improved governance/management of learning across the organization
  • hybrid roles: trainers embedded within the organization
  • long term goals for learning combined with short-term capabilities to deliver

Willem Manders and Hans de Zwart, Shell Petroleum, Netherlands

Learning Scenarios: ‘A scenario is basically a story that describes a possible future. Building and using scenarios can help people explore what the future might look like. Decision makers can use scenarios to think about critical risks and opportunities in the future and to explore ways in which these might unfold. Scenarios are a vehicle to highlight the critical uncertainties ahead that might affect learning.’

I was particularly interested in this presentation, as I have been using scenario building to help faculty to ‘imagine’ the future and how they could use new technologies for teaching. Manders and de Zwart described their process, which requires ‘evidence-based brainstorming’ about the future, using four key concepts:

  • an analysis of the external and internal factors that influence the environment of corporate learning
  • identifying the underlying forces driving change
  • use a broad set of key drivers to build mini scenarios
  • combine and consolidate the mini scenarios.

They have created an excellent web site on learning scenarios.

Altogether this was an excellent session, although the attempt to build a conversation in a ballroom with over 100 participants was a brave failure.

Building performance at the heart of the workplace

This session was about how to enhance directly learner productivity and performance. Richard Straub, the chair, introduced the session by pointing out that the economic recession has forced companies to find new ways to provide corporate learning.

Lance Dublin, Dublin Consulting, USA

Yet another benchmarking study of corporate training strategies in leading multinationals. Dublin’s main point was the need to collapse the time of training – in the new environment, time, not money, is the key factor, because of the need to respond to rapid change. This means delivering learning at the point of need, before, during and after the ‘event’, combining training, salespeople and customers. To do that requires the following:

  • ‘off-the-shelf’ tools (no LMS) and be agnostic in the choice of tools: whatever does the job best
  • continuous learning
  • respect workers’ time: just in time and just enough
  • using social networking for the multiplier effect and leverage in-company knowledge
  • build learning environments, not learning events (no courses)
  • a focus on job performance, not measurement of learning

Boyd Glover, Dixons retail, UK

Boyd Glover’s session was entitled: Can learning be fun? Fusing formal and informal learning to build performance in the workplace. The presentation was certainly fun, and, just as significantly, discussed the issue of what is best done through formal learning and what is best done through informal learning. He divided learning as follows:

  • formal: first time learning; wanting more
  • informal learning: trying to remember earlier learning; dealing with change; dealing with things that go wrong in the workplace.

The company has made its learning material available to employees at any time, from anywhere. The big struggle was to get the training (delivered mainly through an LMS and short videos) outside the company’s IT firewall. Once that was done, 20% of the staff were using informal learning in their own time, without any requirement or company incentives.

This was another excellent session, with good presentations and solid content.

Crossing boundaries and cultures

Presentations in this session aimed at demonstrating practical ways to overcome the challenges of diverse languages and cultures in successfully implementing learning across cultural borders.

David Mallon, Bersin and Associates, USA

This session was entitled: ‘Corporate Learning Goes Borderless’. It was yet another study based on benchmarking successful multinationals and their training practices. I picked up the following from this session:

  • build capabilities, i.e. teach how to learn, rather than competency, because the environment changes too quickly and the contexts in different countries are so different
  • build learning environments, rather than courses
  • decentralize the learning, to bring it closer to the local work context
  • use learning technologies for speed and reach
  • use these methods to instill the company’s organizational culture across all world locations.

Virpi Slotte, AAC Global, Finland

This was a fascinating presentation about teaching children in 40 different countries about Internet safety, through the use of online digital stories. This meant delivering similar messages in 40 different languages. The stories were in cartoon form (drawings and simple animation), with no spoken narration, but balloon bubbles for written speech. Not only was the language changed for each country, but also images and context to represent cultural diversity (for instance, a Chinese village was used for the Chinese version, whereas an Austrian village was used for the German version). The project was sponsored by Microsoft, which enabled the development of different versions of the materials, but Microsoft had no direct editorial influence on the project. There was no information on the learning effectiveness of the project.

This session provided starkly different approaches to crossing cultural boundaries. This is an area where there are many challenges and much more research is needed on the effects of the globalization of learning.


Altogether these were very interesting sessions. There are of course major differences between the corporate sector and the public sector, but my impression is that there is much to learn from the corporate sector about online learning. I need to reflect more on this, but in the meantime, here are some preliminary conclusions from these sessions:

  • benchmarking of practice from ‘successful’ organizations was heavily used in these sessions; however, how well does that work when many of these successful organizations themselves are under threat from new competitors who by definition are not yet considered successful but are competing because they do things differently?
  • change management is becoming a central focus of corporate learning
  • innovation and new ways of doing things are becoming more important than doing the same things even better, with implications for training methods and choice of technology
  • building learning environments that deliver training at the time and place where it is needed is more important that formal courses away from the work context
  • the corporate sectors focuses more on measuring performance resulting from learning than measuring learning itself.

I am very grateful to the excellent presenters in these sessions.

I will do one more post on this conference, which will cover the sessions I went to from the public sector, and some brief comments on the exhibition.



  1. […] – dass “improving efficiency” offensichtlich nicht mehr das zentrale Thema dieses Teils der Konferenz war; – dass hier kaum ein Referent ohne den Verweis auf eine “Benchmarking Study” auskam, mit all den Fragezeichen, die diese Studien mit sich bringen; – dass “Change Management” auch in Corporate Learning zum zentralen Thema wird; – dass “Performance Support” und “measuring performance resulting from learning” wichtiger als Kurse und das Messsen von Lernerfolgen werden (nun ja, das wird hier nicht zum ersten Mal beschworen). Tony Bates, online learning and distance education resources, 5. Dezember 2011 […]

  2. Excellent commentary on the conference. Thanks, Tony! I particularly like the insights and ideas from the corporate world and agree that they might have some solutions or techniques that provide better learning. Just using technology in more modern ways is refreshing!

    Also, I can see you contributing well to the corporate world – might be better and more exciting opportunities. :0)


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