Today’s distance learning/training and education environment is brutal. As a long-time participant who comes from a military background, there has been over the years almost a sense of déjà vu. Though no shots (that I know of) are fired by practitioners on this digital plain, anyone with experience in the industry will attest that the atmosphere can sometimes be adversarial and even hostile—just ask anyone who has gone through a less than smooth LMS or courseware rollout!

With some reflection, it occurred to me there are additional similarities between today’s technology-based training and education world and the military. These can be found in how each has developed and implemented information technology. Both have been driven by the need for timely, relevant information to enable peak performance, and as a result, investments of millions of dollars are common and there is an expectation that those investments will yield results. At the risk of invoking déjà vu all over again, it may be instructive to look at how these civilian and military knowledge economies have evolved.

Rise of the Machine

Most people seem to agree that technology-based training and education has its roots in the mid- to late 90’s. Then, innovation and risk were the keys to success as software and service providers rushed forward with new products. Industry standards were in their infancy so entrepreneurs and customers worked together to roll out partially tested technology solutions. As a result, not every engagement went smoothly, but there was the shared expectation of encountering and overcoming obstacles on the road to success. Industry standards were in their early stages, so ”work arounds” became part of the price of progress with often unique interpretation and implementation of those standards.

Organizations such as the IMS (Instructional Management System) Global Learning Consortium, The Aviation Industry Computer Based Training Committee (AICC), the IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers), and later the Advanced Distributed Learning Initiative (ADL), would leave their thumbprint on how technology-based education would evolve. However, the unmistakable objectives of all these bodies were to support the distribution of knowledge and provide organizations with information to support individual and organizational performance.

On the military side, and at nearly the same time, a group of uniformed and civilian “futurists” was charged by the Chief of Staff of the Army with designing new ways to use information technology to achieve dominance on the battlefield by then then far-off date of 2010. The focus was much broader than training and education, but the job was fairly straightforward, though (as we would discover) extremely complex. It was to take the leadership’s vision for the organization 15 years in the future, then redesign current systems, processes and organizations from top to bottom to achieve the vision.

As in most things military, the approach was deliberate, but had similarities to how the civilian training and education technology evolved. Most significant is that the Army capabilities development organization was spread across multiple organizations and each had their own slightly unique interpretation of what was required to achieve the vision. Combat Arms, Combat Support, and Service Support communities would ultimately develop and promote their own solutions, while working together to collectively support the vision. Ultimately, they identified, documented, prioritized, and resourced the often competing solutions. The result was an information and technology solution that provided a heretofore unattainable level of knowledge-based situational awareness that dramatically increased individual and organizational performance.

Drawing Lessons from the Similarities—and Differences

The most obvious difference between the two approaches is that the military effort was collective, and the training and education effort was entrepreneurial. The latter was largely driven by market factors, but guided by a set of generally agreed, but evolving standards. The charter for the training and education standards bodies was also more narrow, encompassing primarily the design and programming of learning systems and courseware, but leaving open the question of how best to increase the performance both the individual and the organization. Entire bodies of practice exist to answer these questions in the form of Instructional Design and Organizational Effectiveness experts.

The insight here is that because, unlike the military, effectiveness is not necessarily clearly identified for the training and education practitioner, it must be defined as part of their process and should always be a deliberate step in the design of education and training solutions—both for software and courseware. The e-Learning software industry has recognized this imperative by the evolution of talent management systems which focus on the alignment of individual and organizational performance and growth, as opposed to the more narrow focus of early content and learning management systems that focused mainly on the individual. Additionally, the evolution of new standards such as the Experience Application Program Interface (xAPI) support the use of non-traditional learning objects within the context of a holistic approach to talent management.

The conclusion? Though it has taken some time, training and education standards bodies, systems designers, and software developers continue to evolve solutions that are consistent with the vision that individual and organizational effectiveness are inseparable. It also illustrates how the training and education industry is both aware and capable of responding to these challenges. Current practitioners are well advised to remain current with the latest standards and technology in order to win the next battle on their own “digital battlefield!”

The author, Brian Popken, is the Managing Director of Pinnacle Group Learning Solutions and a former Lieutenant Colonel and Army futures expert. This article was adapted from his earlier work originally published in CXO magazine.

Reflections on Training and Education from the Digital Battlefield