E-Learning and Depression 2.0 Revisited

Prologue: Today’s post was meant to be a short piece about how the e-learning industry is faring in current market conditions, but as I carried out my research for the article, something a little more worrying emerged from the source information.stocks290109

Now read on…

About a year ago, I began commenting on the affects of the current financial crisis on the e- learning industry; it’s been a while, so I guess that it’s about time I revisited the subject. In my post Recession and the Challenge to E-Learning in February 2008 I remarked that:

Historically, when a slowdown or organization rationalization occurs, the first against the wall are the folks in the PR, marketing, and training departments. Typically, individuals and organizations revert to previously-learned behaviors in tough times; this usually means going through the process of carrying out tried-and-tested, though not necessarily logical responses to the problems put in front of them. Outcome: tea and sympathetic chat, and the Training team get their pink slips / P45s. …I reckon that this will be strategy undertaken by a significant number of organizations over the next year or so.

Sadly, it seems that my prediction was correct.

According to a recent Expertus/Training Industry, Inc. report: for 2009 over twice as many training professionals who responded to their survey said that they expected budget decreases rather than increases. Forty-eight percent expect their budgets to decrease in 2009, up from 41% in 2008. Less than one-fifth expect their budgets to increase in 2009, down from 31% in 2008. Similarly, since 2008 budgets were first approved, far more saw decreases (38%) than increases (11%) in funding and capital.

These data are reinforced by the findings of a 2009 Bersin & Associates study: B&A’s Karen O’Leonard indicated that the U.S. corporate training market shrank from $58.5 billion in 2007 to $56.2 billion in 2008, the greatest decline in revenue in over a decade.

In a 23 January 2009 press release, Josh Bersin himself stated that

…to reduce costs, companies are switching from e-learning [my italics] to coaching, collaboration and on-the-job training methods

The press release also states:

Today’s business world demands a combination of formal and informal learning with an emphasis on collaboration, knowledge sharing, social networking, coaching, and mentoring. While formal, instructor-led training is not going away, it is becoming a smaller and smaller percentage of training budgets.

This shift in organizations’ thinking and strategy merits discussion in it’s own right, so I will return to the topic once I have given it more consideration.

However, I have to say that I’m not encouraged by the inaccurate terminology Mr. Bersin used in the press release: I want to know – how do Bersin & Associates define ‘e-learning’? Based upon the above statement, collaboration and knowledge-sharing in particular, but also mentoring, coaching, and OTJ training are not categories of e-learning.

I’m sure you have your own favorite definition of e-learning – I’ve included mine below – but regardless of how you define it, you are in the e-learning domain if the learning materials are

  • networked
  • delivered to end-users via a computer using standard internet technology
  • focused on the broadest view of learning

I would suggest that by “e-learning”, Bersin & Associates actually mean “e-training” – those superannuated,  expensive page-turner style self-paced courseware libraries provided by a number of e-learning vendors. You may argue that I am merely fussing over semantics, and that such terminology is unimportant. Tomayto / tomahto and so on.

However, when hypotheses are investigated using quantitative analysis, the Scientific Method is invoked. Contingent with the Method is a healthy skepticism of the assumptions and conclusions made by the investigator. This is the essence of progress, acquiring new knowledge, or correcting and integrating previous knowledge. To be termed scientific, a method of inquiry must be based on gathering observable, empirical and measurable evidence subject to specific principles of reasoning and criticism.

In this context I would assert that precise categorization of terms is an essential part of communicating meaning accurately. If you consider that e-learning is

The continuous assimilation of knowledge and skills by adults stimulated by synchronous and asynchronous learning events – and sometimes knowledge management outputs – which are authored, delivered engaged with, supported and administered using internet technologies,

(Morrison, D. 2004, p.4)

then we must say that the Bersin statement contradicts itself.

Based upon the Bersin & Associates data (see Table 1), what seems to be occurring is a contraction in the use by organizations of one e-learning modality (the self-paced page-turner – in a sense the methodology most aligned with traditional instructor-led workplace learning), and the growth or expansion of a range of other modalities of e-learning, based upon non-formal and informal structures, Web 2.0 principles, and the removal of intermediaries in the workplace learning & development supply chain.

Table 1 Distribution of training categories (after Bersin & Associates, 2009)



Bersin & Associates (2009) 2009 Corporate Learning Factbook Reveals 11% Decline in Corporate Training Spending [Internet] Available from: http://www.bersin.com/News/Content.aspx?id=8438 Accessed 24 January 2009

Expertus (2008) Measuring Learning as Budgets Tighten [Internet] Available from: http://www.trainingefficiency.com/system/files/Survey+Results_Learning+Measurement_+Expertus_Nov08.pdf Accessed 12 January 2009

Frauenheim, E. (2009) Training Is Taking a Beating in Recession, Studies Find Workforce Management. [Internet] Available from: http://www.workforce.com/section/00/article/26/12/95.php Accessed 23 January 2009

Morrison, D. (2004) E-Learning Strategies: how to get implementation and delivery right first time Chichester: John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.


  1. Kia ora Michael

    I guess it all depends on whether training etc, are viewed as the topping on the pie or the pastry base.

    The problem with the topping is that in times of plenty it’s usually flashy and expensive. If it is seen that the pie is just as nutritious without the topping, of course it’s going to go in times of financial hardship, and rightly so!

    On the other hand, the pastry base doesn’t have to be flashy at all but the pie falls apart without it. In times of financial hardship we can get buy with making it with plainpack ingredients and few will tell the difference!

    Assessing the worths in those terms and you’ll soon know why the training departments etc, go out the door.

    The thing is, the fault is in how these areas are viewed to begin with. Often, unfortunately, these departments are included as add-ons (topping) to meet some legislative requirement instead of as foundation (pastry base) that’s seen as superfluous in times of financial hardship.

    Which would you rather have – a pie with no topping, or a pie with no base?

    This is the question that must be asked first before training etc, are established in the organisation. When it is clear from the beginning that foundation is necessary for cohesion and function, there should be no question of the worth of these important areas in times of financial hardship.

  2. Ceád míle fáilte Ken,

    I like your metaphor; if I may, I would extend it a little further and contend that before you can bake a pie, you need the correct ingredients.

    Given that knowledge, skills, and expertise are some of the key ‘ingredients’ that enable organizations to perform and be successful in their market space, it seems counter-productive for decision-makers to omit these from their ‘corporate pie.’

    As a Learning & Development manager, I sometimes feel that I am preaching to the converted when I discuss the challenges to the industry on my blog. My view is that the real challenge is convincing those with the chequebook that reverting to the traditional behavior of reducing the training budget (because that’s what we’ve always done in tough times in the past) is a false economy.

    In the context of e-learning in particular, we can say that using the internet infrastructure with collaboration environments such as Webex or Adobe Connect, as as well as authoring tools like Camtasia, Articulate, and (even) PowerPoint can produce very positive returns on investment when compared to the costs associated with instructor-led training (travel and teaching environment costs, courseware manual printing costs, reduced productivity from taking people out of work and into the classroom etc).

    So, I guess the real question is, how do we prove the business case for e-learning (and training in general)?

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