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Content Integration: Beyond Standards

Content integration is still causing headaches among corporate learning executives. Short-term strategies involve careful purchasing and construction of internal processes to minimize the effects of unexpected problems.

August 29, 2005
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Related Topics: Technology, Performance Management, LCMS, LMS, E-Learning, Learning Delivery, Performance Management, Technology
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Mention content integration in a room full of corporate learning managers, and you’d best pass around a bottle of aspirin. The consensus is that content integration is a big headache—regardless if you’re on the content side or the technology side of the issue.

While content and tool vendors live in the world of instruction, presentation and easy-to-deploy systems, learning management system (LMS) vendors focus on data, transactions and scalable performance. The division between the two camps can induce migraines in the toughest veterans.

The numbers speak for themselves. In a 2005 survey of e-learning content buyers, 81 percent cited better content integration as a critical need. In another survey of LMS buyers, content integration was ranked as the second-biggest challenge. Corporate learning managers have fewer issues with content developed internally. Off-the-shelf content, which is often tested with different infrastructure technologies, can still be problematic. (See Figure 1.)

The consequences are significant and costly. Integrating an off-the-shelf course library with an LMS can cost between $150,000 and $300,000, and might take two to three months to complete. Integration issues can limit purchasing decisions, negatively impact upgrades—both on the content and technology sides—and hinder the success of time-critical learning programs.

Many buyers do not fully understand the scope of the content integration challenge, resulting in unpredicted budget overruns, launch delays and even staffing issues.

Integrated Enterprise Learning
Prior to the late 1990s, training infrastructure in most companies consisted of a training management system, the early predecessor to the LMS, as well as content deployed on a local area network or CD-ROM. Integration was straightforward and simple, and expectations were low since available functionality was limited. Today, organizations typically have training infrastructures with more than one of these components:

  • Learning management system.
  • Learning content management system.
  • E-learning content (externally and internally hosted).
  • Human resource management system.
  • Virtual classroom or collaboration system.
  • Authoring and rapid development tools.
  • Performance management system.

In this more complex learning environment, there are significantly higher expectations for integration. Corporate learning executives may list the following on their lists for short-term expectations:

  • An enterprise-wide system for the management of all formal training activity, regardless of delivery type.
  • Standardized interfaces that give buyers a choice of online content, both custom and off-the-shelf. These interfaces also make it possible to mix and match a variety of content resources.
  • The ability to leverage information to maximize the training investment.

However, learning technology is no different from any other technology: It evolves in stages. As other disciplines of enterprise application automation (e.g., financials, manufacturing, customer service) evolved, disparate systems were not well-integrated until associated technologies were mature. Integration challenges were eventually solved in one or more ways:

  • Vendors consolidated in the interest of creating more value for customers and easing integration.
  • Industry standards that enable interoperability developed and matured.
  • Software, often called middleware, was created to bridge the gap between systems.

The same process is happening in the learning market today.

Industry Standards Fall Short
Theoretically, industry standards are supposed to solve most integration challenges. However, while standards have facilitated an improved level of integration in the learning market, they fall short of providing a comprehensive, reliable solution.

Some critics of standards initiatives claim that the great thing about standards is that there are so many of them. In the learning market, there are at least four major standards initiatives under way and other minor efforts taking place around the world. (See Figure 2.) Vendors tout these initiatives as the key to interoperability in e-learning. ADL’s SCORM and AICC’s CM1001 initiatives have made the most progress, but none of these standards ensures true plug-and-play interoperability.

Most organizations with any degree of infrastructure complexity do not truly benefit from industry standards. For one thing, progress has been too slow. Internet technology has moved much faster than e-learning standards. Standards take time to evolve, but since its founding in 1997, the ADL initiative has focused on a few limited areas, dealing mostly with content objects and not the system integration and system reliability challenges that plague e-learning buyers.

In addition, standards organizations don’t focus on the practical realities of implementation. Today, systems and content are located all over the world. To date, most efforts have focused on content and instruction standards, rather than the practical realities of deploying large-scale e-learning solutions that incorporate user authentication, security, content on different domains, catalog synchronization and reliable data tracking. Standards groups should address these issues or endorse the efforts of more generic Internet standards to provide industry guidance.

In their purest form, standards are unambiguous and enable true plug-and-play between systems. Current e-learning standards do not provide enough specifics for implementation. While they do establish a baseline, they don’t go far enough to create an unambiguous requirement. Therefore, vendors create their own interpretations.

Some products do provide out-of–the-box interoperability. Authoring tool vendors seem to have made the most progress. (Trainersoft, Authorware and Flash work reasonably well with most LMSs.) The SCORM packaging specification has made content portability a reality for some applications, allowing buyers to move objects between systems and even repurpose them. However, it has yet to solve interoperability problems.

Compounding the problem is the fragmented nature of the learning market. Every category, including LMS, LCMS and content suppliers, is filled with hundreds of vendors. Not even the largest of them can practically support and maintain compatibility with all others, given that each vendor interprets standards differently.

Implications for Learning Executives
Cost: Lack of standards-based interoperability costs companies time and money. In a recent survey, one-third of respondents were unable to estimate the financial impact of integrating content into their infrastructures. Of those who were able to estimate how much they were spending, 33 percent indicated an impact of $100,000 or more per year, with some spending close to $1 million. These numbers don’t include the hidden costs of project delays and higher prices for products and services that require manual testing and integration.

Limited choice: One of the most valuable benefits of open and interoperable technologies is buyer choice, which levels the playing field and requires vendors to compete on value. However, in the real world, integration obstacles limit choice. For instance, once learning managers get an initial LMS implementation integrated and working, they are often reluctant to switch vendors or upgrade their systems. To get around integration problems, many enterprises have lists of approved vendors whose technology has been tested and approved to work with their systems. While such a policy can reduce procurement and integration costs, it sometimes precludes managers from buying the best solution for specific needs. An “approved list” policy also can backfire and actually increase costs, since it can eliminate a competitive bidding process.

Costly and difficult upgrades: IT system upgrades most often require quality testing, and LMS or courseware library upgrades are no exception. Associated costs can be up to 10 percent of the cost of the original integration project. When integration is accomplished through custom initiatives, an upgrade can wreak havoc. In order to ensure quality after making an upgrade, every course may need to be checked to ensure that it is launching and tracking correctly. For a large enterprise, this might involve retesting thousands of courses—a huge project that can interfere with more strategic initiatives. Some companies elect not to perform the upgrades, which can result in support issues and also robs them of new functionality and other value.

Long deployments: Lack of reliable interoperability creates another hidden cost for e-learning managers: It slows down the process for getting courses online. The time to launch a new library can range from two to three months—some projects can take as long as five months or are never successfully completed.

Usability issues: Disparate, poorly integrated e-learning systems are not only a challenge for those who manage and implement them. Often, learners are impacted as well. Scores, bookmarks and other important tracking information may not be recorded accurately. These factors add considerable time and cost to corporate learning management by requiring dedicated staff to support manual work-arounds. Another cost, and one that is impossible to measure, is the loss of confidence from the learner community.

Data integrity: The implications of poor data integrity can extend beyond the satisfaction of learner communities. Many organizations now use online courseware and testing for compliance and regulatory training. Accurate and reliable record-keeping is paramount to the success of these programs. In some industries, the inability to produce rapid and accurate training records can result in expensive interruptions to business or steep fines.

Manual work-arounds: When integration is not possible or too expensive, many organizations rely on manual work-arounds. These can be a continuous drain on an enterprise technology budget, because they can require dedicated staff members to take responsibility for monitoring the reliability of integrations and performing manual data exchanges. The associated cost could reach $150,000 or more per year for large enterprises with many suppliers.

Reducing Integration Issues
Interviews with hundreds of learning executives have uncovered common strategies to minimize the negative impacts of content integration and to guide technology and purchasing decisions:

  • Don’t rely on industry standards when making vendor choices: Vendors have good intentions when they tout support for standards, but compliance with standards is just not enough to guarantee interoperability. Additionally, standards do not address all of the critical technology issues you will encounter. Conduct your own research by speaking to customers who have used the products together.
  • Define exact integration requirements: Detailed specifications should be provided in writing to vendors and incorporated into your contracts. Vendors are then contractually obliged to verify that they can make their courses work according to the specifications.
  • Determine vendor support: In some cases, buyers can leverage integrations already completed and funded by LMS and content vendors. If custom work is required to ensure interoperability, you should ask the vendors involved to fund the integration. (Those using a custom-built LMS or custom content will need to fund these integrations themselves or negotiate with vendors.) Also, ask about the escalation path for support issues. Will the vendors cooperate if a problem arises? Which vendor should be contacted first? Problem resolution processes should be documented for bigger contracts.
  • Establish a list of preferred vendors and tools: Establish a list of preferred vendors that you know will integrate with your infrastructure. Such a list can encourage the various groups procuring content and tools to work with proven vendors. But be aware that some vendors are establishing certification programs that validate the interoperability of their products. While not a guarantee of interoperability, these programs are a step in the right direction.
  • Get stakeholder support: Many projects that involve online training require support from other groups. Procuring online content is no different. For example, you may need to involve IT to ensure that there are no security roadblocks. If the learning infrastructure is centrally managed by the human resource organization, then HR needs to be consulted on content decisions.
  • Consider single-source solutions: Some vendors—content vendors, in particular—offer one-stop shopping for both LMS and content, although this is probably not a viable option for most large enterprises. If you follow take this approach, you should be aware that the LMS might not support custom content or content offered by another vendor.
  • Develop internal integration standards and specifications: These can guide purchasing decisions and content development projects throughout the enterprise. Also, set up an accompanying testing process that must be followed.
  • Investigate middleware technology: Although in their infancy, several vendors, including Recombo and Trifus, provide middleware systems for more reliable integration.

The content integration challenge eventually will be resolved through a combination of vendor consolidation, maturity of standards efforts and the development of middleware solutions that broker information between courseware and enterprise learning systems. However, for the next year or so, the headaches associated with content integration could actually become more painful. As organizations develop increasingly complex infrastructures, embrace rapid content development and blended programs, and adopt new technologies such as virtual classrooms and LCMSs, integration projects will become even more sophisticated.

So, for the short-term, the best approach to content integration is to be an informed and skeptical buyer and to invest considerable effort in building internal processes and guidelines that can minimize unexpected problems. And keep that bottle of aspirin handy.

Chris Howard is a principal analyst for Bersin & Associates, specializing in technology for managing content and learning, authoring tools, content integration and simulations. He can be reached at choward@clomedia.com.

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