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Time-to-Knowledge: The New World Challenge

Vice President, Corporate Communications & Training
Cisco Systems


Unlike the Industrial revolution that occurred over hundreds of years, the Internet revolution will be over in two to three decades. Those countries and companies that do not respond quickly to the challenges and opportunities the Internet creates will simply get left behind. In this fast-changing, knowledge-based environment there will be two equalisers in life, the Internet and Education. Together they will change business, political and social avenues, levelling the playing field between people, companies and countries. E-learning, Internet-enabled learning, will provide businesses and educational institutions with the mechanism, skills and information they need to turn change into an advantage in the Internet Economy. This paper sets out to illustrate Cisco's vision for E-learning, the benefits it can deliver as a business application, its impact on life-long learning opportunities, and the competitive advantage it bestows on organisations and individuals that implement it.


1. Introduction

The Internet is changing the way in which we work, live, play and learn. We now regularly communicate via e-mail and chat rooms both at home and in the business place. We gather real-time news and business intelligence from the web, anywhere in the world. We purchase goods and services through online stores, and make increasingly sophisticated consumer choices based on more widely available information. As a result of its ubiquity, the Internet has erased traditional barriers of time and distance, leading to the evolution of new business, social and educational models.

One of the challenges that this raises, is how businesses and academic institutions can keep up with the pace and diversity of change, and the demand for new skills that has been brought about by the technology changes of the last 15 years? In the information-rich Internet Economy, in which agility and speed are critical, one of the key determinants of relevance and economic success will be the ability to deploy learning, as well as gather and tap knowledge within an organisation.

In this environment, time-to-knowledge will increasingly replace time-to-market as the fundamental business driver and key competitive advantage. Making education, lifelong learning, and skill-set retooling critical for an organisation's long-term, economic survival.

The Internet simultaneously offers a solution to this challenge for employers and educators, and for employees and students. E-learning, web-based delivery of educational content, provides educational institutions and businesses with the means to deliver "anytime, anywhere, accountable" access to learning, as well as promoting the creation of new learning models that are more relevant for the Internet age. It also empowers the individual, enabling life-long learning opportunities, regardless of age, gender, location or culture.


2. The Lessons Learned - the Networking Academy Program

"The network academies are seen by us today in the developing environment as the basic building block that brings the Internet and Information technology into the hands of those countries that are finding themselves more and more marginalised, and joining them with the global community."
(Gabriel Accascina, Regional Coordinator, United Nations Development Program)

In 1993, Cisco embarked on an initiative to design practical, cost-effective networks for schools. It quickly became apparent that designing and installing the networks was not enough. Schools also needed some way to maintain the networks after they were up and running. As a response, Cisco developed training for teachers and staff for self-maintenance of school computer networks. It was soon discovered, however, that the school staff lacked the time required to learn the material, and networking skills evaporated as teachers moved on to new schools.

Consequently, the focus shifted to the next population of learners in the school - the students themselves. The resultant success of the student seminars led to requests from participating schools across the United States for Cisco to develop a curriculum that could be integrated as elective courses taught in a semester format. The formalised curriculum and support activities evolved into the Cisco Networking Academy Program.

Currently, more than 4,600 educational institutions, in 75 countries around the world are delivering e-learning to over 80,000 students through the Cisco Networking Academy Program.

In addition to providing up-to-the-minute educational content, the application of Cisco's E-learning engine for the networking program delivers multiple efficiencies for students and instructors alike. The Cisco Networking Academy Management System - CNAMS provides an online forum for the community of Academy instructors that covers program announcements, downloads of curriculum and software, discussion forums, as well as online technical support. E-learning also facilitates "proximity learning" through which online resources are combined with face-to-face interaction with instructors. This is in contrast to distance learning which lacks interpersonal interaction.

Whilst scalability, speed, ease of access and cost-efficiency are all important benefits of E-learning, the key benefits that Internet-enabled learning delivers are accountability and interaction. Via web-based tools, students can gain access to all aspects of course content and support material, allowing them to proceed through the course at their own pace, from any location - all of which makes students accountable for their own progress.

Likewise, web-based assessment allows education administrators to track student test scores, online instructor training, and other variables that indicate performance. This in turn enables effective allocation of learning resource where necessary. The assessment system provides accountability in the educational process and provides feedback for continual improvement in the curriculum and teaching methods.

As well as compelling educational institutions to develop new instructional techniques to remain successful and relevant, the Internet is forcing business enterprises to evolve into knowledge-centric organisations. At Cisco, we believe that the way in which businesses manage this transformation will be one of the key determinants of their commercial survival.


3. New World Organisations: From "Brick and Mortar" to "Click and Mortar"

The Internet is bringing about one of the most far-reaching and significant changes to the way in which business is conducted. However, when businesses report on their assets, they rarely mention their human capital first, whereas in reality, it is the workforce asset that can produce the biggest positive impact during an economic transition of this magnitude.

It is now widely recognised that the Internet has enabled businesses to grow beyond the traditional 'bricks and mortar' model. As a new business model has evolved, the relevant knowledge, skills and competencies demanded of the workforce have been re-specified. At the same time, emphasis on an organisation's intellectual capital as a key competitive advantage has been heightened. However, businesses around the world are increasingly challenged by an aging population which is unable to accommodate the dynamic growth that is needed. This stagnant labour force growth, in which nearly 70% of the present workforce will still be employed in the year 2020, presents a significant workforce re-skilling requirement.

On average, an individual will have six to seven different jobs in a lifetime. With an ever-increasing business metabolism, even those workers that remain in the same job will require continually updated skills. It is therefore evident that not only will individuals have to embrace a life-long learning model, but that companies will have to put a learning foundation in place that can enhance its intellectual capital as business requirements evolve. At Cisco, we are fully committed to E-learning, and have already experienced many of the benefits that e-learning delivers. We are certain that that for us, as for all New World organisations, e-learning will play a pivotal role in our commercial future.

Some years ago, in the absence of a unified strategy, individual business units throughout Cisco took training and education into their own hands-resulting in redundant efforts and unnecessary expense. This resulted in a restructuring of our training programme, during which time two fundamental objectives were identified. Firstly, to design programmes that optimise learning and eliminate needless repetition, and secondly, to identify personal and organisational learning gaps

Cisco met its training challenge with a comprehensive e-learning solution: the Cisco Learning Network (CLN)-an Internet-based, delivery framework designed to develop and deploy training and education as quickly and effectively as possible. In addition, CLN incorporated accountability by ensuring that the employee and instructor could track results.

Content is captured using slides, audio/video, and other multi-media tools and is grouped into small components (objects) which are then stored in a centralised learning database. Learners select a curriculum or an individual module and take an exam to assess their needs. Based on the results of any assessment, objects can be selected from the database to address deficiencies. Following the instruction, another assessment can be administered to gauge effectiveness of the teaching, with the results of the post-learning assessment stored in a personal training history file in the human resources database

With accountability and accessibility built in, the learning network has resulted in programs that have increased performance and productivity, reduced costs and eliminated traditional barriers, reduced learner time to competence and developed a workforce better equipped to participate and succeed.

In addition, the network has significantly reduced development and delivery time by capturing content into reusable information objects, which can be reformatted quickly and easily. A single training event can be repeated as often as required, allowing training to be directed to students anywhere at a fraction of the cost of traditional programmes. Employees benefit from having greater flexibility and training choices to learn at their own pace, and design their own curriculum through prescriptive learning and targeted skills acquisition.

We have already realised 40-60% cost savings over instructor-led training, and have migrated 80% of sales and technical training online. However, as well as reducing costs, e-learning has a positive impact throughout an organisation. We have found, for example, that in Sales, higher value and faster sales have been achieved; in Human Resources, our employee retention rates have been the highest in the industry, whilst in Manufacturing, time-to-market has been reduced and quality improved.

This has all been achieved across a globally distributed workforce, in an industry in which hundreds of technically complex products are introduced to a market at an increasingly rapid pace. However, we also consider our partners, suppliers and their customers to be part of the extended workforce. It is important to have knowledgeable consumers, and suppliers and partners as well-informed as our direct sales force. For this reason, we have created specific e-learning portals that provide consistent levels of quality and access for these groups. The effect of this cumulative e-learning has been to accelerate the metabolism of all the organisations within the business ecosystem in which we operate.


4. Conclusions

E-learning is giving commercial organisations, educational institutions and individuals the ability to turn change brought about by the Internet Revolution into an advantage. E-learning can impact the bottom line of any organisation with greater force and pace than classroom training could ever hope to do.
Global scope and consistency, immediate updates and changes, round-the-clock, individual access, prescriptive and targeted learning, all add up to increased productivity, quicker knowledge transfer and lower cost of delivery. Combined with management reporting and accountability e-learning will enable companies to transform and manage their Intellectual Capital instead of their Human Resource. Instead of "how many people do we have", organisations will focus on "what do our people know? what can they do?"

The shift in focus, towards becoming a learning-based business is an essential step in the evolution of the 21st Century organisation. For if we are unable to train faster and respond to the need for new skill sets that the digital age demands, we, as individuals, as companies and as countries will be unable to compete and survive in the Internet Economy.