Monday, December 31, 2012

My 2012 Enterprise mLearning Predictions Recap

As 2012 draws to a close, its time to evaluate how in focus my lens on the future of enterprise mobile learning proved to be this past year and how many of my year ago predictions hit their targets. Back on December 30 2011, I scoped eight predictions ranging from hardware/software to content types and authoring tools to macro-level mobility trends our team felt would influence the market for mLearning products and services for the year and I wasn’t disappointed (or much surprised) about how it all played out. Here’s the analysis of how it all played out.

Prediction #1 - Mobile Learning Goes Mainstream. Or perhaps this is more a case of the classic “frog in boiling water” scenario. Whatever it is, this one is music to my ears after many years of toiling away to make mLearning a reality for the enterprise. The acceptance of mobile learning within the business community probably won’t happen with much fanfare, it will just happen and be accepted as a “norm” wherein the market no longer asks “should we offer learning to our employees (or partners or customers) via mobile device?” and will simply state “we need to offer learning to our workers via their omnipresent mobiles!” The reasons will be plentiful but largely driven by better/cheaper/more ubiquitous technologies and everyone’s acceptance of the fact we all use our phones (tablets, et al) to improve both personal and business communications and to be more productive.

On Target But... Overall interest in enterprise mobile learning definitely accelerated in 2012 with various surveys reporting that more than a simple majority of Learning and Development teams are committed to identifying ways to implement mobile learning for their workers and perhaps even customers as soon as practical in their organizations. We’ve certainly witnessed much of the inertia being driven at the grass roots level from executives, sales pros and other mobile-equipped employees sporting their own smartphones and tablets rather than in response to strategies being developed by the training department. For enterprise mobile learning to be considered a “bullseye” and truly mainstream, the level of adoption will needs to be measured in wide scale usage not just varying levels of investigation, pilots and strategy development.  All that said, our company witnessed large scale enterprise deployments in 2012 from several early adopter customers and partners who are now being rewarded for their progressive thinking and are now gaining “first mover advantage” over their peers and competitors. And wherein a typical mLearning deployment was measured in 100s of mobile workers back in 2008 through 2010 and in the 1000s of mobile workers as recently as this past year, the target and committed audience for several active programs is expanding to 25K, 50K and more mobile workers for several planned initiatives we are supporting moving into 2013 – that’s something I’ll categorize as mainstream for sure for a lucky few!  

Prediction #2 - Access Points Diversify There will be more types of devices and ways to connect with our mobile learning world in 2012. And I am not just talking about the classic iOS vs. Android vs. other argument but the fact that different classes of hardware will start to get into our learning mix too. By next December, the average corporate learner will likely have a capable smartphone and their desktop/laptop PLUS a media tablet and/or eBook reader and perhaps even a smart TV back at home that is web-connected and runs apps. The ability to move seamlessly from one device experience to another will be critical with complete synchronization of our learning progress, status, achievements, etc. no matter where or when we choose/need to learn.

A Hit & A Miss. The first part of this prediction was “spot on” – enterprise workers are better equipped on the mobile front at the end of 2012 than they’ve ever been. A simple majority of all workers are now sporting data-driven smartphones versus the simple feature phones that have dominated the landscape into 2012. And highly capable tablets and eBook readers now occupy prime real estate in many of our briefcases and messenger bags and likely sit atop everyone else’s tech toy wish list. This recent post suggests more tablets were received/activated on Christmas Day than smartphones fueled by our sustained interest in gadgets to help inform, entertain and hopefully educate us in times of need. I admit the level interest in smart TVs did not materialize in 2012 as I had expected it might for a variety of reasons and without capable intelligent displays in our living rooms learning won’t begin to happen there. I ponder how this would have played out if Apple had ventured into the television market as many analysts expected them to 2012 and that opportunity remains for 2013.

Prediction #3 - Mobile Web vs. Mobile App Debate Intensifies. Is enterprise mobile learning best delivered via native mobile apps or using mobile web apps? I agree the technologies to create, deploy and manage HTML5-based mobile web apps will greatly improve in 2012 but I don't feel they will mature to the point they can replace all native apps – at least in most of the primary enterprise use cases for learning that’s managed and tracked. The many advantages of mobile web apps – like cross platform OS support for iOS, Android and others – will still be mitigated in key areas like security, off-line storage, sync updates, access to device features like cameras (although this is improving in the spec) plus critical infosec concerns like SSO support when disconnected and remote wipe capabilities that just don’t work in mobile web apps yet. We do sense that mobile web apps will start to take their rightful place when looking to support an organization’s external learners (e.g., partners, customers) where ease of install/access are paramount and the required features can be limited to what’s essential instead of everything that’s required by IT, security and management.  We also think hybrid apps that mix the best of native apps and mobile web apps will have a bigger impact on enterprise mobile learning thoroughout 2012 than just pure mobile web apps for that same market.

Bullseye. The use of native apps continued to dominate the enterprise mobile learning landscape in our experience throughout 2012. Interest in the mobile web app approach remains strong with many organizations especially from those wading into the mobile learning pool for the first time (from both the customer and vendor perspective). True, mobile web app access methods are cheaper to design and deliver in multi-device mobile environments but the feature set still remains limited with respect to things like access to core device features (camera, accelerometer), device security, offline access and experience customization. I agree the HTML5 tools used for mobile development are improving with each and every quarter but it will take a year or more for these capabilities to begin to match the native experience. Finally, given we can deliver mobile learning to our customers using either approach – as we have native app frameworks for every major device and content can also be accessed via any web kit-enabled mobile browser – our actual access stats suggest the majority of mobile learners prefer the native app route and will take the time to download, install and configure an app to gain a better overall learning experience.  And learning vendors (e.g., Brainshark, Plateau/SF/SAP, Saba, Skillsoft) who suggest the mobile web app approach is superior to the native app approach have simply not made the necessary investments required in building the right teams and selecting the proper tools and methods that meet contemporary mobile learner and more general business app mobility expectations.

Prediction #4 - Flash Falters, HTML5 and ePUBs Gain in Popularity. 2012 will be a pivotal year in the way enterprises must think about designing, producing, delivering and managing their content strategies, and mobility strategies will alter many of our current tool kit and business process choices.  Adobe’s move to stop developing Flash Player plug-ins for mobile web browsers set a BIG BALL in motion that quelled the desire for many Instructional Designers to use pure Flash or popular rapid development tools outputting Flash-based content as their unified content delivery strategy.  Part of this shift was driven by the fact that Flash-based content actually didn’t perform/behave well on most Flash-enabled handsets and tablets especially when the content was local rather than on a server. Much has been said and written about the next wave of HTML5-based authoring tools or updates that will transform yesterday’s authoring tools into tomorrow’s more flexible and functional authoring systems and I suspect we’ll have nice working versions of the top five offerings able to create content that’s both desktop and mobile device friendly by mid year with commercial ready offerings from Adobe, Articulate and a host of others.

I also think many teams will begin to rethink their content creation and delivery options resulting in new ways to chuck up or package content that’s friendly to both online and mobile consumption scenarios. One trend is to move away from monolithic, structured 20 to 30 minute courses that worked fine online via a PC towards the notion of shorter, standalone learning objects that can be more easily discovered, accessed and consumed at the time of need from any device/app.  Another counter-balanced trend gaining momentum will be the use of eBook style delivery formats that make it easier to produce and manage long-form content that is far more feature rich than static PDF files. Growing interest in the ePUB content formats, especially media-friendly ePUB-3s, will allow learners to gain more from and interact better with the content packages themselves and enable cool functionality like highlighting, like better indexing/threading and both personal and shared note taking all with the same level of access control and tracking that’s generally only found today with an online eLearning course.     

Near Bullseye. 2012 will be remembered as the year the current shifted on Adobe Flash as the preferred training content and rich media delivery format. Steve Jobs’ 2010 insistence that his company’s devices would rely on more “open standards” based on HTML5 and CSS over the then ubiquitous Flash standard proved both powerful and prophetic resulting in a slow but steady transition away the well established but dated comfort zone our industry had grown accustomed to. Learning tool makers are finally starting to step in to fill the void created by this seismic shift and 2012 witnessed acceptable (albeit inaugural) levels of mobile-centric capabilities coming from several leading and formally Flash-centric stalwarts like Adobe, Articulate, Harbinger, iSpring and others. Early mobile-focused tool innovators like dominKnow and Rapid Intake (now part of Callidus) also benefited from their HTML5 first mover advantages and real world experience making their respective core offerings more flexible and powerful in the mobile realm. Every vendor currently stuck with Flash-only content delivery methods is extolling the virtue of their “soon to be released” HTML5 (or other mobile friendly) offerings to stay relevant in the face of all these new choices. And many of these product refreshes are working to include other mobile-optimized extensions like the Tin Can/Experience API that will make mobile tracking easier to manage and manage. Finally, I really like what’s happened on the ePUB front though there’s still a lack of nice tools for creating cross-platform/device compatible eBook-style deliverables. I’d love to see some nice innovation in this area in 2013 knowing this new world content/media packaging movement represents a truly fresh and interactive way to rethink a plethora of mobile content use cases.

Prediction #5 - Gamification Accelerates mLearning Adoption.  Once everyone has the right devices and organizations accept the mandate to provide training, performance support and business communications via mobile, what will compel learners to participate and keep them engaged when there are so many distractions like Facebook, Twitter, Farmville and mobile shopping? Gamification seems to be a likely answer to that question. Not that companies need to even create “games” per se; rather, the trend will be towards gamifying our standard formal learning actions and informal social interactions through the addition of point systems, achievement leveling/scaling, overall leader boards, badging systems and tangible reward/incentives. Increased awareness of who’s ahead and how can others beat them to the finish line will drive learner engagement and overall organizational behavior and mobile access to these learning materials and communities makes it easier to participate and stay connected whenever the mood suits us.

On Target But... The word “gamification” definitely entered the lexicon of many training teams in 2012 although what is means/represents is still in question and misunderstood by many and debate of its merits will continue well into 2013. For the uninitiated, gamification as it relates to learning is the practice of applying game mechanics and dynamics – commonly things like points, badges and leader boards (and so much more) – to non-gaming activities or learning interactions to drive engagement and accelerate business outcomes. As a vendor who offers a fully integrated “gamification engine” that ties directly to an online and mobile LMS platform, I can comfortably say two things: (1) gamification is NEVER going to marginalize nor replace the efforts of real game designers and the highly polished, immersive and effective environments they deliver (nor was it ever meant to), and (2) gamification IS making a real difference in driving learning engagement, improving product/service knowledge levels and increasing organization performance when applied to the proper learning interactions and situations. We’ve seen training completion and knowledge retention rates in game-enabled learning environments increase anywhere from 200% to more than 900% meaning more people are actively engaged and better prepared to perform their jobs. True, not all organizations are ready to take a leap at adding gamified learning practices into their mix but they certainly should be open to checking out what’s possible/practical without dismissing it outright for reasons various pundits assume but generally can’t confirm.

Prediction #6 - Fewer but More Capable Tablets. I suspect the annual Consumer Electronics Show (“CES”) event in Las Vegas next week will have far fewer tech OEMs wading into the tablet pool as compared with January 2011. Apple’s iPad will continue to be the market leader in 2012 though a collection of tablet devices based on Android (in older Honeycomb to newer Ice Cream Sandwich flavors), Microsoft Windows 8 and possibly even RIM’s PlayBook 2.0 OS will continue to eat away at Apple’s market share as organizations seek to take advantage of the tablets for media consumption, user-generated content creation and in situ selling supported. Interest in using tablets for business purposes comes across business sectors large and small alike too and we see the broader trend of tablets replacing laptops in many instances and even becoming shared devices in certain use cases (e.g., retail sales, in field tech trucks, departmental loaners) but requiring enterprise level controls and security too. 

Near Bullseye. There’s a large and growing chorus that tablets are the first and only viable way to deliver highly functional mobile experiences – from sales tools to performance support to line of business applications to learning – to our on-the-go enterprise workers. Having spent eight plus years developing mobile learning solutions for the enterprise, I would tend to disagree with that statement but will concede that tablets have captured our attentions and are driving new and renewed interest in enterprise mobility solutions spanning a wide array of business use cases. Part of this trend is less about the tablet being a better form factor than a smartphone but more about the tablet being a more practical and cost effective alternative to a standard issue laptop. Companies across industries and geographies alike are replacing last generation PCs with next generation tablets for myriad reasons including being instant on, always connected and often just more fun to use and interact with. As predicted, the number and variety of tablets introduced throughout 2012 was smaller than seen in 2011 and serious market leadership was relegated to a select number of tier one vendors including Apple, Samsung, Google/Motorola and Amazon fighting to stay a few steps ahead of tier two competitors like RIM, Microsoft, Lenovo, Barnes & Noble. Despite the fragmentation at all levels, the lion’s share of tablet adoption for mobile learning within the enterprise was concentrated on Apple’s various iPad offerings especially when firms were looking to equip their sales teams and executives.  I think Apple will continue to be the majority player for the next year although their overall market share will continue to erode to the benefit of various Android-based alternatives. Microsoft had a tough go of trying to convince the market that their Windows 8 and RT/Surface-based tablets were the right enterprise alternative to the iPad as evidenced here.  And being the low cost provider in this sector hasn’t proved to make much of a difference in what an enterprise will purchase for their mobile workers.

Prediction #7 - Cool Mobile Tech Sparks Learning Innovations. The latest mobile devices support a wide array of new features that will ignite some nifty innovations in the learning space throughout 2012. As people and companies replace their older BlackBerries, iPhones and Android devices, their new equipment will sport cool next-gen functions like dual core processors making big media and big data easier to manage on our smaller devices. We will benefit from faster data speeds using LTE (“long term evolution”) or true 4G radios enabling quicker access to high value content as well as video access to our experts and web conferencing access to scheduled ILT events. And more advanced operating systems combined with embedded chips will provide support for new forms of proximity computing using Near Field Communication (“NFC”) thus allowing new kinds of location-based services for learning. I feel the positive effects of the aforementioned evolutions will be more pronounced than similar advances in areas like augmented reality that will remain costly to design, produce and manage.  

Target Missed. It’s true that better and faster devices were everywhere this year but I think most of these delivered innovation promises failed to have much effect on driving the learning side of the market. And while I am pleased to have LTE-enhanced handsets and tablets at my beck and call, the learning experience hasn’t really improved appreciably because I had a faster connection. The promise of NFC, location-based services and augmented reality-based use cases were not attained either nor did they seem to be compelling enough for our customers to demand these sorts of services – at least not yet.

Prediction #8 - Market Consolidations Continue/Accelerate The big will continue to eat the small as larger vendors seek to increase their market appeal to both customers and investors. According to Bersin and Associates, 2011 already saw several of the tier one Talent Management vendors actively engaged in expanding their market reach and the portfolio offerings through strategic acquisitions and mergers and these moves make the resulting companies far more attractive acquisitions to the larger enterprise software whales that rule their respective oceans. SAP’s planned takeover of SuccessFactors and Oracle’s move on RightNow (approved this week) all are harbingers of more market consolidation as larger companies look to flesh out their cloud, mobile and social strategies. 

On Target.  The big continued to eat the small throughout 2012 in an effort to protect market share while bolstering their portfolios with innovative product and service offerings at all ends of the business spectrum. Tier Ones like Oracle captured Tier Twos like Taleo to strengthen cloud and talent appeals alike. IBM consumed Kenexa right after they had acquired LCMS vendor Outstart who had previously bought Hot Lava for their mobile learning offering – a food chain process that will be repeated time and again. Several of the LMS/TM players like Saba, Cornerstone on Demand and Callidus Cloud each gobbled up smaller and flexible innovators across a variety of disciplines to beef up their product suites and help tell a better story to both customers and investors. I suspect even more of the same in 2013 especially with the looming uncertainty the financial and general business markets and the effects these constraints will have on R&D budgets and resulting lack of innovation coming from hobbled teams.

So, that’s a wrap for 2012. Stand by for my 2013 predictions in the next few days as we look into what the future hold for enterprise mobile learning.  And thanks for reading this and sharing it with others too! 

Robert ;)

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