A Brief Historical Look at Corporate Training

corporate training

I’ve been working in this industry for almost 25 years, but like everyone, the other 25 years were also spent in the learning industry: elementary school, high school, college, etc. As I get older, new professionals fresh out of Ed Tech programs look younger and younger. I’m glad they don’t carry the baggage of industrial age instructional systems design and that they embrace new tech faster than most. I often wonder if they know about how we got to where we are today.

I write this post in the hopes that you will take a moment to step back and reflect on your own journey into corporate training. If you’re in your 40s or 50s or 60s, I’d love to hear your story. I’ve heard many stories during my career and have learned the most from those who lived them. I’ve met people who had worked on the original SCORM standard, those driving the new xAPI standard, as well as early champions of our industry who coined the terms and built the original software tools. The people in our industry make it special and if you are new to this field, I welcome you and hope you will engage within the community, learn about its past, and engage in its building its future.

Corporate Training in the 1970’s

It was a time of Disco, bell bottom pants, lava lamps, leisure suits, big hair (women), video game arcades, main frame computers and PLATO. The counterculture of the “Me” decade, was “far out”, “trippy”, and “right on”. The Apple II was launched in the late 70’s, but most of the world still ran on large mainframe computers. One of the first educational games made for the Apple II came in 1978, a year after the personal computer launched. And yes, it’s THAT game: The Oregon Trail. Most of you probably remember it as more of an 80’s thing from your childhood. here are young learning professionals enter the workforce who have never heard of it.

The Oregon Trail is significant to personal computers in education, but it’s PLATO that started the age of computer-assisted instruction. It started in the 60’s but only ran on one large mainframe computer at the University of Illinois. It gained funding do to a significant increase expected in college attendance.

The large increase in college students during the 50’s, had institutions scrambling to provide course supply for the increased demand.  According to wikipedia:“If computerized automation increased factory production, it could do the same for academic instruction.”

While PLATO was conceived and born in the 60’s, it didn’t gain prominent use by educators until the 70s. Through the 70s it was being marketed as a tool for retraining unemployed workers in new fields. If you thought eLearning was expensive to build, then consider $300,000 per delivery hour for PLATO courseware! PLATO rolled into the 80s and mostly just died. The history of PLATO is interesting, and if you’re working in training or L&D, you should have at least a basic understanding of it. As you read about it you will begin to see patterns in our industry sounding eerily familiar.

Corporate Training in the 1980‘s

It was a time of acid-washed jeans, Ray-ban sunglasses, the Preppy look, big hair (men), glam rock, new wave bands, personal computers, and Computer-based training (CBT). It is probably best known as the “Reagan Boom” era. This was the decade of the Commodore 64, the Macintosh, the IBM 5150, and the often forgotten, or even unheard of, Amiga 500. By today’s standards, you could assume that most people owned these computers in the same way most people own mobile phones today. Not so. Only 8.2% of American households had computers in 1984 and only increased to 15% by the end of the decade.

While PLATO and The Oregon Trail had planted the seed of computer based training, these new personal computers were the start of the digital revolution that would soon impact homes, schools, and businesses around the world. By 1988, 97% of schools had at least one computer.

The computers were great, but software was lacking. Users wanted to create their own programs without needing to know programming and thus, the authoring tool was born. Hypercard and Authorware both launched in 1987, making it easy to create multi-media programs. What you could produce was crude by today’s standards, but it gave anyone the ability to create educational programs. It wasn’t long before authoring systems began making their way into corporate training departments.

Corporate Training in the 1990’s

It was a time of flannel shirts, grunge music, OJ Simpson, The Rachel hair style, Sony Playstation, Linux, the World Wide Web, and CBT transitioning to WBT (Web-based Training). Computer-based training began to gain significant momentum in corporate training departments during the 90s. Mailing CD-ROM courses to offices around the world was significantly cheaper than regularly sending instructors to the same sites. With Windows-based PCs dominating the workplace, the cofounder of Microsoft Paul Allen launched an authoring tool business called Asymetrix with their flagship product Toolbook. Companies providing CD-ROM training content boomed, as production no longer required programmers to create it. However the CD-ROM course market quickly waned, as we realized nobody enjoyed sitting at a computer for hours taking a training course—a problem we still struggle with today.

I posted the following question on Twitter: “What stands out for you the most when thinking about the learning industry in the ‘90s?” @moehlert responded with one word, “Proprietary.” The new authoring tools and systems of the ‘90s had no standards to follow. Governments and large enterprises, with multiple internal systems, could not share courses or the resulting usage data they produced. This drove the creation of the sharable content object reference model(SCORM), which  gained traction in the following decade.

The 90’s can claim the rise, and fall, of CBT and its transition to Web-Based Training. As CD-ROM courses and content began to lose market share to content on the internet, the industry shifted to web-based training. Authoring tools developed new delivery “packages,” which allowed developers to publish their courses on the internet. As a result, on-premise, client/server based, learning management systems became commonplace in the enterprise. The decade closed with our industry soaring to new heights, continuing massive growth, as it embraced the internet and a new term: eLearning.

Corporate Training in the 2000‘s

It was a time of crop tops, geek chic, Wii and World of Warcraft, the Internet boom and high speed bandwidth, Y2K and Web2.0, “the cloud,” and the dot-com bust,  Learning2.0, SCORM, and the SaaS based LMS. Everything that started in the 90’s, either crashed and burned, or boomed famously. Think Amazon, YouTube, and social media. Internet technologies were advancing rapidly, the battle cry of learning professionals became, “Death to the boring page-turners.” The term, “click next,” became a punchline at industry events. Google, wikipedia, social media, and online communities, became the new standard in which the training/learning industry desperately wanted to emulate. And so, the idea of training departments supporting Informal Learning was born.

The Sharable Content Object Reference Model(SCORM), standard was adopted by the U.S. government, which drove vendor companies and enterprise training departments to adopt the standard as well. By the end of the decade, SCORM began to feel old and outdated. The changing Internet landscape needed a different kind of standard. Something more similar to the usefulness of an application programming interface (API).  This forced the process to begin again, defining a more flexible standard to support learning in the decades to come with the Tin Can API.

Once the Software as a Service (SaaS), model began to prove itself, small businesses began to disrupt the markets long held by industry giants. The Music and Newspaper industries most notably began to die, as self-publishing grew on the internet. The technology shifted our focus from CBT, to WBT, to eLearning, and into a world of undefined buzzwords and learning solutions. The increase in mobile technology drove mLearning, just as social media drove informal learning. As the training industry struggled to maintain relevance in the enterprise, it began to expand into other areas typically handled by HR, like talent development. Instead of simply providing specific job skills training, the industry looked to expand into employee competency models and building enterprise learning cultures.

“The American Society for Training and Development began referring to itself as ASTD to underscore that it wanted to broaden its scope as a professional organization.” – Wikipedia

ASTD later took on a more drastic title change becoming The Association for Talent Development, or ATD.

Corporate Training in the 2010’s

It was a time of hipsters, Electronic Dance Music, Gangnam Style, eSports, mobile gaming, Mad Men and Game of Thrones, tablet computing and streaming media, micro-learning and everything gamified. SaaS based systems were well positioned for the growing mobile first development decade. By 2015 ,first mover, and mobile, learning management system Litmos held the highest percentage of HR LMS market share at 21%. It’s become clear that software as a service will remain the standard moving into the 2020s.

This decade also has seen the rise of streaming media and virtual reality, both of which are already well established as effective learning solutions in corporate training. Mobile devices, broadband, and inexpensive easy to use production tools are fueling its use by both training professionals and non-professionals alike. Training content, once the production domain of academically trained professionals, is now being created by non-professionals as well. Product departments inside large bureaucratic enterprises learn to bypass HR systems and manage their own product and customer training development and delivery. Live streaming media is now part of most social media platforms however, the learning industry has yet to fully embrace it. But this is common as our industry tends to follow the “wait and see” approach to new technology. We still have 3 years left of this decade and there is a lot to be excited about.

Update 2/24/17: The following video was produced for LearningNow.TV on this topic.