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Learning Technologies Show, London 30-31st January 2002: Successful but schizophrenic


The recent Learning Technologies conference and exhibition at Olympia on 30th & 31st January 2002 certainly maintained its recent reputation for a show with multiple personalities. It ranged from the academic, in the opening address by Professor Nigel Paine, Director of Science Year, to the deeply technical discussions with some IT vendors at their stands, to business strategy presentations on e-learning.
Those who paid for the conference programme (about 160) tended to be very focused on the presentations and most attended all available sessions. Many barely visited the exhibition. The people who came to the exhibition (about 3000 attendees), seemed equally dedicated to their purpose, often covering the whole exhibition area many times.
Key messages from the show:

  • Attendees are more mature, and know what they want. A large number planned which stands they wanted to visit in advance. For presentations they need statistics and comparable case studies to their own situations. For the exhibition they want clear indicators of what the vendor is selling and how they can get value for money in the current climate. Many are looking for smaller solutions than they may have considered a year ago.
  • The schizophrenic nature of this show still confuses some. Is it an IT learning technology show or an e-learning show? Both actually, but visitors need to be selective if they want to get the most out of the experience.
  • E-learning is moving forward after some difficult times, and the industry is recovering in the UK.
  • E-learning is now being taken more seriously, especially if being sold to meet strategic business needs. “This e-thing has got Training and Development on the business agenda,” said Dave Podmore of e-peopleserve.

There were two conference tracks, ‘e-learning’ and ‘learning issues’. The conference presentation on ‘Making the Business Case for e-Learning’ by Laura Overton of Smartforce and Dave Podmore of e-peopleserve, was typical in that it echoed the cautious optimistic tone of the industry at the moment. A straw poll of attendees, apparently there for a beginner’s guide on ROI in e-learning, found that only 10% of attendees were starting their e-learning journeys. The rest claimed to be experienced. The question had to be asked why they were there. Many were looking for supporting statistics and case studies to take back to the office. Some came to hear ‘big names’ in e-learning, which is always a draw. Others, having paid for the whole conference, were just attending the most appropriate stream. The key messages from this presentation and from others over the two days were confirmed in later discussions with delegates.

Long term success can only be obtained by linking learning strategy to real business needs, and by focusing on learning in the organisation, not just e-learning as a solution. There is a need to find solutions which can be implemented rapidly, in order to keep up with the current pace of change and to maintain momentum and buy-in. In terms of project management, good planning, communication and ‘measuring what matters’ are critical – standard project management principles, but those which are often ignored in the recent wave of e-learning hype.

Two years ago much of the focus of such conferences was on products and content. Now e-learning is maturing it is moving up the scale to become more strategic.

How can this conference and exhibition improve?
Firstly, it needs to determine what its purpose is. Is it a technical show? Is it about e-learning or classroom learning? Is it about best practice in learning overall? Does it want to be a combination of all of the above? Is its title suitable for its purpose? Which audience is it attracting, and how is it marketing itself to attract more people? The theme of the show confused many attendees and needs to be resolved. Unlike many other shows, both the conference side and the exhibition appear equally successful, and it is a strength on which to build.

In terms of the conference there was consensus amongst a large group of delegates that they wanted more tracks, possibly including smaller more targeted sessions for ‘advanced’ users, against general presentations for newcomers. A wider spectrum of subjects was also requested. ‘Case studies without sales pitches’ was a common request, and a number of people from smaller organisations were interested in seeing examples from similar-sized organisations rather than ‘multi-million pound implementations’.

On the administrative front the inability to take away the promised CD of presentation material was a major negative point for some people. Many knew that there was a small window of opportunity to use the knowledge gained to increase their effectiveness at selling e-learning within their organisations, and this material was important in helping them to do so. Many were keen to have post-conference support and Q & A opportunities with the presenters, to ask those vital questions they missed during the conference.

On the exhibition floor the stands were more sober and workmanlike compared to the early heydays of e-learning. Straightforward demos and product discussions were the norm. Traditional training providers such as Learning Tree were very pleased with the interest level, as were those, such as Questionmark, who were selling very obvious applications. Vendors with the big price-tag products such as LMSs, found the audience cautious. Overall, the vendors seemed pleased with the opportunities.
“It’s not the biggest show, but we get good quality attendees”, said one vendor.

Again, on the administrative side there were some blips, including late stand building, electrical issues, confusion over where to get the conference bags, registration bottlenecks and poor siting of the board describing the open seminar sessions.

Ultimately it is up to the conference delegates and the vendors to vote on this show by their attendance. The final message comes from one delegate,

“Keep changing and improving it, and I’ll keep coming back,” he said.


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