End of an era?

I have commented on these pages many times about the rise and dramatic fall of the e-Learning industry in New Brunswick. Under the McKenna era there were some that said this would be the next call centre sector – employing thousands of New Brunswickers around the province in a wide variety of fields ranging from content conversion (traditional to online), new content development (multimedia/animation), content translation/localization and even technology tool development. All of these industry sub-sectors had some potential circa the mid 1990s.

Now, with the failure of Fredericton-based Provinent (which had swallowed up several other leading players such as Content Alive and LearnStream), there’s not much left. An industry that supposedly employed well over 2,000 people in the late 1990s is now down to a couple of players. Fredericton’s Skillsoft office, I have read, is really just doing call centre work (inside sales, customer support) and no real ‘e-learning’ such as content development.

What went wrong? Some people have bitterly blamed the Lord government for outright ignoring this sector upon coming into power in 1999. Others have blamed the global downturn in e-Learning. Others have said that the local industry was mostly a ‘house of cards’ living on government contracts and government funding.

Now, without sounding like too much of a jerk on this, I have to believe that one of the problems with the sector was that it was almost entirely locally (in New Brunswick) generated. There was only one or two international firms that setup here (Skillsoft’s predecessor actually bought a firm here and that is how they got in). The one remaining firm of consequence, Innovatia, is a subsidiary of Aliant which has, presumably, deep pockets.

I continue to believe that successful sector development must include both attracting industry leaders and supporting local start ups.

I’ll give you a quick example that I may have mentioned before. When the dot.com meltdown occured in 2000ish, many e-Learning players were swept under. Most NB firms had less than six months of working capital and no other sources of financial support so they went under – many literally within 6-12 months. By contrast, the California-based players like Docent, Saba, etc. were still well financed and literally went years without turning a profit (i.e. living off their VC). Now many of those firms have emerged – successful and ongoing.

What we should have done was this (easier said than done, I admit).

1. Attract a few world leaders (such as divisions of Canada’s Thompson) into the sector

2. Align government R&D funding to build credibility into the sector (i.e. a centre of content localization at UdeM).

3. Support only local firms that have a demostratable exportable product/service.

4. Align our nascent animation sector with the e-Learning sector.

But I guess it’s too late now.