social snake oil

Knowledge management (KM) was a most promising field until it was hijacked by software vendors who were selling IT systems for six figures. A lot of money went into information technology systems and there was little left to help the individual make sense of it. Dave Pollard noted this several years ago:

“So my conclusion this time around was that the centralized stuff we spent so much time and money maintaining was simply not very useful to most practitioners. The practitioners I talked to about PPI [Personal Productivity Improvement] said they would love to participate in PPI coaching, provided it was focused on the content on their own desktops and hard drives, and not the stuff in the central repositories.”

Personal Knowledge Mastery is one counter movement to centralized document repositories. As Mary Abraham wrote, during a recent discussion on PKM: “Perhaps PKM is growing in importance because so few organizational KM methods work for individuals.” As soon as the software vendors and marketers get hold of a good idea, they pretty well destroy it. Maybe that’s why there’s a constant flow of new business books: the authors are trying to keep ahead of the snake oil salesmen.

I saw this happen with e-learning. In the late 1990’s e-learning was an all encompassing term for learning online. However, the IT systems vendors and the course providers (AKA: shovelware) turned e-learning into online courses. Building simplistic document management systems coupled with generic information presentation was an easy way to keep profits high.

Now if you say you’re in the e-learning business, everyone thinks you do online courses. That’s why I coined the term, ABC Learning [Anything But Courses]. Yes, I know there are some good e-learning programs, but these are more than information presentation. The better ones resemble simulations.

Is the same thing happening with social learning? Jane Hart recently changed her title to Social Learning Consultant so people will not think she creates online courses. Now social learning is being picked up by software vendors and marketers as the next solution-in-a-box, when it’s more of an approach and a cultural mind-set. In A framework for social learning in the enterprise, there is no suggestion whatsoever that an organization can implement some software system and suddenly social learning will just happen. Perhaps PT Barnum was right and there is an innate desire to buy some magic potion to solve all our problems.

Why are businesses buying their productivity tools from traveling circuses?

21 Responses to “social snake oil”

  1. Jane Hart

    Thanks for mentioning me Harold. As you point out I changed my title from E-Learning Consultant to Social Learning Consultant last year. I’ve always defined e-learning very widely, in fact I think Cisco summed it up nicely in 2000 when they said it was about “information, instruction, communication, collaboration and knowledge sharing”. However, in the last decade it has been hijacked by those who have simply “dummed it down” to mean online courses. So, as many people thought that my role as an E-Learning Consultant meant creating online course, I changed my title. For me, social media breathed new life back into “e-learning”, in fact I tell people that this was what e-learning should always have been like. The technology is now there to support not only “instruction” but also information and knowledge sharing, communication and collaboration – so it’s quite clear that it’s not just about supporting formal learning approaches but also informal learning approaches. However, I am getting increasingly concerned, that just as the word “e-learning” has been misused, the word “social learning” is also beginning to be abused. Articles or vendors that suggest that implementing social learning is simply about upgrading your LMS to a Social LMS or LMS 2.0 are completely missing the point. For me it’s about re-thinking your whole approach to organisational learning, which is far more than just installing a platform that delivers and manages users taking social online courses.

  2. Marilyn Miller

    I agree with your premise that vendors can hijack a good idea like social learning and turn it into something that is “dummed down”. On the other hand, we should be educating the so called buyers of the “social snake oil”. People stop buying snake oil when they are educated about the product and what they think it might do. Many have good intentions, they want to stay relevant and use the latest technologies. They need to be educated about social media so that they do not support the “social snake oil” vendors.

    • Harold Jarche

      I’ve been doing that for over a decade, Marilyn (six years on this blog). Some days it feels like a losing battle while on others it appears we’re making some headway. Hope you join in the fight.

  3. Alan Levine

    I recently ordered a pizza at the Oakland airport. While waiting, bored, I glanced at my receipt, which suggested I become a fan HMSHost on facebook – who the heck needs to be a fan of a conglomerate airport concessionaire?

    I now know I got a pizza flavored with Snake Oil.

  4. Anne Marie McEwan

    “Why are businesses buying their productivity tools from traveling circuses?”

    I feel the same way about business books. I understand that what serious thinkers say can seem impenetrable, and practicing managers have no time to wade through it.

    The book I am writing is my attempt to combat snake oil. It will not be a best seller. That is OK, though. My intention is to say what I want to say and to draw a line under the academic bit of what I do to build on the practical stuff.

    I refuse to use the terms ‘Enterprise 2.0’, ‘E-learning’ or ‘Social learning’ in the work I do with businesses, which is driven by the questions “What do you need to do better or differently?” and “How might I be able to help?”. Whatever happens next goes on from there (drawing on insights from the serious thinkers, translating to make them useful).

  5. minh mcCloy

    The term e-learning/Elearning has been such an ugly confection. Why does learning need a prefix?

    If there is elearning is there plearning? (p=paper)

    Or if some distinction is required because of this particular technology why not ‘cyber’?

    Cybernetics – A Definition

    But I think just unadorned learning which happens in the wetware not in the electronics or on the paper.

  6. Talia from Sparkeo

    Before I post, I’d like to point out that I have also placed this as a comment on the original post. I could write a new version, but in all honesty, we are all talking about the same thing, so I kept it as is.

    I understand exactly what you’re talking about. We are one of those companies, and I have contacted you and several others about our website and product.

    We have the same problem: While we don’t specifically brand ourselves as e-learning (you won’t find that written on our site), clearly we are a tool that is meant to help.

    Yes, behavioral change is the key to success, and online learning is a fairly new and undeveloped field (not for lack of trying).

    Unfortunately, I cannot answer your question – it is my exact one. I try so hard not to seem spammy and not to seem like I am sending form letters, but in essence, that’s what happens.

    I don’t know the answer. When I started in community management quite a few years ago, my job was a lot easier. People would answer your emails (or at least at a higher rate than now), and they were less suspicious. As a blogger (not related to online learning in any way), I receive many such emails on a weekly basis, and discard almost all of them.

    So here’s MY question: How do you want to be approached by someone who has genuine interest in you and YOUR site, and honestly believes their product can help you or your readers? I follow you (and other commentors here) on Twitter and I read your blogs. I have even commented on them more than once (real comments, not “My company solves this problem” type of comments). Yet I get virtually no reply.

    How are we supposed to get in touch with people now? How do you find out about new products that can be helpful to you or people you know? Someone needs to try it out so you can hear about it. How can we make that person YOU?

    Talia Klein
    Director of Community and Social Media,

    • Harold Jarche

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts here, Talia. I find that online isn’t that different from face to face. If I know you then I’ll be more receptive to what you have to say. That means engaging in conversations that interest both of us. For instance, I met Dave Wilkins online through discussions on social learning. Later, I asked what he did and he told me about Mzinga. I actually asked for a product demo. Dave now works at and I would be comfortable learning more about their products from Dave because I trust him and I know that he respects my opinion. It’s not a pitch; we’re sharing.

      What’s the best way to pitch to me? Don’t. Like you, I’m not interested in unsolicited offers. However, if you follow my online conversations there may be an opportunity to talk about your product “in context”. I find out about products from many sources, mostly third-party reviewers. I have an interest in products for myself and for my clients but I don’t want to get too deep unless I have an actual client with a current need. I know that I can make one blog post asking for information about a good tool that does XYZ and I will get a lot of information and perspective from my network. Because I can pull information as I need it, I don’t need it pushed to me.

  7. Bill Fitzgerald

    Hello, Harold,

    This is what companies do — they appropriate trending topics, send it off to marketing and sales to get the term incorporated into a product line and sales outreach, and then they push it in conferences as “the next big thing” — with the implication that they were there first.

    It’s happened with e-anything, social anything, and open-anything, to the point where these terms that once had meaning have been sucked dry through repeated inclusion in lifeless, meaningless marketing copy.

    RE Talia’s question: “How do you want to be approached by someone who has genuine interest in you and YOUR site, and honestly believes their product can help you or your readers?”

    I receive countless emails like this, and I never, ever, respond. And when people ask me about those companies, I discourage people from using them, because any company that knows anything about social [insert buzzword here] *should* know that a hackneyed approach betrays a superficial understanding of the market they purport to understand.

    The same is true of twitter marketing, facebook marketing, etc, etc. At some point, people might understand that a good product blog, combined with a strong support community that engages its current clients, combined with actually listening to people can provide a strong message to those who want to receive it.



  8. Talia from Sparkeo

    Thanks for the tips, guys.

    As someone who has been on Twitter for WAY longer than it has been a buzz word (about 2 years now), I am very much against using those buzz words because I know how misused they are. I see countless people try to use social media the wrong way.

    Last August, my local Twitter community was very divided between those who thought it was about quality versus those who thought it was about quantity. The quantity guy threatened to sue a bunch of us (a lot happened there), but ultimately he had about 10 real followers among the 33,000 who were listed, and he hasn’t tweeted in months. This was AFTER he opened a company whose purpose was to get the the most followers for any company who was looking to join Twitter. Misuse of a medium is incredibly frustrating, and I can see that, at least to you guys, misuse of buzz words (even if I honestly don’t think I have personally been guilty of it), is an equal crime.

    Do you differentiate between those who email you without knowing what you write about and those who don’t? I don’t mean someone emailing you and just putting your blog title in the email.

    But I have taken into consideration everything y’all said here (and on Jane’s group on FB) and am considering changing our approach, at least partially.

    In essence, what everyone here is saying is don’t bothering emailing me, correct?

  9. Bill Fitzgerald

    Hello, Talia,

    RE: “The quantity guy threatened to sue a bunch of us (a lot happened there)” — that sounds out of hand! I bet there is an interesting backstory.

    RE: “misuse of buzz words is an equal crime” — once something has become a buzzword, the term has lost any real meaning that it might have had. The more significant issue is when companies take a term that has real meaning and significance, and incorporates that work into its marketing buzz in a way that twists the meaning of the term beyond recognition.

    As one of many examples, look at the way the term “Open” has been stripped of its original meaning through inclusion in countless “Web 2.0” marketing campaigns. If you read the marketing materials, Blackboard is Open.

    But with that said, I appreciate your participation in and contributions to the conversation, both here, on Twitter, and in other places. And as always, a hearty “Thank you” to our host, Harold, who wrote the post and started things off.



  10. Teemu Leinonen


    I think we should find balance between the organizational change / development and tools (technology, software). They both drive each other.

    I was some months ago giving a talk in a business conference about the “next generation wikis in competence development”. I felt the audience was not happy when I told them that wikis are pretty much the same today as they were 10 years ago and there isn’t any major new features coming up. The new “generation wiki” is the new people with different mindset and if one wants to use wikis in competence development the first step is to make your work place “wiki-friendly”

    Your post also made me think about the LMS madness. I wrote about it some years ago. Here:

    – Teemu


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