Fall 2000


Read related materials

Read an excerpt of The Experience Economy.

Review Flow: The psychology of optimum experience. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. New York: Harper and Row, 1991. Also see Finding flow. New York: Basic Books, 1997.





That damn “e” is everywhere, and elearning has caught the fever. If you’re going to talk about the entire “e”learning story, however, I propose you move the discussions from electronic transfer to powerful experiences.

The Difference Between Experiences and Content

Experiences do not equal Content. Experiences are fluid practices and processes that impact performances. Content is steeped in processes that sequence and chunk events. The difference is that content, in the form of training, unambiguous information, or defined problem-solving tactics, assumes a predictable environment, relies on explicit knowledge, and is linear. Experiences are grounded in the way work really gets done: spontaneous, proactive, flexible as well as weblike. Furthermore, experiences engage the learner.

I realized this for the first time when reading Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of flow.[1] He found that an optimum state of flow or “autotelic experience” is grounded in both process and practice. He explains, “The autotelic experience, or flow, lifts the course of life to a different level. Alienation gives way to involvement, enjoyment replaces boredom, helplessness turns into a feeling of control, and psychic energy works to reinforce the sense of self, instead of being lost in the service of external goals.”

He suggests three conditions for success:

1. When there is a clear/flexible set of objectives requiring an appropriate response;

2. When feedback is immediate; and

3. When a person’s skills are fully involved in overcoming a challenge that’s high but manageable.

When people meet these three conditions, attention to task becomes enlightened and fully engaged. To put a fine point on it; experiences are “aha” moments of illumination, clarification, or truth. These events dislodge old thinking and enable the setting of new conceptual anchors. These learning experiences engage both our attention, and higher-order thinking, and are intrinsically rewarding. We must ensure a manageable balance between the process and how we accomplish the task. The goal is to find the integration of experiences that helps individuals and organizations perform better.

The Experience Realms (Learning, Knowledge, Communities, and Technology)

Experiences not information are ushering us into the new economy. B. Joseph Pine II and James H. Gilmore, co-authors of The Experience Economy, understand this, and are adamant that goods and services are not enough. They point out that, “Fast-food restaurants now all stress ‘value’ pricing; telephone companies sell long-distance service based solely on price. And of course, the Internet is increasingly turning transactions for goods and services into a virtual commodity pit.” The suggested path is clear. To win in the new economy, all businesses must orchestrate memorable events for their customers. eLearning must do the same. To further drive home the point, I have adapted Pine and Gilmore’s model of experience “realms.”[2]

Figure 1. The Experience Realms (adapted from Pine and Gilmore, 1999)

An experience may engage participants on multiple dimensions. One axis includes type of participation, passive or active. The other shows the type of connection or environmental relationship, immersive or absorbed. For example, a worker’s participation can range along a spectrum starting at passive participation. Here they do not directly affect or influence their work environment but experience it as pure observers or listeners. Active participants, at the other end of the spectrum, personally affect their performance or the event that yields the experience. A simple example of active participation is a basketball player scoring thirty points in a championship game. Passive participants are those who merely observe the game. In terms of immersion and absorption, participation can be external to an event but absorbed in it, such as listening to a Shakespeare play or watching a concert. Internal can be an event, either physical or virtual, such as an immersive video game or virtual world/multi-user domain (MUD).

Why are these realms important? Knowledge, learning, communities, and technology are tightly woven into the day-to-day aspects of our work.

Knowledge is the application of information to work activities that results in positive organizational or individual performance.

Learning is a process for gaining expertise grounded in a relatively permanent change in behavior. Learning occurs when information is understood and remembered by an organization or individual.

Communities encompass people performing the same or similar work activities. They develop informal networks through which they can seek answers to, tell stories, exchange experiences, invent new ways of doing things, conspire, debate, and develop shared memories as well as connections to their daily work environment.[3] These informal and sometime formal networks provide the connective tissue of organizational memory.

Technology is the applied science of digital tools—specifically the Internet phenomenon. Internet technologies are both a medium and an environment providing the delivery and context of the other three experiences.

The richest experiences encompass aspects of all four realms.

Ideally, people integrate these realms. Practice and process often cross boundaries while technology seeks to bridge the gaps. For example, as people converse, information is exchanged, understanding is shaped, and conceptual anchors are set. As communities form, knowledge is shared; learning is challenged, reformed, and hopefully remembered. Pine and Gilmore call this the “sweet spot.”

Similar to Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of flow, the sweet spot seeks to blur the lines of process and practice to create intuitive environments for successful performance. Yes, this is easier said than done! The dilemma is steeped in linking disparate processes and practices into a powerful experience.

Here are some questions to ponder:

Harvesting intellectual capital is critical. How do you create processes and practices that enable Knowledge to be shared and retrieved? Think about the people, not the technology—what will motivate me to share what I know?

What can you do to create powerful Learning Experiences? Experiences are engaging, memorable and seek to personalize the event. Think about what you can do to make the environment more inviting, interesting, or enjoyable.

Once engaged, how do you build Communities that refresh and extend knowledge? Focus on tangible outcomes for each community—what do you want members to do, and what’s in it for them?

Technology forms a scaffold for the above three experiences. Concentrate on how work and learning get done and provide technologies that facilitate the processes and practices. Remember to think of the integrated whole, not just the pieces!

Once again, the combination of experiences yields results. The realms only provide a guiding framework not a magic bullet. The next step is to align experiences with measurement and report the impact with confidence.

The Return on the Experience: ROE

We all understand the need to justify investments. Everybody wants to see some metric of success. Proving success can seem daunting, however, particularly when dealing with knowledge, learning, and communities. Yet, we continue to hear the shouts for more rigor and precision. I suggest we take the discussion beyond total cost of ownership (TCO) and return on investment (ROI). Although important, these metrics often miss the upside or revenue impact of flexible, well-embedded practices and processes—experiences. The goal is to measure the Return On Experience (ROE). By measuring all the business benefits of knowledge sharing, elearning, and community, an ROE assessment helps define and quantify the value of:

  Attracting new customers

  Retaining existing customers while improving customer service

 Decreasing cycle-time and time-to-market

 Improving overall organizational health and climate

Some suggested criterion:

First, the ROE process should be both elegant and rigorous.

Elegant means that from an end-user’s perspective, data is gathered in a very quick and simple fashion. Busy employees will not respond well to data collection systems that require significant leg-work, manual compilation, or re-coding (or translation).

Rigorous means that the formulas, equations, and methodologies used to process the data are robust enough to stand the test of savvy senior management. Overly simplistic formulas will immediately cast any ROE analysis in a dubious light. A company’s ability to attract and retain customers cannot be accurately calculated on the back of a cocktail napkin—it’s just not that simple.

Second, the ROE calculation process must be economical. Economical processes are easily added into routine workplace activities without requiring significant additional resources. Turning ROE processes and practices into another business unit line item cost does not bode well for getting them approved.

Third, the ROE analysis must be credible. To establish credibility, the entire process must be based upon sound, logical, practical steps grounded in reality, not “built it myself” guesstimates. Use of best practices will earn and maintain trust in the process.

Fourth, the ROE calculation process must be flexible. Flexibility means processes and practices that can be applied easily to different target groups within the company.

Overall, ROE can be a critical driver for organizations looking to grow via strategic and integrated solutions. Measuring what matters will produce the true business drivers and the investment necessary to win. The “e” stands for experiences, and all the spectacular rhetoric, bellowing experts, and flashy technologies cannot detract from what is memorable, engaging, flexible and personal—experiences.

Brian Miller has recently escaped working for an elearning vendor where content reigned. In the next months, he's going to put his work to the test with his own company focused on helping clients re-frame their strategies, create powerful experiences, and seamlessly embed technologies/processes into their organization—making sure to measure what matters. He holds a Masters in Technology in Learning from Harvard. He wants to learn more! Write brian.miller@e3-services.net.



[1] Flow: The psychology of optimum experience. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. New York: Harper and Row, 1991. Also see Finding flow. New York: Basic Books, 1997.

[2] B. Joseph Pine, James H. Gilmore. The Experience Economy. Harvard Business School Press, 1999.

[3] Etienne Wenger. "Communities of Practice: Where Learning Happens." Benchmark, Fall 1991, pp. 6–8


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