Being on cloud nine is described as a state of happiness, elation or bliss, and that's exactly how you should react to the notion of cloud computing.
There's an abundance of technical terms doing the rounds right now - along with cloud computing, phrases like software-as-a-service (SaaS), shared services and network computing are all used as current IT buzz-words. So it's important not to get lost in the clouds.
The Gartner Group refers to cloud computing as 'a style of computing where massively scalable, IT-enabled capabilities are delivered as a service to external customers using internet technologies'. That's a very broad and technical definition, so let's break it down. The first concept that comes from this is 'off premises' - whether it's the data, the application, or the resources to run either or both.
Another critical concept is that of 'external hosting'. Now hosting implies rather less sharing than is the case with off premises; typically, in a hosted environment, resources are allocated exclusively to a user and are not shared.
Web hosting is a good example. But in pure cloud computing, off-premises resources are allocated dynamically in what is often referred to as just-in-time elasticity. To fulfil such a requirement, the provider must have resources that are substantially greater than are needed to meet the use patterns of the average user.
Before the firewall
It's a sobering thought that, in many ways, the HR department was the pioneer of 'off-premises computing'; payroll operations, for example, have typically been run off-premises since the 1960s. In other words, HR applications were located outside the firewall before the firewall existed.
In addition to payroll, the HR department typically hosts applications such as recruitment, expenses, benefits, succession planning and performance management off-premises. And the suppliers of these applications will wax lyrical about the availability of their solutions 'in the cloud'.
The archetypical 'in the cloud' service (and therefore a useful role model for us to consider as we look at cloud applications) is the salesforce.com offering - a leading provider of sales management/customer relationship management (CRM) software.
There are three essential elements, all of which usually need to be present, to make a case for potential cloud applications. The first is to have a real need for the application functionality that exists in the cloud. The second is that there are barriers (either real or political) to setting up the functionality or the resources on premises. And finally, that there are no real or perceived security issues by promoting a cloud-based approach.
One of the best examples of a potential cloud-based application is the approach you take to learner management, a high visibility area that has enormous challenges and pitfalls in terms of implementation. Another good opportunity, and one that is a hot subject among leading L&D practitioners, is social networking; to a significant extent, this is an application that's looking for a solution - and it's largely up to us to find it.
Another hot area is that of collaboration. As L&D professionals we typically operate in a cross-function capacity, and since the primary benefits of collaboration are cross-function, we're in the ideal position to leverage this approach.
Similarly, content management is an area in which we are typically getting involved - and this is an application that is changing rapidly as the barriers to entry are dramatically reduced. Finally, consider the whole area of e-assessment - whether it's skills assessment, needs analysis or performance management.
This list highlights one of the key aspects of cloud computing applications - they mostly involve the delivery of new L&D services rather than the replacement of existing services.
We've gone from systems that were designed to assist administration, to systems that manage delivery, to systems that manage content, and on to systems that have become learner-centric. And although most readers will have an LMS/LCMS/CLS, there is often an issue of its popularity.
'We couldn't do our job without it' is a frequent claim of the L&D department, or from anyone involved in compliance. But ask what the learners think and I bet you'll get a different answer.
The real problem is that LMSs grew up when there was a focus on formal learning, and they typically lack functionality that fully supports informal learning and collaboration. The other issue is that, once you have all your data on the system, it's hard to get it off. And so, even if there's a generation gap between your system and current offerings, it'll be difficult to switch, especially in the current climate.
But if you're rolling out a new initiative, and your current LMS would be an inhibiter to the project, there's an excellent case to look at some of the latest offerings in the cloud.
Although this term typically refers to applications such as Facebook, LinkedIn and MySpace, the Learning & Skills Group has shown over 1,000 members what can be achieved by using Ning. In addition, those who have tried Twitter will have marvelled at the ingenuity of its frequent users.
Social networking relies on the ability of the participants to derive value through a mix of content and communication. In the business context that is typically customers, recruits, sales prospects, and business partners. But from an L&D perspective it involves two other areas - peers to enable sharing of experiences, and learners for ongoing collaboration.
The neat part of social networking is that you can dip in and out as you prefer, and if the network is becoming dormant there are many ways of waking it up.
The extensive collaboration features in MS Office 2007 and the integration of Office and SharePoint are typical of the application functionality needed for collaboration; IBM, Oracle, Novell and others also operate in the collaboration space, along with a plethora of niche players.
But it's not unusual to find that collaboration and unfulfilled expectations go hand-in-hand. That's largely because there are a number of social and cultural issues that need to be resolved in order to make collaboration effective.
But cloud computing has had a significant effect on collaboration opportunities; new applications using SaaS models, the widespread availability of scalable hosted solutions, and the impact of web 2.0 has opened many opportunities. If you're sceptical about that claim, just try setting up a wiki using one of the many open source tools.
A few years ago, setting up a content management system was a major undertaking - not least in terms of the capital outlay. MS SharePoint changed that, and the wealth of open source tools (Joomla is a great example) have further reduced the barriers to entry.
Creating the content for critical business applications and initiatives has become a great opportunity for L&D departments to increase visibility within the organisation. It's an excellent stakeholder engagement methodology, it's a relatively simple means of cloning best practice, it supports learners, and it makes substantial inroads into the challenge of playing a greater role in informal learning.
If you haven't started on this route already, then find a project you can use to demonstrate to management just what you can do with content management; this is one of those classic low hanging fruits.
e-assessment is one of the great cloud applications that are well worth considering. Assessment can take one of three forms: first, it can be a skills assessment - what skills do we need in order to perform this role effectively?
Second, it can be a training needs assessment - we've established this skills profile for this role, so let's size the skills gap. And finally, there's the skills measurement piece - we identified this skills gap and you participated in this skills intervention - did that resolve it?
There's a positive and a negative driver for assessment. The positive driver is part of performance management and is a critical element of the more for less driver we're all facing. And the negative driver is for compliance - by providing evidence that critical individuals have the required skills.
For the techies, cloud computing might be a fascinating new technology; but for us, it's not the technology that's exciting but the way in which we can deploy it to make the skills development process even more core to the business. And if you're wondering just where to start, it's simple.
From these five application areas, pick the one that you think you can use to make the biggest impact in the shortest space of time - and Google it. You'll be amazed what a difference you can make.