MeansBusiness Gives E-Learning a New Twist

David Wilcox' young company provides tailored management info to B-schools, which can then offer it to students and execs

In April, 2000, David Wilcox realized that the way his company brought its first product to market wasn't working. "It took 90 days to figure out that people visiting free sites weren't good prospects for paying for information," the 51-year-old CEO of MeansBusiness recalls. His company, which delivers corporate education over the Internet, planned to sell $700 subscriptions to customers who wanted to use its growing database of business ideas and methods.

So the Boston-based company switched gears. Instead of focusing on signing up individual customers via deals with companies like Bloomberg, Wilcox dispatched his employees to pitch his site's knowledge-rich database directly to business schools. The hope is that the B-schools' primary customers -- students and executives -- would encourage peers to sign up. Wilcox' goal is to make deals with as many of the top 25 B-schools in Business Week's rankings as possible. He believes the model should appeal to schools that want to expand their base of MBA students and executive-seminar clients by offering online learning.

On Jan. 8., MeansBusiness signed a deal with London Business School through LBS's learning portal, The school's executive-education participants, 5,000 alumni, and MBA and finance Masters students can now use the site as a resource for business projects, to log on for regular briefings on key e-business strategy issues, and to manage their information sources. While the deal will bring MeansBusiness only about $200,000 in revenue, Wilcox says you can't put a price on the value of an endorsement from a major business school.


  The three-year-old company believes in combining knowledge-management tools with e-learning to offer tailored education to execs and B-school students. E-learning companies typically build full or partial classes for delivery on the Net -- and many B-schools have tested these offerings with some success. By contrast, MeansBusiness aims to personalize business information for those who don't have time time to visit a university for a lecture, take a course, or read an entire business book. Users peruse Wilcox' site on the fly. A search brings up relevant book titles and articles from magazines and journals, with excerpts and synopses from authors and business gurus, but with no involvement by any teachers.

The company hopes to make online learning more efficient. While a registrant is logged on, MeansBusiness can track the topics the person searches and how much time he or she spends reading the information. That helps determine what in the database might be most interesting to this user, and the system then suggests that info to that user. By the start of 2002, Wilcox says he'll be able to offer company-specific executive-training plans and sites.

One admirer is Jonathan Levy, director of the e-Learning Div. at Harvard Business School Publishing, which is one of the partners supplying articles and books to MeansBusiness. "Those people who used to have a lock on [education] will see that it's changing," says Levy. Thanks to the Internet, virtually anyone -- not just MBA students -- can have access to the latest ideas in business. MeansBusiness signed up 30 publishers, and now its site is packed with 867 book and articles and 16,000 synopses.


  But MeansBusiness has some powerful rivals for publishing partnerships. One is San Diego-based Praja, which was founded by C.K. Prahalad and Ramesh Jain, well-known professors out of the University of Michigan system.

London-based KnowledgeRich also hopes to be the premier source of new business information. According to CEO Peyman Mestchian, 33, the nine-month-old outfit focuses on snagging business from companies of 1,000 or more employees and is hungry to sign on the Big Five accounting firms. The company's headline product, KnowledgeRadar, gives subscribers personalized daily updates on what competing businesses are up to as well as news and information the person may be interested in. London Business School is using KnowledgeRich's tools as well as MeanBusiness'.

Critics wonder how much knowledge-management systems can benefit corporate education. Says Greg Dyer, a senior research analyst for knowledge management at International Data Corp.: "The challenge is getting people to use the stuff." For that reason, "these [e-learning companies] have to partner with the right people," he says, meaning big-name B-schools and companies that require continuing education for their employees.


  IDC has estimated that the corporate e-learning market will be worth $11.4 billion by 2003. And a flexible approach like MeansBusiness' is the right one, says Christopher J. Budzynski, vice-president for educational services and technology at investment bank Legg Mason. "On-demand learning will win," he asserts.

MeansBusiness is building an impressive client list. Duke Corporate Education, a spin-off from Duke's business school, has made MeansBusiness' database an add-on to the existing executive courses Duke offers. SkillSoft, an e-learning company with 250 clients, adopted MeansBusiness in September. France's INSEAD (ranked No. 1 outside of the U.S. by Business Week), says it plans to subscribe in 2001, says Jens Meyer, academic development manager at INSEAD.

The big question is whether Wilcox will be able to market his services directly to companies. Ernst & Young is test-piloting MeansBusiness already, Wilcox says, and Montana-based Success Profiles will sell it as part of its eKnowledge learning programs for the companies it serves. One Canadian organization served by Success Profiles promises 30,000 registrations to MeansBusiness by yearend, according to Sucess Profiles President Thomas Olivo. While that's far from enough to guarantee success, it does bode well for Wilcox' new strategy.

By Mica Schneider in New York

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