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Coming of Age: LINE at 21

This blog first appeared on the LINE website on June 26th 2010

LINE is 21 this month. Piers Lea reviews 21 years at the helm.

LINE’s business today is about helping clients find their feet in a world where clever use of technology and learning innovation is critical to business success. As such, it’s salutary to look back at how we found our own feet as a company; at the technological developments that have shaped our industry, and at how LINE has grown and defined itself in response to those developments.

We’ve seen huge changes in our 21 years of operation. It’s almost incredible to think that the web has happened and grown within the lifetime of LINE. When we first started, back in January 1989, the launch of the World Wide Web by Tim Berners-Lee and CERN was still two years into the future.

We bought the most up-to-date laptops on the market at the time. The very latest technology from Amstrad with no hard drives. We were thrilled by the prospect of being able to exchange files across telephone wires as we worked remotely. Needless to say it proved a bit difficult loading first the operating system and then the word processing from separate floppy discs…but hey-ho.

Luckily the technology has improved a bit since then…

The Nineties: multimedia for multinationals

An early landmark in LINE’s development was our work for Volvo in Brussels – the beginning of a long and successful relationship with that client. Our first joint project, in 1992, was for the European launch of the Volvo 850 to the company’s dealer network, in 15 countries. We went on to deliver video, a full-blown broadsheet newspaper, systems training on CD-ROM, electronics training for technicians, and CD-i for salespeople and customers. We were one of the few companies that could develop CD-i and, I suspect, one of the very few who managed to do so profitably – thanks to Volvo having a worldwide network of players in dealerships and needing 16 language versions of each programme.

In the same year we won the contract to develop the Welcome Area for the British Pavilion at EXPO in Seville. We created a mixed media show for 3 million visitors, to run across 188 screens every 8 minutes. It turned out that the people upstairs from our ex-Frankie-Goes-to-Hollywood office in Powis Square were building an Anish Kapoor sculpture on the EXPO site (how many names of late 1980s icons can I drop in one sentence?). My wife and I were lucky enough to stay in their flat in the centre of Seville while we did the ‘on-site’ bit and had a great time. Our memory is of loving the air conditioned walkways (outside) on the EXPO site and the beauty of ice cold Gazpacho sold from ice-cream vans as the temperature hit 40 degrees.

Around that time we got the first ever Apple Mac ‘portable’. I’ve still got it: it weighs about half a ton!

Around that time we also did our first work for PwC (then Price Waterhouse). This included a package to train people for the advent of the European Monetary Union (EMU). The package consisted of a floppy disc in a cardboard package with a built-in booklet. 10,000 of them delivered straight to people’s desks. We certainly can’t claim all the credit for the subsequent adoption of the Euro across the EU (whether or not you personally believe that is a good thing), but we undoubtedly played a part.

Our work for Apple as they launched into the home market was groundbreaking: involving in-store use of touch-screen across the UK and caused the BBC to seek us out to produce The French Experience: 75 hours of language learning to GCSE level with its own microphone as part of the package.

Some of the learning for The French Experience was based on video scenarios that I personally went to France to shoot. I took my family to Aix-en-Provence and spent happy days in the markets and shops of Aix filming for language challenges such as, ‘how to buy the ingredients for an omelette’. As anyone developing true interactive scenarios knows, filming all the right sequences so that you have the wrong as well as the right paths can be a formidable logical challenge – like playing 3D chess. The effort evidently paid off in this case, however, since the programme turned out to be one of the BBC’s most enduring language learning products.

The result of this project for LINE was a further piece of work for the BBC, on the first commercial products for BBC Bitesize. ‘Maths’ and ‘Science’ were both award winners, but that success was not achieved without a lot of midnight oil. The design consisted of banks of test questions, leading to a personal revision plan for questions that the learner answered wrongly, and our client persuaded us that we needed 800 of these crafted questions. Clearly, we didn’t hold it against him, however: that client turned out to be Andrew Joly – now LINE’s esteemed Design Director.

What did you do in the Dot Com boom, Daddy?

Towards the end of the nineties, with the web becoming a serious proposition, the world of learning and communications underwent a tumultuous upheaval as it became clear that the internet was going to revolutionise our industry.

e-learning was born, and no less a company than IBM came to us looking for help with this ‘new way of learning’. Though gratified by this, I was also slightly bemused, having in a previous existence, helped provide interactive learning to IBM’s new PC dealer network, when they were investing £1million a year to provide learning to the dealers via technology. It was a telling reminder (if one were needed) that corporates can have short memories, but also, for me, a bit of a light bulb moment.

With our unique mix of skills and experience we realised that LINE – small though it was – held the key to how e-learning could be mobilised to provide learning, communications and knowledge management to very large scale organisations.

We wrote down how to do it and sought out a global player as a partner – enter PwC again. This was around the time that John Chambers of Cisco said e-learning was going to make email look like a ’rounding error’. It was also the time of dot.com.

So we got a deal – Kapow! From zero to 50 people in an office off Fleet Street within 3 months, we were building a $100 million joint venture (if you remember, all good dot coms were worth that much) with a vision to build the ultimate system, process and method to roll out to global corporations.

Actually it worked. Serving 28,000 learners in eighteen months, the system won an award from the Institute of Directors for e-business transformation, and became the foundation for IBM’s BCS learning after the purchase of PwC Management Consultants.

However, as we have seen more recently, after all good ‘ups’ comes the ‘down’. Crash (or should I say pop?): the dot.com bubble burst.

… the training world heaved a sigh of relief and largely went back to doing things the ‘old’ way.

The Noughties

LINE right-sized to a modest number of staff (10 people) and moved into a floor of friendly design agency SAS just beside Whiteleys in Bayswater, with a plan and a determination to build back up again.

We set about building the best team in the world (all false modesty aside), with our own special way of delivering blended learning at a distance – a method that acknowledges that if you’re going to teach anyone anything you have GOT TO ENGAGE THEM.

I make no apology for these rather shouty capitals: some people still don’t get this point. Often, we feel, it’s because they come from an area of training or education that seems to think its OK to bore people … which we can only put down to their having never measured their results!

Anyway, rant over. The result of following this approach was that LINE got bigger and needed to expand. We set up a new office in Sheffield which, five years on, can only be judged as a great success. We now have two floors there and a bigger team than in London.

By 2008 we had grown so substantially, with clients across government, defence and corporate sectors, that we made the decision to go properly European. We set up an office in Zurich, to service the many multinationals who need to communicate and train multi-lingually while not wasting money in the process by having to deal with multiple suppliers in multiple countries.

Since 2001 we have been closely involved in e-learning across the defence community winning some significant contracts, notably the GD DII, Cultural Awareness and Defence Systems Approach to Training, all employing subtle blends of learning. Additionally, at a strategic level in 2009, together with KPMG, the MOD adopted LINE’s HealthCheck process to look at the use of technology in career training. Our defence work contributes significantly and the company is now well placed to further leverage its position as a leading provider of technology based training solutions across defence.

As the noughties drew to a close, it was becoming obvious both to ourselves and to others that we had developed something of a commanding presence in this new market space. In August of 2009 this was officially recognised when the British Computer Society declared LINE the Market Leader in bespoke e-learning. We then went on to win five significant industry awards before Christmas. What a great way to end a decade!

Where next?

While 21 years is a long time it feels strangely as if this whole field of endeavour is only just beginning. From those first moments of plugging our first laptop into the telephone line in 1989 you could see the potential in training and education terms, but the technology wasn’t ready to deliver the vision.

Now we’re getting there.

Suddenly it’s not about technical constraints but about expanding the limits to people’s imaginations – and having sensible business cases.

I’m buzzing about the potential for helping transform learning to suit the modern world over the next 21 years.

…And I’ll only be 70!