Two or three recessions ago, it was boom times for eLearning. It was the early 1990s and money was pouring into the field. All sorts of products and services that promised a new era in learning filled eLearning conference expo halls.

Many of those promises never materialized in the ways originally imagined, but in a time of endless possibilities, a number of success stories are worth looking at again. One of these stories was an eLearning program that, for me, was the best eLearning demo I have ever seen. Let me tell you about it.

It was 1989 when luxury automobile maker Lexus debuted, and with it a whole new philosophy of car sales. Salesmen (and women) were out – automotive consultants were in. The customer was no longer someone to treat shabbily, but a person who was well informed and wanted a salesperson who was highly knowledgeable about the product and the competition. Buying a Lexus was not just a sale, but a long-term customer relationship.

So how do you train, or re-train, salespeople to act differently? How do you create the new Lexus experience through your salespeople?

Of course, Lexus relied on traditional training coupled with a more advanced selection process that the company hoped would weed out potential salespeople who couldn’t make the change. But to do more, they wanted a dealership-based training system, one that salespeople could consult anytime and that was constantly up-to-date. They wanted something that was engaging and something that worked.

Along came “Lexus Labs,” created by a Los Angeles firm, Internal-External Communications (IEC). By marrying strong instructional design, robust multimedia, simulations, Hollywood production values, and the new idea of “performance support,” Lexus Labs was, at the time, one of the most original and exciting eLearning programs ever developed.

Lexus Labs came before the Internet. The platform, located in the dealership’s back office, was essentially a jukebox of CDs coupled with sophisticated programming that made the system work. But what was unique about it was its instructional design. The design took you on a journey into the fictional Lexus Labs, where you could travel to different floors and departments that focused on the cars, competitors, sales tips, industry reviews, etc. You could query the system for different types of information depending on your need, and you could practice a variety of skills. There was also embedded training that used the same information, so the system, in effect, was an instructional, informational, and performance support resource all in one. There were no LMSs at the time, so the system itself also tracked usage and performance data. On a regular basis, the dealership swapped new disks for old to keep the content up-to-date.

By today’s standards, the technology was primitive. But its impact on the field was spectacular. Few people had ever seen online training, simulation, information, and performance support integrated so seamlessly. Few people had ever seen such high-quality production values in a training program. Few people had ever seen audio, video, and other media work so well. Even some video-game elements added to the excitement.

After implementation, IEC got permission to take Lexus Labs on the road, to show it off at conferences across the country. And this is the most amazing part. At each conference, when they presented Lexus Labs to overflow concurrent sessions, they invited the audience to see more at the booth on the show floor. Not unusual in and of itself, but everywhere Lexus Labs was demonstrated, throngs of people, sometimes nearing fifty at a time, would gather at IEC’s booth to see what this was all about. Pity the other exhibitors all around them! Everyone wanted to know how it was done, how much it cost (a lot!) and what would come next. And, when they asked if it worked – instructionally – a real live instructional designer was there to answer: Yes, it did work.

This was no flash in the pan. Lexus Labs demos generated mob scenes at training shows for a couple of years.

ELearning practitioners wanted their executives to see it. This demo would be, they believed, the catalyst to get eLearning going big time inside their companies. I did too. I brought Lexus Labs to the attention of the executive team at the large corporation where I worked at the time. They were impressed (do you know how hard it is to impress an executive with a training program?). They didn’t move forward on a project right away, as I had hoped, but they did start talking about eLearning and how they should use it. That was the tipping point for eLearning at the firm.

Lexus Labs is now history as is the company that built it. The technology has changed significantly, and it has become much easier, technically, to create similarly impressive programs (great design is never really easy). There is very cool stuff out there, to be sure, but I have never seen such excitement around a single eLearning course since. Perhaps it’s because there are so many products out there now, the atmosphere is more “been there, done that.” Or, perhaps it’s because for some, nothing seems to emerge as strikingly new these days. Maybe it’s because increased competitiveness keeps today’s best innovations under wraps. I’m just not sure.

But what makes this story so compelling is that there was a time when a single, truly innovative program could excite an entire field. A time when a breakthrough product caused everyone to think about what was possible. A time when people would stop what they were doing to watch, intensively, something they knew was changing the game. It was the most jaw-dropping eLearning demo I ever saw – because it got people to grab their colleagues, their clients, and their bosses and say, “You have got to see this.”

When was the last time you saw something in our field that got you this excited?