Tech trends in networking and mobility are magnifying the ROI of training programs.
By Russ Banham
These are exciting times for providers of learning and talent management systems. The recession forced many companies to rethink the ways in which their employees acquire knowledge. At the same time, providers were compelled to develop systems that tapped into social networking, mobile devices, and other new technologies—and yet were cost-effective, to boot.
The collision of these two forces has reverberated in a burst of new learning, performance, and talent management systems. Buyers can compete more effectively for the “best and the brightest,” and develop these individuals’ skills accordingly to grow and compete. Providers have morphed from mere vendors of learning and performance management systems to more integrated talent management experts.
Thank the recession, in part, for these developments. As companies hunkered down and conserved capital, many took an axe to their training staff—not to mention everyone else in their organizations. “Companies needed to get more out of the human capital they had left in place, so when it came down to `Do we invest in additional training to maximize the skills of the people we have?’ it was an investment many were willing to make,” says David Koehn, director of product strategy for Saba. (The Redwood Shores, CA-based developer of performance management software has its own new social networking platform, Saba Live.)
Jeff Kristick at Plateau Systems says providers themselves were affected by the economic collapse, with adversity breeding innovation. “The recession forced technology vendors that were faced with cutbacks in their discretionary spending to reflect on what was really important,” says Kristick, senior vice president of marketing at the Arlington, VA-based talent management systems provider. “This guided more interest in developing a SaaS (software-as-a-service) subscription model, which comes with much lower upfront capital investment.” Although Saas at five or six years old is a “dinosaur” of technology, Kristick says its embrace was weak until recently. “When companies started slashing budgets, it created a big and somewhat surprising shift toward the model,” he adds.
The other big shift was the use of mobile computing as a learning tool. “People are taking courses on their smart phones and iPads today,” Kristick notes, pointing to his company’s development of Plateau Anywhere to take advantage of the trend. “This is a very positive time for learning technology and learning in general.”
It also marks a high point for learning system buyers. Diebold, Incorporated is a case in point. The security systems provider known for its manufacture of ATMs used to have multiple, disparate learning systems that did not jibe or coalesce in a meaningful way. Some courses were instructor-led, others were provided over the Internet through Webinars. “We wanted a single-stop shop for all our training and for everyone here, with everyone going through a single portal,” says Brian Shellhorn, senior learning management system specialist at the North Canton, OH-based company, which boasts 16,000 associates worldwide.
The company also wanted a simple and effective way for employees to gather historical information on a particular subject. If another associate had accumulated knowledge in an area, Diebold sought a system that would provide visibility and fast access to this data. Plateau Systems presented the solution. “We’ve migrated all the different systems over to Plateau, and are using their system on a hosted basis,” says Shellhorn. “This is a big deal for us—not only from the aspect of no longer having our internal IT resources taken up, but also, by being on their servers, everything is replicated worldwide. Where we had speed issues internationally in the past, with associates in Asia-Pacific having difficulty getting access to knowledge, now everyone can access the same page at the same time.”
Talent management benefits from these upgrades, says Christine Riley, Diebold talent management analyst. “We’re rolling out a system this year that provides associates with profiles of their career paths,” she explains. “They will know the competency levels they are currently rated at in their jobs, and what it would take to be successful, not only in this position but in a higher position they might seek down the line. The new system identifies the gaps and creates a development plan citing the learning they need to make the grade, much of it housed within the LMS (learning management system).”
Other vendors such as Peopleclick Authoria also cite talent profiles as an emerging learning trend in the recruiting space. As Jim Bowley, vice president of strategy at the Raleigh, NC-based content integrator for learning management system providers see it, “You can’t give people a learning path to be successful until you know what they’re good at in the first place.”
Peopleclick’s succession planning product makes this process more egalitarian, says Christian Merhy, the company’s vice president of marketing. “Companies are looking to identify the critical jobs that will drive their business and strategies as they come out of the recession,” Merhy explains. “To do that you need a methodology that asks the right questions to bring these individuals on board, followed by learning systems that move them forward.”
Hence, Kristick’s perspective of integrated talent management—recruiting, learning, succession planning, etc. “Many companies aren’t buying learning or performance management systems individually anymore, given the advantages of an integrated platform,” he says. To substantiate his point, he notes that more than 50 percent of Plateau’s business is the sale of multiple modules, with 80 percent of it completely Saas-delivered.
Twenty to thirty years ago, learning was a one-to-many model, with an instructor sitting in front of a classroom full of pupils. This model evolved, from a technological standpoint, to where an instructor guided students over the Internet—a leap of sorts, but certainly nothing dramatic, other than the much lower cost. Social networking and mobile technology have radically altered the paradigm to a many-to-many model. “We’ve all become Facebook and Twitter addicts and have a deep understanding of the power of these social collaboration platforms,” says John Ambrose, senior vice president of strategy at SkillSoft, a Nashua, NH-based e-learning and performance support provider. “Organizations consequently are thirsting for how these new social capabilities can integrate with e-learning.”
One way is through dynamic collaboration. Ambrose explains: “Conceptually we need a training environment in which every person who learns something has an opportunity to contribute something back to everyone else. This way people learn from others’ experience, insights, questions and answers. Technology can translate this into action. It’s the sharing of knowledge in context, captured in the learning system itself.”
Say someone is assigned to a team heading a new project, an area he or she knows little about. The individual can search the internal corporate database to find what others might know about the subject, such as a chapter in a book that proved useful to someone else. Best of all, this information is available on the fly—assuming a smart phone, iPad, or some other mobile device is at hand. And what the employee learns now becomes available to others. “It creates a whole new knowledge base that catapults learning to a new level,” Ambrose says.
Koehn says this new level of learning comprises a wealth of content that can easily be accessed. “”Companies have all these informal knowledge assets that were sort of populating the organization, and were trying to figure out how to harness them,” he says. “This informal learning manifests itself in diverse ways—ad hoc meetings, planned collaborative meetings, Web meetings, documents written and posted on the portal that are separate from the training organization, and videos that people are producing and posting. All of this is in the cloud, in a database where there could be millions of learners and information from content libraries across multiple people—a shifting terrain of content that can be searched and accessed.”
Note that Koehn is referring just to the “informal” knowledge assets—the useful smart stuff beyond the formal training. “Somebody in the organization who does a videotape of himself performing a well-done weld can now make this available to anyone else needing this knowledge,” he says. “This is timely subject matter expertise related to the formal work but not necessarily part of the formal package.”
Learning systems are moneymakers for buyers as measured by return on investment. Certainly, a virtual classroom in which people log in and strap on their headphones to “get learnin” is a lot cheaper than the old instructor-in-a-classroom model. Add social media to this equation and the ROI multiplies.
But, is there risk in the new ways? Ambrose cites the possibility of bad knowledge being perpetrated and then perpetuated. He advises some combination of internal protocols and filters to vet all data before it hits the dashboard. “Most organizations will have “walled gardens” so that if it is IBM, then only IBM employees will share their data,” he says. “This way you aren’t stuck with information from an anonymous contributor that might be wrong. At the same time, the good stuff rises to the top and the not so good stuff falls off the radar screen.”