Increasing business agility with open source learning systems
An interview with Lars Hyland, Chief Commercial Officer at Totara Learning Solutions, about how business and learning agility can be increased by using open-source learning systems.
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In this interview, I’m talking with Lars Hyland, Chief Commercial Officer at Totara Learning Solutions. Lars is one of those people I could have talked with for many hours about many different topics. One of the largest customer relationship management (CRM) systems is Salesforce. Salesforce dominates the CRM market, not because of its interface and price. It’s complicated, hard to use and expensive. The reason it actually enjoys this market domination is because it’s so adaptable and flexible, open to integration and really easy to customise. In some ways, because of it’s flexibility, I’ve started to think about Totara as being a bit more like the Salesforce of learning management. Lars and I will explore this more in the podcast.
Lars, welcome to the Learning While Working podcast today.
Thank you. Glad to be here.
To kick it off, what are you seeing as the really big trends and challenges that L&D is facing at the moment?
That's a good perennial question, I think. The L&D community has faced lots of challenges over the years. And it seems like a very similar one still that Learning and Development as a community still struggles, perhaps, to get the full voice it deserves given that the impact of learning and supporting optimal productivity of a workforce has never been more important. And as time has gone by just the pace at which change happens, and organisations need to be able to respond to that change, has never been more prescient.
Still the L&D community perhaps lacks that voice at the top table, and also some of the skills I think, to really leverage the tools that are in front of them. In particular, learning technology in terms of platforms, in terms of learning design approaches to deliver that agility, to deliver that nimbleness, perhaps, that organisations as a whole need if they're going to be at all successful, or even survive.
The world we live in, it's moving at a crazy pace. As I speak, or as we talk, 2016 has been a hugely significant year in terms of big changes that are affecting the world, particular countries and their views on their own society—and that flows all the way through to how people live and work. When it comes to the workplace, learning and relearning is really a critical skill, and that responsibility perhaps is shifting further and further over to the individual and perhaps away from the organisation. But if organisations themselves are going to stay relevant and to thrive then they need persuasive ways to engage those communities of employees, stakeholders, to align them around their common goals.
L&D plays a critical role in that. It may not be called L&D in the future. Maybe it shouldn't, because of the perhaps historic baggage that that has around the board table. But those organisations that are doing well recognise that they are first and foremost learning organisations and that they are building themselves to be coherent and effective at consistent and continuous innovation, which requires continuous learning at all levels.
There's an interesting talk and workshop I heard about a year ago. It was an organisation that had been heavily disrupted by smaller start-ups, and there was a sort of frustration that the L&D people didn't know the direction of the organisations, that they didn't know the skill sets that they needed to have for the future. As I was listening to this I was thinking, "Don't they need to know how to innovate and change and generate the future?" No one's going to tell them what is going to be there, but they have to have that sort of self-directed agile approach deeply re-bedded into their DNA.
It was interesting because they had spots where the business was highly digital but the mainstay of the business and brand was just really quite conservative. They were looking for a classic needs analysis rather than sitting there going, "Actually, we're not going to get there. We need to work in a really different way."
Yes, indeed. Recognising that you're in a different modus operandi now. What I would characterise as traditional, but it feels like the old world now, where you're learning or you're training for just in case scenarios. So you train people up in blocks, pull them out of their work environment and expect them to: a) digest all of that in a consistent way even though individuals are individual and they need different levels of support depending on their prior experience and ability to absorb new knowledge and skills; and then expect them to apply it when they need it and having remembered it from perhaps two weeks, three months, six months, ago when they were actually exposed to it.
So that whole sort of concept of learning, having to transfer that learning into the workplace and not really enabling that or focusing on that element rather than, as I say, that 'just in case' box of training. Maybe ticking the box as far as compliance is concerned but not really thinking about the end of behaviours that you're looking to achieve. That world is—well, it was always ineffective, actually, but it's now really recognised as you can't survive in that way. You can't be reactive in that sense. You can't be focused entirely on prescribed learning in that sense.
There needs to be a shift to something that's much more proactive and demand led. That you're thinking about how you construct frameworks for continuous learning, and that means thinking about workflow and productivity, and that means being much closer to that type of process design thinking so learning is embedded inside that. It's not generic, it's differentiated. One size does not fit all at all, it fits none in effect, if you're thinking in those senses. So you have to think about personalising that learning experience down to smaller sub-audiences inside your organisation, even down to the individual.
That's where technology plays a fundamental role because we have the technology here. We have new thinking around design approaches which sit alongside the technology, the technology enhances that. Those skills are what the Learning and Development community really needs to acquire and be familiar with and be able to work with. Coming up with a truly effective, engaging, holistic, blended learning experience is challenging. But it's essential, I think, to achieving an effective outcome, or set of outcomes.
Quite often it's a deep understanding of the business problem that learners as well as the technologies as well, and then being able to quite often take some risks around things. It's interesting because people ask me this question, I get quite odd about it because it's never a one-dimensional thing. Is there actually one particular type of learning technology that you think that might be that sort of key thing, that the key leverage that we don't normally leverage in the L&D that could be the thing that could really make the difference? Is there one maybe? That's the first question. Or is it a combination of them?
Yeah, there's no one silver bullet. I would suggest that often technology in the wrong hands, if we're too technology focused, it becomes a bit of a red herring because the technology is only good as how you use it. And that's where the design thinking and the design skills really come to the fore. That said, that your choice of technology tools and platforms are quite key, and if you choose tools and platforms that are constraining ultimately, i.e. maybe they're too simplistic or they're too structured in a way that's not malleable to suit your particular organisation.
And let's be clear, as an organisation you are unique. I mean, there'll be similarities, but you will be unique in how you need to integrate your technology tools with other systems and tools. Especially if we're thinking about workflow. That's almost an essential component to this. So it's going to be a mix. If we're thinking about truly blended learning design then you'll be drawing on various media types, both ranging from very simple things; well constructed, written documentation through to interactive modules of what we would normally characterise as e-learning through to what is much more immersive, simulative or even now virtual reality or augmented reality solutions.
In many respects the options in front of us, or in front of the L&D community, have just grown further. And that, I'm sure, confuses and—you get to see a lot of rabbits in headlights reactions to this, because how do you make the right choices here? I think the answer is very much around—there's no easy answer, as in you need to be able to understand each of these things and to then be able to use them in the right contexts. Using one in isolation is probably not really going to be the right answer.
The other thing is thinking about the tools that you have. If you have a platform like your learning management system, is that system adaptable enough? First and foremost, is it easy to use and is it easy to access? Can you make it your own? Making sure that you're in control of that investment that you're making is, I think, quite key to be able to change course when your business demands it.
There are too many instances, I think, out there where people are dissatisfied with their learning platform, and it's usually because there's early decisions that were made in terms of its selection that they've changed already. So if you're locked into some sort of three-year or five-year commercial arrangement then if that platform is not able to shift with your needs and it's not adaptable enough, or commercially it becomes difficult, then you're going to be less and less relevant in supporting the actual business requirements and you lose the support.
I think critical decisions around ensuring that when you invest in platforms and technology that you're retaining as much control as you can over that, and that you're retaining the ability to change direction, because you will need to change direction more frequently than ever before.
It's almost making sure you've got a foundation that's incredibly flexible, incredibly rich, and incredibly functional, to then be able to do whatever you need to be able to do, but at the same time, possibly if someone was starting new they might do a little bit of a linkup and say, "Okay, these are the three types of strategies we're going to use, and this is what we need to really work on." But then having that flexibility to be able to grow and to have tools that can grow with you overtime as well.
Absolutely. Being able to iterate, and experiment and iterate, is really critical. And to be able to do that in cost-effective ways is important to finding what works for your organisation for the context and time that you need it. Going back to that comparison between old and, perhaps, the new world. So old world is where you're investing and then you're stuck and therefore you stagnate and there's a real risk that that 'stop and restart' mentality means you miss the boat strategically in whatever market sector the organisation is facing off into.
As opposed to an invest and adapt type strategy where it's much more cumulative. Where your investment, you maybe iterating and maybe in smaller steps, or even quite more dramatic steps, but the architecture both functionally and commercially allows you to do that in ways that your organisation can afford to do.
The old model is just not going to cut it going forward if every six months, or even every three months, you're having to deal with what feel like big, almost tsunami wave events that can engulf your market sector, or your organisation. We're seeing that right across the globe, I think.
Yeah. I'm going to use an example of something that's held a little bit more detailed focus for a moment. We were having a conversation recently with a potential Totara client, and then all of a sudden they said, "Yes, CPD points are really important to us, that's our new roadmap. That's great. But we thought we could do that already."
We then had a discussion about the difference between CPD points and completion. And then one of our admin configuration people was on the call as well and within 15 minutes they'd done a whole lot of custom configuration and built a custom report that was showing all the CPD points for all the courses for the year. At that moment I went, "Actually, that's just really awesome to all of a sudden be able to build something like that so quickly and on-the-fly." To really have that sense of flexibility is a really awesome thing in a tool, it was a really nice spot to be in.
Indeed. That's Totara's central raison d'être, is to facilitate that type of response for customers. It's a really good example of that. We see that right across our ecosystem in the US, in Europe, where Totara is being extended in interesting ways to meet quite specific requirements sometimes. But often those become more generalised, and become relevant and useful to the wider community. And that helps us accelerate the sort of innovation cycle that Totara, as a supported community between its partners and its subscribing organisations of which we've got well over a thousand now around the world, means that I think the resilience of what we're building here as a collective is fit for purpose for this uncertain world that we're striding into.
Almost what's been built by the partner network is that agility of a network with a central core, that ability to be able to be flexible as well. It's a really nice sort of new world business model in some ways.
Absolutely. The control is where it should be, which is with the end customer ultimately. It's open source, it means that they have open control over the solution that they're investing in and, as I used the term earlier I think, mass specialisation. What Totara is facilitating is mass specialisation, so we have through our partner network they are empowered to deliver quite a focused, fit-for-purpose solution that works for their market sectors that they're experienced in, or developing presences and support for. And an organisation will get the service as well, the localised service that's really essential, I think, for leveraging the best out of these platforms, or learning management platform. That's critical to this.
So, yes, the functionality needs to be there, the flexibility needs to be there, but the partners themselves, partner organisations, work closely with the customer. That's a powerful differentiator, I think, compared to some of the more larger—I say larger, they're not necessarily larger, but more sort of proprietary vendors that that occupy the market at the moment.
Yeah. Another thing I just wanted to discuss and think about a little bit, and that's an interesting one. Sometimes when we come to talk to people about the 70:20:10 learning model they have a very clear picture in their head that that means not working with a learning management system. So I'll sit there and say, "Well, it's actually more about how you use the technology, not actually the technologies."
What's your thought about that sort of tension about—I almost feel like learning management systems have become a dirty word in this continuous learning environment.
Yeah. I think a lot of that's characterised with the misuse, or the poor use, of a learning management platform in many cases. It's often bought by one set of stakeholders in an organisation and then is used by another set of stakeholders in the organisation, and they’re not necessarily able to leverage all the functionality in appropriate ways. And they certainly may lack the skills to be able to design, or leverage, a platform to engage an audience in an effective way.
So, equally, they may have launched it as some sort of catalogue: "come and have a look, find what you need, move on" sort of experience. That's quite a simplistic view of how change, and behaviour change, in learning actually operates and works in organisations. If you couple that with just perhaps systems that aren't as easy to use as they could be then you can see why there's a huge level of dissatisfaction with what a LMS, or learning management system, is. Often I think a lot of that's probably unfair in terms of the technology itself, it's just how it's been implemented.
Now back to the question about continuous learning. Yes, I agree, it's more about thinking in the correct ways of how you embed and position and utilise learning technologies to support and nurture access to learning opportunities at the appropriate time, context, and how to personalise that to individual needs. So that it actually turns itself into actionable, productive outcomes. You could do a lot of that with different types of systems.
So for example, with Totara we have the learning management platform itself. We also have a social platform too. That social learning network is really quite an effective tool to facilitate workflow based learning. It captures knowledge in a structured way, but in a fluid way, in line with normal workday practices, but surfaces opportunities for more formal learning when used effectively.
So there's a balance, I think, between the need for a backbone, a backbone of formalised learning activities, and opportunities that will give direction to the organisation as a whole. Ensures that there's some commonality in terms of the competency levels of job roles, people occupying job roles, and that there's opportunities that are exposed for the development of individuals so that they can evolve and contribute further in different ways to that organisation.
That's the formalised element, but the informal aspect of that is about enabling learners and their peers and their supervisor or managers or coaches, that community to be able to surface and recognise good practise, formalise that good practise, share that good practice, recognise bad practice, avoid bad practice. And as a whole you start to bring people up to a higher common level of productivity, if you like, and competence across the organisation.
You need the continuous elements; you also need the backbone. I see those working in harmony together. Back to your question: an LMS, an individual learner doesn't have to be conscious of themselves going into an LMS, say, and having to navigate through things that may be unintuitive to them, or structured in ways that are not relevant to them. They should be focused on their particular context, and an LMS is about providing the plumbings, the administrative engine, the reporting engine, to really drive or to structure the direction that an organisation needs to go in, and ways in which they can encourage their people to be engaged and focused on those goals.
I think of it as the way you use the tool, not the actual tool. It's sort of interesting as well, we're seeing a trend in Australia with the number of organisations that are working with what we call scorm players, the catalogues you're talking about that play scorm.
That then actually then they're going, "Well, we need more. We're gonna actually leave that in place. We're gonna leave our compliance training in that, and then we're going to develop and use another type of learning management system like a Totara that's better for blended learning for being able to really build that set of engagement in a different way." It's really interesting how it's not a full port, it's actually sitting there saying, "We'll keep the old way of doing it because that makes some people confident, and we'll move to a newer way as well."
I think that sounds like a reasonable strategy for some organisations. I think there is a conflation sometimes that all learning is the same. Well, it isn't, and not all audiences within an organisation are the same, they're not. That's all about bringing it much closer to the work practices of different communities. So your salesforce or your marketing people are going to operate differently to your engineers, depending on the nature of your organisation. They'll respond in broadly different terms, and even within those communities individuals will respond in different ways.
It's important that that blended experience—and you're right, Totara really works hard to enable that type of design and experience—to actually start to be more adaptive so that the learning experience shifts its shape for the individual as they work through it depending on how they're working through it. So I think that's pretty critical.
I think that's a really nice spot to finish on, Lars, in terms of that needing flexible, agile, learning tools. Thank you so much for joining me today on the Learning While Working podcast.
You're welcome, Robin. Thank you very much.