Rise of New Consumer-Like Technologies Shakes Up Corporate Learning Market

By Dave Zielinski February 20, 2018
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Corporate learning technologies have been buffeted by change. Employees, frustrated with internal learning options, were looking outside their organizations for new learning resources, forcing employers to reconsider whether legacy technology platforms were meeting workforce needs. This profound shift in learning preferences and need for content better tailored to rapidly changing business environments has fueled the rise of a bevy of new vendor systems that are more consumer-like, user-friendly and personalized to employee needs.

E-learning courses and classroom training now seem dated or cumbersome given the vast amount of content now available to employees through YouTube; social media networks; learning platforms like Lynda.com, Coursera and Udacity; blogs; and external podcasts. Industry vendors seeking to bring these more modern learning approaches into organizations have unveiled new digital platforms featuring micro-learning content, systems designed to aggregate and curate content from external and internal sources, tools that allow employees to author their own content, and artificial intelligence that can recommend learning experiences based on past preferences or career stage.

These technology disruptions have many chief learning officers (CLOs) and training directors rethinking how learning and development should look in their companies.

Requiem for the Legacy LMS

Technology innovations have pushed legacy platforms like learning management systems (LMSs) to the background while more learner-friendly, content-rich systems assume center stage. While the LMS will continue to have value for purposes like tracking mandatory compliance training, many organizations have new content and usability needs that surpass what traditional LMS technology can provide.

"The traditional LMS is no longer the centerpiece of corporate learning technology the way it was five years ago," said David Mallon, head of research for Bersin by Deloitte, an HR research and consulting firm in New York City. "In most larger organizations, it is now just one part of an ecosystem of learning technologies, used primarily for tracking formal e-learning and classroom training." Because those two forms of education have assumed a lower ranking in the learning hierarchy, Mallon said it's not surprising the LMS has followed suit.

Vendors like Workday, CornerstoneOnDemand and Oracle that have worked to reinvent their traditional LMSs by adding new content-creation tools or user-friendly interfaces "would probably love to throw away the LMS term entirely, but it's the term HR buyers and procurement professionals have come to know and a better name hasn't emerged," Mallon said.

Recent industry surveys reflect changing needs around learning technologies. Sierra-Cedar's 2016-2017 HR Systems Survey found that 24 percent of respondents were re-evaluating their current LMS. "That's a higher percentage than any other area in the study in terms of rethinking the value of an existing talent management technology," said Stacey Harris, vice president of research and analytics for Sierra-Cedar. Thirty percent of those planning to replace their LMS were looking for an improved user experience and another 35 percent were seeking improved functionality, Harris said. "That tells me that many of today's LMS platforms don't have the features or functionality required for a changing learning market," she said.

According to a 2017 survey of the Chief Learning Officer Business Intelligence Board, 44 percent of learning executives now see technology as either an "essential" or "high" investment priority. That ranked just behind CLOs' top priority, which was strategy. The board consists of 1,500 professionals across industries in the learning and development industry.

New Vendors Emerge

When the Sierra-Cedar survey asked organizations which additional vendors beyond their LMS played a key role in rounding out a learning environment, content providers topped the list, Harris said.

"With content needs changing, today's LMS has to be able to support a wider variety of more learner-friendly formats," said Brian Sommer, founder of TechVentive, a technology consulting firm in Batavia, Ill. "Just providing proprietary content won't cut it anymore."

A dearth of learning content built for time-starved employees and fast-moving business environments has led to the rise of new vendors offering services that amplify LMS functions. That includes companies delivering micro-learning solutions, like Axonify and Grovo, and others focused on "longer-form" immersion learning, like Udacity, Coursera and Udemy. A third category of new vendors focuses on aggregating and curating learning content from internal and external sources, offering user-friendly interfaces that allow employees to quickly find learning content at the moment of need. Examples of these companies are Edcast, Pathgather and Degreed.

"Organizations have become more sophisticated in recognizing that learning is about more than taking formal courses and classes and are aligning themselves with these new technology platforms," Mallon said. "These vendors have reinvented the learning experience and are providing things that the traditional LMS simply can't."

A maturing technology called Experience API, also known as xAPI, allows organizations to better track and manage this new constellation of learning activities and options. Experience API represents an evolution of predecessor SCORM (Sharable Content Object Reference Model), since it's not limited to managing e-learning courses or learning management systems and can track and document a wider range of learning experiences.

"It's a means by which companies can capture data from learning activities across the enterprise to place them into a bigger picture for employees and say, 'Here are all the things you've done and could do to grow yourself professionally,' " Mallon said. xAPI can capture data like stretch assignments, coaching sessions, articles read and courses completed, and then create a record of all online and offline learning experiences.

Artificial Intelligence Gains Traction

Learning technology vendors also have added artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning capabilities to their platforms. These tools can recommend learning activities based on employees' past preferences or where they are on a career path. "There is intelligence built into some of these systems now that can identify content that's appropriate at a specific point in an employee's career or based on learning experiences they did or didn't like in the past," Sommer said.

For example, vendor EdCast uses AI that learns about a work team and makes continuous learning recommendations to help improve individual and team performance. Micro-learning provider Axonify has algorithms that can tailor a learning path specific to each employee.

Sommer said the ability of learning platforms to integrate with other talent management systems can make AI more effective. If an LMS can't easily access performance management evaluations, for example, the learning platform won't be able to correctly recommend the kind of learning opportunities employees should pursue based on information in those evaluations, Sommer said.

"Integrations between learning platforms, human resource management systems and other talent platforms need to be extraordinarily tight for those recommendation purposes," Sommer said.

Dave Zielinski is a freelance business writer and editor in Minneapolis. 

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