Contextualized Learning – Is it Here at Last?

sumtotalHave you ever had that moment, where you feel like a conversation started years earlier has come full circle? In the spring of 2007, I had the first of many conversations with a new client at a large global pharmaceutical organization.  Over a cup of foaming Chi Tea Latte in a downtown conference room, we discussed the future of learning technology. I distinctly recall our conversation because it set us on a three-year journey through the ultimate LMS aggregation project and was the start of a wonderful friendship. The conversation centered around three specific questions she was looking to answer:

  • Is a SaaS (cloud)-delivered LMS viable for a highly regulated and validated environment like pharmaceutical?
  • Was there a “portlet”-based LMS – one that would allow an organization to imbed learning into any working environment yet still capture required compliance data?
  • Would we eventually be able to “contextualize” learning – providing developmental guidance not just on a single rule or role, but rather on a complete matrix of information that a system gathers about a person’s goals, learning styles, peers, and immediate needs?

At the time, I couldn’t provide an answer to all of her questions because no single solution could meet these needs – including her existing top of the line LMS. But six years later, I had the opportunity to sit down with this same client at the SumTotal Analyst and Customer Advisory Meeting for a similar conversation. Only, this time, we were discussing the fact that today she was on the cusp of realizing her original vision. In a few months her very large organization was moving to a cloud environment, it was working on a portal approach that would imbed learning and aggregate learning entry points throughout the organization, and she was very excited about SumTotal’s new push for “contextualizing” learning.

The two-day event in Laguna, Calif., hosted by SumTotal, was a great opportunity to speak with both SumTotal leadership and its Customer Advisory Board about what they’ve accomplished and where they are heading.

The biggest news from the event was SumTotal’s announcement that it was extending their ElixHR platform with the SnapLogic Cloud Integration. SnapLogic is basically a simplified connector tool for cloud-based technology – with more than 150 pre-built connectors that can replace hours of API programming or costly service fees to an integrator or cloud solution providers. These pre-built connector “snaps” range from solutions to connect, Box, SAP, Oracle, and Workday, as well as providing “snaps” for common spreadsheet and workbook formats.

Although it is somewhat drag and drop, it still requires that someone understand the SnapLogic platform, data matrix, and the logic behind workflows. This means that any organization, except those that have these skills on staff, will still require the services of an outside organization to leverage this tool. But it does reduce time, which translates to considerable cost savings and opens up an abundance of connection opportunities that simply weren’t possible previously due to cost.

It is the central component to SumTotal’s “contextualized software” for learning, talent, and workforce management purposes. We were shown several examples at the event, including a scenario with a learning portal with imbedded SumTotal learning content inside, which was pulling data based on sales booking information, learning behaviors, and role requirements.

This isn’t an exclusive relationship with SnapLogic, but SumTotal is definitely moving ahead of the game by actually executing on something that many solution providers are just talking about today: contextualizing Information. The work that SumTotal embarked on in the last few years under CEO John Borgerding, to rework much of its platform infrastructure and launch a master data management solution in ElixHR, has paid off in this effort.

The goal for SumTotal is to create simple data connections that are pervasive, contextualized, and accessible at the point of need. This is what just-in-time learning and talent development is all about. Brandon Hall Group’s Relationship Centered Learning research found that more than 70% of organizations that implemented learning that was contextualized, networked, socially supported, and goal-driven had performance indicators moving in a positive direction. Learning in these environments is no longer just a course or class; it becomes a business tool.

SumTotal’s clients were intrigued – but somewhat cautious — about the concept of contextualized software. As a senior learning leader from one large financial organization stated, “It’s difficult to excite our [business] partners about the new and exciting things that are coming if the basic things aren’t functioning.” In other words, SumTotal has a lot of large global clients, and with that comes complex data models, internal politics, and lots of legacy concerns. Many of them are working hard to ensure that the basics are met first, but once that is accomplished the new direction that SumTotal is heading will be a welcome opportunity to move the discussions forward.

If this is a precursor to announcements we will see at the HR Technology Conference and Expo Oct. 7-9 in Las Vegas, my sense is that Learning and Talent will be front and center again this year.  For many of us who have been holding the torch for so long, it’s exciting that contextualized, just-in-time learning might be just around the corner for everyone. We’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic as well – do you think we are on the “cusp” of a new generation of learning models? You can reach me at [email protected].

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Stacey Harris



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