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Suite dreams: The analyst view

Suite Dreams; The analyst view

As mentioned in Learning Pool’s Suite Dreams white paper (page 2) – Bersin’s concept of the modern learner – brought about through new patterns of employment, market forces, and technological transformation – drove the business need for a new type of learning system. Quickly, the Learning Pool Platform became that system (page 15). 

Following this narrative, Brandon Hall affirmed the continued usefulness of the LMS for covering “core learning management functionality.” This meant buyers didn’t have to choose between the LXP and LMS; they could well find they needed both. But while that was an easy decision for a larger scale enterprise, it was somewhat more difficult for medium-sized companies with smaller budgets. 

This question of how an LXP might fit with the LMS in the grand scheme of things if straight replacement of one by the other was not to be the pattern, became a focus area for analysts.

Bersin published diagrams of a new corporate learning technology stack that showed both types of systems within one ecosystem or suite, with the LXP functioning as a “discovery layer.”

In conceptualizing this interdependence between LXP, LMS, Dani Johnson of Redthread preferred the metaphor of the ecosystem to that of the stack. The reality of life, she said, was that learning departments of large organizations would have a lot of different tools and platforms, others with a more suite-like comprehensiveness. This approach was, therefore, to be more granular in looking at the functionality of systems. In this view, categories such as LMS and LXP were unhelpful and even misleading.  

Forrester analysts add to the confusion & fear in 2019 with their reference to Warren Buffet’s quote, “only when the tide goes out, do you discover who’s been swimming naked.”  Referencing the human capital management (HCM) technology market, of which the LXP and LMS are included, it was stated that you do not know the “risks” you’re taking until tested by the changing conditions. This became even more prevalent following the impact of the global COVID-19 pandemic.

Even greater skepticism about these categories was expressed by Fosway. The UK analysts had identified something it called a next-generation learning environment (NGLE) in the mid-2010s when trailblazers such as Degreed, Fuse, Pathgather and Edcast began to emerge, but it has never considered the LXP as a meaningful category among learning systems, let alone the game-changing paradigm shift followers of the Bersin line believed it to be. 

And there was a solid logic behind this view. What Fosway saw was that, as NGLEs began to appear, the more traditional LMS providers were pretty quick to modify their own systems, adding LXP-like functionality. In a parallel move, as LXP (or NGLE) systems expanded and came of age, winning wider adoption, they began to add more traditional LMS-style administration functions to their features lists in order to become more suite-like. 

The result was a baffling situation for buyers of learning systems, where an LMS might have all or most of the features of an LXP—and vice versa. In Fosway’s view, this convergence of feature sets made the label of LXP meaningless. 

Putting the learner first

A product can be defined as much by what it chooses not to do as by what it actually does. The first electric guitars were basically acoustic guitars with added electric pickups, instruments that you could play through an amplifier on a bandstand but that could still be played and heard, unamplified, in smaller rooms. At some point, however, the instrument evolved into a purer design which stripped away most of its acoustic properties, meaning that it could only be heard properly when plugged in. It was this type of electric guitar that changed the course of music history. 

The LXP might not be a development on quite the same level of importance to humanity as the electric guitar, but its birth did involve a similar confrontation with the existing order. Where the LMS saw the world of workplace learning through a lens of organization, administrator, and cohort, the LXP puts front and center the experience of an individual learner as the guiding principle of its design. Although it’s true many pre-LXP systems designers will have included features such as learning paths, first-person video sharing, an attractive consumer-style interface, recommendations, and even a chatbot to their LMS systems, it is still the case that a system designed from the ground up with the learner experience as its prime focus will perform and feel different from one whose form is predicated on the needs of an administrator.

A lot flows from this change in design focus. One of the most important developments in digital technology over the last few decades has been the ability of products and platforms to deliver personalization through data. The default data source with an LMS is SCORM data, which doesn’t provide much help with personalization at all. Whereas the LXP, born in the age of APIs—and, more significantly, xAPI, the powerful standard for gathering learning data from all types of interactions and sources—is set up with the presumption that data will drive a personalized learning experience.

However, arguments about whether LXP is a real category or not are ultimately pointless, because the confusing situation that Fosway describes, of overlapping feature sets and confusing labeling, creates a far more pressing problem that system vendors have to solve. How can they explain to the client market where their products fit in this new world of stacks and ecosystems?

Suites, stacks & ecosystems – the analyst view

In February 2020, Fosway changed the classification used in its 9-Grid for Learning Systems in a significant way.

The UK-based analyst had for some time resisted the LXP label, which it felt was “not a meaningful buying category,” preferring instead to use the term NGLE which, in its view, better expressed the very diverse systems flying under that banner. Now it made an attempt to move beyond such labels altogether, announcing that going forward it would classify systems within its 9-Grid as either “learning system suites” or “specialists.” 

It is a positive note that Gartner Analysts are back to reporting on the Corporate Learning space, after a bit of a hiatus,  adding validity to the Corporate Learning Suites.

This division into suites and specialists was a thought-provoking way of segmenting the market. This way of classifying learning systems:

  • Highlights the importance of the learning suite and the value it has for buyers
  • Identifies in “specialists” a category of disruptive player that is more unconstrained in their innovation by feeling they have to compete with more “traditional” players
  • Challenges specialists to show what distinctive value they provide that cannot be found in a suite
  • Challenges specialists to explain how they fit into the learning ecosystem
  • Challenges suite vendors to define their value in terms of a more joined-up learner/learning experience

Although both suites and specialists are challenged by Fosway’s categorization, the challenge is perhaps tougher for suites. A portion of the value offered by a suite disappears (notionally at least) in a world of APIs. Such a world makes it far easier, theoretically, to put together your own ecosystem from a selection of specialist offerings. In reality, the costs involved in managing and integrating multiple learning systems make this approach impractical for all but the larger enterprises; however, the fact of its existence as an option creates an expectation of seamless interoperability that suites must fulfill.

Then there is the problem of user experience (UX). In the past, certain learning systems that were cobbled together through multiple acquisitions and sporadic, unfocused innovation sprints revealed themselves to be, under the hood, little more than a bag of bits. Many of such systems had poor interoperability. User interface (UI) design was inconsistent, and in some cases uniformly bad, but even with a cosmetic UI refresh, given the faulty underlying design architecture, UX was bound to be poor. These problems afflicted not only smaller, less-well-funded vendors but also some of the larger systems. This is the base on which many suites will be attempting to build a modern, joined-up learning/learner experience. But, unsurprisingly, it can be a challenge.

So, what is the workflow that a modern learning suite serves? And what are the assumptions and beliefs that underpin its design? These are questions for which any vendor of a modern learning suite should have a compelling set of answers. To find out more download our new whitepaper, Suite Dreams, here.

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