Learning Experience Platforms Chart an Alternative Path to Skill Development
In the short span of two days in June, two separate news stories painted a telling picture of the current moment in corporate learning and employee development.
On June 14, Skillsoft filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, aiming to wipe out $1.5 billion of its reported $2 billion in debt. The e-learning giant, whose portfolio includes 7,000 courses and 120,000 pieces of content as well as the SumTotal Systems software platform, serves nearly 6 million learners and 65% of Fortune 500 companies.
Two days later, Degreed announced $32 million in new venture funding to expand the California-based company’s learning experience platform into career mapping.
The rapid move to remote work due to the global pandemic supercharged a shift that was already happening in education technology. With their ability to rapidly create and rollout individualized learning pathways to a distributed workforce, learning experience platforms like Degreed are well positioned for the post-COVID-19 world.
“It sends a really clear message,” said Dani Johnson, principal analyst and co-founder at research and advisory firm Red Thread Research. “Content is no longer king. People aren’t buying content for the sake of content anymore. Large libraries aren’t as important as making sure individuals can find what they think they need.”
The Learning Experience Platform, Explained
So what exactly is a learning experience platform? Industry analyst Josh Bersin of Bersin Academy coined the term to describe a rapidly growing set of ed-tech products aimed at delivering “learning in the flow of work.” According to Bersin, a learning experience platform, or LXP, features a core set of capabilities:
- User-friendly features offering a Netflix-like interface with individualized recommendations
- Multiple forms of content including articles, videos and podcasts as well as courses
- Social profiles to connect people to content
- Learning paths or tracks to follow the content to an end goal
- Built-in assessment, potentially leading to a certification or badge
- Highly searchable content and a mobile-friendly platform
The main difference between an LXP and the more established learning management system, or LMS, is a bottom-up rather than top-down approach, putting the experience of the individual end user first and melding that with organizational priorities.
“If you think about your traditional LMS, it was what the organization thought you should have and should need … whereas the LXP is much more about what the individual thinks they need and then building the pieces they need together to fit what the organization needs,” said Stacia Garr, principal analyst at Red Thread Research.
That approach was gaining traction even before COVID-19, with many large organizations investing significant time and money into LXP platforms. New York Life began using Degreed in 2016, and by 2018 all employees of the 11,000-person life insurance company had access to its LXP, internally branded as The Learning Exchange.
COVID-19 validated the importance of that approach, said Michael Molinaro, New York Life chief learning officer, allowing the firm to nimbly adjust to a rapidly changing workplace environment in ways that would have been more difficult before. “Since we were early adopters of LXP technologies, we understood the potential to quickly curate and publish content relevant to the shift we needed to make to enable our employees to work at home,” he said.
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A Booming Market Fueled by the Pandemic
Demand for LXPs was strong even before the pandemic as companies looked to assess and grow the digital skills of their workforce. That growth accelerated almost overnight when COVID-19 shuttered offices and sent employees home to work.
One in seven of the company’s 4 million users activated their account between April and May 2020 alone, according to Sarah Danzl, Degreed head of communications, and several large clients sped up their investment in response to remote working. The company expects to see further growth in the third and fourth quarters of this year, she added.
Degreed also made some shrewd moves in the midst of the pandemic. The company opened up access for free to nine learning pathways on topics such as resilience, mental health and well being, virtual collaboration and remote working. That served a dual purpose: helping those struggling through the pandemic and bolstering the company’s market position. “Being able to point to content that was helpful put us more into a mission critical status than we may have been seen earlier,” said Janice Robinson Burns, Degreed chief career experience officer.
The crisis was a watershed moment for many companies, said Red Thread’s Johnson. Some organizations fell back to traditional approaches and focused on content while others used the moment to accelerate their technology transformation. “We’ve separated those that are ready for this change from those that aren’t ready for this new way of thinking really fast,” she said.
In March 2020, New York Life shifted to an entirely work-at home operation for the first time in its 175-year history, and Molinaro’s learning team rapidly rolled out learning pathways on subjects from working remotely and best practices for managing a remote team to technical topics like how to use Zoom and VPN. Within 45 days employees had completed more than 25,000 online learning assets.
“Since very few employees worked at home full time prior to this, it was a massive shift in approach, knowledge and skills needed to transition successfully,” Molinaro said.
Assessing and Selecting an LXP
One key advantage of the LXP is its ability to rapidly deploy a user-friendly learning pathway tailored to the needs of the individual with AI-fueled recommendations. But the real difference lies in how the system’s interface engages individual learners and allows the organization to collect a rich set of data about the state of skills in the workforce. “There’s much more rich data in that than an LMS ever had,” Johnson said.
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LMS providers have taken notice, as evidenced by their expansion into the LXP market. Josh Bersin estimated that the market is $300 million and growing by more than 50% per year. Vendors like Cornerstone, Saba, IBM, LinkedIn and yes, Skillsoft, have jumped in. COVID-19 changed the game, Degreed's Burns said, forcing many companies to assess their skill portfolio and focus on the development, engagement and retention of their employees.
“Businesses who thought they had three to 10 years to figure out how to build their skill portfolio [and] understand their skill portfolio so that they could more easily upskill, reskill [and] outskill talent realized that the future they thought was coming actually is here,” Burns said.
It’s only going to intensify. The World Economic Forum reported that more than 1 billion people will need to reskill by 2030 and that 42 percent of skills required to perform existing jobs will change in the next two years.
As with any tech investment, it’s important to be clear on purpose before making a decision. Focus on the business problem you’re trying to solve, Burns said, and then assess a vendor on two criteria:
- Partnership: Look for a provider who has your interest at heart as much as their revenue goals and will work with you to innovate in learning.
- Future focused: Find a provider who is investing in technology and has a product roadmap that takes you deeper into the employee lifecycle beyond the one thing that initially attracts you.
“A lot of people get infatuated with a piece of technology because they think it’s cool and they struggle with how to get the most value out of it,” Burns said.
Then, once the decision is made, nurture that investment by creating a plan to market it, make it relevant to users and help people understand how they can use it. “Really spend the time and effort and look at the analytics of what’s triggering use of the platform so you can continue to increase the utilization and engagement,” Burns said.
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Degreed is using its new $32 million investment in part to build out its team of data scientists to further develop a window into an internal talent marketplace started with its acquisition of Adepto in 2019. The aim is to map skills across the enterprise and then match learning pathways to existing and emerging career opportunities, with particular focus on the company's mission to expand opportunity beyond the traditional four-year degree.
“When we think about people who don’t have equal access to job opportunities, oftentimes we think about people who are not employed,” Burns said. “But the truth is there are a lot of individuals who are employed but they’re stuck at a certain level or certain class of job because they don’t have the educational experience, they don’t have the money to reskill in a way that they would need to be considered for some of the new digital opportunities.”
Analysts see the continued evolution of the LXP as a further step along the way to connecting performance management with learning. Traditionally, performance people have stuck to their performance-engagement-recognition bubble, said Red Thread’s Garr. “At some point, there’s going to be a crossover to learning. It’s just a matter of time until it does,” she said.
The rise of the LXP is also a further step along the journey to an integrated employee experience. From the employee perspective, learning, career development and engagement are all part of one ongoing conversation. Companies need to stop treating them like they’re separate.
“We’re talking about different aspects of the same thing,” Johnson said. “We have to stop. If we really do care about that individual and we can enable that individual and understand how they’re working in concert to move an organization forward then we have to stop treating them like they’re all separate conversations.”