The Cornerstone Acquisition

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There are a lot of pundits out there. Top that with analysts, then individuals with their own takes, and you can read or listen to a lot of perspectives. Whether it is crypto or inflation or whether greenhouse tomatoes taste better than those found on a street corner, there are a lot of people with lots of thoughts. It is the same way with learning systems, and yes, e-learning. Remember the talk around EdTech with the Pandemic? The doomsday machine was going full tilt. Those that couldn’t wait to pronounce it and object failure, pushed the narrative that it was. Sure in some cases it did poorly, but it wasn’t because the idea wasn’t sound, it was due to the way the learning was presented.

The LMS market takes a beating all the time. Every few years, the death knell is announced. A pundit says this or that. An analyst jumps on board and now the doom of the LMS is here. Yet, over and over again, nothing is farther from the truth. The LMS market still has the largest share in the learning system space, many are in the last five years, they range from innovative to just eech.

I bring this up, because after it was announced that Cornerstone will be acquiring SumTotal, the pundits went out and espoused some very interesting ideas. The end of the LMS was a common theme, the impact of L&D will never be the same made the rounds (I guess training is okay then?). The L&D ripple effect with the LMS, a combo delight for some, showed up too.

One article I read, saw the acquisition as the end of innovation in the LMS market. Granted it was noted that the market has changed, but that statement really stuck out, and another one did as well. The idea that companies no longer wanted their LMS to be “an employee-facing system”.

I respectfully disagree.

I never put innovation and SumTotal in the same sentence. SumTotal was never innovative. They were not the first ones with a mobile app. Nor the first with a machine learning algorithm or curation or visual marketplace with one-click capability, nor modern UI/UX, nor, well the list goes on.

I did like the SumTotal app for Support, I thought that was clever, but it was more about a stigma that SumTotal had/has poor support. By showing “here is the data and updates around support information”, it helped or ideally helped alleviate the concerns from some of their customers.

As for the acquisition being the end of innovation in the LMS space, let’s not forget that there are a lot of LMSs out there, and many are continuing to be innovative. Thus, I am not seeing the end of innovation, over this acquistion. Nor do I see that companies no longer want their LMS to be an employee-facing system. Do some companies follow that mantra? Absolutely, but there are plenty who do not. I have a client as we speak, who is seeking a learning system that is only for their employees. Will the system end up being an LMS? Sure. Just as it may end up being a learning platform or a combo of LMS with LXP. As with anything related to the learning system space, it is what the client – the customer wants to use the system for, and not necessarily what the LMS vendor (in this case) is pushing.

Cornerstone LMS still is overall an employee-facing system. That is their core audience. Their feature sets push this narrative quite hard. Can I use it for customer-education? Sure, but that isn’t it’s main focus. Access LMS is for the FS space – and employee-focused. Peoplefluent is an LMS, which is employee-focused. Schoox is an LMS that is employee-focused, that yes, you can use for customer-education, but the whole feature set angles around employees. Ethena is an LMS that pushes compliance heavily, that is employee-focused. BlueVolt is trying to re-invent themselves as customer education, but the system is heavy still around employees. And the list goes on.

Part of the challenge comes down to how you define an employee-focused system versus one whose feature sets align strongly with employees, but offers some capabilities or markets themselves as ideal for corporate training or L&D, or customer education. I refer to these as combo systems, and depending on the vendor, the percentage of audiences can sway back and forth. Then you have vendors who call themselves something other than an LMS, even though they have the standard features of an LMS. Plenty of them out there are employee-focused systems. One I think off the bat is Learn Amp. Great, great system. However, they are heavily an employee-focused system.

When folks reach out to me on the term “learning systems”, I explain I use the term as the umbrella term, because there are vendors – who really are an LMS – but choose to call themselves something else. Learning Platform. Employee Engagement Platform. Employee Experience Platform (the assumption here is that they are an LXP or LXP with some LMS functionality – fun fact, unless they have the six standards of an LXP, it is a stretch). A few vendors refer to themselves as a training management system, ignoring the fact, that a training management system is focused heavy around scheduling capabilities, and thus, they are not a training management system – Rise by Articulate is one example. A legit training management system would be Training Orchestra.

On the skills side, it isn’t drop everything and focus only on skills. Some vendors do a far better job on it, then others – the best I’ve seen is Cornerstone LMS (using my Skills Template functionality as my scale). And I’d argue that some skill features existed before the rampage to adding it – they do, because the market demands it. Remember the rampage towards micro-learning? Super Hot, then hot, now, simmering. Every system, offers micro-learning, and they have since 2000. They just didn’t say “micro-learning”. When you bought an LMS back in the day, the whole power was to find out what your learner knew and did not know. And from the did not know, what courses could you provide to them, to close that gap – wait for it, skills and knowledge gap.

LMSs were not created specifically for compliance. Sure you could buy Cobent, that was a compliance only LMS, but the market as a whole, was across the map. The systems I purchased, were not compliance heavy. I didn’t want that, nor needed it. SumTotal, Cornerstone, Saba to name the big three legacy, and toss in Net Dimensions while you are at it, played heavy in the compliance side, but plenty of customers bought them for other reasons – and yes, all were heavy around employee-focused. In the early 2010’s, I remember talking to Saba, who told me privately they say themselves as a performance management system, while publicly pushing themselves as an LMS.

Which brings back the whole thing around “definitions” and specifically defining oneself. How a vendor defines themselves from a marketing standpoint and market standpoint, may not be the way they see themselves internally. Degreed pushes upskilling platform, never mentioning that they are an LXP, yet I recall one call, where a salesperson told me they were an LXP (at the same time, they were pushing the narrative of upskilling). Degreed BTW did not score as high, compared to Cornerstone LMS. Degreed to me is a TXP (Talent Development – as I define it (again, definitions variance) with LXP capabilities). If you want opportunities – which is employee-focused here, then you buy the add-on. The majority of folks who purchase Degreed are doing so for their employees, but the whole LXP thing gets batted in there.

EdCast offered LMS capabilities (they still do – but have a new name for it, and it is an add-on), and were strong in Skills, again, not as high as Cornerstone LMS. Comparing EdCast to Degreed just for skills, and EdCast scores higher for now. If you want technical skills only, then Pluralsight is the vendor you want, and still, Cornerstone LMS scored higher (using my template).

LXPs were supposed to be the end of the LMS or learning as we know it, according to some pundits, but that hasn’t happened. Part of the reasoning is that they targeted only L&D (ignoring training, which seems to be the ugly stepchild that the majority of vendors forget exists), and once L&D wanted assigned learning, tada – the LXPs added it. This ended the notion that the LXP is learner-centric, because once you assign learning, it isn’t learner-driven, it is you driving it – a far difference. I mean, when you decided to learn how to drive, I’m confident that whoever was assisting you in the passenger seat, wasn’t thinking, you are driver-centric, as the passenger assistant was gasping when you ran over the curb. My mom was the person who went in those car rides. My Dad? He lasted one outing and swore never again.

Another thing that happened to the LXPs is that they started to add LMS functionality. Not necessarily full blown by any stretch, but from the admin side, I find as a whole, they have nearly every feature – one does tend to stick out as missing. On the Learning Environment side, ditto. Again, not everyone, but plenty.

When the LXP market appeared their main focus was to be a bolt-on or add-on to an existing LMS (or any learning system for that matter). Sure, some wanted to be the main system, but they were new to the space. Nowadays, there are LXPs that are the main system. And that is fine, it is how the market evolves.

So much so, that there are learning systems out there who say they have an LXP or they are a combo with LXP, but ignore the fact that they lack the six standard features. Who says marketing doesn’t work?

Remember when machine learning (vendors refer to it as AI) was the rage? Everyone was rumbling around adding it. Or how about video? Or curation? Or the “Netflix” look? Or playlists?

The point is that the market evolves and adapts. What is red hot now, may not be in say a year or two. Each time something hits the market hard based on demand, the industry as a whole, races to it, as lemmings (yes, I know the real story about the Disney Lemmings). It isn’t new, uh not the Disney thing, rather the whole this is new, we all see folks asking for it, rumble, rumble, rumble.

Advanced metrics with some BI twist is showing up more, and the latest item – which I believe will be hot by the end of 2023, is the ability to do your own connectors within the system (vendors who have it, offer it as an add-on). Docebo calls it Docebo Connect (and it popular not just with large companies – i.e. Enterprise and Large Enterprise, but also with smaller size businesses). EdCast offer is too – albeit I can’t recall the name. D2L is going to market, and I have talked with multiple vendors eyeing it too. The solution they are using, which is deeply integrated is Workato.

Speaking of that, the deep integration of other solutions into the learning system space, including those pesky LMSs is a popular trend within the industry. I recommend it, so that the vendor can focus on other areas. Anders Pink is the popular solution for scrubbing the net and bringing back free content. Bongo Learn, which just launched a standalone version too, is popular for the skills validation, digital coaching, role-playing and scenario-based components that show up in some systems (Bongo and Anders Pink continue to grow).

E-Learning marketplaces or marketplaces – those terms again, are appearing more and more in the learning system space. Some vendors just go with one aggregator, GO1 or Open Sesame which overs an extensive list of courses/content from a lot of different publishers.

All of this brings up two areas – market demand and early adopters. The latter group, whiffs quite a bit, who remembers the vendor who offered a smart TV app? However, they do hit home runs. Degreed was the first vendor who went heavy on the skills side for learning systems. The first with the playlist tied to machine learning. ExpertusOne was the first vendor to have geolocation with their mobile app. MediaCore who was eventually acquired by Workday (and was the core of WD Learning) was the first to be a true “video learning platform” with a YouTube experience. There is a vendor out there, who was the first to have an VR learning system, albeit you could access it without VR using a table, and seeing 3D, so uh, not sure VR was legit. Anyway, they are no longer.

I think one way we should look at the industry, is not necessarily the type of learning system – LMS, LXP, EXP, TXP, Learning Platform – rather what does it offer (functionality, capabilities) that meets your needs and learning/training requirements AND what audiences or industries they target (i.e. customer education, Employees, Combo). Hence the learning system umbrella term. If you want a system that offers QR codes tied to content, they exist. If you want one that captures external training sessions, they exist. If you want one that you buy the content in a marketplace, click and wham it goes into the system, well, they exist – BTW, Docebo was the first vendor to offer this, and we are going back at least several years.

Cornerstone LMS continues to be innovative – they score very high in my NexGen capabilities, far more so than a lot of newer systems on the market. The problem is they do a very poor job of messaging that out to the wider audience (i.e. folks looking for NexGen capabilities in a learning system, in this case LMS). They have the same problem with skill functionality. Messaging and Marketing drives this industry, and always has, which is why some vendors do a far better job at landing folks, and getting eyeballs, compared to others.

Even though a learning system, whether it is an LMS, Learning Platform or LXP may be a stronger and cutting-edge system.

As I wrote on LinkedIn this past week, Cornerstone following the acquisition of SumTotal is referring to themselves as a “united talent platform”. They are close to the edge of an HCM, but lack benefits and HRIS. SumTotal pitched themselves in some cases as an HCM, but lacked a couple of mods, like HRIS – which gets us all back to what we “define as” and “definitions”.

More vendors in the learning system space, those playing heavy on the employee side, are really going after the HR folks to purchase, on top of L&D (training, anyone?). With that, comes functionality that gets into the whole workforce development (on my template), but it is not universal. The way I see it, if the system in question – core is around learning/training, then they are in the learning system space. If the core is around performance or talent management, then, no you are not in the learning system space (definitions).

Bottom Line

The Cornerstone Acquisition of SumTotal and before that EdCast, and Saba doesn’t change a whole lot in the L&D or TRAINING space, not from the innovation level, or employee-focused level or the skills attitude or new learning technologies or even market trends and expansion.

We adapt. We evolve.

And we grow.

That said, if Amazon was to acquire a learning system vendor or jump into the market,

Then yes, you should be paying close attention – because it would be a Tsunami with lots of folks running around like Chicken Little (gets a bad rap).

But, and I strongly say But

Eventually the market will right itself, the LMS will still be there. The LXP, Learning Platform, EXP, Fred’s House of Learning and combo type of systems.

They may lose customers. Heck, some will be financially suffering,

Yet, here is a factoid, you may not realize.

The above already exists (customers leaving/adding, financially challenged with some vendors),

And the market

Is doing

Just Fine.

E-Learning 24/7

Final Note – I want to send my Condolences to David Patterson, whose wife, Amanda passed away recently. David, is an underrated analyst who is an amazing fellow, and has a real touch on the market. I hold him in high regard in this industry.

One comment

  1. Another great article, Craig. You always provide a perspective missing in the marketplace.
    BTW, we launch our Talent Development Platform (TDP – I got it from you) on the hard skills of management development in July. Will keep you posted. Greg Weismantel

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