An Integrated Performance and Learning Platform – ‘Just-In-Time’

lear-edge

February 2016
Interview 16-01

 

An Integrated Performance and Learning Platform – ‘Just-In-Time’

Interview with – Skip Marshall (Vice President & Chief Technology Officer, Tribridge)
Interview by – Phil Davis (Managing Partner, St. Charles Consulting Group)

picJust-in-Time Learning. It sounds simple and has a lot of intuitive appeal – 1) provide a platform that delivers the right knowledge/skill nuggets to individuals “just in time,” 2) enhance performance, and 3) drive the business. Yet, while J-I-T Learning is an elegant concept, it has been a stretch goal for 15+ years – many professionals have worked inventively over the years to bring numerous complex pieces together. But, according to Skip Marshall, VP & CTO of Tribridge, the time is NOW. “Integration itself is the big opportunity today,” Skip observes in our exclusive interview. “Organizations now have the power to connect their people and performance systems with integrated talent platforms.” Just in time … for organizations to move to a new level of performance effectiveness.

We are privileged to have Skip Marshall join the early ranks of esteemed participants in our Learning-Edge Perspectives Leadership Interview Series. As we see in all aspects of social learning, technology is the HUGE enabler, and Skip provides an incisive perspective on where HR-related technology has been and what organizations need to do to be part of where HR-related technology is headed. Things are moving super quickly as we know, and many conventional lines are being crossed. Catch the wave of excitement in the remarkably encompassing perspective that Skip Marshall generously shares in this thoughtful one-on-one discussion with Phil Davis, Managing Partner of St. Charles Consulting Group.

Phil:

When you think of HR Technology from your perspective as the Chief Technology Officer for Tribridge, what do you have in mind? How do you describe your principal areas of attention, and why are these areas so important?

Skip:

Tribridge is a technology services firm that helps organizations solve their challenges through a focus on business applications and cloud solutions. We take a holistic approach to working with customers, and I think our services and innovation reflect the market demand for a strategic partner who understands how to leverage technology to drive business growth. Tribridge offers human capital management (HCM) solutions and services in addition to business and technology consulting, customer engagement, finance and operations, and business intelligence. HCM is one of the fastest growing areas of our business.

While we occasionally get into some of the broader HR technologies, we really concentrate on learning, performance, succession, compensation, and recruiting. At HCM, we are deeply rooted in learning and performance (with learning being the greatest strength), and our professionals – on both the practitioner side and consulting side – all have a deep understanding of where we have been as an industry and, even more importantly, where we’re headed.

We believe that a holistic approach to learning is the key to an organization’s success. It drives an organization’s core values, strategic direction, growth, and responsiveness to the market. HR systems, performance management elements, and key performance outcomes are all part of the broad context of learning. The concept of life-long learning across the organization is replacing the formal tidbits of training that you get in a structured classroom setting or an elearning course.

Phil:

Skip, does Tribridge serve clients in all industries or do you find that the approach that you apply to learning and technology support systems works more effectively in certain industries than in others?

Skip:

Yes, we have clients in many industries. And while we see a lot of commonality across industries, each industry does have its nuances. For example, organizations in highly regulated industries, such as healthcare and finance, focus a great deal of their time dealing with compliance issues. Any industry with specific compliance-driven components are more amenable to particular types of talent management activities.

For the most part, though, there is a lot of commonality across verticals. We subscribe to the theory that individuals construct their own knowledge through their own associations – through all the things they do when they are building information through various learning activities. We really key in on that, because the common challenge organizations face is to provide an information environment that facilitates their learners’ ability to construct knowledge and apply it back to the organization and make individuals and, ultimately, the organization more successful.

Phil:

For people who do not follow this aspect of the business closely and are not current on HR/Talent systems and the new capabilities, can you briefly describe the evolution of HR-related systems that got us to where we are today?

Skip:

Historically, it has been about the organization – what its needs are and how to drive the business. The core HR systems came out of basic business needs – to account for payroll, to support hiring, to manage pay and benefits. These HR systems focused on administrative and compliance matters. Over time, learning and performance came into play. We started seeing an evolution around performance and how it affects the business. Performance evaluations were quantified and 360-degree reviews were introduced. These performance solutions generated more data and more information, and we began to develop a better sense of organizational drivers.

Today, we are seeing a significant transition from a focus on the organizational needs to a focus on the needs of the individual. This shift demands lots of specialized content that is very targeted and easily available. With the continuing evolution in HR technology, organizations are now able to serve individual needs and get a much broader picture of their employees and their team members than ever before.

Phil:

Skip, can you speak some more about the learning content? Where does content come from? Is the content internal and unique to a specific client, or is some of the “best practices” type content generally available in the market?

Skip:

There are generally two classifications of content. First, there is broadly applicable content on general skill sets or general knowledge. For example, it could be soft skills training that is generic and reaches across all verticals. Second, there is the more targeted content that is specific to an industry or market niche.
In terms of system evolution, the type of content is now less important than the ability for content to be very specifically curated for individuals. Good content still needs to be available, but it is the ability to organize that content and deliver the most appropriate information to individuals when and where they need it.

What we are seeing in learning is similar to what has happened in the marketing world. Marketing used to be based on marketing campaigns and information blasts to thousands/millions of people. Today, it is not about campaign blasts – it is about specific messages to specific individuals. That is what we are experiencing in learning – to have learning content that is adapted and targeted to the individual.

Phil:

With that history in mind, how would you characterize the most important opportunities that organizations have today in terms of integrating their people and performance systems?

Skip:

Integration itself is the big opportunity today. Organizations now have the power to connect their people and performance systems with integrated talent platforms. If structured well, the integration provides for one master collection of information the organization is able to leverage. This capability has been in place for other aspects of the business, but it is now being applied in the HR space more consistently. There are new applications that facilitate the integration (for example, web services and API interfaces). More importantly, however, is that planners are now thinking about integration from the outset – building applications with an API interface to begin with as opposed to adding one as an afterthought.

Phil:

Can you give me a specific example where Tribridge has been very effective in helping a client with one these significant challenges?

Skip:

Here’s a great example: We are working with a large international jewelry business that wants to help its franchisee stores get a better view of in-store performance. To do this, the company is bringing together data from its CRMs, from its shopper programs, and from some of its social learning components, and then tying all of the information together. The company can now ask (and answer) the question: “How are different learning initiatives affecting the store’s performance in very specific ways?” This allows company executives to understand what programs are making a difference and how they can then adapt their programs to increase the benefits to the franchisees and by extension to the corporation as a whole.

Phil:

Where should organizations expect to see significant new benefits – from the perspectives of both 1) the business and 2) the individual employee?

Skip:

Businesses can now have a more comprehensive view not only of what’s going on in the organization, but also of how individual team members in their various roles contribute to the progress and success of the organization. But I think the most important current value is to the individual.

Individuals are now able to pursue more personalized solutions for their training and performance needs. Many people in the workforce have grown up with a social internet, if you will. They expect all content to be tailored to them and, when they enter these organizations, they go in with that expectation. Using existing systems and tools, organizations are now able to provide for an environment that fosters increased engagement, increased productivity, and increased innovation.
It all kind of feeds into itself in the sense that, if the business focuses on serving the needs of individual employees, the business recoups that in the form of enhanced engagement and productivity.

Phil:

Do you find that most of your clients have the sophistication to see the benefits and opportunities that come from leveraging new tools and processes, or is part of your challenge educating clients on what new outcomes could be possible?

Skip:

We see two groups. One group is more traditional. These clients have had the same type of programs for years (or decades) and not much has changed in how they run their HR programs. These clients tend to need a little bit more exposure to the potential opportunities and benefits so they understand what available.

We also have a group of clients that are tech savvy who are frustrated with the lack of perceived innovation in the HR technology space to do the things that they know should be possible. They share the view that many of their employees have: “This is possible in all the other aspects of our business. Why isn’t it being applied to our HR solutions? Why can’t our learning organization leverage data from other parts of the business and provide actionable information on experiences and outcomes?”

This group sees the possibility from the beginning but they just don’t necessarily know how to get there. When they find out that we can take them down a path that will provide a state-of-the-art program for their organization, they get very engaged in that process and we watch their excitement build. That they are willing to try to do things and innovate bodes very well for their employees and for their organizations as a whole.

Phil:

To make some of the opportunities and benefits more concrete, how would you characterize “on-the-job” learning in the near-term future – say, 3-5 years? Thinking of mobile devices and cloud computing and ubiquitous knowledge objects, what is a learning experience “best case” scenario that you think is plausible in the near future given the convergence of all these factors?

Skip:

Probably the most exciting thing is learner-curated content. It’s no longer about organizations saying, “This is what you need to know.” Instead, individuals are able to say, “Here’s what I’ve learned, and here’s what I need to know.”
In terms of the best-case scenario, we are going to see organizations delivering content at the right time and in the right format for their learners, and it will be done in a way that provides a seamless experience so that users do not have to manually intervene to find the right content.

In addition, the content universe is much larger. We can now look across content in a truly federated way, including formal content that is in the local LMS catalog as well as learner-curated libraries that team members have identified as valuable.
Content will now be vetted in a decentralized way by the learners themselves using tools that are embedded to ascertain how content has value – much as Google determines website rankings. This will fundamentally change the ways that organizations drive learning.

Phil:

As you describe some dramatic shifts in learning, do you think of technology as an enabler?

Skip:

Absolutely. As I think of organizations that have made forays into the learning space, it is not that they did not want to succeed in leveraging the value of their system efforts. There simply was not a cost-effective way to deliver on their goals. Technology solutions are really changing that.

You see one example in Tin Can xAPI that focuses on informal learning activities and provides a mechanism for tracking information on what learners are doing.

Another example is in tagging. Historically, when organizations have wanted to assign metadata tags to their content, it has been a manual process. Now automation allows for the metadata to be assigned automatically by looking at who’s using the content, how it’s being used, where it’s being used, and how effective it has been in terms of driving outcomes. All that information will be leveraged to say, “Yes, this content is valuable” (or not). That capability will fundamentally change the way organizations think about learning.

Phil:

At Tribridge, how do you stay ahead of the demand curve of your clients to anticipate the platforms and capabilities that clients need and have come to expect?

Skip:

It’s a constant effort. We have an effective organizational structure here that allows us to innovate our solutions and keep pace not only with what the expectations are, but also where things are headed. It was Wayne Gretzky who said, “You don’t go where the puck is, you go to where the puck is going.” That’s our focus: where we think the market is going, where requirements and expectations are going. Clients are becoming more and more aware of the potential, and we just have to stay consistently focused, relying on a broad team approach to do it well.

Phil:

Are the opportunities that you describe only available to large corporations? How can middle-market and even smaller companies position themselves to be part of this major new wave in the talent management sphere?

Skip:

I actually think smaller organizations have more potential to be involved in these kinds of transformations. They tend to be more nimble and more responsive. They can more easily pay attention to the needs and interests of the individuals within the organization. They are also often better positioned to adopt some of the new technologies to support their learning organizations.

Now, with that said, we work with some of the largest companies in the world, and they are also looking at how to drive talent innovation within the organization. They have a bigger mountain to move. It is a bigger effort, and the efforts put forward to make changes need to be sustained. There is also the matter of legacy systems. Larger companies have multiple systems at play and lots of different components that they have to deal with, including data sources and applications and even organizational structures that can get in the way of being nimble. The stakes are higher with bigger organizations – the payoff is more significant, but the level of effort required is much greater.

Phil:

Many companies have had experiences with Learning Management Systems (LMS) that have failed to deliver the promised ROI, and this has created some entrenched resistance to new system adoption. What words of insight and encouragement do you offer senior leaders who feel that have had adverse experiences in the past?

Skip:

We certainly have observed the reluctance of some leaders, particularly in the learning space. Early learning management systems were great for some things – delivering assessments in a structured manner, providing for compliance tracking, serving up elearning content – but expectations were set much higher (and the excitement was evident). Over time, the systems failed to deliver as promised. They were too transactional in nature and were not positioned to reveal the “big picture.”

I suggest that senior leaders come back to the original question, “How do we generate a comprehensive view of what individuals are doing from a learning and development perspective?” When you pose that question and look at the current capabilities, you will see that it is now possible to do what was promised before. It is now feasible to capture the whole picture of people’s learning experiences and evaluate that in relationship to the organization’s performance expectations.

Learning is becoming something that is a key value to organizations. By leveraging current capabilities, leaders can clearly assess how the learning organization drives performance and contributes to the organization’s success, such as increasing client satisfaction or reducing turnover.

Phil:

The vendor world in HR Technology seems really confusing. What advice do you give to business leaders and HR/Talent managers to help sort through the extensive number of solution providers and the different ways they approach the business?

Skip:

The best advice I can offer is to find an organization that wants to work with you as a partner, not just a vendor. There are plenty of vendors out there with different solutions, but the clients that establish vendor partnerships they can leverage tend to be more successful. So my advice is to seek out a relationship with one or more trusted advisers in advance of dealing with different solution providers.

At Tribridge, we pride ourselves on our partnerships. We are upfront and direct with our clients. We talk to them about pros and cons. We help them find the right resources for their specific needs, even if the resources are not part of Tribridge’s service offerings.

Phil:

Many of our readers are learning professionals in the business of designing and delivering educational content and managing the learning process, and many of them have worked under more traditional models of training & learning. With this in mind, a number of the things you are discussing are new, even revolutionary, concepts. How can established learning professionals get on a fast track to be able to leverage new concepts and capabilities and perform effectively in the new and improved talent world?

Skip:

There are lots of ways learning professionals can find out what is new, and what are the different concepts and solutions out there. Probably the biggest thing would be for people to actively expand and leverage their personal networks. The broader and more meaningful they can make their relationships, the better, because there is so much going on. Participating in LinkedIn forums, for example, is one way to see what people are talking about.

Certainly there are many professional conferences where people can hear about new ideas and concepts. I suggest looking at some of the smaller, more niche technology conferences that are popping up. That’s where you tend to hear more about leading-edge solutions.

Phil:

In a similar vein, but at the leadership level, much of what you are suggesting has potentially very significant implications for business strategy, internal vs. external approaches to resourcing, implementation priorities, and many other dimensions of managing an enterprise. Are CEOs adequately informed and adequately skilled to provide leadership in the HR Technology arena? Are CTOs and CHROs and CLOs etc. collaborating effectively to create sound blueprints for the future? What advice do you have for senior leadership teams who want to get this right? What are the key metrics that they should have in place to evaluate success?

Skip:

To answer your first question – will CEOs be able to provide leadership in the HR technology arena – I would say in some cases perhaps but, because of the complexity of today’s HR technology, it is often in the CEOs’ best interest to rely on leaders with HR expertise. That’s why you’re seeing growth in Chief Learning Officer (CLO) roles and even more recently in Chief Talent Officer (CTO) roles. If a company doesn’t have those roles in its organization, I would advise that company to designate someone who can focus on talent and learning as part of the job.

There was a time where HR and learning managers struggled to have a “seat at the table,” but that’s no longer the case. Because companies are seeing the value of learning, HR has now been invited to that table. For those organizations that have not yet gone that route, I suggest they do it quickly – there is so much technology information available, and change is occurring rapidly. Position someone to focus on the latest technology changes, the latest innovations, and what needs to be done for their organization.

In terms of metrics, don’t make it about cost savings. Don’t make it about satisfying compliance needs. Don’t make it about risk avoidance. Instead, the solutions really need to key in on how do they impact the business? In the case of the learning team, what are their actions/solutions doing to improve the bottom line, increase retention, increase client satisfaction. These are the real metrics that are important to the business.

Phil:

Your company is Tribridge. In this broad territory of HR Technology that we have been discussing, what would say is Tribridge’s sweet spot?

Skip:

As I have touched on in different ways, our strengths are in learning and performance technologies and understanding how a learning organization can drive a business to success. In our view, the big challenge is how to get the right technologies and right solutions in place to support the learning organizations initiatives, which ultimately should be advancing the business objectives. At Tribridge, we advise our clients on the right direction for them to go – not just the technologies — but the overall solution and how best to craft that for the particular demands of their organizations.

Phil:

Where are you best positioned to add value to organizations that are trying to figure out how to get on a strategic path?

Skip:

We start conversations with clients and prospective clients by asking them what they are trying to achieve, and we approach the relationship as a partnership. The goal is help the organizations find their strategic path, and it is not unusual for me to sit in strategy sessions with clients and say, “If these are the strategic outcomes that you are looking for, let’s key in on the first steps to be taken as well as the long-term shifts that need to occur.” Without a strategic plan in place and looking at what the long term goals should be, organizations will simply end up identifying point solutions and miss the ability to connect all of their information together. The interest is to drive the value of what the learning organization is doing in the broader context of HR technologies, and to help make that business successful.

Phil:

As you reflect on our discussion, Skip, is there anything else that you would like to add?

Skip:

I would like to reinforce the importance of organizations being receptive to new ideas and willing to take chances, to take risks. There are a lot of new technologies and new solutions that are being brought to the market that will provide significant impact to organizations if they are open to the opportunity. Organizations that want to be part of it need to be willing to take chances and try new things, recognizing that things may not go exactly as planned.

Phil:

That risk-taking challenge seems like a perfect place to conclude – let’s see who takes on the challenge. As I reflect on this discussion, Skip, you have covered an amazing amount of ground. You also have a special way of explaining complex things clearly, and there is great insight in your perspectives. One of the things you mentioned that especially resonates with me is the Wayne Gretsky quote about the need to go where the puck will be, not where it is. My fellow co-founder of St. Charles Consulting Group – a gentleman by the name of Bob Hiebeler – is a hockey fan from Minnesota who has made sure that we, as a firm, adhere to the Gretsky model at all times. Thank you, Skip. It is an honor to include you in this program. Many will benefit from your thoughts.


Biography: Skip Marshall

Skip Marshall is Vice President and CTO at Tribridge and is responsible for managing its solution architecture, product strategy and overall technology strategy. He has extensive design, development and deployment experience in instructional programs, enterprise talent management initiatives and the technology infrastructure to support them. Mr. Marshall specializes in designing technology solutions to address complex business issues within the HCM space. He holds an MBA and a Master of Education degree, as well as a Specialist degree in Instructional Technology, all from the University of Florida.


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