Interview of the week: SumTotal

9 June 2010

Today, we welcome Erik Finch, Talent Development Specialist at SumTotal Systems, for a new weekly LMS interview.

Most of you probably know SumTotal for its famous authoring tool: Toolbook. But SumTotal is also one of the main leaders of the LMS market, providing a full talent management solution, including a very comprehensive LMS: TotalLMS.

Thank you Erik to give our readers the opportunity to learn more about your products and your vision…

Sébastien FRAYSSE (SF) – Could you describe key trends in the LMS market today? How is market demand evolving?

Erik Finch (EF) - One of the key trends in the LMS market today is the integration of social networking into the overall learning experience. Around 75% of all business learning today takes place outside a formal learning environment and this figure is likely to grow over time. In line with this, vendors are focusing on developing a social networking capability to support communities of experts, enabling learners to gain and share knowledge in a collaborative environment.

Another important development is a greater emphasis on achieving return on investment and justifying the expenditure incurred on learning management systems by more clearly measuring their business impact.  This has long been a hot topic in the industry – but applications that support the measurement of key performance indicators (KPIs) are now actually being integrated within the products themselves.

We are also seeing the capability to bundle pre-measured KPIs with any solution become increasingly important. From a technology standpoint, there is a drive towards introducing more configurability into LMS products and to reducing or eliminating customisation.

Regardless of whether the solution is deployed in a software as a service (SaaS) configuration or ‘behind the firewall’, vendors are increasingly focusing on configuring solutions ‘from the ground up’ to meet business needs.

Many organisations today now have baseline of first generation learning systems in place, so demand is focused around upgrading solutions to support KPIs and social networking capabilities, for example, rather than implementing them from scratch.

We are also witnessing a growing trend towards delivering learning and training to mobile devices like smartphones or personal digital assistants (PDAs), effectively taking training out of a formal office or classroom environment and instead moving towards a situation where anyone can access this functionality at any time using the device that is most convenient to them.

SF – SumTotal provides a full talent management system including both learning and HR management features. What is the distribution between organisations which have a global approach and those which are still focusing on a single part of the solution (e.g. learning only)?

EF – In most instances, businesses are focusing on the global approach – deploying both HR and learning capabilities but not necessarily as part of systems provided by the same vendor.

By choosing an end-to-end solution from a single provider, like SumTotal, organisations can benefit from a fully integrated talent lifecycle. Typically, most companies we talk to want to do this, but they often have legacy systems in place that provide a component of that capability.

Generally, therefore, they pursue one of two options. They either decide to deploy on a global basis or to implement a point solution that delivers learning or HR capability. This solution can  then be integrated with another system that provides the missing functionality in order to achieve a comprehensive global approach.   

SF – What about mobility? What are the main practices of your customers and how do your LMS solutions address their needs?

EF – The majority of our customers today are looking to achieve a greater level of mobility across their workforce. While five years ago, most were working primarily on computers in the workplace, that is now changing, with many using smartphones or PDAs extensively instead.

More people are working outside their core office space and they are using personal or professional mobile devices in order to remain as productive as possible while doing so.

In order for learning to be effective, it has to be provided to users in the most efficient way possible. This will increasingly involve delivery of any type of learning content to mobile devices. At SumTotal, therefore, we are focusing on adding capabilities to our learning solutions that support this method of delivery.

There are some challenges with this of course. Vendors will have bandwidth issues to overcome. They will be required to provide an intelligent way to synchronise data between the source system and the mobile device. They will have to format content to different screen sizes. They will need to ensure that navigating the content is as easy as possible. And, critically, they must ensure that they support seamless communication with the corporate system.

This kind of approach to learning management will bring major benefits to organisations because it means that they no longer need to deploy all their functionality via a computer or in the classroom. Today they can support a mobile workforce with learning and training systems, while still using the infrastructure they have in place, meeting all their compliance needs, viewing their KPIs and validating the benefits that the system is providing.

SF – Some words about your content authoring solutions? Do they also address the need to develop mobile content?

EF – Yes. SumTotal provides two different authoring solutions – one web-based solution and one desktop-based. Both support a mobile authoring environment. With both, you can take content in, whatever its existing format; apply a mobile template; size the content appropriately to deliver it to a mobile device and also provide an intuitive way to navigate that content.

Both solutions also support all available learning technologies from flash to video to audio to documentation and can be used to format this content so as to reduce or eliminate bandwidth issues and to ensure that it can be scaled as appropriate for use on mobile devices.

Each solution also includes full assessment capabilities, enabling organisations to even deliver mobile assessments to individual PDAs and track the results accurately.    

SF – What direction will you give to your solutions in the next few years. What kind of features/capabilities do you plan to develop?

EF – From a capabilities standpoint, we are looking at expanded support for social networking; for a ‘community for practice’ environment and for informal learning in general. There will also be a growing focus on on-the-job training.

In the future, supporting mobility will become ever more important. This includes the need to support mobile training delivered to PDAs; to provide feedback in a mobile environment and to enable users to leverage the entire suite of learning management applications via mobile devices.

There will also be an emphasis on continued seamless integrations with third party applications. Learning systems do not exist in a siloed environment. They must interface with other solutions. At SumTotal we have continued to push for a more OEM approach to our software so that components of our application can be extracted and embedded in other applications, as and when required.

SF – Thank you Erik for this great interview. Our readers can visit the SumTotal website to go further.

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2 comments related to “Interview of the week: SumTotal”

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