Rick Crowley and Mohana Radhakrishnan like to solve problems. And they make a good team. Crowley has 25 years of experience in application development, and Radhakrishnan holds an advanced degree in accounting and has developed numerous software systems.
In recent years, the pair has tackled the increasingly complex world of integrating learning technologies, which include virtual classrooms, learning content management systems (LCMS), learning management systems (LMS) and collaboration software.
The cost of underestimating this complexity can cast a long shadow over a career. According to a recent report by Forrester Research, a pharmaceutical maker walked away from a $900,000 LMS investment because the implementation failed. Integrations have become so complex, Forrester analysts explained, because “learning applications touch all people in your organization and interoperate with many corporate systems like payroll, HR, and content repositories.”
Seeing Opportunity in a Problem
Almost a decade ago, the two met while Crowley was director of e-learning systems and architecture at a large networking equipment maker. Radhakrishnan was chief consulting strategist for learning outsourcing firm Expertus.
At the time, Crowley’s company was examining its learning infrastructure, which included 95 learning partners, dozens of integrations and seven learning management systems, ultimately reduced to two. There can be hundreds of conflicting application requirements when trying to embed training and learning technologies into the way an organization acquires skills and know-how, Crowley said. Integrating learning systems is multifaceted work, so Crowley phoned Radhakrishnan for help.
“I believe in calling on people both inside and outside an organization to help with the design of learning applications,” Crowley said. “No one company can hold all the expertise it needs, so you turn to people like Mohana who can help you think through the options and execute.”
While Crowley had years and years of application development experience, he found that Radhakrishnan had the domain expertise to understand the learning industry, training technologies, the processes and the participants.
Radhakrishnan, who still holds the chief strategist role at Expertus, said, “Even the best organizations have trouble looking at a learning architecture in a holistic way. It’s a function of the way integrations are often done – one at a time.”
“We looked at what my employer had at the time, and we saw economies of scale not being taken advantage of,” Crowley said. “For example, the content that people wanted was being developed by many departments and each group had its own content management system. The content management systems in place were very specific about which content they would take.”
An Idea Is Born
So, after deliberation, analysis and planning with each other and their respective teams, Crowley and Radhakrishnan devised what they called a delivery management system (DMS). The DMS was a services-based architecture designed to untangle the dozens upon dozens of integrations inherent in the networking equipment maker’s learning architecture. The company’s learning architecture – like those of many other large and small organizations – was a web of integrations and connected technologies. When one learning technology vendor upgraded its system, Crowley found that upgrade could immediately impact the links to other systems spread across the architecture.
Crowley and Radhakrishnan defined the DMS as “the systems, tools and applications used to support services such as content presentation, distribution management and tracking a learner’s activity.”
“The DMS operates much like Mail Boxes Etc.,” Crowley explained. “If I want to ship something, Mail Boxes Etc. takes my requirements and content and matches it to the appropriate sender, such as UPS or the U.S. Postal Service. It’s all invisible to the person mailing the package, and the DMS is invisible to the consumer or creator of learning.”
From Many to One
Crowley and Radhakrishnan made DMS the cornerstone for the networking equipment maker’s learning architecture. “By putting in place the DMS, we went from dozens of integrations between learning technologies to one,” Crowley said.
The DMS became a sort of buffer that enabled more timely rollouts and untangled the complexities of multiple integrations.
Timeliness and simplicity can mean savings, too, especially when implementing a typical learning management system (LMS) alone costs, on average, $100,000. Additionally, big dollars are spent on simply operating an LMS, and this is merely one piece of a learning architecture. A recent Bersin & Associates study noted that “companies reported annual operating budgets of $150,000 to $200,000 (on average) to support their LMS.”
With this and many other factors in mind, Crowley and Radhakrishnan felt the DMS would not only simplify the design of a learning architecture, but also handle how information was passed between technologies.
DMS could, for example, look at streaming video, map the characteristics of that video and pass the right credentials to the appropriate service. For instance, if a sales person logs onto a portal application, she might click on a file for a sales training video. The DMS receives a signal from the portal, and the DMS would identify her as a sales person and grab what she needed from the appropriate learning application. If, however, she was one of the company’s partners, instead of a sales person, the DMS would see this difference and send her, perhaps, an edited version of the training video suitable for vendors.
Applying Learning to a New Challenge
Fast forward eight years. In 2005, Rick Crowley joined NetApp, a provider of data management software, and became the company’s senior director of learning services. In this role, Crowley contributes to the development and management of NetApp University. The university trains NetApp customers, partners and employees about the company’s storage and data management products. Among the university’s guiding principles is: Learning must be woven into the fabric of the workday.
After analyzing NetApp’s learning architecture and business needs, Crowley realized NetApp would benefit from the DMS. So, again, he called Radhakrishnan.
Identifying the Issues
The two worked on the DMS in the context of NetApp’s business challenges, which included simplifying integration complexity and trimming the cost of system maintenance.
“NetApp’s LMS integrated with 12 different systems, and that meant 12 different APIs [application protocol interface],” Crowley said. “Any kind of significant upgrade with the LMS would affect all the other integrations, so we clearly had a lot of complexity to remove.”
From past experience, Crowley knew that the list of learning partners would only grow over time. And as that list expands, the only economical way to grow with it is to avoid paying LMS and other learning technology vendors to integrate.
“Instead, they use my API,” Crowley said. “And the DMS helps me monitor the integrations and, if a breakdown occurs, manage it.”
“Integrating applications in a point-to-point way causes development costs to soar and requires more and more human resources,” Radhakrishnan added. “With a smart learning-services architecture in place, the cost of development can be shared by other departments. And learning teams can actually dedicate more of their budgets to developing training programs.”
DMS in Action
For NetApp, putting the DMS in place meant that all integrations would use a single API, which served as the starting point for every application integration. Crowley’s application development background gave him the know-how to build a shared routine that would hand the API packet to any learning technology partner to then pass data back and forth. Essentially, this shared routine and API packet are the technological nitty-gritty that underpins the DMS.
According to Crowley, a standard, or agnostic, API:
1. Supports “plug and play.”
2. Scales with a growing list of learning technologies.
3. Stands up in spite of any changes made by vendors to their respective technologies.
“Basically, the DMS and the associated API centralize the way applications talk to one another in a learning-services architecture,” Crowley said. “For example, I don’t worry about LMS upgrades causing my integrations to break. I just make sure my LMS is linked to the DMS.”
Designing a Learning-Services Architecture
Crowley feels learning technology sits inside a silo in many organizations, and that makes costs unnecessarily high. For instance, many of the surveys and evaluations that are done by a learning department are applicable for other business units’ daily work. So why not tap learning technologies to accomplish other departments’ work, too?
Crowley also posits that creating and managing content is a shared responsibility that touches every part of an organization, not simply training. And Crowley and Radhakrishnan believe that as learning becomes more tightly integrated with recruiting, performance management and compensation management, efficiently integrating systems with a DMS-like approach will become the way companies integrate learning.
Designing a learning-services architecture that creates a central function for learning is all about the management and minimization of code.
“With the DMS, you have the ability to mitigate all the unknowns and outside integrations,” Radhakrishnan said. “You have an opportunity to alleviate the challenges and changes that happen as your portfolio of learning partners, technologies and strategy grow.”
By conceiving of and twice implementing the DMS, Crowley and Radhakrishnan have grown too. When asked what’s next for the pair, Crowley said, “It’s taking the DMS to the next level, but who knows what that will be?”
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