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Thursday, December 06, 2007

Communities / Social Networking and LMS Merger

Update 12/7/07 - Great comments from David Wilkins (see below) including:
user-generated content is going to change eLearning; anyone who thinks otherwise or who is not yet planning for the shift is going to be left wondering what the heck happened in just a few years.
I've not seen a lot about Mzinga in the eLearning world, but it represents something pretty interesting. Mzinga is a merger of KnowledgePlanet (an LMS provider and also the maker of the eLearning simulation tool - Firefly) and Shared Insights - a community / business social networking software company.

From what I can gather from the press releases and based on who's in charge of the combined company, it appears that KnowledgePlanet is somewhat the loser. The top execs at Mzinga are not the top execs from KnowledgePlanet. It makes me wonder what this says about the LMS and tools market. We are beginning to see dominance by a few bigger vendors and if you can't be one of them, then it's tough sledding.

The other interesting thing here is that it seems like LMS vendors really are moving away from being LMS vendors. Previously, I talked about how they are now referring to themselves in terms of talent management and workforce productivity. There have also been moves to become focused on a niche such as an industry or function or certification.

This merger points to another direction - combination of LMS capability + community / social networking. I'm not sure I quite get what that means yet. I wonder if mzinga does? The description of their offerings seem still mostly separate (communities software and the KP learning platform). Also, if you go to the solutions page, it doesn't mention Firefly. And even the name of the page - Community Solutions - suggests that the LMS isn't all that important.

Luckily David Wilkins - who I've known for quite a few years - has helped me try to understand. It sounds a lot like an LMS with integrated communities. But like Q2Learning, they aim to provide visibility into community activities. This is something that I think makes sense, especially when trying to get communities going. David helps to paint a bit of a picture:
...think certification training with links to discussion forums or a Wiki or relevant files in a shared file repository...
He also pointed me to a Gartner quote:
Enterprise social software will be the biggest new workplace technology success story of this decade.
This certainly helps us understand why you might want to have someone like KP's sales and marketing to help you sell community software into the enterprise.


Anonymous said...

Things are definitely getting heated in the eLearning+social market! It seems like there's a race going and those are always fun to watch.

Digging through the Mzinga eLearning 2.0 stuff, it looks like they also have a somewhat social/collaborative authoring environment.

It would be very interesting to see how that works, we've been looking for something like this for a while here. Thanks for the pointer.

Keep up the good work!

Anonymous said...

Something to think about with inserting community into an offering like Mzinga has, how do you drive your workforce to use the community in a way that is useful to the business?

The idea behind all of this community stuff is to have a repository for all the informal learning that happens on the fly in the workplace. So instead of fostering a face to face collaborative exchange, the idea is to have people type their knowledge into a wiki, blog, forum, etc. Great idea, but explain to me how that's going to work with someone close to retirement that has a LOT of industry, company, product knowledge and who basically uses the computer to check their email and write the occasional Word doc. Those are the people who's knowledge you want. They are the ones that are going to be "training" the younger workforce.

Another question, how is it possible that there can be a successful business model around tools you can get for free? I can go out and create a wiki, blog, or forum for nothing. Am I buying moderation of those tools? What then of proprietary company information? What risks are exposed if I have other people outside of my company moderating my companies confidential information? Is a piece of paper that says they won't disclose anything really a safe harbor? Just some things to think about.

I can keep going listing reasons why this is a long uphill walk, just as easily as someone who is desperately trying to make it sound like a solid business model can make it seem like an idea that can't miss.

Food for thought here is that regardless of the camp you land in, there is some value to the proposition. I'm just not sure that Mzinga should have thrown all their other toys on the ground...and they essentially have.

Selling something you can get for

Anonymous said...

For the record, Firefly Publisher is Composica Enterprise.

Anonymous said...

As a user of Firefly for a number of years I'm very concerned with the downplaying of Firefly on the Mzinga site. Based on Tony's post and other users I have talked too, I have to question the commitment Mzinga has to Firefly.

Anonymous said...

I wouldn't say that Mzinga dropped all their "toys" on the ground.

If you look at their website, they discuss their Learning 2.0 strategy and its likely it could remain a core tenant to their business.

Anonymous said...

That may be, Matt. But it certainly seems as though they've let them fall to the bottom of the toybox. Yes, they're still there, but no one can see them. You know what they say, out of sight out of mind.

Tony Karrer said...

How is firefly part of Learning 2.0?

If it's not, then how is it core to what they are doing?

Clark said...

Tony, I posted my thoughts about social and LMS. In short, I think it's a desirable step. To answer anonymous' comment, I think that you need to start it at the entry level, and provide an elegant segue into the broader eCommunity. However, whether to buy a monolithic system implementation may not be the best approach.

Dave Wilkins said...

Hey Tony,

I'd like to respond if I may to some of your points and to some from your readers as well. While it might seem like the top execs have all changed and KnowledgePlanet was on the losing end of the merger, this is actually not the case. KnowledgePlanet was the acquiring company and most of the key executives are in their same or similar roles. Yes, our CEO went back to being Chairman of the Board, but he was in an interim role as the CEO anyway. He continues to stay involved with the company at the Board level and in an advisory capacity. We never had a true marketing executive; that was always a shared responsibility with our VP of Sales, Randy Saari, who continues as VP of Sales. Tammy is still running LMS development; Mike is still running services. Hopefully this clarifies things a bit.

I also think that you and your readers should know that this did not come out of the blue. When we surveyed our existing customer base last year, the number one request was for more community and collaboration features. This merger was partly in response to those comments. But it was also a continuation of innovation that's been going on for some time. In 1999, I led the development of an integrated EPSS, Training, and Knowledge Management solution called KnowledgeMate Exchange which we OEM'd to some big enterprise players. In 2000, we added NLQ capability to this. Unfortunately, we were too early in this effort and the market wasn't ready. So we went in a different direction and invented Firefly. Last year, we partnered with Composica to deliver Firefly Publisher, which is an integration between a world-class collaborative authoring tool and a world-class simulation tool. As far as I know, we're the only ones offering something like this. I guess my point is that we have been continually evolving and rethinking what courseware looks like, how we author it, or even, whether it's the right answer at all -- for many, many years. And we’re not alone in this. All you need to do is look to the EPSS, Knowledge Management, LCMS, Talent Management, or Workflow Learning Movements over the years to realize that all of us in the industry have been struggling with how best to deliver and manage training. Community solutions, I believe, provide a way to subsume a lot of these initiatives while also enabling, for the first time, their successful realization.

As to whether Firefly and LMS, or learning in general, is still part of the vision, the answer is absolutely. Firefly and Firefly Publisher are both still on the site; they are just a level down from where they were – more solutions equals more hierarchy on the site. There are some things we are working on to make navigation easier, and like any website, it will continue to evolve as we better understand how people interact with it. Feedback like this helps us realize that we need to make some changes; we actually met about this today (hence my late response). For now, Firefly and Publisher are both under Learning 2.0 Solutions > Firefly Authoring Suite. All the same collateral etc… as before. And just to set people’s minds at ease a bit, we’re coming out with a new release of both Firefly and Firefly Publisher in early February, both of which are pretty cool. And we’re on track for a release of the LMS that’s consistent with expectations we set with our LMS customer base earlier this year. This merger has also provided an opportunity to reexamine some long-standing challenges we have faced on the LMS-side of the business, and has enabled us to take a more proactive approach in dealing with some of these.

Ok, a few final points and I will stop typing:
1) user-generated content is going to change eLearning; anyone who thinks otherwise or who is not yet planning for the shift is going to be left wondering what the heck happened in just a few years.
2) user-generated content need not be the province of the young – how many “elderly” SME’s deliver webinars? Write email? Have discussions with their colleagues? Use IM? Record a webinar and you have a video; write an email into a blog and you have a blog entry; discuss something on-line and you have a discussion forum; discuss something over a concall service that produces an MP3 and you have a podcast. Do your IM’s in a group format, and you have Twitter. Is any of this really a stretch? How many older managers are on LinkedIn? I believe that we need to move in this direction if we are to mine the knowledge of the Boomers before they retire. How else? Hours and hours of courseware? I just don’t see it.
3) LMS will never go away – anyone who works with big companies with compliance and certification requirements knows this; it’s a non-starter. Might it change and be re-imagined? Sure, but not in the near-term. Near-term, we need to think about adding community features to existing solutions or about embedded LMS-like features in a Community. Further out, we need to rethink content – is a course any different than a podcast or a video or a blog post? If so, how? These are the issues we need to think about, and secondly, how a user experiences them, and thirdly, how we administer and report on all of it.
4) As to whether companies couldn’t just do this for free or hobble together loosely coupled systems? Sure and some will. Just like some people use Moodle. In a loosely coupled world however, it’s going to be hard to know who your most prolific contributors are, or whose contributions are rated most highly, or whose social network is the most diverse across groups. Or who read what blogs and who took what courseware. I also think that Community, Web 2.0 and Social Media is all strategically very new for a whole lot of corporate America – going with an expert who knows the space cold will make a lot of sense for a lot of companies. And consider ownership – if an HR manager wants to go the community route, will he or she get the support they need from IT or other supporting business units who will need to couple together multiple disparate systems? Might IT not just take ownership? There is a reason that hosted LMS is the hottest segment of the market, and a lot of it is because IT doesn’t always view learning as a strategic element of their charter. By using a hosted provider, an HR group can more fully own the solution and often have a more responsive experience with a hosted LMS provider. This isn’t true for every company of course, but it is true for many.
5) With regard to the security issue that anonymous noted, are we to believe that companies are fine putting all of their internal, proprietary courseware online (hosted LMS) and all of their sales data (, but not social learning or community sorts of content? If anything, companies are a whole lot more comfortable with this and will only get more comfortable over time. Any analyst will tell you that this is the dominant trend in IT.

I hope these comments were helpful. If anyone has any direct comments, please feel free to contact me directly.

Warm regards,

David M. Wilkins
Senior Director of Content Strategy

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