All change in L&D
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18 January 2022

Cornerstone’s new offering, Cornerstone Xplor, launched in November 2021, represents a fundamental change in the learning technology landscape. I’ve taken a few weeks to consider the implications of this shift, and to ask myself what it means for L&D. My answer: it means a lot.

In this article I take a brief look at Cornerstone Xplor’s functionality and potential and set out the huge opportunity such skills-based talent and learning platforms offer for L&D to move beyond the traditional model of focusing on building and delivering content.

I have not been paid or otherwise rewarded by Cornerstone to write this.

Where we’ve come from
Towards the end of the 1990s I attended a conference for the IT training industry, which in those days meant classroom training companies. We flew from London to Nice and then on to Monte Carlo by helicopter and dined in style and danced in front of a live band. It seemed the good times would never end. A year later came the dot com bust. Budgets were axed, demand for classroom training was in free fall and the next conference, considerably scaled-back, ran in a wind-swept beach hotel in the Netherlands.

One exhibitor stood out. They had something new, a Learning Management System. Recruited from Oracle to a newly formed company (not Cornerstone), the men on the stand had a bullish enthusiasm for this new technology. The LMS, they said, was the next frontier in software. Just as Enterprise Resource Platforms (ERPs) had become embedded in organisations, so the LMS would rapidly become something modern businesses would be unable to live without.

In this, they were echoing the zeitgeist. In 1999, Cisco CEO John Chambers had famously pronounced that e-learning would “make email look like a rounding error”. But Chambers, and the men on the stand, were both wrong. ERPs continued to be substantial, valuable implementations that were core to the organisations using them. LMSs didn’t.

But seeing Cornerstone Xplor, and watching what’s happening in our field today, I believe that maybe those sharp-suited young men weren’t entirely wrong, they were just 20 years too early. I think we’re about to see organisation-wide learning and talent software become as important to the enterprise as ERP software, possibly more so.

Fast forward to today
In 2000, skills were hardly on the agenda for chief executives. Now every good CEO understands that people and skills are crucial for the success of their businesses. According to LinkedIn’s 2021 Workplace Learning Report, 64% of L&D professionals agreed that in 2021 L&D had shifted from a ‘nice-to-have’ function to a ‘need-to-have’.

Vendors and start-ups have seized this opportunity. In 2020, global investment in EdTech totalled $16.1 bn, more than the total for 2018 and 2019 combined. With $14.9 bn invested by the end of Q3, 2021 is set to be another record breaking year (figures from Holon IQ). The LMS market is difficult to define and measure, but some estimates put it at over $15 bn in 2023 (AMR), and all forecasters agree it’s growing.

Among investment targets over the past few years have been an explosion of offerings looking to identify and bridge skills gaps, and to link people to roles. These activities, so simple to describe, are immensely difficult to realise. We’ve been talking about them for a long time in L&D, but it’s only recently that the technology has caught up with the vision.

What is different about Cornerstone Xplor? In a word: scale. It identifies skills, links to roles and training and a great deal more. And among the competition in this field, Cornerstone itself is a leviathan. Let’s look at these two points – the company and its offering – in more detail.

What does Cornerstone Xplor do?
In my pre-launch demo of Cornerstone Xplor, I was impressed both by what the product offers now, and its promise for the future.

The company’s own summary of Cornerstone Xplor is that it ‘Combines powerful predictive analytics, data insights, and a fluid work experience to grow your people and organization’ – there’s a stress in the marketing on personal empowerment to balance the evident organisational benefits of such a platform.

How does it do all this? Cornerstone Xplor offers the ability to identify individuals’ skills, compare them with roles, and deliver training solutions that help bridge those gaps – for both current and future roles.

The aim is to “create a pipeline of resources that helps people get where they want to go,” I was told. This neat phrasing combines organisational aims with personal empowerment. The idea is not just to help people move up in a particular career, but also to move diagonally within an organisation, by uncovering opportunities they might not have otherwise considered. For example, someone adept at interpersonal skills might move from a receptionist role to one in sales.

In this approach, skills are used as a common currency to describe tasks/roles, people and learning interventions, and to match them. This is a huge task, as anyone who has attempted to create a skills framework can tell you. It requires considerable project management and diplomatic skills to first identify key skills and then to define them in a way that is both useful and useable. It typically takes months to do this initially and then the skills framework needs to be maintained as skills, roles and content shift over time.

Asking people to assess against a skills framework is no simple task, either. Whether you ask them to self-assess subjectively, to go through a test, or to be assessed by someone else, it takes time to collect this data, and usually needs the active positive participation of their managers.

Cornerstone Xplor’s answer to this massive stumbling block to understanding the skills of an organisation is its ability to ‘develop a rich skill profile for each of your people with only a job title and resume’. (This website text inevitably abbreviates the process. The title and resume are the starting point for a profile which the system then builds on and refines.)

This is a very big claim – that skills can be inferred from data rather than directly defined and assessed. It’s one made, in a variety of forms, by a number of competitors in this field, as noted by Josh Bersin in 2020. Can it really be done successfully? That will depend on a number of things, including, crucially, how people feel about it. Meredith Wellard, VP Group Learning, Talent and Platforms at Deutsche Post DHL is already using this functionality. Reporting on reaction to their initial pilot in 2020, she notes that employees did not see AI as a faceless automation, rather “They described it as feeling as though someone finally understood what they did. To them it was not a machine but someone interested in their growth.”

This point about the platform already being in use is important. I’m describing Cornerstone Xplor as if it’s a brand new product, but it’s very far from being that. It’s already supported by a massive data set, including over 53,000 skills defined, de-duped and associated with job families and the substantial data on learning and talent that Cornerstone has collected over its 20 year history. This will be a valuable resource for L&D practitioners – if they are capable of dealing with it.

Cornerstone – the company and the marketplace
We’re now at the right meeting point of technology, demand and awareness for this sort of software to flourish. The key question for Cornerstone is whether it is better to be a large, established company in this situation or a nimble start-up? The jury is out on this, but there is plenty in Cornerstone’s favour, not least its advantage of size and scale.

This is, however, a new field, and nobody has things exactly right. The trick, as always, is to get feedback, incorporate it into your product, and iterate rapidly. Cornerstone is very well placed to do this. The company has over 6,000 customers. Fewer than 20 are currently using Cornerstone Xplor, but that number will increase as Cornerstone invites then to try the new product. The benefit of having that many customers ready to provide feedback on a product should not be underestimated.

Tools such as Cornerstone Xplor are a world away from the LMS of 2000. That took an existing process (providing training and tracking it) and offered a new way of doing it (online). Platforms like Cornerstone Xplor do something new and vastly more complex – they introduce the idea of skills as the currency of the organisation. Along the way, they change a whole raft of processes, including recruitment and performance reviews, and challenge existing mindsets. If you use a skills and talent platform properly, you have to shift to – among other things – a focus on internal recruitment and promotion.

In other words, done properly, these types of platforms require considerable change management to implement well. This will slow adoption, meaning that reaching profitability in this field will take longer than anyone would like. Will this be a problem for the start-ups? Not necessarily. Many are extremely well-funded. Will this be a challenge for Cornerstone? I don’t think so. My feeling is that the company is backing this to the hilt, and will support it as long as it takes. With its $5.2 bn valuation, it can probably keep doing this for a while.

Make no mistake, this is a serious play by Cornerstone. The company put great effort into the launch, and Cornerstone Xplor is part of a larger picture including a complete rebrand of the company itself. The reason: on one hand, the traditional LMS marketplace is commoditizing. There are approaching 1,000 LMSs out there, and buyers are increasingly choosing theirs on price rather than functionality. On the other hand, here is a new arena of talent and learning platforms that is potentially highly profitable and which Cornerstone is well positioned to exploit, drawing on its two decades of expertise in the field.

What next for talent and learning platforms?
In its current guise, Cornerstone Xplor and other tools like it are useful for targeting training more accurately and providing a bit of careers advice. But their potential goes well beyond that, which is why they have attracted funding, and why Cornerstone is backing Cornerstone Xplor so strongly.

The right platform, implemented properly, will allow enterprises to radically improve not just training, but their entire engagement with people. An organisation’s competitive edge used to come from many things, but increasingly today comes from its intangible value, and that has one source – people. For employers to make the most of their people they have to understand what they can do, in detail. This is something we can only do today by using proxies for understanding skills – what certifications do people have, what experience, what place in a hierarchy? If the skills inference algorithms at the heart of the talent and learning platforms work as claimed, then they will impact just about every way in which employers deal with employees, from recruitment to strategic workforce planning.

We’ve been driving towards this point for a while, investors are keen on it, and we can expect a lot of noise to be made about it. Inevitably, when vendors – whether established or start-ups – understand this, they will pile in. A few years ago, it was noticeable that the marketing copy for just about every learning system suddenly proclaimed that it was ‘AI-driven’. Nobody had re-written the core code of their platforms, but equally nobody wanted to miss the explosion of interest in AI. The same is going to happen to talent and learning platforms. In a year or so, expect a slew of new platforms to emerge, and existing platforms to rebrand, just as the most mundane LMS miraculously became an AI-driven LXP over the past few years.

The result will be marketplace confusion, the perception that this is just another case of old wine in new bottles, and the crash from Gartner’s peak of inflated expectations to the trough of disillusionment. However, that won’t be the end of this market. Just as we are now seeing AI emerge quietly as a vital part of many learning platforms, eventually skills will be understood as key to how all learning platforms work.

Opportunity for many – but who will win?
There are plenty of other players in and around this field. As well as Cornerstone’s full-service offering, there are specialised solutions including Gloat, Eightfold, Fuel50 and Lexonis. My focus here on Cornerstone Xplor is no comment on the quality of anyone’s offering. I have used this product launch as an opportunity to share my thoughts about the field as a whole.

In an already crowded field, will Cornerstone Xplor win? It’s far too early to say. Cornerstone has done exactly the right thing in developing a quality product, building out its data set, and client-testing it before launching. They are also doing the right thing in putting the weight of the company behind it.

Fascinating though the commercial struggle for market supremacy will be, to me Cornerstone Xplor is significant for something else – what it symbolises. This approach represents a huge opportunity for L&D to move beyond the traditional model of focusing on building and delivering content. The fact that a company of Cornerstone’s significance is backing this new approach gives is a great deal of significance.

There are two questions here. First – will the technology work? For every talent and learning platform, the devil is in the detail of the skills inference algorithms. Cornerstone Xplor’s claim to be able to begin a person’s skills profile using their job title and resume alone is extremely bold and its ability to deliver against it will be pivotal to the success of the platform.

From what I have heard and seen of the product, it looks as if Cornerstone Xplor does a good enough job of skills inference. I don’t say this to damn with faint praise. Defining skills in a way that is both meaningful and useful, is no mean feat. Here, ‘good enough’ means creating something that is not perfect but is credible and useful. Given that most clients will have had nothing like this, something ‘good enough’ is a huge leap forward. The question will be whether, as expectations grow more sophisticated, the software can keep up.

The second question is more profound. Is L&D ready to deploy this sort of platform? ERP deployments succeeded because Oracle and SAP had armies of consulting engineers take a long time to deploy the systems, tailoring them to each client. This is not going to happen with these new platforms. This is the 2020s, the era of SaaS. So, the software will be configured, not customised, but that isn’t the major issue, which is change. ERP vendors also do a lot of change management consulting after an initial implementation, because without it, the technology won’t stick. Some L&D departments will be equal to the task of managing this change. Many will not. We should expect vendors to offer consultancy to help manage the change in the clients. The smart clients will take it.

All change in L&D
Cornerstone Xplor marks a new world for L&D. It’s not the only product in the marketplace, but it does come from the largest company. It’s not perfect, but that doesn’t matter. It’s comprehensive, and is certainly good enough. The algorithms deriving skills data are where the product will stand or fail in the future. I suspect  sure that Cornerstone will back its product with the development resources needed to make it succeed.

This field represents a huge opportunity for L&D – moving from course creators to engineers managing the lifeblood of the organisation: skills. Are we ready for it?

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