Next Generation Technology Architecture-White Paper

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Solving Today’s Learning Challenges Through a Next Generation Technology Architecture

Making the Abundant Relevant:

Stephanie Pyle Senior Product Marketing Manager

DECEMBER 2005

Making the Abundant Relevant

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Executive Summary Roots of the Integration Problem Alignment and Relevance: The Emerging Challenges Formalizing ‘Informal Learning’ Standards to the Rescue? Part of a Larger Trend SkillSoft’s Next Generation Architecture Initiative Phase I Phase II SkillPort Features and Functions Slated For OLSA Development Advanced Learning Structures The Business Benefits of OLSA The Next Step for Standards Summary

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Executive Summary
There are two major challenges facing SkillSoft customers today: the need to integrate a wide variety of technology systems and content types, and the need to present content in a way that is relevant to the individual learner. These problems are getting more difficult as the number of content types and technology systems proliferate and the trend toward aligning learning programs with business initiatives accelerates the need for relevance. Industry standards are in place but are not providing a complete solution. Proprietary technology systems continue to frustrate the desire of learning professionals to assemble an abundance of parts into a relevant and meaningful whole that serves business and learner needs. SkillSoft agrees with customers and analysts who say that these problems must be solved in order for e-learning to reach its potential, and this is the impetus behind SkillSoft’s Open Learning Services Architecture (OLSA) initiative.

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Learning professionals, many of whom come from educational rather than technical backgrounds, may feel like they are in over their heads in the technology discussion. However, while they may have more interest in instructional design than software design, today’s learning professionals must have at least a working knowledge of technology in order to be successful. The desire for pain-free integration is often expressed as the need for an end-to-end learning solution that addresses all corporate learning needs within a single platform. This has proven to be an elusive goal. The reality is that even within a single customer, a wide range of needs may exist, and e-learning vendors tend to be specialized in the products they provide. It is therefore quite common to find learning departments knitting together a variety of content products and systems to cover the full range of needs. Many customers also customize their content and systems, as well as develop company-specific content from scratch. Not surprisingly, customers able to minimize the number of vendors suffer far fewer integration headaches. SkillSoft content customers that use SkillPort as their learning management system are an example of this, as they generally find that it is easier, faster, less expensive and less resource-intensive to deploy e-learning within this single vendor environment. But even in this example, it is rare to find a customer that does not have some other type of content or some other vendor’s technology running in their environment.

Roots of the Integration Problem
Integration is the single most difficult issue facing the learning industry today, and in the opinion of many, the problem is growing worse not better. Training magazine states, “Integration and interoperability still remain the Achilles’ heel of the [learning] industry.”1 Gartner’s “2005 E-Learning Client Issues” report states, “Integration and interoperability will dominate the e-learning technology agenda, particularly as companies adopt enterprise-wide e-learning.”2

The State of the E-Learning Market: Partnering Up to Stay in the Game by Sarah Boehle, Training Magazine, September, 2005.
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2005 E-Learning Client Issues by Waldir Arevolo De Azevedo Filho, James Lundy, Kathy Harris and Bill Rust, April 28, 2005, Gartner.

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In the largest, most sophisticated companies, learning is often delivered through multiple learning management systems and/or portals. The number of products and systems is growing, as the scope of learning expands. Courseware is no longer the center of the e-learning universe, with online books, simulations and internally developed content being added to the mix in recent years. Collaboration platforms and rapid content development tools also contribute content and complexity. Gartner’s vision for the high performance workplace states that, “augmenting ‘nonroutine’ activities to improve business results has become at least as important as automating ‘routine’ activities to reduce cost and improve efficiency.”3 There is also a need for learning technology to become better integrated within business processes and enterprise systems. Learning professionals must understand the overall technology architecture of their respective organizations, and look for ways to become a part of this picture rather than functioning as a technology island. Given that the learning department is almost never first in line for IT resources, this just makes good sense. The difficulty is that learning requires a great deal of specialized functionality not found in other HRIS or ERP systems. So the need for learning-specific systems remains, as does the need to minimize interoperability headaches.

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toward alignment of learning programs with strategic company initiatives.4 This has been a positive trend for the learning industry, as it has elevated the learning function to a more strategic level in many companies. It demonstrates a greater awareness of the value of learning at the executive level. And, to the degree that learning is perceived as a strategic function, it is assured of ongoing funding at adequate levels. Alignment with business initiatives also creates a new set of challenges. Strategic learning programs that align with specific business objectives by their very definition cannot be made up entirely of off-the-shelf content; some component of internally-developed content is always going to be required. Customization and creation take time. But strategic learning initiatives generally require much faster response than traditional learning development cycles allow. Events such as mergers and acquisitions, new product launches and price changes often necessitate extremely short response times. Learning professionals are in the uncomfortable position of making trade-offs to achieve their goals within the required timeframe. Anything that can be done to shave days off the development cycle is helpful in meeting the demands of business stakeholders. As integration is often one of the biggest time traps in learning development, it is a critical area of focus as learning professionals look for more ways to get involved with strategic business initiatives.

Alignment and Relevance: The Emerging Challenges
In recent years there has been a well-documented trend
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Introducing the High Performance Workplace: Improving Competitive Advantage and Employee Impact by Tom Austin, Rita E. Knox, James Lundy, Betsy Burton, Gene Phifer, Toby Bell, Kathy Harris, Waldir Arevolo De Azevedo Filho, Debra Logan; May, 16, 2005, Gartner. CLO Magazine 2005 Business Intelligence Report, Spring, 2005.

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Formalizing ‘Informal Learning’
Another recent trend is the desire to deliver informal learning, also known as performance support or just-in-time learning. Blending learning into the daily flow of work has obvious benefits in productivity and the potential for immediate application of the knowledge. But it also requires a new way of thinking. Rather than providing formal education programs that take learners through a set of learning activities in a step-by-step progression, learning professionals must provide a set of resources that learners can discover and manipulate in response to their needs (needs that can change from moment to moment). It requires that the learning can be easily “integrated” into business processes. Many companies feel that the biggest challenge for learning departments is getting at the knowledge that is locked up within their people and make it available in a useful way to the enterprise at large. This is driving the adoption of new collaboration and community technologies that can be used with or without the intervention of learning professionals. Some of the most innovative companies have developed online portals that bring together a variety of learning assets and community/collaboration features for a specific group of learners. These learning portals are still relatively new, but they are receiving a good response as learners are able to find resources that are relevant to them and in some cases interact with other members of their community. While this approach clearly has promise, it is also difficult to do using today’s set of technology tools.

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to be the answer to the integration problem, but in reality standards only get customers part of the way to where they need to go. The problem is especially acute for customers with multi-vendor environments. “Content can be SCORM-compliant and still not run properly in an LMS or another platform,” says Peter McStravick of IDC.5 Standards do not exist or are not relevant for other types of content that customers are commonly using, such as online books and collaboration tools. Perhaps most importantly, standards are lacking when it comes to creating the new generation of complex learning programs and portals that combine multiple content assets and platform-like functions. The current set of standards is aimed at integration on a granular level, for instance, combining multiple course topics to create a new course. However, there are no standards to cover the very common practice of stringing together multiple courses and other assets into a learning program that can be repeated across multiple groups of learners, often with different business rules applied to each group of learners. This is a pain point for many SkillSoft customers. They would also like to create learning portals to serve the learning needs of key audiences, but they find it extremely difficult to do so. This is another form of the integration problem that is limiting the progress of corporate learning.

Part of a Larger Trend
Integration problems are not unique to the learning industry, of course. Enterprise application integration remains at the top of the “to do” list for most CIOs, but the frustra-

Standards to the Rescue?
Learning standards such as SCORM and AICC would seem

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The State of the E-Learning Market, Training Magazine, ibid.

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tion of being locked into single vendor’s platform remains. Customers end up having to choose the platform that most closely meets their needs, and forego features and functions of other systems. It is often impossible to gain access to the features of another system, or it is so difficult and timeconsuming that it becomes impractical. Users of inflexible enterprise systems end up adapting their work processes to fit the software because of the difficulty and expense of adapting the software to the work. The limitations of proprietary software systems have been a driving force behind an overall trend in enterprise software known as service-oriented architecture (SOA). This approach to software programming decomposes software applications into modular application components that communicate through Web-based standards, often leveraging technologies such as Web services and XML. The advantage of this loosely coupled approach is that the application components can be combined in a great variety of ways to support many kinds of business processes. The application components can be re-used in new contexts, which saves development time and money. It simplifies the integration of functionality from multiple platforms. In short, it is widely considered to be an inherently more flexible and cost-effective approach to programming. The service-oriented approach to programming is still in its infancy. This change is prompting the development of new software products and even new categories of products that didn’t exist five years ago. The drive for greater interoperability will transform the enterprise software landscape, according to many experts. They see a time when modular software components communicating via standards-based protocols will operate within and across enterprises, sup-

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porting nearly all business processes. It is wise, therefore, for learning professionals to be aware of these overall trends and to begin thinking about ways service-oriented architecture will impact their lives.

SkillSoft’s Next Generation Architecture Initiative
Recognizing that integration at all levels is the primary issue facing our customers, SkillSoft is undertaking a far-reaching initiative called Open Learning Services Architecture (OLSA) that is aimed at making it easier for our customers and partners to do business with us and achieve their learning goals. The great majority of this work will be behind the scenes and will not be visible to the outside world. It will in no way disrupt the functioning of current systems. However, over time, the software that supports all SkillSoft customers will evolve toward a simpler, more flexible design that will improve service levels and allow SkillSoft to provide many new and innovative learning products. The goal of OLSA is to make it easier and faster for customers to leverage learning resources that are aligned with a broad range of business objectives, using the platform(s) of their choice. In the first phase of OLSA development, the benefits will be centered on streamlining access to our content from third party learning management systems, which will result in cost-savings and reduced maintenance burden for customers and partners. This will encompass several releases within the first 12 to 18 months of the project. In subsequent phases, the focus will shift from cost reduction to providing new types of functionality that will further our customers’ ability to achieve learning goals. The initiative, as currently described, will take three to five years to complete.

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Phase I
Problem: Management of SkillSoft Assets within Third Party Systems Currently, SkillSoft hosts content for a significant number of customers using third-party learning management systems or portals; other customers receive content via a CD for installation on their chosen systems behind the firewall. While SkillSoft frequently updates content, integrating these updates into the third party systems is a resource-intensive process for SkillSoft and our customers. Another issue experienced by content-only customers is that not all content types are available. Solution: With the OLSA initiative, SkillSoft will build a back-end architecture that is simpler and inherently more cost-effective. One of the benefits will be the ability to more easily import metadata for new or updated assets as they are released, as well as information on the course catalog. The metadata will enable access to assets that heretofore they have not been reachable, such as SkillBriefs, job aids and mentoring assets. This will also be a significant benefit to our LMS partners. Problem: Access to Search-and-Learn™ Search-and-Learn is a feature of SkillPort that allows users to conduct a search of all entitled asset types on the system and receive an integrated result that includes books, courses and other resources. Users are able to directly launch courses from the Search-and-Learn interface, and the system tracks their usage. Customers using third party systems would like to have this functionality, but have been limited to the search function available through their chosen LMS. Solution: SkillSoft will deploy a Search-and-Learn Web

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service that can be integrated into third-party systems. Through this approach, end users will be able to search through all entitled SkillSoft content, receive an integrated result (containing books, courses and other assets) and then launch the asset from the search screen. The activity of the users can be tracked by the third-party system or by OLSA, depending on the needs of the client. This is an early example of the kind of advancements that will be made more extensively in Phase II, in which application functionality that has heretofore been available only to SkillPort customers will be made available to customers using other platforms.

Phase II
In Phase II the focus shifts from easing integration woes to providing platform-type functionality in a platform-independent way. For customers on third party platforms, this phase of development will make available features and functions that have in the past been available only to users of SkillPort. There will also be a new category of products based on advanced learning structures that combine our content and technology to create new forms of value. These products will offer much higher levels of out-of-the-box integration, making it easier and faster for our customers to launch complex learning programs.

SkillPort Features and Functions Slated For OLSA Development
Learning Programs are an example of a SkillPort feature that will be made available to third-party LMS customers. Learning Programs provide the ability to create a structured learning program combining a variety of assets that can be repeated across multiple audiences. After Search-andLearn, this is the feature that customers are most eager to incorporate into their third-party systems.

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Advanced Learning Structures
SkillSoft has already announced a number of new products that will be made available initially to customers using SkillPort. These include: KnowledgeCenter portals: A series of topic-oriented portals that will provide a range of learning content and functionality targeted at a specific audience.

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ensuring the continued flow of high quality content and innovative technology products. Response speed: SkillSoft will be able to respond more quickly to customer needs and changing market conditions, enhancing long term relationships and competitiveness in the market. Platform for innovation: This new architecture will

ExpertCert programs: Certification programs that combine books, courseware, TestPreps and sessions with mentors to help enable higher pass rates for learners seeking certification. These are the first of many possible products that will allow SkillSoft customers to leverage content in new and innovative ways through an advanced learning structure. In the future SkillSoft is planning to provide just the structures themselves, without any SkillSoft content, to customers that wish to create their learning programs from scratch or with content from other sources. This marks another important step in SkillSoft’s evolution from a content-centric company to one that provides solutions for the full range of enterprise learning needs.

provide the basis for innovative products that will support our customers’ ever changing needs. These new products not only will differentiate SkillSoft in a crowded market, but also, they will provide new revenue streams to fuel additional development. Partnership enhancement: Partnerships are an increasingly important facet of success in the learning industry, and SkillSoft will be a more attractive partner for its efforts to streamline the technology side of integration. OLSA provides the “grease” and the “glue” to take learning to the next level. It will help to speed the implementation of learning and it will provide a means to build new types of learning programs that have never existed before. It offers obvious benefits to customers, and it will serve to make SkillSoft a stronger learning partner, as well.

The Business Benefits of OLSA
The development work and resources needed to transform the underlying architecture of SkillSoft are substantial, but the benefits are also great: Cost reduction: In addition to reducing costs for customers, OLSA will reduce SkillSoft’s costs, as well. With money saved on back room operations, SkillSoft will be able to invest more in research and development,

The Next Step for Standards
SkillSoft has always been a proponent of standards, and was one of the first companies to be certified as compliant with AICC and SCORM. It would be a mistake to construe OLSA as a sign that SkillSoft is not committed to upholding and extending the current standards. On the contrary,

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OLSA is viewed internally as an important step in advancing learning standards to the next level of usefulness. One of the primary driving forces for SkillSoft to undertake OLSA is that current industry standards do not fully address the needs of the vast majority of SkillSoft customers. SkillSoft is currently working with customers and partners on the first phases of OLSA to define the requirements and near-term deliverables. This approach is in keeping with SkillSoft’s history of placing the highest priority on customer input with a strong bias toward immediate action. This ongoing discussion will help shape the OLSA initiative and lessons learned in the marketplace will lead to a stronger basis for future standards.

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Summary
Integration has been a thorn in the side of learning professionals since the first technology-based learning products appeared on the market. Integration difficulties resulting from proprietary software and incomplete standards slow the implementation of today’s advanced learning programs and limit their effectiveness. The technology underpinnings must be addressed if learning professionals are going to be successful in creating new, more relevant learning offerings that meet the evolving needs of users and organizations. The goal of integrating learning into the life of the enterprise will only be achieved when the learning industry fully embraces open, standards-based architecture approaches. SkillSoft is taking the lead in this effort with its Open Learning Services Architecture (OLSA), a long-term technology initiative that will enable customers to experience higher levels of interoperability, flexibility and the freedom to innovate. OLSA will produce benefits for SkillSoft customers, and ultimately, for the learning industry as a whole.

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