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Ed Cohen was co- founder of Plateau, and is now with SuccessFactors and SAP, I asked him about the future of learning management and the cloud.

Ed, what is your job role and background?

I am one of the VPs of Product Management at SuccessFactors. I got here by being one of the Founders and CTOs of Plateau (a leading Learning Management System company purchased by SuccessFactors in 2011). My work in e-learning development goes back to the late 1970s. Plateau was a combination of two companies, one founded by me in 1993 in the area of e-learning and e-testing and one founded by Paul Sparta in training management systems.  We put the two companies together in the late 90s to create what the industry now calls a learning management system (LMS) or talent management system.  This was a merger of two leading companies at the time, just like the recent merger between Plateau and SuccessFactors.

So if training management systems became learning management systems, and then are moving to talent management systems, how do you see the future?


It’s all about connecting the dots. SAP saw that by buying SuccessFactors, and Oracle have also seen that. It used to be that e-learning and classroom learning were managed completely independently of each other. Then everyone figured out that they had to be managed together, and that’s what made LMSs.  You had performance management in there and you combined all of this and you get talent management. And now talent management has been expanded to include what was traditionally the whole HR spectrum.

It’s not that hard to see into the future. If you look at how people are managing and developing individuals inside a company, and what systems they need, and where those systems overlap in data, it becomes pretty clear how these things all tie together and what the advantages of having a complete suite.

The industry is pretty much doing what everyone has thought it should be doing for the last 5 or 10 years, which is that all of these systems will become tightly integrated suites.

So basically, the LMS is going to be part of the HR suite that does payroll and everything else?


Do you see a future for independent LMSs?

In fact I was on a panel in the UK a few weeks ago where we had this discussion. Just as not every company needs every single piece of a suite, and not every company recognizes the value of an integrated suite, there will still be a possibility for companies to sell best of breed products, but I think you’re going to see the number of these companies get fewer and fewer.

And when they do sell it, it will be for very specialized use cases. There are some industries which have really obscure ways of managing training or keeping track of information; for them it’s going to be easier to pick up a specialized product than to change an integrated suite.

Where do you see assessment fitting into that? Will this be part of the HR suite?

I see this varying on a company by company basis. Some companies will want assessment as part of the bigger HR suite, others will want a best of breed or specific solution like Questionmark.  The HR suite is going to have assessment capability for mainstream learning and performance use cases. But there are assessment use cases like certification and licensing and things that go beyond the standard use cases, which companies are going to want specialist assessment systems for.

Some people will always want something unique that larger systems may or may not account for. One size will not always fit.

A thing that a lot of people are paying attention to, and I think it’s going to be a trend coming up is that people are realizing that a tremendous amount of time is spent within the content, and that is often the weakest part of any implementation these days. E-learning content is often really boring – there is this big trend to deliver PowerPoints. And as content gets better, people are going to want more assessment tools and make assessments more instructionally sound.

So you think there will be more focus on instructional design?

Back in the CD-ROM and CBT days, there was much more emphasis on instructional design and making training effective. The trend over the past couple of years has been to take someone from the plant that has been doing this for a while; we’ll call him a subject matter expert and give him one of these tools to create instruction. This isn’t working that well for a lot of companies, they wind up with poorly designed PowerPoints that have been converted and which are being launched and tracked.

We’re coming full circle on this. People are realizing they’ve spent all this money on e-learning but can’t measure its effectiveness and can’t see any improvement inside the company. There’s a skill to defining objectives, writing questions that test to them, and creating content that teaches to that. There’s a lot of value to instructional design.

One of your roles is to Chair the AICC CMI-5 standards working group, creating a new communication standard for the industry. Why is CMI-5 important to the future of learning systems?

In the past, e-learning standards were about launching some content from an LMS and tracking it by the LMS. The connection back to the employee’s record was never made. When we started out with CMI-5, we had HR-XML in mind and we had a bigger picture in mind.

The idea behind CMI-5 is that instead of trying to map out the world, it is a core spec that is extensible. And that data can go from learning content back to the HR system.  It’s not just about tracking learning; it can also be simulations and other technology. And it’s not just content or assessment being launched and tracked from an LMS, it can be from a portal, from an HR system or a website.

The idea is not to put a ceiling on anything. CMI-5 is a floor not a ceiling. (You can find out more about CMI-5 at

What do you see as the advantages and disadvantages of On-Demand vs On-Premise learning management?

If you take a step back and look at the evolution of IT infrastructure, whether you call it client-server or whatever, it breaks apart and it comes back and it breaks apart and comes back. SaaS or On-Demand is that architecture coming around again.

If you look at the rate of innovation that can occur with a SaaS product as against a company maintaining a behind the firewall instance of something, it comes super important for learning and talent. This is why we’ve seen LMS’ and performance management going to Saas first, because there is such
a fast rate of innovation.

If you look at LMS installations that were behind the firewall, 5 or 10 years ago, a lot of companies haven’t upgraded in 5 or 10 years, just because it’s so, so painful.

To be honest, with the amount of money companies spend internally trying to maintain systems, if you compare that against the cost of subscribing to a service, it becomes obvious. SAP’s got a really solid vision of where the world is headed with SaaS technology.

And looking at SuccessFactors, could you summarize how the SuccessFactors learning software will help a typical SAP customer?

It is the leading learning and performance SaaS solution, and it has SAP behind it making sure that it will work with what you already have.