SumTotal, GeoLearning and the Caveat of a SaaS LMS

When I was implementing the SumTotal LMS at a major pharmaceutical company, I came across an internal customer who had contracted with GeoLearning to provide an LMS for training outside partners. Even though it wasn’t cost effective to have two LMSs, I could understand the reasoning. GeoLearning specializes in the SaaS model. Because of this, it is very easy to implement in a situation where you need to train people outside your network.

Our ultimate solution was to create a second instance of SumTotal outside the firewall. At the time it looked like a victory but one does have to question the infrastructure costs of supporting an LMS. This is the question that is addressed by the SaaS model. As part of the Cloud Computing phenomena, SaaS is predicated on the assumption that it is better to let someone else own the technology and you can just “rent” it online. This makes a lot of sense. In fact we looked at SumTotal’s SaaS solution called ResultsOnDemand®, but at the time we decided that it just didn’t seem “ready.”

Therefore I wasn’t surprised to hear that SumTotal acquired GeoLearning on Thursday. Bersin & Associates explains the benefits of the merger very well in their blog.

I see this as a good thing because SaaS makes a lot of sense for certain types of companies. The infrastructure required for an LMS can be quite hefty, especially in a regulated environment. If GeoLearning can give SumTotal a more solid SaaS offering, it would be good for everyone.

The caveat is that companies tend to bring their problems along with them when they adopt new technology. The specific problem that I think a SaaS LMS model exposes is the obsession with customizations. By its nature of being a shared service, SaaS systems cannot be customized, only configured (Customizations are changes in programming. Configurations are changes in settings.) Part of the Customization pathology is a desire for control and the need to be recognized as unique but I believe the real reason for customizations is the need to support workarounds that were the result of bad business processes. Therefore, if you straighten out the business process, you remove the need for customizations. People are often married to their workarounds and resist letting them go. Working through this can be painful, but it must be done if a SaaS solution is going to be successful. Hopefully the economic advantages of SaaS will force companies to go through that process, and hopefully when they are ready, SumTotal will have a robust solution for them.

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