Learn about how EdTech is changing the L&D industry and how far we still have to go.
In this episode of Untold Stories in Learning & Development, Lori talks about the rapid pace of digital innovations in the L&D industry and how far we still have to go to fully embrace the power of EdTech. She also shares her thoughts on the importance of better integrating our current work technology with EdTech for a more embedded learning experience.
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00:45: Introducing Lori Niles-Hoffman
01:05: Why work in L&D
02:25: Lori’s background and early career
04:25: Launching NilesNolen
06:45: The push for digital in L&D
09:45: Biggest lessons learned
10:45: How to compete with the big consultancy firms as a small business owner
12:50: The biggest achievement in corporate learning
14:30: Integrating learning technology and work technology
16:25: Why we need to move on from SCORM
17:15: Going beyond xAPI to simplify the process
19:20: Combining learning data with performance data
21:00: Is the L&D industry ready for xAPI?
22:45: Wrapping up
“Learning opens up opportunities, and that access to information and experience really can change a person’s life trajectory.”
“It’s not just buying the race car and saying ‘hey, I’m just gonna drive it’. It’s all the things around it.”
“EdTech or technology is never the answer. It’s part of the solution.”
“Now, I think we’re at an intersection, where we have to think about how our technology integrates with the work technology, and how we blend those two together.”
“SCORM is what’s holding us back.”
While working in L&D at large corporations in the early 2000s and 2010s, Lori Niles quickly recognized the power of EdTech and specialized in helping organizations successfully implement LMS and LXPs on a global scale. During this time, Lori found that companies would often acquire new EdTech but then struggled to get engagement. This is when she realized a more comprehensive approach was necessary that encompassed all strategic elements of a digital transformation in L&D departments.
Kasper: Yes and good day this is Kasper Spiro with episode four of the podcast Untold Stories in Learning & Development. And today, we have Lori Niles as a guest. Welcome, Lori.
Lori: Thank you. It’s a pleasure to be here.
Kasper: Yeah. Great to have you. So yeah, just to jump in. So maybe you can introduce yourself and tell the audience a bit about yourself?
Lori: Certainly. So, Lori Niles-Hoffman. I’m an EdTech strategist living in Toronto, Canada. We have snow today. And it’s March. And I help companies with their EdTech transformations.
Kasper: Okay. So, can you tell me so… Why are you working in learning? What was the trigger there?
Lori: I’ve always loved learning. I’ve always loved, you know, even being in school and university and studying. But most importantly, I’ve always been fascinated at the impact that learning can have on somebody’s career, no matter what their beginnings were, no matter where they started. Learning opens up opportunities, and that access to information and experience really can change a person’s life trajectory. And that’s what I’m fascinated by.
Kasper: Okay, and then just out of curiosity, because if you look at, think about learning, you can go into education, but you chose for more like learning in a corporate environment. Is there a specific reason for that?
Lori: I think because I’d done my time in higher ed and I found it a bit confining. I found that it catered to, well… particularly the system that I that I came from here in Canada, it catered to people who were able to access it. It wasn’t open to all, and the fact is, when you go into corporate, everybody – or most people, to some extent – work in some way, shape, or form. And so there’s different opportunities.
Kasper: Okay, yeah, that makes sense. And can you describe… because most people don’t land their first job in in learning directly. So, there’s a whole journey usually. Can you describe your journey into where you are today?
Lori: Absolutely. So, my journey started a long time ago, this would be going back to 1996. And I decided, when I graduated, I wanted to go back to Poland, which is where my mother and my grandmother from, and I have family there. That was my big ambition at the time. Everybody was going to Japan and earning lots of money. Spoiler alert: you don’t earn money teaching. So, I went there to be an English teacher, and I loved it, I positively loved it. And I was there for about two years. And when I came back, I had absolutely no money. And I started working in a call center for a bank, and then teaching high school during the day. And it was while I was working at the bank, that I started to see some of the gaps that they had in training and education. And I started putting my hand up for that stuff. And eventually they put me into their Learning & Development department.
Kasper: And what kind of studies did you do before that? What was your background?
Lori: Oh, my degree was English Literature.
Kasper: Oh, English literature. Okay.
Lori: Yeah, so nothing to do with this, I sort of fell into it. But I was very lucky that when I worked at that, at that bank, it was a BMO – Bank of Montreal. And it was an excellent experience where they really taught me about, at the time, we called it instructional design. So I really got a good education and background and that foundation. They really helped me with that. And I worked my way up. And, you know, eventually I started gravitating more towards the EdTech implementation. So implementing, you know, LMSs, and then eventually LXPs at a global scale for companies with like, 100,000 people. So, I really started to get into that side, and I loved it.
Kasper: And you decided to do that with your own company. So, when did that start up?
Lori: Yeah, so that started, I really left to go on my own – it would be around 2016. And at the time, I was working for KPMG. And I just found that I wanted to give my own advice. I wasn’t necessarily in agreement with… not that they do bad work, but just I was seeing things from a different perspective. And so, I resigned and that was when I started really working with companies on a on a sort of short-term targeted basis on helping them stand up their EdTech and their ecosystems and what they were trying to do. And then I was fortunate enough to meet my business partner, Amanda Nolen in 2018. And it was at that time that we formed NilesNolen. And now we do what we do.
Kasper: Okay. And is it? Because you were talking about learning technology, learning ecosystems. Or is it more like the technical side of things that you advise on? Or is it also other elements of learning?
Lori: It’s really the entire package. So, what we find is companies typically come to us because either they, well, they purchased an LMS, or an LXP, and they’re not getting engagement. That’s when they usually come to us. It’s not the ideal time. Ideally, what we want to do is, and what we like to do is we work with companies on all aspects of the transformation. So, it’s not just buying the race car and saying, “Hey, I’m just going to drive it.” It’s all the things around it. You know: it’s stakeholder management, it’s how are you going to do a content strategy? How are you going to look at the skills across your organization? And where you have gaps and target those specifically? How are you going to use data? How is the data going to flow internally in your ecosystem? And how can you use it to make better decisions? How do you become a strategic adviser rather than an order taker, and that means a whole new way of working. So there’s lots of things around it that that we work with companies on and it’s really that the tech is the engine, but it’s all of the things around it.
Kasper: As far as go the mindset of people and stuff.
Lori: Exactly, exactly.
Kasper: Okay. So, sometimes you hear that the world of learning and learning departments is not the most innovative side of companies? Well, you work on where change is happening there. So, you would be great to observe that. Do you think that… is the world changing? Is it like a standstill? Do you think there are like lots of new developments? How do you look at that?
Lori: So it’s interesting, there are lots of new developments, mostly because with, you know, the transition to digital with COVID, we saw an influx of investment in EdTech, which is a good thing. But we also saw a lot of people entering the market very, very quickly, because they see opportunities. And I don’t want to deny them that but they’re not necessarily coming from a place of good learning and from a place where they really understand how corporate L&D operates, or how people learn. Now, that said, there are some really good pockets of innovation that we want to keep our eye on, but the playing field is certainly not level. But I also think too, in our rush to go digital with L&D, we did a lot of really good things. And then, but I did see a lot of companies where they just tried to perpetuate the status quo. So, like, if they had a four hour leadership course, they just automatically did the four hour leadership course but in Adobe Connect. It’s like, okay, I get why you’re clinging to the past. But, you know, it’s about shifting that mindset. So I think now we’re starting to come out of that reactive mode. And in the past six months, now I’m starting to see people are realizing that even when we return to office, this idea of what’s hybrid learning, and what digital learning really can be… because we also were challenged by what other industries were doing for digital and we ourselves have to keep up with that. And we haven’t. So, there’s a lot of pressures, but I am hopeful.
Kasper: Okay. But I also hear you say it’s not just e-learning, it’s a hybrid form. So, you’re looking to all kind of blended modes, where you combine it with instructor led training, face-to-face training, and an online component.
Lori: Absolutely. But even more so than that. It’s combining it with things like talent marketplaces are new… they’re not new, but those are really exploding (and I think for very good reason and I endorse them highly). Where it’s not just about having the learning – whether you need to do it in digital, whatever format, and then you go to a face-to-face –, but those experiences in the talent marketplace where you actually go for six weeks on a project, and you’re honing those skills, and there’s feedback loops embedded in that, and you’re actually doing and practicing what it is that you’re learning. That to me is a huge part of the hybrid learning.
Kasper: Okay. And that is basically what your work is: to enable that and to help companies transform into that direction.
Lori: Exactly, exactly. We try.
Kasper: I understand what you’re doing. And what would be the most important lessons that you learned along this journey?
Lori: That’s an interesting one. You know, I think, for me, the most important lesson I’ve learned is, you know, from a personal perspective, it’s okay not to fit, right? And not always accept this the status quo. So, for me, it took me a long time, but when I went independent, it was about looking for the right garden. I was always, you know, the right flower in the wrong garden. And it became a case of how do I attract or work with the people that I want to work with? And to me, I think that’s really important to find your purpose. And I know that that’s just from a very personal perspective. From a wider, you know, more concrete perspective, I’d say the thing that I’ve learned is, you know, EdTech or technology is never the answer. It’s part of the solution, but you can have the best possible solution ever but if you’re not preparing for how it’s going to work and operate, it’s just going to sit there and rust.
Kasper: Okay, I think yeah, that is very true. And just out of curiosity, maybe a bit sideways but I had my own small company for a while just advising companies a bit from the same perspective: just do what you want to do without any limitation. Don’t you find it hard to get into the right corporates because you’re have to compete with the bigger consultancy firms?
Lori: Yes, and no. So, I’m very fortunate that I have a tenacious business partner, Amanda Nolen, in Spain, and she… I like to refer to her as a tsunami in heels. She’s very good at making at making connections and getting into those places. I think the other key has been… when I when I left KPMG, I really took the time to craft my thoughts and put them out there without filters. And that’s almost been a lead qualifier, in a lot of senses. Because if a CLO reads what I’m writing, it’s pretty obvious where I’m coming from, and the way that I position things and what… I do a lot of honesty, and I tried to be pretty much a straight shooter. If they don’t like that, they won’t contact me. But the ones who are looking for that, will. And I find also too, and a little secret is: we work at enterprise level. So, we typically work with companies that have got, you know, 50,000 or more employees. They will have the Big Four in there, they already have their consultants. But a lot of times they engage us to fly under the radar to look at, you know, what’s going on and get a second perspective. That’s not to say that the Big Four aren’t valuable – they have a wealth of experience – but we’re very, very niche and targeted in what we do.
Kasper: So you have like your specific proposal, your specific way of looking at things and they know that so they will… that is also the benefit of being small.
Lori: Exactly, exactly. So, you know, typically by the time they’ve contacted us, you know, they know what we’re about, or we’ve been referred to them. We don’t do any real marketing, we have a referral system…
Kasper: Yeah, word-of-mouth marketing is probably the main thing for getting new customers. Okay, cool. Okay, that was just a personal curiosity. Okay. And then if we look at corporate learning in general, and how that develops, so… What do you think is the greatest milestone so far for corporate learning? The biggest achievement?
Lori: The biggest achievement really, it sounds very obvious, but for me, it’s about going digital. And this was such a radical shift. And I’m old enough to say it, to remember it. I remember, you know, putting learning on CD ROMs. And it was amazing, because at the time, the company – I was also at a financial institution, at a bank – and they were so paranoid about a CD ROM. We had to password protect it, in case somebody left the CD ROM on a subway, or someone else picked it up, and, you know, a competitor picked up, you know, got it. I remember laughing thinking: we printed everything before, you know? We had binders and books and stuff. And I mean, you didn’t need a password for that! But going into digital and that change and what we tried to do when you look at those early, early efforts into digital and how far we’ve come, it’s really quite remarkable. You know, it used to be just basically a textbook that you downloaded, right? You just read on a screen. But now it’s so radically different. And I think that that’s amazing. And how we think about the digital experience and what that means and how people work. Now, I think we’re at an intersection, where we have to think about how our technology integrates with the work technology, and how we blend those two together. So the EdTech –
Kasper: So that would be the next challenge for learning to make that connection?
Kasper: And why do we say that: because you want to include the learning in the flow of work or is there another…?
Lori: It’s not so much that, it’s about enabling the learning experiences and crafting them in a specific way. So an example I’d like to give is, say for example, you’ve done Level 4 Spanish, okay? Because you’re learning a language on the side, you know, for your work. Next time you log into Excel, it says, “Hi, would you like to change your language settings to Spanish?” That, to me, is now embedding the learning in a very savvy way and embedding that practice in the way that people are working. So it’s not so much learning in the flow of work, but it’s also saying we’re gonna give you opportunity and time to practice skills that you’re working on, that requires an entire rethinking.
Kasper: So, adjusting the work environments to make it suitable for learning – is that what you’re saying?
Lori: Exactly, exactly. And really thinking about, you know, when somebody takes the time to learn something… Because I don’t believe that you can just learn alongside your job. Learning takes time, it takes effort, it takes concentration, it’s there. But if we also give people the opportunities to practice their craft, and to use it in ways that are meaningful and impactful, that to me is where we now have some magic happening there.
Kasper: Okay, that’s nice. So, with that challenge, you also already set a bit of a direction of… well, learning more integrated in the workplace. So is that also what you see as the biggest change that will happen between now and five years or is there something else on your radar that will happen and then change our environment?
Lori: In order for that to happen, SCORM has to be broken. SCORM is what’s holding us back. So, if we don’t break SCORM, we’re not going to get to that place. SCORM has its purpose. But if we don’t solve for that, it becomes a problem because the data is housed on an LMS and it can only be housed there. And then you have all these other systems that are generating other pieces of data that the LMS cannot interpret. And so we’ve got ourselves –
Kasper: Just for the people who are not aware of that so SCORM is a system to track and trace learning results.
Kasper: It dates back to the 1990s, by the way, I think. But it’s still the main mechanism to track and trace results. And the key thing about SCORM is that it can only track and trace learning efforts within an LMS – which is a learning management system. There’s a new version of SCORM called xAPI, which is much more open. And it allows you to track and trace from anywhere. So, if you have like different places where you learned, you can still track and trace in one database. That’s what you’re referring to.
Lori: Exactly. That’s what I’m referring to. But the… exactly. But the thing with xAPI that I don’t think we’ve quite crafted is it does take, it can take a lot of effort to set that up for xAPI and its specific way of publishing. Even though some of the rapid authoring tools will publish right to xAPI, you still have to have the backend operating to accept that information. So the example I like to give is, if I go on Squarespace, okay? I have a blog. I published my blog. All I do is write the content. I can, if I look at the backend data analytics that I get from Squarespace without ever having to do anything to it, I get probably 90% of the same data that I do with xAPI without having to do any code whatsoever, or having to generate anywhere. I can also… that data automatically flows to my CRM, my customer system. And I don’t need to do anything with it other than set up the connector – the API. That’s where I think we need to go. Because there’s so much tax right now on the average learning developer: they need to know Storyline, they need to know how to do a needs analysis, or they need to know now xAPI, they need to know how to work with data. That’s a lot. So how do we make that easier and seamless?
Kasper: Okay, I understand that. So, if I look at, from our perspective, so with, for example, Easygenerator?
Kasper: We use xAPI as a default mechanism to track and trace results.
Kasper: So, you don’t have to code anything. But then, indeed, it’s stored in in either a learning management system or a learning record store. But then you need to have, of course, the facilities to get the information out of there. So, you need to know a bit about BI tools and stuff like that.
Lori: Yep. Yeah, exactly. Exactly. So is there a way that for example, I don’t have to do anything for that final step you’re talking about for it to go into my CRM? All I do is set up the API, which is very easy. When I say “set up the API”, I’m not talking about any special coding! I’m going into my settings and just going “click, click”.
Kasper: And is that also connected to what you said to the challenge to actually connect the learning to the workplace? That you want to connect the learning data to the workplace data? So you can actually have performance data combined with learning data sets?
Lori: Absolutely. Absolutely. And how do we how do we match the two? How do we marry them? Because that’s where we start to now see in real time, not only impact of learning, but we can also look at workplace performance and say, “where do we need learning?”
Kasper: Interesting. I had a conversation with the Learning Manager of Ricoh earlier this week. And he told me they did exactly that: they combined that the learning data with the performance data. The first thing they found is they were overtraining people. So, they actually diminished the training. And they actually got an improvement in performance. So that was really interesting.
Kasper: Okay, yeah. But that goes beyond the default usage of xAPI, which is, of course meant to track and trace learning results. But then the power of that comes to be able to combine it with other data, and then analyze that and get new insights. So that’s basically what the Holy Grail was, and a big change for the next five years.
Lori: That’s what I hope. That is sincerely what I hope.
Kasper: Okay, would be interested to see where we are. And because just to be like, advocate of the devil, so xAPI was launched in 2013. We’re now living in 2022. And it’s only like, this much of the learning, tracking and tracing done through that. Do you think that the learning world is ready for it?
Lori: No, I don’t. And that’s not because I am I’m downplaying any of the intelligence or savviness of our industry. It’s because they’re overtaxed in, you know, as I was saying before, all the things that learning professionals are expected to know. I mean, I even now see, job postings that not only are you in charge of learning, you’re now in charge of diversity and inclusion. And it’s like, okay, hold on! And some of them even now say you’re in charge of wellness. It’s so much that we’re putting into that bucket. And so, I think it’s a capacity issue. That’s why I think the more that we can make it seamless, that at least takes off some of the burden. But if we want to be serious about this, you know, we have to put effort into it. And if companies fail to realize it… Right now, the average life of a technical skill is two and a half years. If you’re a company, say you’re operating in an IT space or in anything technical, you should be afraid by that. If you’re not empowering and giving the investment into your L&D team to be able to upskill your people, you can’t continue to rely on the fact that these people will just be available on the market. They’re not. So, you have to look at your own workforce. It’s a business problem to solve.
Kasper: I totally get that. Yeah, having the right workforce, and indeed, skilling that workforce and making sure it has the skills you need – that’s one of the key reasons, one of the key requirements to be successful, of course, as a company.
Lori: I totally agree. Totally agree.
Kasper: Okay, so, um, yeah, I think that sort of captures your view on corporate learning. Is there something I missed out on something else that you want to share with us, if you look at the world of corporate learning, that we should discuss?
Lori: I think we’ve covered it.
Kasper: Okay, cool. Then, just as… We always end the podcast was a bit of knowledge sharing. So who is your ultimate learning hero that people should look into?
Lori: There’s a lot of them. I would say though, if I really think of the ultimate learning hero to me, it’s the person on the other end of this screen who is really deep upskilling to change careers. I find those people fascinating. People who are you know, saying, you know, “I’m in this industry and I want to move to another one” and they put the time in. To me that’s the real hero. They’re amazing. But if I had to say like the people who I really am fascinated with? Todd Tauber is probably one of the big ones; he’s at Degreed, really fascinating. Trish Uhl – it’s u-h-l is her surname. Oh, follow her on Twitter. She’s absolutely… I mean, I have such a brain crush on all the things that she does. Josh Novelle is another interesting person at Warner Music. He’s doing incredible things by bringing learning experiences into work.
Kasper: Have you worked with any of them or do you know of their work?
Lori: I know them personally. I have not worked personally with Trish. But I’ve been at a conferences with her and I always make a point to go to her sessions. Todd Tauber: we’ve, we’ve done casual, like riffing on things. And so, it’s work with a lowercase w. And with Josh, it would be the same. We often will connect and talk about the problems he’s trying to solve. And I’m just super impressed. I don’t think I could do… when you say, you know, have I worked with them? I don’t know if I could, because these are just people who are just so super smart. I don’t know if I have anything to add other than to absorb.
Kasper: Okay, now, by the way, we’ll make sure that with the podcast, we also share this information in writing with a link where you can read more about these people. So, thank you. And is there, talking about links, something, a book, a blog, or podcast people should read or follow that you think that will help them to the next level?
Lori: Yeah, so the book that I always refer people to is actually not an L&D book. It’s nothing… Because there’s a lot out there. But the book that I actually really love is called Educated by a woman, Tara Westover. And it’s her journey from… she grew up in a very rural environment and she wasn’t given any formal education. She was she was homeschooled. And she ends up basically getting a PhD in, I believe it’s Cambridge or Oxford. And it’s her journey as to how education and access to information changed her mindset and opened up her potential. And I find it just a very fascinating look, because to me, it speaks back to what I’m always interested in, which is what learning can do for people. It’s not just, you know, to help them succeed in their careers, but what is it? What does it actually mean? And what does opportunity mean?
Kasper: So that is more like a motivational book that you really see the value of learning?
Lori: Yes, yeah.
Kasper: That’s interesting, because most people actually refer back to one of the learning leaders rather new insider learning. So that’s, that’s nice.
Lori: There’s a lot out there –
Kasper: For me, that’s a new book. That’s really interesting. I haven’t heard of that yet. So, I will definitely dive into that. Okay, thank you. And then the last question is, so who should I talk to next? Who do you think I should interview that will give me new insights?
Lori: I think I’m gonna suggest another fellow Canadian, but she lives in Calgary. And it’s Dr. Stella Lee and I find her absolutely fascinating. She has her doctorate in EdTech, and she is an encyclopedia for everything you possibly need to know. But what I also love about her is she’s just a true Renaissance person. She’s a phenomenal artist. Every time I see her, her visuals and what she creates… I’m just so amazed. She’s multilingual. She’s just a really interesting person and a fantastic chef. So there’s lots to talk about with her in addition to her knowledge about EdTech.
Kasper: That sounds exciting, I will definitely reach out to her. Thank you for that. So, any last words from your side to wrap this up?
Lori: Just a huge thank you. I enjoy all of our conversations, Kasper. And it’s wonderful to speak with you.
Kasper: Well, thank you for being on this podcast. I really enjoyed it as well. And I think I got a couple of new insights and some things I need to follow up on both on the people side (I didn’t know everybody) and on the book. So, thank you for that. And that’s also sort of the goal to get like those news insights. So, thank you for this for sharing this.