Bill Donoghue became the chairman and CEO of Skillsoft in January 2016. Skillsoft is the largest eLearning company in the world; its clients include 65 percent of Fortune 500 companies, according to Donoghue. Skillsoft offers more than 100,000 online courses, books, and videos, as well as offering content delivery and human capital management platforms. Donoghue came to Skillsoft from TES Global, where he spent five and a half years as COO. TES Global is a digital education company, supporting educators in both K-12 and higher education. We recently spoke about where Donoghue sees the industry heading. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Figure 1: Bill Donoghue, Skillsoft CEO
Pamela S. Hogle: Can we talk for a few minutes about where the eLearning sector in general and Skillsoft in particular are headed?
Bill Donoghue: From a learning perspective, the demands now are greater than ever. The sector needs to change. The Millennial generation has an appetite for the consumption of learning and an appetite for the consumption of content that is much greater than it ever was.
Traditional learning—where people were in long courses—is changing. The demand for shorter courses, video, and more user control is greater.
PH: This sounds like an approach that is used in educational environments—adaptive learning. Your background, before moving to Skillsoft, was with educationally focused eLearning companies. Can you talk about how that approach might work in the corporate environment?
BD: I worked in the K-12 environment primarily; there are many parallels. We had a huge online platform supporting eight million teachers. They could share resources, lesson plans. There are over a million downloads a day from that platform.
I can give you an example from that experience. In math, everyone has to learn the Pythagorean theorem. But in an adaptive learning approach, we know that one size does not fit all. Our platform had more than 200 lesson plans on how to teach the Pythagorean theorem. People would ask, “Why do you need 200 lesson plans?” The answer is that every child, or every group of children, has different needs. The lesson needs to be adapted.
The parallel in the corporate world is that users want to adapt learning for themselves; they want control over the experience.
PH: How might that look in a corporate training program?
BD: People used to do courses over a long time period—several hours. The user wants to adapt the experience, maybe spending a few minutes at a time rather than hours on the course.
PH: So, in the corporate environment, adaptive learning is more about adapting the experience than adapting the content?
BD: It can be both. There are many ways to teach someone how to do a pivot table in Excel. One person might read a book; another might watch an animation or a video showing how to do it. Our content delivery platform can offer different options for learning the same skill.
PH: What are some key differences in applying adaptive learning to a corporate environment over an educational environment?
BD: In K-12 education, we’re talking about children. In corporate learning, the users want more control over both how they consume content and how and when they learn.
PH: How is Skillsoft responding to these demands?
BD: In Las Vegas [at Skillsoft’s 2016 Global User Conference in May], we announced our new content delivery platform, code-named Project Artisan. It focuses on the user experience—providing what users expect as an experience. It will offer much stronger search and discoverable capabilities and add social interaction and collaboration tools.
Artisan will go way beyond traditional discussion boards; it will allow employees to set up virtual learning groups or projects. It will also offer the features of tools we use in daily life to share information. Employees will be able to share and communicate information and also to collaborate on projects.
We’re also doing a complete refresh of our business-skills content this year. We originally had a five-year plan, but we decided to do it all this year. Millennials consume content differently. Most of our content is in 90-minute videos. The new content will be in three- to five-minute videos. They will also have a fresh, more contemporary look.
PH: In addition to giving users more control, what other changes do you see coming in the next few years?
BD: Well, the chatter—when talking about technology—the chatter is that VR, virtual reality, is the next big thing in learning. I actually think it’s a bit farther out than the next few years and that eLearning won’t be the first sector to adopt VR. Maybe in R&D … but in the next 10 years, I expect to see VR in eLearning.
PH: VR is also talked about in terms of the gaming and entertainment industries. And gaming, or gamification, is something that is getting a lot of attention in the eLearning sector.
BD: Yes, that’s true, particularly in compliance. That is one area where I see a lot of opportunity for animations. Compliance content is often seen as the “boring” end of the eLearning spectrum. It’s often mandatory. I’m not talking about harassment or ethics compliance—more like how to operate a piece of equipment. The content can be considered “boring,” and animation makes it more fun.
PH: So they will stay engaged and complete the training?
BD: Exactly. Games and animation can keep people interested.
PH: What other developments are you looking forward to?
BD: Skillsoft is a great company. It is a young company, only 18 years old, but it has a long heritage in eLearning. It’s been there from the beginning, essentially, and is a pioneer in the sector. And it’s an exciting time to be in learning and human capital management. The Millennial generation really shook the industry. They are more open and transparent, and more vocal about what they want and—more importantly—what they don’t want. One of our investors said to me that as employees we just do what we’re told when it comes to learning and development. And I responded, “Not if you’re 22!”
I’ve been most impressed that our clients—these are huge global brands—are changing their cultures. They are changing to allow employees more control over their destiny, more mobility.Twenty or 30 years ago, people thought they’d have maybe two or three careers in their lifetime and in their 50s or 60s, they’d retire. Now, we’re thinking well beyond that; people expect to have multiple careers over an extended period. And our clients are thinking about that, about how to change.