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Parkin Space: SumTotal and Pathlore May Change the Training Market

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Godfrey ParkinAs with Saba’s acquisition of Thinq in April, SumTotal’s announcement a few days ago that it was acquiring Pathlore made no headlines. A couple of years ago, the e-learning market would have been buzzing with commentary and speculation; in August 2005 it almost passed without notice.


Perhaps it is yet another sign of market maturity. More likely, it is a sign that the LMS market is rapidly going the way of any other enterprise software system. It is merging into the wallpaper and losing its sexiness.

With the acquisition of Pathlore, long the market share leader, SumTotal gains a thousand new clients. That is significant, since at last count SumTotal has LMS products installed in about 500 organisations, only 50 of which have its latest Docent/Click2Learn merged product, called SumTotal Enterprise Suite 7.0. But I wouldn’t give great odds on the Pathlore LMS surviving for long as a separately supported product.

Within days of the announced take-over, smaller competitors such as Learn.com and Knowledge Management Solutions announced bargain-priced transition deals for any current Pathlore clients who would rather trade down to their product than face the prospect of having to trade up to SumTotal Enterprise Suite 7.0.

The advertising of the discount offers assert that Pathlore’s Learning Management Suite may quickly become obsolete, and that such a switch will avoid the worries of product uncertainty, availability of software support and maintenance and “the inevitable technology conflicts that arise when competitors merge”. Bailing out might well save that anxiety – at least till Knowledge Management Solutions or Learn.com are themselves targets for acquisition.

In addition to tripling its customer base with the addition of Pathlore, SumTotal also gains a product that is in many ways superior to its own.

Pathlore has strengths in training analytics and learning distribution, and includes tools for doing some fairly sophisticated evaluation of learning benefits. With its Asymetrix/Click2Learn pedigree and ToolBook foundations, SumTotal has strengths in content creation and management.

There are very few “big” LMS-only vendors left in the market. Relative to the other LMS-only vendors, Pathlore and SumTotal are giants. Pathlore accounts for around 20 percent of all Learning Management Systems installed around the world – despite shipping in English only and not supporting double-byte characters.

Added to SumTotal, the new entity will have a third of the LMS market. But they are still tiny compared with the total size of “enterprise” competitors such as Oracle and SAP. Those companies have not yet had great success in the LMS market, but their enterprise software customer bases are huge, and their total revenues make the “LMS giants” insignificant.

SumTotal’s future may well turn on whether or not it can leverage this acquisition to move learning out into the enterprise, as a function fulfilled by non-training line personnel.

The LMS market may have become boring, but what SumTotal actually does with Pathlore could bring all of the interest back. They have an opportunity to make e-learning more mainstream (and more mass market) than ever, by distributing easy-to-use development tools out into the non-training parts of fifteen hundred organisations.

Put the power to create learning experiences in the hands of sales managers, marketing strategists, administrative assistants, and operations personnel, and interesting things might happen.

True, we could see the PowerPointisation of training, with all of its abuses and atrocities. But we could also see a booming market for training non-trainers in how to do instructional design. And we could see a whole lot of radically new approaches coming from those whose creativity has not been conditioned by years steeped in the dogma of pedagogy.

Having the tools to quickly create formal learning experiences out there in the workflow is necessary and important. But is it enough to have a creation and deployment tool that anyone can figure out how to use?

Neither Pathlore nor SumTotal have anything more than token support for technologies that will make learning a truly enterprise-wide function: social networking, collaboration, and peer-to-peer knowledge sharing.

Not that they need to: these things can co-exist and support each other without having some kind of coded interlinking in place. People will use the tools that they find useful, in the ways that suit them, irrespective of the original intentions of the tool designers, and despite the best efforts of policy-makers.

I can dream.


Read more of Godfrey Parkin's columns here.

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