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What Works In Corporate Learning? Conor Gilligan Interview

Webanywhere has been a Totara partner since February 2011. With a global team providing learning solutions to clients in over 20 countries, they’re more than familiar with the challenges of making learning happen in the corporate space. We caught up with Conor Gilligan, Head of Division, Workplace Learning, to get personal, social and performance related...

What key trends do you see in how corporates are using LMS systems?

Traditionally corporates have viewed an LMS as a compliance engine. The system is used to deliver compulsory learning modules which learners pass or fail over a period of time and the results are tracked for compliance purposes.  This is very limiting and restrictive. The compliance modules can also be quite dull and boring.  The good news is that I am seeing a move towards MOOC (massive open online courses) style learning with more flexibility and a variety of resources. This can be far more exciting, lean and to the point. It often involves a blend of video and social interactions.  We have been working with a few clients to design MOOC style learning experiences using Totara LMS which has been successful.  

Typically 20% of a system delivers 80% of value. What 20% of LMS features deliver the most value?

In my view the following features deliver high value within Totara LMS:

Totara Sync - This tool is exceptional, allowing any HR Information System to link directly to Totara. This means users are up to date, and the data is always valid.  We have used this tool numerous times with different systems like PeopleSoft, WorkDay, SalesForce, NetSuite and SAGE.    
Audience Management - This feature allows automatic enrolment of users. This is particularly useful where larger user numbers are involved. We have used it on Totara implementations for over 100,000 users which has allowed the implementation and configuration process to be much quicker, and easier to manage for the client in the long run.
Appraisals - Though this is a new feature the first release of the appraisal module has added significant value to Totara users. In particular, I like the way it supports skills gap analysis to help identify areas where an employee is lacking as part of their appraisal review.  For example, employee Adam meets with manager, the appraisal system feeds back from Adam's peers that he is lacking certain customer service skills.  Adam's manager gains this feedback from Totara and is able to advise Adam to join the customer services course within Totara.  Having everything in one place really helps, often appraisal systems in the market are separate applications which works less well as there's no link back to learning.  

Is personalisation worth the trouble for learning? what are the real benefits?

Yes, yes and yes. There is nothing worse for learners than having to undertake learning which is not appropriate to them.  Through personalisation users can be provided with learning materials which are directly relevant to their role and experience and which meets their needs and interests.  We recently implemented a Totara LMS and used machine learning algorithms to personalise learning. This works in a similar way to Netflix whereby the system understands what you have viewed previously and recommends new learning materials.  This works well for learners as it provides quick access to relevant content and they don’t need to navigate or search the LMS.

Should L&D shift its focus to long tail learning? ie regular micro-learning to change behaviour and improve performance, rather than big hits of learning?

Over the last decade we have seen a shift from hour long courseware to short/ bite sized chunks of elearning.  This really fits in well with just in time access, often via mobile or tablet devices.  

Typically, when starting a new role in a company, the user needs an initial structured learning programme.  However, as you progress in a role you need less structured learning, which is highlighted by Jay Cross' study on formal and informal learning. There needs to be a shift to more social/ micro learning which tends to be no longer than 5 minutes.  

In today's workplace, we are constantly on the move, often hooked up to a smartphone and as a result very busy people!  We need learning to be quick and simple to access to fit in and around our lives.  As a result, I feel that micro learning and social techniques lead to better outcomes, learners are more engaged in the workplace and feel that their company is giving them the freedom to learn what they want/ where they want - ultimately leading to change of behaviour and improved performance.  I am excited by the ability of Totara Social, to support this informative, social element, and also the mobile aspect with the ability to create responsive learning and mobile apps.

Do performance reviews really work?

I think the typical model of periodically sitting in a room to conduct your performance appraisal with your manager doesn't work. I agree with Marcus Buckingham's view that the review process too often focuses on what you have done and not enough about what you are going to do. Given this siloed view from your line manager and constantly looking into the past, the PDR process is very closed and opinionated.  

We have used the appraisal module within Totara LMS with our clients to produce a review based on both the individual’s performance and also their attitude.  In the NHS in the UK, following the Francis Report, there is a real focus on 'patient first'.  We have designed reviews that evaluate, via peer review and feedback, which employees are living the values of the patient first approach.  This is really powerful.  Furthermore, once the employee has feedback from his or her peers, this feedback and gap analysis can lead directly to recommendations for further learning. So, performance reviews can work if they’re more rounded than one person’s view, forward looking and connected to development. Totara helps make that possible.


In what ways is social learning relevant? What is the role of peers and experts?

Social learning has already become the next generation of learning. The rise of social media as learning tools, e.g. Facebook, Linkedin, Twitter et al, means that social learning is almost expected by the today’s workforce. In my experience employees have to constantly develop, and social learning provides the ability to keep updated.  Often this can be through peer-to-peer learning, video hangouts and much more.  In the past, elearning was all about logging into a course, and passing or failing it.  Now, we are measuring engagement, thought leadership, interactions and influence.  This is a significant change from traditional elearning methods.

The other driving force for change in corporate training, including social learning, is the generation Y or the tech generation.  According to a recent report by U.S Labour Bureau, already over 50% of the US workforce population are generation Y.  The generation Y employees typically want three things:

  • social engagement and collaboration with their peers

  • quick and easy access  

  • short bursts of elearning, they get distracted easily!  

Social learning supports all of these nicely. Totara Social is a great platform for exploring this securely inside the organisation.




In association with


Webanywhere is the only Totara and Moodle Partner based in the UK, US and Eastern Europe. We work with some of the world’s largest companies ranging from Dollar General, Apollo Education Group, Zara, Dominos Pizza and Autotrader. Our learning environments impact everyday lives helping people improve in the workplace using the latest technologies, which ultimately results in improved business performance.

Since 2003, we have been creating immersive learning experiences for our partners, now used globally by over 3 million learners and 4,000 clients. We are a Crown Commercial Service Provider and G-Cloud supplier to the UK government.

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