How to build a LearnOps ecosystem?

Ryan Austin, Founder & CEO ● Jun 7th, 2024

The full transcript

Oleg

Hi everybody! Welcome to Devico Breakfast Bar! Here we speak with different people involved in the business landscape, share their expertise, delve into the latest tech trends, and explore the ins and outs of IT outsourcing. I'm Oleg Sadikov, and I'm excited to have Ryan Austin, the founder and CEO of Cognota, the global leader in learning operation software. Don't forget to subscribe and hit the notification bell so you don't miss on new episodes. Hi Ryan! Could you please start by telling us a bit about yourself and your professional background?

Ryan

Hi Oleg! Thanks for having me. So, as you mentioned, I'm Ryan Austin, the CEO and founder at Cognota. Cognota is the world's first LearnOps platform. And so, not only are we building an operating system for enterprise L&D teams to run their operations like a business, but because it's a new category, we're also building a lot of the ecosystem, community, certification, and other partner channels. My background has always been in entrepreneurship, although I fell into the world of learning and development about 15 years ago, working for a company headquartered in the UK called World Trade Group. I was responsible for go-to-market strategies for them. And as part of that, I built out what's called WTG training and was responsible for the Americas. And so, that's where I got my first taste around the mission of learning and development, and over time, where I built the thesis to what became Cognota today.

Oleg

Okay. Sounds great. You actually answered a few of my questions, which were in my mind about Cognota, but that's great. Are there any professionals or leaders in your network who inspire you in your professional journey?

Ryan

Yeah, a lot. And luckily, some of the ones who inspire me the most in our industry I get to work with closely as advisors. Three particularly come to mind. Martha Soehren, who is the chief talent development officer at Comcast. She's just a very inspiring leader and breaks down difficult and tough conversations into very simple ways to think through things. It's been a pleasure working with her. Also, Dr. Sydney Savion, who's the vice chancellor now at Vanderbilt. She's held very senior roles in learning and development at Dell, at Air New Zealand, at Google. We just led a workshop together on reinventing learning operations. It's a free workshop that we provide to the industry that you can find on our website, cognota.com. And another one is Rob Lauber, who is the chief learning officer at McDonald's. He just has this energy and presence of him where it really gets you to think about how to innovate and how to think of learning in the context of running a business. And the amount of money that's spent in learning and development is high, so you need to be better stewards of capital in this profession to really drive return on investment for the companies as well. So, really inspiring people that I get to work with almost every day, that I'm very grateful for.

Oleg

What, in your opinion, are the most significant changes or trends shaping the L&D landscape today?

Ryan

Yeah, so learning and development, it's no different, Oleg, to software development, except it's taken about 20 years longer for them to go through a transformation. So, a long time ago, as you know, software development was very waterfall, you know, engineering actually reported into IT. Now you think about that – it's like crazy, right? And over time, the role became more agile. The job of a chief technology officer was born. Businesses really realized that it did not make sense for engineering to be stuck in IT and that it needed to be its own thing cause there was value creation. Out of that transformation, the term DevOps started to come to life. And now, you think of DevOps, it's just normal. You actually don't even think back, 'Hey, there was another way of doing this.' In learning and development, only about four years ago did the industry started talking about agile transformation. And now, because of the market pressures, everybody tightening up costs and being more efficient and effective. The business finally saw the value during COVID of learning and development teams and what they could do strategically to the business. But now, they're asking tough questions to L&D. What's the impact we're getting? What's the return on investment? How do we measure success? And the L&D function is struggling a little bit to try and figure this out. There's a layer of leaders who are really good, and those are going to become the newest chief learning officers in our industry, driving forward the change. And then the other people who might not know how to do that, unfortunately, will have to upskill and reskill to find different roles in this new ecosystem. What I'm excited about is that everybody has talked for the last 20 years about getting a seat at the table as an L&D professional, et cetera. That shift is actually happening now. And I'm convinced it's here to stay this time, where L&D won't be looked at as a cost center, they'll be looked at strategically. But the CFO, the COO of these businesses are going to want to see results, and they're going to want to see how to measure that. So, that's an area that we're very passionate about and where LearnOps comes in. You know, we talked about DevOps, LearnOps is at the back end of this transformation to help create frameworks, education, networks through community, and the technology to help make that whole transformation process a lot easier for these L&D teams. That's an area that we're investing in and building as well.

Oleg

So, you think it's 30 years behind DevOps?

Ryan

Yeah, I mean, the learning and development function, if you think about it, was developed like a hundred years ago, and training was very much like an assembly line. We'll create this content, and we'll train these people, and this is the results that they're going to get. So, at the time, that was an innovation. It came through government and the army. That's where this role of instructional design systems came to fruition. But the function has been stuck in there for almost a century. And now, with technology and the need for businesses to upscale and reskill, there's this pressure on the business that could impact their success. You know, if I'm a CEO and I have a one-year, a three-year, a five-year strategy, and that strategy is at risk for execution, because we don't have the right skills in the company to actually do that, who are you going to ask to upskill and reskill? You have to now ask learning and development, right? So now, L&D needs to really learn how we work in sync with the business and as fast as the business. Where good is good enough, we don't need to overinvest in a solution. So, think of L&D more like a product management team, but instead of helping to solve problems with software, they're designing learning experiences for the employees to solve the problems for the business with these experiences, to get people to new heights, to execute on the business strategy. So, the teams that align to objectives, and align to strategy, and take the time to hyper-prioritize, and on investments – only with that at the corporate level – are the ones that are going to succeed. People who are still maybe doing learning because they think it's what the company needs, but you know, it's a vitamin, not the painkiller for the company. That's where you're going to start to see some of those investments phase out. And the function is going to be hyper-aligned to corporate strategy as we move forward.

Oleg

How does it align with the fact that sometimes it's better to hire an engineer rather than invest in learning, in teaching another one to deal with some area where he doesn't have experience?

Ryan

Well, that's just a company maturity perspective. Like at Cognota, we're still a pretty young company. So, sometimes we have to hire up where we lack certain expertise or outsource. You know, we worked with you on some QA initiatives, for example, because it wasn't an area that we wanted to hire full-time internally, and hiring externally would increase our competency much faster and educate the team alongside of that. So, it was a calculated decision. My wife works for a Fortune 100 company – a much bigger company – and they put programs in place. If they hire you, and they bring you in for a role, they never want you to leave. So, they're going to put upskilling programs, and reward and recognition programs, and compensation, incentives so that you're always learning, you're always moving and growing in your role. So, they're not looking to bring in external people. They're making investments, you know, long term from now. Looking at my wife, for example, as a head of marketing operations in that company long term and nurturing her to get there along the way. So, just depends on your stage. And there's no one answer. You know, you're going to be agile in how you do these things across the company.

Oleg

With over 10 years in the field, you have been instrumental in driving improvements in learning and development. What inspires you in the field of LearnOps?

Ryan

Yeah. So, where my thesis formed was like the whole industry really talked about L&D as a cost center for a very long time – decades. And this concept of L&D as an order taker was born. And now, you're hearing people talking about moving away from order taken to strategic advisors, strategic consultants. And that is absolutely right. You know, L&D needs to build thicker skin to push back on the business and to educate the business partners in the different functional areas about what's a priority and what's not. They should be at that intersection of the business and the business function to help the business leaders think about what to prioritize—again, that product management mentality. So, what inspires me is this transformation. What I saw a long time ago, when everybody was looking at this field like it's a cost center, et cetera, corporate L&D, in the reality is corporate L&D is a 380 billion industry. 180 billion is just spent on learning programs. That's too much money to flow through the fingers of people to be a cost center, right? Like if as combined, the global ecosystem is spending that, companies are going to want to know what the impact in the ROI of that money is. And so they're waking up now, and we saw this in marketing. Think about marketing teams a long time ago: CFOs were like, 'How much are you spending? We're not getting the impact, et cetera.' Now, with marketing operations and leading platforms like HubSpot and Marketo, it's easy to connect the work, the data, and the ROI, right?

So, these technology innovations change that field. So, my bet was there's too much money flowing through the fingers of L&D. They cannot be a cost center. We saw this transition in software development, RevOps, et cetera. I bet that it will happen in learning and development. And that's when I was like, LearnOps, right? And I would google it at the time, and there was nothing. There was like four results on Google. And I'm like, 'I wonder if learnops. com is available. I wonder if learningoperations.com is available.' I bought it all. And that's how we've been building the ecosystem by making those assets – educational assets – now for the industry. So, on learnops.com, it's the community. Learningoperations.com – we have a free job board. Things like that, just to help mature education around this new field of LearnOps. What inspired me was having the opportunity to lead this change with very exciting thought leaders like the advisors who I mentioned earlier in the podcast. And what really formed the thesis was if all these other business functions – finance, marketing, software development – have these purpose-built operating systems at the back end of the transformation, surely learning and development will need that too. And so, that's when we founded Cognota.

Oleg

When did you buy those domains?

Ryan

Throughout the life of Cognota.

Oleg

No, when did you check that they were still available? Learnops, for example. When was it?

Ryan

So, learnops, I think was 2018, and other domains even back as far as like 2017, 2016.

Oleg

Okay. For those aspiring to follow a similar path in the tech industry, what advices would you give based on your own expectations? Are there any lessons or insights you wish you had known earlier in your entrepreneurial journey?

Ryan

Yeah, you learn a lot along the way, right? You know, I always say like if I ever were to start another company, it would be a lot easier because you make so many mistakes. But that's not necessarily true. I have a friend who built a multi-billion dollar software company and started another company. They're going through the sleepless nights and stuff like that, trying to figure things out. So, it's never easier, even though you hope it is. Because every company has its own path. You make smarter decisions, you know where to save time, but it's not easier cause you're going to learn. My biggest advice is to be mission-driven. The biggest mistake I ever made in my entrepreneurial journey was to try and build something to get rich, like my first company out of university or whatever. And you rush, and because these things actually take a lot of time, you get impatient. It's not going fast enough. You get stress over that, which is stupid. And then, you know, if you think about it, it's stupid. And then you become poisonous or destructive to the business because you're trying to do things. When you build something because you're actually passionate, and you become mission-driven, it's a lot easier to get through the tailwinds of the challenges because you're focusing on the mission. And you just say, 'It's just a little more time. It's just another speed bump we got to get over.' And you start building thicker skin around those things because you're focused on the mission. Now, I always say you need to be smart about it. You can't just fall in love with your idea.

A lot of entrepreneurs go to market too early. They turn on the sales engine too early. You really want to spend the most time starting a company on the design thinking aspect of it. What the problem is in validating that with the market, with people. It's not as hard as one would think. You could literally call people in your ideal customer profile that you think it is, or write them on LinkedIn and say, 'Hey, I'm starting a company. I'm looking for advice. I recognize that you're in this position. I'm not trying to sell you anything yet. Can I talk to you about this problem?' And if it's a real problem, and if they're a good human, which most people are, they'll actually take the time to respond and say, 'Sure, I'll have a conversation with you.' And so, you need to do that like 20, 30 times to start building your thesis so that you're executing in a smart way and you're respecting your time. So, to answer your question, the biggest mistakes I made was when it wasn't mission-driven, when it was more money-driven, and I didn't know how to respect my time. I would fall in love with my idea, and that is not what you want to do.

Oleg

Did someone tell you back in the days to be mission-focused?

Ryan

Yes, and I didn't listen, and I didn't listen.

Oleg

And you didn't listen. That's the biggest mistake of all of us, of all entrepreneurs, I think. Because we know these things, no? Before starting the business, I knew many things, but still I did the same mistakes.

Ryan

You know, I had this mentor growing up, David Burdenstein, and his partner, Mina, was like my second mom. He was very instrumental on giving me really good feedback. Unfortunately, I didn't listen to it all. And in hindsight, I probably could have saved maybe three or four years in my journey. But you live and you learn, right? So, it's great having people like that, and you got to think about it in a different way. If you're listening to this, and you're starting out on your journey, it's like, ‘What did David have to gain by being a mentor?’ Nothing. Right? So, you gotta think about why they’re going out of their time. They're really just trying to pay it forward. And so, that's one of the lessons. I have a two-and-a-half-year-old son, and he'll take whatever path he wants. Maybe he wants to be an entrepreneur. And if he does, then that's the lesson that I'm really going to teach him is to find something he's passionate about, be mission-driven, and respect his time.

Oleg

And he should listen to you.

Ryan

Hopefully. We'll see. You're right.

Oleg

Yeah. You have a video interview series where you talk to learning and development leaders to gain insights or challenges and opportunities in learning operations. How else do you stay on top of industry trends and events? And are there any particular valuable resources of information that you find?

Ryan

So, we offer a free workshop. It's a micro-credential to get certified in high-level learning operations. It's a four-hour workshop. Those are very interactive, and they're very beneficial because there's breakout exercises and round tables. So, you actually get to hear monthly – when 40 new L&D leaders come to these or more – you get to hear about the problems they're having. So, it's a really good way to stay super close to the market, and meet new people, and hear the shifts and changes. We also have partners. You know, innovation is a blend of operators who are actually doing the work in these big enterprises, being hands-on, but also technology innovators. So, we have channel partners and technology partners. And you learn a lot from them because these are the people solving the problems.

Although the operators are the ones using the technology, applying it, solving the problems, at the front line, it's the technology providers who are actually taking the risk, making investments into solving the problems, and learning the hardest way because if you make a mistake, there's financial consequences, and you lose time. So, it's a blend of staying connected in industry groups, teaching the industry, and helping to pay it forward in that regard, and having good partners as well. And then lastly, we spend time with analysts of our industry to learn what they're hearing as well as another channel for information.

Oleg

In addition to your professional life, do you have any personal interests or hobbies that you're passionate about, and how do they complement your work?

Ryan

Right now, it's hard just because there's literally not enough time in the day. So, I'm constantly trying to learn about how do I maximize time. You know, time is the number one resource. Everybody has the same amount of time. It doesn't matter. You're really the situation unless it's a health issue or something like that. Elon Musk has 24 hours in the day. I have 24 hours in the day. So, it's how do you apply that? So, I'm trying to learn that and making more time for hobbies. I do like boating, for example. It's a way just to forget about things, clear your mind. For the same reasons, I love going snorkeling or free diving. I actually spear fish, that's something that I really like to do. I like to ski, although I need to do that more. And on the weekends, I really try and get most of my work out of the way so that I can take at least one, hopefully, two days over the weekends to spend time and do activities with Levi, my son, my wife, Mary. And we have a daughter on the way. So, you know, can't disappoint her.

Oleg

Artificial intelligence is becoming increasingly integrated into various industries. How do you see AI playing a role in the future of training?

Ryan

Yeah. I mean, if you look back over the last 20, 30 years – I'm 40 years old – I literally remember my father having one of those gray phones, I had a pager. Like you think about what world did we live in? And so, AI is just going to accelerate that transformation, the digital transformation, even more than the last 20 to 30 years. So, it's going to be significantly disruptive. And, in LearnOps, our industry, because we sell to large enterprise, they're not fully ready for it because they're worried about info security, things like that. It's the same thing like when people were on-prem to cloud. Now, everybody is, for the most part, in the cloud. So it will happen. So, you need to start making the investment significantly now, or you'll become irrelevant. And you need to understand where to apply that. I look at AI, at least now, as a human assistance for productivity, at least in the field of learning and development.

You’re either going to fully automate or assist. And so, you have to look at the different areas. In the workshop I teach, we talk about AI mapping journeys. Like break down your whole workflow – just like a user experience for product design – and look at the areas where there's friction points – human friction points – that are driving inefficiencies, and think about where you can add AI to automate or increase efficiencies there. And if you start that now, in three to five years, you're going to be in a really good place. So, we're building some stuff called LearnOps AI just because we own trademarks around LearnOps and stuff like that. So, it makes sense. We're helping teams to do that work where we're doing the research on what are those friction points and creating automation and AI assistance in those areas.

Oleg

Thanks. Learning and development often involve collaboration among various teams and departments. How do you facilitate collaboration within organization, and what role does technology play in enhancing teamwork or training functions?

Ryan

The technology plays the same role as any function, really. You have different technology for different objectives, or goals, or KPIs from a collaboration perspective, just, you know, work collaboration like Teams or Slack. I think it's essential, even if you're hybrid and not fully in office, or if you're remote. It's just necessity to function in those types of environments. The way that we talk about learning and development – and I published an article in the training journal called The Blueprint for LearnOps – it's really about positioning L&D again in the middle of a top-down strategy and a bottoms-up strategy. So, top-down, it's what are those one, three-year, five-year corporate objectives, your short-term, long-term goals. And understanding those plans, taking the time to really understand the plans and where there's risk to those plans, where L&D can be that strategic advisor to the CEO, to the business on how to bridge the gaps, how to create investment thesis or investment plans around those goals to ensure that you increase the probability of success for the business with learning and development investments. And then you also need to plan bottoms-up, which are taking the time to build the partnerships with those functional leaders. We call them sometimes learning advisory boards or stuff like that.

Because they're so close to the problems on the day-to-day frontlines on what's happening in their function, that they can then come to the learning and development partners and say, 'We're having this problem. We think we need training to solve this. Can you help us?' So, that L&D can also advise the business functional leaders. Now, sometimes the business functional leaders will come to L&D and say, 'We think we need this.' There's people in L&D who have the mindset, and they're scared to say 'no'. They should always start with 'no'. Why do we need to invest in this? What's the reason? Why? What corporate objective? Does it align to as a priority? And push back to help the businesses save time and money and to be efficient and effective. Now, if there's that alignment, that's where the L&D business partner can really dive in, work with the functional leader to design a program that has the right experiences for the employees to uplevel and get to that performance target that they set up in advance. And so, if you set up learning top down and bottoms up, you're now in this position operationally where you can create a lot of value for the business and share stories of the value and the success that you're having to grow that function even further.

Oleg

Given the global shift towards remote work, what insights and strategies have you found most effective in maintaining connected and productive team in the virtual setting? Except Slack.

Ryan

You know, so we talked about work collaboration platforms, it depends on your culture, right? Different companies have different culture. And so, you need to design programs of engagement that are exciting for your culture. So, at Cognota, we trial and error things all the time. And what we look for is this new program going to stick. If people are pushing back, or they're not doing it, then probably means it's not a good program – we have to rethink it. Some things that have worked for us is employment recognition since we're remote. Encouraging even though we're not at the office, to, you know, pat somebody on the back and say, 'Hey, you did a great job on that project.' We created this system so that employees can nominate reward points to other employees and give them a shout-out on Slack. Like I want to nominate Oleg. He just executed this sprint and did this X, Y, and Z for the business. And, you know, I want to nominate him. And our head of people will issue points accordingly to the nomination, and you can accumulate points to buy cool swag in a Cognota store that we set up. So, that's just one idea. Another thing that we do is something called sprint intels, where we take an hour every week in the company.

It's pretty expensive when you consider it. But we feel that it's worthwhile, where all the department leaders and their teams come together. They each own a few slides in a deck, and it's like an internal webinar for an hour, essentially, where everybody is sharing what they just accomplished over the last sprint in the company, what successes we had, what customer stories there are, what failures, what might not have gone so well. It's just a great way for the whole company to really stay in tune on what's happening and to feel like there's no barriers that are caused in remote settings. So, that open communication to break down the walls and to allow the information to flow. And, you know, we're not perfect by any means. There's a lot of work that we need to do with people programs, with engagement, but those are some of the ways that I think are working for us to keep people engaged remotely. Lastly, we're starting to see people really miss that human interaction. So, rather than setting up an office, we opted into this app called Worksimply. It allows people to book remote office space anywhere that they really want. Let's say if you and I wanted to meet somewhere in the middle, we'd book a co-working facility for a day in the middle of our homes so that we can work there together for the day.

Oleg

I've never heard of this. Interesting.

Ryan

Yeah. So, we're trying to be more agile in how we do work at the office.

Oleg

Could you comment on the challenges associated with the shortage of qualified specialists in the IT sector, particularly in relation to your business?

Ryan

Yeah, I think it is just more about resources and how to make resources available when you're at a certain size. So, I think in this market, talent is not necessarily the biggest challenge. There's a lot of very smart people who are looking and willing to work right now. It's more about making the right investments for the company to drive value and to build the building blocks to get to the next stage, where you can grow the team and things like that. Now that said, especially with software engineering, sometimes it's hard to find true senior developers and things like that. So, having partners to bridge the gaps or to help you access talent is important.

Oleg

What role do you think IT outsourcing play in solving these challenges?

Ryan

I think different companies have different perspectives on outsourcing, talent outsourcing, or augmented staffing, like what I call it. It just going back to corporate objectives. It just depends on what you're trying to accomplish. Sometimes there's cost savings just from a pure monetary value perspective. There's trade-offs in doing it, right? But it's more about what's that combination or that formula to make your business successful and to meet the objectives. And if the answer is you build an entirely in-house team, then you do that. If the answer is you have a hybrid team of in-house and outsourcing, you do that. If the answer is we can't afford to hire in-house people, then you fully outsource. The idea is to take steps forward, right? Like to drive the business, the mission, the vision forward, and not to waste time, and to find the right way of being effective in that regard.

Oleg

What were the precise factors that prompted you to consider IT outsourcing?

Ryan

At one point we did a platform rewrite, and we worked quickly on that. We didn't see the need to hire a whole QA team, and there was a certain period that we have a target. We wanted to get to certain QA and automation coverage period, and we didn't want to hire somebody and then maybe have to let them go or something like that. So, we made the calculated decision that partnering with somebody will not only help us learn, but it will help us execute, and, you know, we'd be able to turn things on and off accordingly.

Oleg

How do you measure the success of collaboration with an IT outsourcing partner?

Ryan

It's really about the objective. So, for our use case, the objective was test coverage. Like we'll invest until we get to a certain coverage on the entire application for automation testing. And then when we get there, it will be something that our core team could start to manage inside their day-to-day work because the workload balanced out versus when we did the rewrite would have taken the whole company, like their full-time jobs, and we couldn't do that. For a startup, it might be to get their MVP out the door. So, it's really about what's the objective. For some companies, their strategy might be total outsourcing, and that's okay. But it's just like anything, it's not about just outsourcing. What's the objective? How are we going to measure against it? And look, it's easier said than done. The test coverage example was actually a good one because that was something we could measure. It was very defined. But when you're moving quickly in business and in startups, it's hard to measure everything, and, you know, things slip through the cracks. That's what, as a CEO, you got to manage.

Oleg

Yeah, definitely. Pretty familiar. And finally, what advice would you give to the other companies considering IT outsourcing?

Ryan

Yeah, I mean, nothing to lose. Just be outcomes-focused. Why are you doing this? What's the strategy for you? Be thoughtful. Is this the right strategy? So, you don't want to invest in something and then realize shortly thereafter that it wasn't the right thing for you. And that's not good for you, nor good for your partner. So, you use the word partner. I think that's really important. You know, we partnered with Devico, and even though we might not be fully doing the QA stuff right now, Oleg, it doesn't mean we're not going to work with you again, right? So, there'll be a need, and we have the partnership established, and we'll continue to grow with you as we grow, for sure. And we're excited about it. Thanks, Oleg. See you soon.

Oleg

Thank you, Ryan. Bye bye. If you enjoy our discussion and want to stay updated on future episodes, don't forget to subscribe and hit the notification bell. That way, you will not miss on the latest insights and conversations from Devico Breakfast Bar. See you in a week!

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