Saba People 2013-Of Learning & Development Cloud Platform




I must admit that I was pleasantly surprised by the energy and mood permeating the Saba People 2013 event. I had expected a somber mood in light of the founder and chief executive officer (CEO) Bobby Yazdani’s ousting on Friday, on the very eve of the conference. Indeed, how often does a CEO (willingly or not) step down on the eve of an important annual user conference?

This issue was briefly addressed after the conference kickoff video featuring discussion clips by industry experts on the future of work (in tune with Saba’s white paper entitled “The New World of Work”). Namely, the diversity of today’s workforce—i.e., the different generations, ethnicities, geographies, motivations, expectations, and contributions—is changing the very fabric of organizations. At the same time, technological transformations—evident in the emergence of social, cloud, and mobile tools—are forging new relationships and creating business opportunities. Enterprises must adapt to these changing paradigms to be able to sustain and grow their business.

Corporation as Organism vs. Mechanism

The message of Sir Ken Robinson’s hilarious but somewhat long-winded keynote speech was that for organizations to be able to unleash the imagination of their employees and achieve innovative products and services, a change in mindset is needed. Specifically, we must stop thinking about an organization as a set mechanism that is unable to adapt to its environment. Rather, an organization should be seen as a living organism that can adapt to and even enrich its environment. Furthermore, those companies that accept the inevitability of evolution (change) must manage talent and curb the disengagement of their employees.

Robinson outlined the relationship among imagination, creation, and innovation, i.e., there is no direct path between imagination and innovation (i.e., we can imagine great things but still do nothing). Creativity is instrumental in establishing processes that allow for imagination to be put work for creating innovative products and services. Robinson concluded that talent is often buried deep within organizations and must be unearthed, often via creative teams—he gave the example of Elvis Presley, who was rejected by his high school glee club because the instructor thought his voice was out of tune.

In line with Robinson’s recommendations, Saba has unveiled a three-step journey to help organizations transform from information-centric to people-centric businesses. By following these three steps, organizations can undertake a transformative path designed to increase the engagement and productivity of their employees across an extended enterprise:

  1. Unlocking your people profile

  2. Modernizing your people processes

  3. Elevating your people experience


In today’s rapidly changing business environment, successful enterprises are those that are capable of adapting to shifting market realities and tapping into the right people resources at the right time—whether those people are internal employees or part of the company’s extended value chain of customers, channel partners, and suppliers.

Jeff Carr, Saba president, then took to the stage and first reviewed the importance of Saba’s recent and current annual People conferences and their locations. The 2011 conference in Boston was all about the work revolution (at the place of the U.S. revolution), whereas the 2012 conference in Miami signified the international/diverse nature of and entry into the U.S. Finally, the 2013 conference in San Francisco was chosen as the gateway to the future—Lucas’ “Star Wars” epic film series was created a few blocks from Hotel Palace and the United Nations was founded in San Francisco in 1945, not to mention transistor radios, TVs, PCs, etc., which were all invented in Silicon Valley.

The change in CEO is expected to mediate Saba’s transformation as well as that of its customers. After all, Saba’s party line is that it “enables organizations to transform the traditional data-driven approach to HR [human resources] and map its people processes to support business activities that enhance brand awareness, improve customer service and, ultimately, increase competitive advantage, and revenue.” The auditing and the U.S. SEC revenue restatement issue were only briefly mentioned as being “in progress,” while Bill Russell (not the Boston Celtics legend!) was announced as a new board member and the Saba chairman.

Saba People 2013 had attendees from six of seven world continents, with 700 attendees in total (500 from the U.S.). The “Saba People 2013 by Numbers” slide showed the incredible diversity even in this sample of attendees. For example, there were customers and partners that had traveled more than 10,000 miles (from South Africa) to the event, and those that came from Sephora, which is situated five blocks from the hotel. About 40 percent of Saba’s revenue comes from outside of North America, and targeted geographic expansion is planned for Brazil (and South America in general), China, India, Germany, and Canada.

Saba Enterprise Cloud—the (Old) Workhorse

Saba Enterprise Cloud remains the flagship offering as a cloud-based talent and learning management platform for the largest organizations, and it still contributes the lion’s share of the company’s revenues with more than 30 million users. This is the upper-range learning management system (LMS) that is yet to be beaten in terms of functional capabilities and scalability. For example, at the event, NetApp presented that Saba LMS has more than 600,000 users (including its vast external partner network), while IBM uses it for 400,000 associates worldwide.

The just-announced Saba Enterprise Cloud 7.0 version features a new user experience (UX), mobile delivery, Saba integration studio, analytics, learning enhancements, talent enhancements, Saba Publisher (OEM-ed Trivantis Lectora), etc. A unique touted feature is the integration with the LMS, and the testing and assessment capabilities (from Pedagogue Solutions and Comartis, acquired by Saba in June 2011), whereby the latter is typically an add-on for competitive offerings. Talent management enhancements include creating success plans, completing and calibrating performance reviews, and flexible goal setting.

New integration between Saba Enterprise Cloud and HumanConcepts (acquired in March 2012) enables organizations to further leverage their people data to gain new insights, plan and model optimal organizational structures, and visualize people data in a familiar organizational chart format. Integration means that it is now easier to align people with business strategy, and to take action through optimized people processes in the Saba Enterprise Cloud. Saba HumanConcepts can also be sold as a standalone offering for visualization and workforce planning via org-charts. The product’s recently added capabilities include archive and compare, multi-record boxes, ad hoc reporting, multi-column boxes, and integration to Saba’s cloud offerings.

Saba Enterprise Cloud 7.0 expanded the Saba LMS scope, providing deeper and broader extended enterprise learning capabilities with subscription-based learning packages, dynamic learning groups, and enhanced learning demand planning. The release also provides for deeper unification between core learning and virtual classroom, as well as mobile learning support for Apple iOS and Android mobile platforms. The new analytics solution incorporates more than 600 data dimensions and metrics, and provides the ability to distill this information into standard views and reports, along with dynamic visualizations to illustrate an enterprise’s people performance.

In addition, Saba Enterprise Cloud 7.0 helps organizations unlock their people data from corporate systems, such as human resource information systems (HRISs) and enterprise resource planning (ERP), through new standards-based integration capabilities delivered on an Enterprise Service Bus (ESB), including Web services, standard import/export templates, and out-of-the-box connectors with some back-end systems. In the Saba Enterprise Cloud 7.0 release, the idea is to do away with individual modules. In other words, Learning, Performance, Succession, Analytics, Connectors, Integration studio, and Mobile will all come as a platform in the cloud (not applicable for the on-premises customers). Saba Testing & Assessment, Saba Meeting, and HumanConcepts tools will still be optional add-on modules.

Saba is no longer selling on-premise products to new customers, with the exception of those that require it to be behind the firewall such as geographies like China and markets like government with a million and more users (i.e., an offer no one can refuse). Jeff Carr provided some impressive Saba Cloud metrics: more than 750 customers, 10.4 million subscribers, 36 languages, 13 data centers, more than 30 validated environments (often for private cloud setups), more than 400,000 subscribers per organization, more than 30,000 new registrations per organization per year, etc. Saba does not outsource its cloud operations, but rather is doing everything on its own in its 13 data centers for better reliability, security, and performance/scalability (but likely at hefty internal expenditures).

Saba People Cloud—the Future

But it was the Saba People Cloud (SPC) product offering that took center stage at Saba People 2013. SPC is a cloud-based service featuring integrated enterprise learning and talent development processes with modern social, mobile, and collaboration capabilities, all in a single environment. Advances in technology—from the cloud to the influx of mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets—have given organizations of all sizes the opportunity to compete on a global scale. Employees no longer need to operate in the confines of their cubicles at their headquarters during the typical nine-to-five workday. Instead, companies can function competitively around the clock, from anywhere and on any device. More and more folks talk about the work-life blending rather than a work-life balance (where work stays at the office and all other activities stay at home).

SPC was architected for the cloud with an enterprise social collaboration core, mobile delivery, and Saba’s renowned learning and talent management capabilities (brought over from Saba Enterprise Cloud, although with some exceptions and many innovations) to professionally and personally inspire, engage, and develop an organization’s entire workforce. According to an SPC early adopter, “crowd sourcing from a focused community is like crop farming, and we are only at the hunter and gatherer stage.” There are three required aspects to the people-centric learning and talent development platform:

  1. People Profile—Contains role, expertise, certification & compliance, experience, network, interests, contribution, performance, reputation, activities, etc.

  2. People Engagement—Contains activity streams, people networks, dynamic groups, content management, discussions, unified search, real-time collaborations, impressions, a idea engine, dynamic network analysis (DNA), etc.

  3. People Processes—Includes workforce planning, recruiting, onboarding, learning & development, certification & compliance, leadership pipeline, extended enterprise learning, goals & objectives, performance, and succession planning.


SPC includes the following key people processes:

  •  Learning@Work—Learning is the foundation of any talent management process, from learning driven by performance reviews to a building leadership pipeline from succession planning processes. To that end, SPC enables employers to assign relevant and personalized learning paths to different groups, at any location, from a single unified solution, and close skill gaps in talent management. A flexible learning solution with e-commerce capabilities (where companies can sell learning content and courseware to their extended network from their customized sites), workflow engine, configurable applications, and support for various learning strategies. SPC is also introducing advanced testing, assessment, and people visualization capabilities that are unified with Saba’s core learning processes.

  • Performance@Work—Regularly scheduled employee performance evaluations are vital to the success of organizations. SPC thus combines the best of formal and social performance management processes and focuses on workers, rather than on data or processes. Managers can oversee their teams from a single page and understand their approval ratings through the exclusive Saba Pulse feature (it is imperative that organizations have a pulse on how their employees are performing, and which goals, training, or activities team members have on the horizon). With Performance@Work, employers can assign goals, recommend learning activities or content, complete reviews, and find mentors and experts for their teams. Managers also can use Saba’s real-time Web conferencing tool to schedule regular staff meetings and reach out to individual team members anytime through private messages, instant messaging, and instant virtual meetings.

  • Planning@Work—All too often, constraints or gaps in talent force many organizations to delay or cancel key strategic initiatives. SPC enables employers to aggregate and view critical talent information in one place for better workforce management and organizational and succession planning. The social graphing tools allow employers to understand how work gets done while succession planning capabilities tied to employee development processes helps them build talent pools and strong leadership pipelines.

  • Collaboration@Work—SPC’s social, mobile, and real-time collaboration (RTC) technologies help companies build communities to connect and collaborate with coworkers, partners, and customers. Through a single social profile, employees worldwide can share documents and plans, discuss and cultivate ideas, and find experts across an extended network. Collaboration@Work also enables workplaces to leverage today's most popular social media sites, such as Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, and Pinterest, to deliver results more efficiently. Employee access to such connected communities is expected to enhance workforce engagement and increase customer satisfaction.


Why SPC as a Go-Forward Platform?

For any software company, the ideal is to have a single-product platform, as multiple platforms entail complexity, diverse developer skills, managing diverse customer groups, etc. And for Saba, SPC—with its technical features and modern tools (i.e., analytics capabilities, open social and content standards, a new set of REST Web Services application programming interfaces [APIs] through the Saba Integration Studio, a strong foundation for mobile application development, etc.)—appears to be the logical go-forward choice. Saba can now also target the small-to-medium business (SMB) market segment, as SPC is a configurable solution that requires only cosmetic customization.

Saba’s next-generation technology platform underpins its new SPC solution. The platform is optimized for the cloud and is flexible enough to expose data, connect processes, and aggregate content from diverse technology environments. It provides new capabilities in the following five key areas:

  1.  Mobile Applications—Built to support native applications for Apple iOS devices such as the iPhone and iPad, as well as Android smartphones and tablets, Saba has mobile applications on the Apple App Store and the Android Market.

  2. OpenSocial and Content Standards—Designed from the ground up using the open social standard first developed by Google and other social networks, the platform enables easy connections between individuals and with other social networking tools and applications. It also supports people profile portability so that information can be shared between multiple SPC communities through Saba Connect and with other social networks including LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter. The platform natively supports the management and sharing of learning content using the Aviation Industry CBT Committee (AICC), Sharable Content Object Reference Model (SCORM), and Tin Can standards. The hundreds of members of the Saba Content Connect program ensure that the platform has ready access to global learning content.

  3. Saba Integration Studio—Built on a services-oriented architecture (SOA) with an ESB, the platform’s integration capabilities are packaged together in a new environment that enables creation of bulk data imports and exports to speed initial implementations; SAML 2.0 single sign on (SSO) support to make Saba a natural part of any corporate information technology (IT) environment; and use of the comprehensive set of REST-based Web services by Saba Services, partners, customers, and even third-party developers to create new integrations or extend Saba’s core functionality. In addition, Saba is delivering a series of standard connectors currently to third-party solutions, such as Workday, and in the future to recruiting and compensation solutions.

  4. Big Data Analytics—By leveraging MangoDB, the Saba platform includes a new set of analytics capabilities to aggregate data from multiple systems including talent management systems, HRIS, financial systems, and other business solutions. The data can be aggregated to produce several configurable views, and exposed through the organizational chart can provide critical insights into organizational structure and workforce performance. These new capabilities also help to provide analytics dashboard views to help optimize processes, and a social graphing engine helps provide insights into how work actually gets done.

  5. Global Configurability, Scalability, and Security—SPC supports dozens of languages, and can support multiple business units, brands, and divisions with their own security, business rules, and other requirements—all from a single global platform. Saba relies on the recognized scalability and security of the Java stack for its cloud platform, providing a technology advantage over other similar, but less scalable and secure offerings.


SPC thus offers both formal learning and social learning to optimize learning processes—tapping into not only the 20 percent of formal learning that occurs daily, but also the 80 percent of informal learning that occurs throughout the workday. Context-based learning, i.e., intelligent recommendations based on role, interest, and activities, can help in that regard. Other nifty features of SPC include a unified search, personal social networks, org charting, recognition and badges, and a gamification engine. By gathering all of these capabilities in SPC, Saba has put social tools to good use for the purpose of enabling concrete business processes, rather than providing a social platform just for the sake of social networking. The fact that both the former Saba Social and Saba Live brands and offerings have been replaced by SPC is a good indication that Saba has finally found its future product platform.

SPC Migration Options

Saba sees SPC as not a new category, but a new way to looking at an existing one: learning and talent management. That said, Saba Enterprise Cloud customers, particularly the larger ones with the most complex LMS requirements, are not rushing to migrate to SPC. Lots of enterprise-class customers represent different LMS use scenarios, i.e., they have more rigid hierarchies and processes, and are not yet infatuated with the social tools. Even if they are, they will already likely be using some other social platform, e.g., Jive Software, Socialtext, Yammer, Neudesic Pulse, IBM Connections, etc.

Saba pledges to continue to develop and support its current enterprise cloud solution. Clients will have the opportunity to leverage the many new enhancements Saba has unveiled, with the option of moving to SPC if and when they decide it is best for their business. Upgrading to the new version of their current product through the Saba 7Upgrade program has the added benefit of making it even easier for companies to take advantage of SPC when they’re ready. To that end, Saba has unveiled a new portfolio of services capabilities optimized for its cloud solutions. These services are designed to help SPC users plan, realize, and optimize the fastest time to value, driving increased user adoption and higher levels of client satisfaction. New services in the portfolio include SabaMAP, Consulting On Demand, and Saba Leap to make moving to SPC a snap for existing customers (www.sabapeoplecloud.com/LEAP). But Saba candidly acknowledges that if an enterprise needs some specialized learning scenarios (such as SF-182 US government training approval forms), behind-the-firewall deployment, customizations or a validated and regulated environment with control of update timelines, they really cannot migrate from Saba Enterprise to SPC at this point.  SPC is a cloud product, after all.

Collaboration Comeback Game

Other major news from the event is that the standalone Saba Meeting suite now offers the following three modules: Saba Virtual Classroom, Saba Web Conferencing, and Saba Webinar. These products have the same real-time engine foundation, with some differences owing to the nature of their purpose (i.e., session recording in training, polls in webinars, or white boards in interactive meetings), which is in sharp contrast to competitive offerings (where a training module comes from a different acquisition vs. the web conferencing one). Most of the competitive web conferencing offerings are basically glorified app share tools that run on traditional telephony and thus have scalability issues for more than a couple hundred attendees (e.g., Cisco WebEx and Citrix GoToMeeting). In contrast, Saba Meeting uses high definition (HD) video and voice over Internet protocol (VOIP) technology as well as an additional (overflow) satellite server, which enables solid performance for even a million users. In addition, Saba Meeting modules foster interactivity, e.g., during a webinar attendees can go and peruse the slides without affecting the presenter (and without relying on the presenter to advance the slides).

Saba admits that when it acquired Centra in 2006, it did so for the sole purpose of leveraging its differentiating RTC engine for enhancing its interactive learning capabilities. But by doing that, it had to put selling Centra, or Saba Meeting now, on the back burner. During the last six months or so, there has been some internal drive and hiring of experts to get back in the collaboration game. Only time will tell how successful Saba will be with this market re-entry of sorts, given its lost momentum and low brand recognition in the space (compared with Adobe, Microsoft, Cisco, and Citrix).

General Market Trends

During his analyst track session at Saba People Cloud 2013, Jeff Carr observed the following market trends, with which I tend to concur:

  •  Continued acceptance and adoption of the cloud model.

  • Customers are interested in unified learning, performance, and talent management solutions, but are willing to opt for best of breed (BoB) as opposed to settling for less desirable options (Oracle, SAP, and Workday). An upper range LMS is an easy sell for large Oracle and SAP customers; a bundled human capital management (HCM) suite is a harder sell.

  • Of Saba’s prospective customers, only less than 10 percent are looking for recruiting with some combination of learning, performance, and talent management solutions. Nonetheless, Saba is working on its recruiting capabilities strategy via partnering (has partnered with iCIMS and Jobvite, and talked to Kenexa before IBM acquired the company, and those talks might be renewed).

  • Increasing demand for informal, social learning with increasing user generated content (UGC), particularly video.

  • Growing importance of mobile in learning, collaboration, and talent management.

  • Key LMS use cases: sales/channel training & enablement and the extended enterprise model.

  • Increased importance of leadership development, succession management, workforce planning, and org visualization.


Saba has made substantial investments in international sales, install bases sales, and the SMB segment, particularly in the technology, retail, financial services, public sector, and automotive sectors. Saba has nine global service partners, including Accenture, HP, IBM, Infosys, and Mahindra Satyam. In addition, it has about 100 regional partners and 110 complementary solutions (mostly various learning content partners).

Workday remains a strategically important partner, although Saba is admittedly still chasing Cornerstone OnDemand (CSOD) for joint customers. The vendor recently released Saba Connector for Workday, with profiles, organization, learning, and competencies data being mapped to Workday HR data. In head-to-head competition with CSOD, Saba claims to win more deals than it loses in the U.S., whereas internationally it always wins. Saba customers seek deep functionality and scalability, whereas CSOD customers look to the snazzier Microsoft .NET UI and lower price.

Jeff Carr and other employees expressed some frustration over not being able to divulge more details on Saba’s new deals (owing to the ongoing restatement). Many prospects are still confused about product roadmaps at Oracle/Taleo and SAP/SuccessFactors for the following reasons:

  •  SuccessFactors was in early stages of integrating Cubetree, InfoHRM, Jambok, Plateau, Jupiter, and Jobs2Web. Of note, 86 percent of SuccessFactors customers are non-SAP shops.

  • Taleo had acquired Vurv, Job Partners, WW Comp, and Learn.com, and was mired in integration before Oracle swooped in.


SumTotal is also mired in integrating CyberShift, SoftScape, GeoLearning, Accero, etc. SumTotal’s declining service support after these acquisitions has reportedly led to a few recent replacement wins for Saba. Saba also competes with Blackboard and Meridian Global LMS similarly to CSOD.

Concluding Remarks

As Saba hasn’t closed its books for some time now, it is difficult to ascertain whether the company has the finances to achieve its planned and ambitious investments. And furthermore, I would have liked to have learned more details on the breakthrough nature of the SPC technology. For example, has the company gotten away from writing zillions of lines of code by moving toward models-driven, definitional, and/or metadata-rich development (à la Workday)? Can the user company set up regulatory functionality/content/etc. once to be subsequently inherited by everyone doing business in the relevant geography? Is all SPC functionality effective-dated as a matter of course? If Saba is not able to stay independent in the long run, the company will either be bought by an aggregator (not fun for customers) or a committed build-out investor (but only if the technology is breakthrough).

Recommended Reading

Aragon Research
Saba in Transition: Five Facts You Should Know. March 1, 2013.

Saba
Saba Announces Top "New World of Work" Trends for 2013. January 30, 2013.

Technology Evaluation Centers
Saba Software: All about People (Cloud) – Part 3. September 7, 2011.
Saba Software: Figuring Out Social Talent Management. August 7, 2012.
Mobile Learning: Is Your Business Ready for It? December 15, 2010.
LCMS Exposed! Understanding the Differences between Learning Management and Learning Content Management. May 12, 2009.
Saba University: What a Concept! August 8, 2008.

Ventana Research
Saba Doubles Down on Dedication to Empower People and Collaboration in 2013. March 14, 2013.
 
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