It’s been a busy couple of years for Benn Cass, and he could not be more thrilled. Former Solutions Architect at eThink Education’s UK branch —his role at the time of his talk on how to “Wow” corporate learners through personalization and communication techniques at the first Elearning Success Summit—, he joined the ride when eThink became part of Open LMS. But the dust was only settling when he received an offer to which he could not say no.
Today, Benn speaks to us as the Senior Solutions Architect for ACCIPIO, London-based digital learning agency trying to make a name for itself in Britain’s amicable, yet fiercely competitive LMS space. Founded in 2010 by Sascha Benson-Cooper, the company prides itself on being an innovator, both on digital learning and leadership development; and on having the PepsiCo, Premier League, NHS and a couple 500,000-user accounts, including the largest Totara LMS site in the world. In 2020, it became a Moodle Partner and in record time it earned Premium Moodle Partner status, given the appeal for Moodle Workplace in a sector banking on a mighty post-pandemic comeback.
In our interview, Benn shares his insider’s insight of the industry, how his strongest technical suit are his cross-teams and client-facing communication skills; and why despite a very enjoyable time at eThink, ACCIPIO’s markedly different approach is Benn’s most exciting professional challenge yet.
Fast times, slow talks
Hi Benn! How are you doing, a year and change after your participation in the Summit? How have things changed for you?
That’s right! I made a presentation at the first Summit some time ago. Since then it’s been intense. The open source LMS space continues to mature, with great products and options. It’s nice to see new open source options out there alongside the time-tested Moodle and Totara.
I’m still a solutions architect. I’ve been working with Moodle for 10 years —with WebAnywhere before eThink— and Totara for 6 to 7. While my role is to explore how we can fit client requirements into a solution, I don’t particularly push towards a particular route. It’s all about making sure we provide a solution to the case. So my view of the Solutions Architect role is a very flexible one. It’s a commitment to support clients and understand them more and more. At the end of the day, it’s about how we can make the best possible solution.
Being a technical role that is able to speak the client’s language is always impressive. Could you talk a bit about this process, how do you turn requirements into specific configurations and features?
First of all, you have to know exactly how a product works. So if you think about Moodle, you can go ahead, download and install it, and you can play. But if you don’t understand how the product works, it’s basically impossible to understand your client and their need, much less being able to explain how the system answers the need. The ideal architect comes in first to understand the case, then use their knowledge of the system to then explain to you how you can use the product better.
Internally, the solution architect sits in the middle of several teams. After understanding what the customer needs, they have to translate into a development requirement, perhaps into other languages for other teams. The responsibility of making sure everyone understand what the solution is, and that it is properly communicated through the processes and even by the support teams, falls squarely on this role.
So ensuring everybody is well informed is critical. A project runs much better if everyone is able to understand why it’s set up that way. And the same applies for the client. Say they need to adjust processes or making any changes. If they are well versed in how the solution works, they can communicate better and receive better support. As for the development team, it’s always good to work with them to make sure they can explain what they do in ways that can be understood internally and externally.
The art of the feature
It’s often said that in Moodle, the challenge is not whether something is possible or not, but how to find the best way of doing it among several. However, have you ever had to tell the client that something is not possible? Have you ever come across an ‘impossible’ request?
That is true, with Moodle, Totara and Moodle Workplace. They can be very complex systems. They have so many different things, that part of delivering a solution involves turning things off, at least before the client is able to gain any value from it. Take multi-tenancy, for example. It is one of Workplace’s most popular features, but keeping it on display for someone who has no current use for it will go against the experience. If we want to deliver on a solution that’s aligned with a client, we have to be ready to turn functionality off.
Now, Moodle or Totara are not fit for every purpose out of the box. It just doesn’t work that way, and that’s really where a Moodle Partner comes in. In the case of ACCIPIO, we have a quite robust development team, so we can really extend functionality on top of Moodle quite easily. So we are not very used to giving “no” as an answer.
Of course, a lot of things are feasible but not everything will be cost-effective. The most common case of custom development is a simple or reasonable new feature, and in that case it’s a matter of some development time to do it. That’s the beauty of using Moodle and Totara: You can extend that functionality and build your own plugins. You can make them do exactly what you want them to do. But when the custom development request becomes too big or cumbersome for their worth, it might be in the client’s best benefit to say no, or to make the case that this is not solution they need. Certainly it’s not a flat no, but rather a process of scoping.
Being able to remove features from the experience is arguably one of the most unappreciated capabilities of systems like Moodle and Totara. But how do take into account the possibility that a feature that was previously turned off can become eventually become valuable?
I think I always work with clients to make sure they get the product they need. Sometimes during a meeting or conversation I show them something that’s available, and they go “Oh, I didn’t think I needed that, but now that you showed it to me I’ll check and see if we can use it”. But it’s always a tricky one. We often try to educate them and use our thought leadership, being able to say, “Look, you’re a very similar organization to these and this is what they are doing. Do you want to try and implement something along those lines?” Showcasing what others have done and sharing what we know about what’s happening within the industry as well is a regular practice for us.
It is a bit of a chicken and egg scenario. You’ve got to implement the core functionality of what they need, but also show them the bits that you are turning off. So that in the future, as they grow, you can extend their functionality so that their product grows along with them, without having to go buy something else.
To be clear, simplicity is always welcome, if not required. But being able to time the right moment to add a new function is a fine skill as well.
New releases of LMS bring new features. Would you say these feature correspond to actual user needs, and what are your thoughts in the relation between LMS trends and customer needs, and their evolution?
I think that in the evolution of Moodle, Workplace and in Totara 13 to 14, we can see that the functionality is changing constantly, and for the most part it is in line with needs. We have certainly seen a very big uptake in how Moodle Workplace positions itself in the market. Because it has all the elements of Moodle, it’s very much aligned to the core Moodle experience, yet it has extended the functionality to cater to the corporate world. This process within Workplace has been happening over the past 18 months, and I think that by following the trends of their segment, Workplace is becoming a bolder product.
Something interesting is happening in Totara as well. Being in the market longer, they are now able to provide more catered experiences. So now we have the different “flavors” of Totara: Learn, Engage and Perform.
At ACCIPIO, we add ACCIPIO One, our own layer of functionality on top of Moodle, Workplace and Totara. We extend the functionality to create a customized experience, a unique architecture for each client. So in our case, part of the new trends and features come in-house. Some of the plugins in our ACCIPIO One framework include machine learning technology, for example. Or we have others that bring you “modern” social functionality like bookmarking, liking and sharing. Or a tool that provides web scraping, to pull information from the web and into your site. Things that you can’t do out of the box with any of the LMS at the moment.
Another promising direction is content, and content creation features. So we’ve got ACCIPIO C30, a catalog of interactive content with hundreds of modules about the 30 capabilities a leader, manager or individual needs to have to be effective. It’s aligned with the UK’s CMI and ILM management qualifications.
We’re always excited about the new features coming in the core, but also about developing new functionality. With us there is always an opportunity to develop extra functionality that sets the platform apart.
Some of the features in the ACCIPIO One framework and ACCIPIO C30 might fit into the still nebulous definition of a Learning Experience Platform. Is LXP a relevant concept at ACCIPIO? Should Moodle, Workplace and Totara inevitably become an LXP to survive, is that what you are doing?
I think LMS and LXP are two completely different concepts. They overlap in some ways, but they cater different needs and segments. If we look at Totara, for example, Engage and Learn are separate products. They interlink, for sure, because you can start from the same ground. Totara offers great content management and social learning features that are useful for both cases.
For us, we don’t really see ACCIPIO One as a way to make an LXP out of Moodle Workplace. But that’s not to say that it might not a possible direction in the future. If some of the plugins in the ACCIPIO One framework can be considered LXP features, and that’s something people want, then the LXP type functionality is already already in place for us to move forward.
We are certainly seeing a growing interest. Increasingly, clients are interested in the prospect of enjoying LXP solutions within their LMS. I think this will become the norm. I don’t see the LXP will be replacing the LMS any time soon, but I do see a future with both products interlinking further.
ACCIPIO is focused on innovating in corporate learning environments, and doing above and beyond what Moodle can do. ACCIPIO One is our great bet in that sense. I enjoy solving things that are really ambitious for clients, things that Moodle doesn’t do out of the box. I really do like to get involved with them to try and extend their functionality. That’s the basis of the ACCIPIO One framework, from the e-commerce, the ranking, the theme and so on, everything started with solving a client challenge. We enjoy working with the smaller, nimbler kind of organizations, and as they’re growing, we work with them, we grow and help shake up the industry.
Cultures of now and tomorrow
This experience of deep customization of the Moodle experience sounds like a complete departure from eThink’s philosophy of ‘standard and streamlined’. What can you tell us about working with Moodle Partners with contrasting cultures?
That’s right, working with eThink was predominantly about service. In order to serve that purpose, the out-of-the-box Moodle solution was the ideal scenario. In ACCIPIO, we can actually still do that. But clearly where we really shine is by extending Moodle’s functionality.
I completely understand the appeal of a streamlined solution, and I enjoyed my time making sure we offered sound systems and experiences. But personally, at ACCIPIO I’m going back to what I used to do. I was at WebAnywhere when they were Moodle Partners in the U.S., focused on custom development work as well. They also believed in providing custom-built solutions rather than the standard, out-of-the-box experience.
What’s coming up in the next six months to one year for ACCIPIO?
I think we are going to be very busy, mainly because of the fact that we have just become a Premium Moodle Partner. This is opening lots of opportunities for Moodle Workplace, of which we’re one of only four in the UK and 20 in the world. We actually achieved Premium status faster than anyone yet. But even thought we haven’t been a Moodle Partner, much less a Moodle Premium Partner, people know our trajectory and see our direction and what we’ve achieved in such short period of time.
We are planning towards the Moodle 4.0 release. It will influence our goal in the next six months. Once Moodle 4.0 comes out there’s going to be a lot of UI\UX issues and opportunities that we’ll need to have a look at and work towards. At the same time we will still be pushing and expanding our ACCIPIO One plug-in suite. There’s a big, long roadmap of functionality that’s going into it and will continue to extend Moodle’s functionality.
So lots and lots of things happening. We’ll also be engaging with existing clients for discussions about extending their current level of functionality. Finally, as we are working with Moodle HQ directly, we’ll also be working and strengthening that relationship. As a Premium Partners, we take part in discussion groups for Moodle Workplace, so we’re able to help and put forward some of our ideas into the software. It’s going to be busy for the time being. We’ll see how that space goes.