HRExaminer Radio

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HRExaminer Radio

Guest: Mark Barlow, Founder/CEO, AppLearn
Episode: 167
Air Date: April 8, 2016


Mark Barlow is the Founder and CEO of AppLearn, Ltd., bringing innovative solutions for successful HR software adoption to over 172 countries worldwide. AppLearn’s thinking and approach has been touted by Gartner as three to four years ahead of the market, while Prince Andrew has also acknowledged AppLearn as a leading UK tech business. Forming his first company in 1993, Mark is not a new face to entrepreneurship, as he has been involved in several successful startups including IT Counsel PLC (an IT consultancy company); Qikker Solutions (a deployment solution for cloud-based HR solutions for mainstream vendors like BrassRing, Halogen, SuccessFactors and Taleo); Hasgrove (a ‘buy and build’ business in the digital media sector); and more. In his former life, Mark was a professional soccer player and studied electrical/electronic engineering prior to his entry into the computing industry at Boston-based company, Data Translation.

Audio MP3





Begin transcript

John Sumser: Good morning and welcome to HRexaminer Radio. I’m your host John Sumser. Today we’re coming to you live from beautiful downtown Occidental, California. This is the town where innovation got it’s real start in the state of California, and the roses are starting to burst forth after our great rainy winter. Today we’re going to be talking with Mark Barlow, who’s the founder and CEO of a company called AppLearn. This is unlike anything that we’ve talked about in the last 150 radio shows. Mark, how are you?


Mark Barlow: I’m very well John. Thank you very much for inviting me on today.


John Sumser: Where are you this morning?


Mark Barlow: I’m in sunny Manchester, England, and if you believe that you’ll believe anything. It rains in Manchester most of the time, and true to form, it’s raining today too.


John Sumser: You’re calling another rainy place, although we’re getting a break from it today. Why don’t you take a moment and introduce yourself to the audience?


Mark Barlow: Sure, yeah. My names Mark Barlow, and I’m the founder and CEO of AppLearn, a company based here in the UK, but a company that operates globally. I come from Manchester, England, and here we have the best football team in the world of course. They play in red not blue, as Manchester United, but we’re endeavoring to do our best this season but not doing very well. I’ve been in IT most of my life, most of my working life.


I started in the computer industry in 1986. I’ve had a number of startups. The first one I started up was in 1993. Since then I’ve had 4 startups, and AppLearn is the one company I started 5 years ago, and by far the most exciting company and the most exciting opportunity that I’ve ever been involved with.


John Sumser: How is that you do startups? It’s not like Silicon Valley in the UK, it’s more unusual for somebody to do a startup technical company. How did you come to be a startup guy?


Mark Barlow: I started working in 1986 for a Boston based company called Data Translations in local area and wide area networks. That was at a time when [inaudible 00:02:43] were black arts and it was a good place to be in computing. By 1993, I’d already made my mind up that I really wanted to do my own thing. I started a LAN-in-one consulting company, which a friend and me started from the back bedroom of my house. Within just six years, 1999, we sold the company to a [inaudible 00:03:08] company in the UK called Amy. By that time, we had around 100 full time staff and about 250 associate consultants all working with the company. I guess I got a little bit of a kick from that and I decided that I’d quite like to do that again. I’ve done it a number of times since and I planned the latest one.


John Sumser: You are a serial entrepreneur. You’re running a company that we’ll talk about in a second. What does today look like for you?


Mark Barlow: A typical day in the office, I’m up at six. I do a bit of exercise. I wake up my twins, help with breakfast, jump in the car and get to work. It’s a busy day when I get to work. Meetings and planning and such like most of the day. I do travel a lot at the moment. We only do around about five or six percent of our business in the UK. Most of it’s around the world, western Europe, and the U.S. as well. I do a lot of travelling right now. I get finished around six thirty, home for seven, just in time to bath the twins. Help around the house a little bit and then sit down for dinner later on about eight o’clock. It’s a busy day when I’m at home, and it’s a busy day when I’m away.


John Sumser: How big is the company?


Mark Barlow: We have almost fifty people now based here in Manchester, but we’re growing very quickly. We secured some new funding just before Christmas and we’re just putting that funding into play right now with new hires and new strategies, particularly in and around the U.S..


John Sumser: What’s the story? What does AppLearn do?


Mark Barlow: Okay, so we … As a result of implementing a lot of cloud-based HR solutions, we got to find out that this problem of user adoption was there. About five years ago, we started to look into the subject as deeply as we possibly could. Basically, we have a belief that basically says, “Every SaaS license should deliver maximum value and you can only get a maximum value out of a license if you’ve got a user that’s using it to it’s fullest extent and effectively.” Our solution is basically all about unlocking the true value that the app customers making and changing technology. Therefore, and we do that by driving up and sustaining high user adoption of SaaS technology. We do that by having a platform that embeds itself directly inside the software, and it delivers two things. It delivers just in time technology training, system training if you want. It also delivers just in time communication, so that users don’t have to memorize, search for help, and for support to complete the task. Off the back of that then, we collect analytics and data and we produce insights that we feed back to our customers about the behaviors of their workforce all over the world, around the adoption and usage of a particular software application. I guess …


John Sumser: Go ahead. Let’s talk some more about adoption in some detail. What causes adoption problems in the first place?


Mark Barlow: There are a number of reasons for adoption problems and there are reasons why it’s never been resolved so far. The first one is and it’s a major fault that most people make. Software adoption isn’t entirely about software. Software and software training is basically showing the user how to use the software but we found that’s only twenty percent of the challenge to get people to use software. Eighty percent, the majority of the challenge, has got more to do with transdimensional change and change management. It’s to do with persuading the work force that they, why they should be embracing this change that’s going on in their organization. What’s in it for them? How’s it going to make them develop their career? How’s it going to help them to earn more money? You got a major communication issue there around persuading people that it’s in the company’s best interest and in their best interest that they should embrace change. Then, of course, you need to move onto the what and the when.


This is the change management part and this is a huge part to achieving adoption. That is what do you want me to do and when do you want me to do it? This is the old process and this is the old way we used to go about doing our work. This is the new way that we’re going to be doing it in future. Only when you’ve got people on board from a why, a what, and a when basis can you then show them this shiny piece of new software you’ve implemented and tell them how to use it. The main focus of software adoption by most of the people out there is how to use the software and in itself, it won’t help you to achieve adoption. It’s a lot broader subject than that and unless you’re able to communicate change and to get people bought in to the new way of doing their work, they won’t use any software that you buy them. No matter how intuitive it is and no matter what the user experience is.


That’s the major problem that we found. What our product does it fixes all three of those issues, not just the how to user software.


John Sumser: I get how you can explain more deeply and in a context sensitive way how to use the software. How do you tackle the question of why you should adopt this new way of doing things and, it seems to me, that’s it’s the what’s in it for me question that’s at the root of adoption? Is that right?


Mark Barlow: It is. It’s to do really with getting, first of all, execute endorsement. I think it’s fair to say that when the adoption challenge itself begins, it’s at the go line. When you’re in a business as usual, an operational situation, you need to keep your employees on board post go light, not just at go light. At that point, funnily enough, the whole project team disappears. The software then often disappears. The IT people that were working on the project disappear, and you know what? The budget for adoption disappears too. There is no budget post go light. One major thing that the companies themselves have to learn is that if you want adoption, you need to first of all budget for it and secondly you need someone in your organization to be accountable for it.


That’s interesting because just recently on LinkedIn, you start to see people emerge with new job titles, Head of Adoption, Head of Software Adoption, Adoption Manager. We’re starting to see now after five years that the organizations themselves are starting to take it seriously. What you’re really into there, John, is more to do with communication. How can we communicate to the workforce? How can we keep them on board? How can we tell them about change? How can we tell them about … How can we persuade them through executive videos or through executive messaging that the company’s behind them and they’ve got support from the top? It really becomes a big communication issues and a continuous communication issue that you have to budget for and that you have to manage and that you have to support. Then you give them the how to software training alongside that. It’s a big change that needs to happen and it’s beginning to happen because organizations are paying too much for software licensry that they’re not delivering back value. They need that to change.


John Sumser: If I understand what you’re saying that a large part of what you do is offer very detailed, real time assistance in how to use the software. I’m not sure I get still how you bring a new user of a new piece of software around to the idea that this new way of doing their job is a good idea. Help me understand a little bit more about how you do the persuasion thing. You get the big boss to say, “We’re really behind this,” implying that if you don’t use it, then you’re in trouble, but there’s some other more positive motivation that has to be embedded in this. Tell me about that.


Mark Barlow: Yeah, right. You really need to be showing and handholding the user how, what, and why the processes have changed and how to do, how they are going to do their new role. We have something in our application, for example, called Smart Pages. Smart Pages pop up from time to time to tell users that there’s been a change. For example, if Work Day makes some changes after six months and there’s a new version of Work Day, what we’re able to do is communicate those changes before the user goes into the application to use the application. It’s a continuous communication challenge really with keeping people aware of what they need to do and when they need to do it. Types of communications are things like process changes, system changes, maybe sending messages to tell managers that it’s time for the appraisal process to begin, maybe sending out messages to recruiters to tell them how to create a new job requisition, there’s been a change to that process or there’s been a change to the software configuration. It’s a continuous communication challenge that you have to run alongside your technology training challenge as well. There are the two issues.


The kind of communication is dependent upon the company by company basis and how they want to internally communicate with their employees.


John Sumser: This sounds to be like a method for automating what the large software implementation consultancies do at a more policy level. My understanding of how that works is, it’s like getting braces for your teeth. The software implementation people stand by and guide the early days of the implementation process so that people understand what the new regime is going to look like and how to put their teeth in the new order. You just take that process and automate it out through the life cycle of the software and it sounds to me like that’s largely driven by the fact that cloud or SaaS based software continues to evolve fairly rapidly so that the user is faced with the problem of how do I keep up with the evolution of the software. Is that a function of your work?


Mark Barlow: That’s one part of it, yeah. The SaaS software has brought that fantastic opportunity to organizations to embrace new technology faster. The fact of the matter is these large organizations can’t affect change as fast as the software developers develop the new features. They can’t affect that change because they can’t communicate and they can’t implement it fast enough. You take Success Factors, for example. Every quarter, there’s a new update of software. That’s great but the actual users can’t deploy that change because the business is not agile enough. What we’ve got is an application that enables them to affect that change must faster and therefore take advantage of the new features that the software then is providing. By being more agile and deploying change that much faster and that much more effectively. That is one aspect of getting people on board with new software.


John Sumser: It sounds to me, I think that what you’re talking about must work. You’re building a big company that’s doing it, but it sounds awful to have to read the manual essentially every time you open the piece of software when there’s a change. That’s almost more daunting than just having to figure out the change. I take it you notice and have stats that prove that this approach works over time and gets adoption to new ideas nailed down in a way that it doesn’t happen without it. Is that right?


Mark Barlow: Yeah, it does. We have the analytics to show that and to prove that. We collect analytics in different ways. First of all, we collect data on the consumption of the training and the communication content so there’s two sets of data there. We then through an API are able to collect data from the usage of the software application itself so we can then correlate that usage with the consumption of training so we can see therefore if the training and the communication is being effective. Are people using the application better? Are they putting in correct data first time so no errors? Also now we started to send out through our platform pulse surveys, a pulse feedback questionnaire. That basically allows the user to feedback were they happy with the process, did the complete it okay, were they happy with the training, so we’ve now got cognitive data that we can bring into the mix as well. We’re able in that to affect, to correlate that data and provide a really good insight at the behaviors of the entire workforce for an organization.


For example, you might find that you’ve produced some content for a workforce based in the U.S. which works very well cause the analytics are telling us that it’s working very well. That exact same training content isn’t working in Germany or it’s not working in the Middle East or the Far East or somewhere else around your organization around the world. You would know that from the analytics. It would tell you that this training material doesn’t work in Germany. That would give you the opportunity to review that material and change it and hopefully increase the adoption of the system in Germany as well as the U.S.. That’s really what the analytics gives you. It gives you the granularity and the vision of how, across your entire organization, that piece of software and those new processes being adopted by users.


John Sumser: You must have some stats about how much better life is when you do it this way versus the old way. Give me a sense of how much bang for the buck a customer gets from using your toolset.


Mark Barlow: We’re in the early days with the statistics cause you need to collect them over a longer period of time, two, three, four years, before you can start to see a real picture but what we are seeing, and we’ve had customers tell it in the past, that just basic adoption of the system is increased by over fifty percent since the AppLearn system went in. Adoption levels that we were brought in to organizations were down as low as twenty, twenty-five percent. We’ve driven them up way above eighty percent. We’re getting to a situation where we can see a lot clearer but the more data we can collect over a longer period of time, the more accurate that will be.


John Sumser: I think what you just told me is that you don’t find it unusual when a new piece of software is installed and only twenty-five percent of the users use it. Is that right?


Mark Barlow: What we’re seeing out there, John, is two types of customers that come to us. One of them is customers that have a problem that deployed the software several years ago and the adoption has just fallen off to a really low level. When we go and look at how people are embracing their systems, we find that they are down in the twenty to thirty percent area. Then we have customers that are deploying for the first time. They’re bright enough to be able to realize that deploying a brand new system and affecting change across an entire organization in multiple countries is a huge task and a huge challenge and the conventional training approach and conventional training methods are not going to work. They need innovation so they look for innovation and they come and find and that’s how we work with them. We got two types of customers. Those with the pain and those that haven’t had it yet.


But yeah, some places adoption levels are really low down. In fact, those organizations have been on the brink of cancelling the contracts with the software vendors and changing to a new vendor. We’ve persuaded them that there’s no need to cancel that contract and change to a new vendor because it’d be exactly the same with a new vendor. We’ve told them to let us come in. Give us the chance to show to them that we can improve adoption and they can stick with the vendor that they’ve already got.


John Sumser: You must be getting quite a lot of attention from system implementation companies because if you can deliver on the adoption promise, you make them look pretty good. Is that your basic distribution channel? System implementers?


Mark Barlow: Just here, just at the beginning of 2016, we decided to start to work with Sis. Prior to that, nobody really believed what we were doing was of any use and it was a case of we need to prove it. We need to prove it to the software vendors and we need to prove it to the Sis too. We went out there and we’ve got close to fifty now of the world’s biggest companies that are using our adoption methodology and our adoption platform. These companies are the biggest in their industry sectors and we’ve actually proven that we can deliver an effective solution to adoption. Right now, we’re getting a lot of attention from Sis and we’ve started to look to Sis to come to a … We can help them to make them look good, to make the software vendor look good, to make the renewing of the contracts that much easier. Yeah, I think right now we’re beginning to see a lot more attention from Sis.


John Sumser: Do you … I’ll put you on the spot a little bit. Do you see the problem that you’re solving to be a problem with the design of software in the first place? Seems to me that if you buy a piece of software, it ought to work and the problem that you’re fixing is that when you buy enterprise software, it usually doesn’t work. By work, I mean, you buy the software so that your workforce can do business in a new way and when they don’t adopt it, you’re not getting the value that you’re paying for. Your business is about fixing defect in the way that software is delivered. Is that fair?


Mark Barlow: No, I think the software vendors themselves produce great products and they try so hard to get their user interface to be as intuitive as possible. They try to improve the user experience all the time. They really are investing heavily in their Uis. As I said earlier on, the software is not the problem. It’s only a little bit of the problem. It’s twenty percent of the problem. The problem is understanding the entire adoption issue and eighty percent of that issue has got nothing to do with the software. Really the software vendors get a real bad press here because the users sometimes, the clients sometimes cancel the contracts because the software is, as you said, no good and didn’t do the job. It’s not their fault. It’s the fault of … There’s a lack of understanding of what adoption is and what the adoption problem is. Everyone thinks it’s the software. It’s wrong. Until everybody gets their head around this issue properly, the software vendors …


Having said that, they are a victim of their own marketing because they do promote the intuitiveness of the user interface. They do tell everybody that it’s so easy and our customers love it and you won’t need a big training booklet. You know what? When it doesn’t work and the customers come back and complain, part of it is their fault. They’ve been too bull of shit at persuading people that they won’t need a bookie. An actual fact, to get people to adopt software, you need a bookie.


John Sumser: Very diplomatically done. Very diplomatically done. We are about through our time together, are there two or three things that you’d like the audience to take away from this phone call?


Mark Barlow: Yeah, there are. I think what I would say to the audience is that user adoption doesn’t outbuy osmosis. You have to actually take the subject seriously and to do that you really need three things. You need executive endorsement and you need your executive to give you a bungie for adoption when you go into an operational mode, a business as usual mode. You need executive endorsement and a bungie. Second thing is you need accountability in your organization for technology adoption. Not just for the take charge software adoption but CRM, [inaudible 00:26:14], for all the other business applications you’ve got that you need someone in your organization who’s accountable for optimizing software adoption across your entire business application portfolio. That person should have the budget that the executive provides them with. What you really need is a solution that delivers and sustains and measures user adoption, not a solution that just improves the user experience. You need a solution that delivers, an adoption solution. In others news, the entire solution to the problem. Not just parts of it.


John Sumser: What should I have asked you that I didn’t ask you?


Mark Barlow: That’s a good question. What should you have asked me that you didn’t ask me? If Man United is going to win this weekend, John? I think you’ve asked me a lot of good questions and hopefully I’ve been able to be as clear as possible. I just hope that your listeners are understanding where you’re coming from here. If you just carry on thinking that this user adoption problem is to do with software, you’ll never fix it. You’ve got a look a lot broader, a lot wider than that. Hopefully, I’ve been able to get that message across today.


John Sumser: What a fantastic perspective. User adoption is bigger than software. That’s a great tag line for a company. Would you take a moment and reintroduce yourself and tell people how to get a hold of you if they want to learn some more?


Mark Barlow: Yeah, sure. Thank you all. My name is Mark Barlow and I’m the CEO of AppLearn, based here in Manchester in the U.K.. If you’d like to talk to me I’d like to talk to anyone here at AppLearn. Why not just drop me an e-mail on Mark.Barlow@AppLearnTV. I look forward to speaking to you. Thanks so much.


John Sumser: Well thanks so much, Mark. We’ve been talking with Mark Barlow who’s the founder and CEO of Applearn. It’s an innovative new company that provides on going support guidance training for user adoption so that the software that you buy delivers the value that you were promised when you purchased it. Been a great conversation, and I want to thank you, Mark, for taking the time to join us today.


Mark Barlow: Thank you too, John. Thank you very much.


John Sumser: This has been great. You’ve been listening to Hrexaminer radio. I’m your host John Sumser and I hope you have a great weekend. It’s been wonderful to be with you today. Thanks so much. See you next week same time.

End transcript

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