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June 17, 2024

Overcoming operational challenges for learning content, feat. Leslie Farinella (podcast)

In episode 168 of The Content Strategy Experts podcast, Sarah O’Keefe and special guest Leslie Farinella, Chief Strategy Officer at Xyleme, discuss the challenges facing content operations for learning content, insights for navigating information silos, and recommendations for successful enterprise-wide collaboration.

Why do we still have these silos of content? Back to what you said, Sarah, if we’re thinking about the learner experience, the learner doesn’t distinguish between classroom, e-learning, looking something up, or going to technical documentation. They just know, “I gotta get my job done. I need to perform. I need to know what I’m doing.”

— Leslie Farinella

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Sarah O’Keefe: Welcome to the Content Strategy Experts Podcast brought to you by Scriptorium. Since 1997, Scriptorium has helped companies manage, structure, organize, and distribute content in an efficient way. In this episode, we talk about the challenges that organizations face with content operations for learning. Hey, everyone. I’m Sarah O ‘Keefe, and today I’m delighted to welcome Leslie Farinella of Xyleme to the podcast. Xyleme, as you may know, has recently been acquired by MadCap Software, which also owns Flare and IXIASOFT. So Leslie, welcome. Tell us about yourself and your role at Xyleme/MadCap.

Leslie Farinella: Hi, Sarah. I’m super excited to be here today. So I’ve been at Xyleme for over the last eight years. Actually, prior to that, I was in the learning content space, but on the business side, helping organizations to drive performance within their workforce. And I realized that, you know what, if we wanted to scale, we were going to have to bring technology to help solve this problem. So I got really excited. So I jumped over to the product side. And since I’ve been at Xyleme, I’ve pretty much covered almost all of the roles, ending up with my last role being the chief strategy officer.

SO: And so here we are. And I think you’re probably the perfect person to talk to about this topic where we’re getting a lot of interest all of a sudden. Well, from my point of view, maybe not from your point of view, but from my point of view, we’re getting a lot of interest in content operations for learning content. 

LF: Yeah.

SO: So people are asking questions like, if I have overlapping content between my tech comm content and my learning content, why, you know, why can’t I combine those in some efficient way as opposed to what I’m doing now, which is this terrible copy and paste or worse rewrite without, you know, people ever talking to each other. But also we’re hearing from learning organizations that don’t actually have what I would consider to be tech comm content who need a more mature content workflow. So they’re asking questions like, “How can I develop learning better, faster, cheaper?” So what does that look like on your side of the fence?

LF: We absolutely hear the exact same thing, and I think it’s only gonna get worse because if we think about the root cause and think about what’s really driving this conversation and what’s making this conversation escalate is the speed of change and the need to drive agility within the organizations so organizations have to adapt faster than they have before which means people have to learn new skills new mindsets and new behaviors faster than before and which means inevitably they have to learn on the go, which means that performance support and tech comms is part of that learning. And as you and I know, cause I know you and I’ve had past conversations breaking down that silo between tech comm and learning is gonna be essential to driving that agility that organizations need to change. And that’s why they’re feeling the pressure.

SO: And so what does that look like? You know, Xyleme in particular is an enterprise learning content management system, which perhaps I should have said in the intro. What does it look like when people start considering something, you know, a solution like that? What’s the executive-level argument for that?

LF: Speed, agility, cohesiveness, learner experience. And I think that what we all have to remember is when you’re buying something like a CCMS or an LCMS, you know, component content management system or learning content management system, they’re kind of flip sides of the same coin, but they also need to work together. And I think that is the change in mindset we need in the industry is that if you think about learning, you have formal learning. I take a course. Usually, I’m a novice. I need some scaffolding. But the majority of the learning, once I kind of get my initial scaffolding happens by experience. It happens by solving problems. And inevitably that means looking stuff up. So it means going back to the documentation because no one’s going to go to the LMS to go flip to halfway through the e-learning course to look something up that’s just very painful. So what I hear from the top executive level is how do we make that whole system work together? How do we consider it from a job performance perspective and moving people from a novice to proficiency across that entire spectrum, which is learning and tech comm. And that’s where this idea that we have these separate systems and these separate processes really start to get in our way. And I think that’s where the opportunity is, is to see how do we break down that silo and how do we think about how these technologies can work better together or maybe even collapse into a single tech stack.

SO: Yeah, and I think that, you know, a big part of this is if you if you go back 20, 25, 30 years, we had classroom training, basically, and we had paper like books or maybe a cheat sheet or a job aid, but, you know, some sort of a printout. And so the distinction between I’m going to go to a class and learn the things and they’re going to give me a like a student guide or a textbook or, you know, but something, some sort of supporting material. And then there’s my reference library of books. And today, we still have that. I mean, we still have that distinction between class, e-learning, blended learning, and online, and all the rest of it. But there’s that bucket. And then there’s that bucket of, OK, there’s this other book adjacent or book-derived stuff. However, today, it’s all sitting on the same website. And so now as an end user, as a software user or learner, I show up on your website, your product website, and like, hey, I’m blocked on this task that I need to do. I’ve got a job I need to get done. I don’t know how to do it. And I just frankly don’t care. I just want you to give me the answer. Now, I don’t care where it lives. Not my problem. But give me the answer and give it to me better, faster, cheaper. And then, you know, infamously, we always say, “Don’t ship your org chart,” except we always do. So what does it look like to start to foster these connections and improve the integration or the interaction or the, I’m struggling for words, which is probably a symptom of this problem. What does it look like to start fostering those connections to improve the end-user experience?

LF: I think what you just said, end user experience. You know, we have to map that user experience. And I think that’s one thing that the learning side has done well is they’ve invested in the LMS, the learning experience platforms. Everybody still complains about them, but at least they were, you know, investing and trying and those experiences are getting better and better because there’s more competition in the market. People are coming up with other tools. They’re bringing, you know, more algorithms into play and then, you know, AI will play into that as well. But what they haven’t done well is content management and structured authoring. So Xyleme is an LCMS. So actually, you know, there obviously are people on the learning space that have bought into, we need to bring structured authoring into learning. But it’s not the majority. A lot of organizations still haven’t done that. And I think that once you start to bring what tech docs already knew is, you know, you’ve got to standardize to personalize. You’ve got to bring in, you know, you got to think modular. You’ve got to be able to standardize against your terminology. And then you can start to scale. That’s something that the learning side, you know, needs to learn and that’s something that the LCMS, which is the counterpart to component content management brings in and we’ve tailored it to the audience of instructional designers and learners to help with that transition. But the base ideas underneath the technology are the same. One of the interesting things in the acquisition with MadCap and the IXIA team when we started comparing products, we’re like, we do that, we do that too. yeah, we’ve always wanted to do that. You guys already have it, but we all, we realized very quickly we were solving the same problem and getting to the same result. We made them make different design decisions along the way, but we were solving the same problem and the fundamental premise underneath both technologies were the same, which then starts to beg the question, why aren’t they combined? Like, why are we still have these silos of content? If we’re thinking about back to what you said, Sarah, the learner experience, the learner doesn’t distinguish between classroom e-learning, looking something up, going to technical documentation. They just know, I gotta get my job done. I need to perform. I need to know what I’m doing. And I wanna, you know, ready myself for my next role in promotion within the organization. And they have expectations on their performance. And so how do we look at that and understand it needs to be more cohesive and how can we as both the tech docs and the learning industry break down that silo with the content but also the experience itself to make that more cohesive. 

SO: Yeah, I think one thing that’s sometimes overlooked in this is that the default emotional state of a person who is looking for information is something like frustration and anger, right? Because they’re not reading for fun. They’re not going to class for fun. I mean, probably. They are doing it because this class or this learning piece or this piece of information that I don’t have, is standing between me and getting the job done. I need to generate a pivot table and I don’t know how, so show me how to do it. I need to do a thing and until I do the thing, I can’t progress in my tasks of the day and so I’m annoyed. And we’ve set aside knowledge base for the purpose of this conversation, but knowledge base usually is even worse because usually that’s something like my system crashed, why? So they’re not just annoyed, they’re like incandescently angry because something is not working. Okay, so, and I think you said something really interesting in there about how the learning experience, you know, the downstream user experience for learning, there’s been a lot of work put into that and comparatively less on the tech comm side. I’m not saying all tech comm is bad or anything like that, but when you look at some of the work that’s been done in producing really sophisticated e-learning and really interesting learning experiences on a platform of some sort, and then conversely on the back end, tech comm has done a huge amount of work around reuse and efficiency and automated formatting and automated delivery and multi-channel and all these things, which I think there’s some advantages there and there’s some things there that I think the learning world can can probably leverage and you know vice versa so, you know, while you and I are ruling the world and we’re fixing all of this, you know, we can’t fix the integration next week and I mean I’ve been complaining about that for a while, but you know that is a legitimately difficult hard problem. But what are some of the steps that we can take as content creators, whether learning or tech comm, to start thinking about this sort of more unified approach to enabling content? What can we do there? And what are some of those first steps?

LF: I think the first step is we have to collaborate. I think the first step is, do you even know the people in your tech comm team or your learning team? Like, do you even know who they are? So, you know, I think there’s a conversation. I think the second one is to have a shared goal of we want to create a better user experience. Like, you know, an agreement that that is a goal that’s worth, you know, pursuing. And I think your managers, your VPs, definitely your leadership would agree that is. and then I think mapping that out. Like what would that learning experience look like? What’s your utopia? And then break it down, right? You can’t boil the ocean. You have to kind of have a plan. You know, what does the vision look like? And then what’s the first step? Start small. Like what’s the first step in the vision? And I think you and I talked earlier, a procedure is a procedure. Like there’s no magic. There’s some obvious low hanging fruit here as far as, you know, where you can share content that drives efficiency and makes sense. And then to the learner, you’re not coming up with different terminology. We all know the brain loves consistency because it helps with retrieval within the brain. So when I see the same picture, when I see the same example, when I see the same terms, it unlocks memory within the brain. It helps with retrieval. So, you know, we can make it easier for people. But then also looking at, you know, can we put some of that technical documentation and embed it in the learning content in the LXP so it’s easy to find where are people going? Maybe it is to the tech doc portal. Maybe we put it in both places and we figure out single source, right? We can update it in both places. We can keep that in sync, but really understanding and mapping that learner, the end user experience for performance and working together and understanding that we both have something to contribute to the conversation. I think, you know, to your point, tech comms can learn a little bit about experience and how people, you know, retrieve information, but the learning team can definitely learn a lot about structured authoring content management from the tech comm team. So bring those expertise together, which is 80% business and 20% technology. I mean, the first part is, you know, you just got to agree and set your goals and then figure out what’s the best technical solution that will drive those goals. And I would even argue, take it small. Like, you know, do experiment, see what works, what doesn’t work, trial and error. Cause I wish I had the whole answer. I don’t. I think it definitely is a problem that we need to invest in solve. And the only way we’re going to solve is through experimentation. But I also don’t think there’s a one size fit all answer either. I think each organization has legacy tech stacks. We all know we can’t just throw out the tech stack we have, you know, we have different competing business priorities. We have different skills and capacity within our teams. So do what you can. And I think that sometimes people throw up their hands and they do nothing because they think it’s too big. But you got to start small and you got to start somewhere. And step one is go have lunch with the people, maybe a virtual lunch these days, but on the other side, like talk to them, share you guys. At the end of the day, you have a common goal of driving performance within your organization. You have a shared mission. That’s where I would start.

SO:  Yeah, I like figure out who your counterpart is. That seems like a reasonable achievable goal. And then, yeah, and then back, you know, work from there. What can you, you know, can you reach consensus on shared terminology? Because, you know, I mean, never mind unified content authoring, that would be lovely but can we agree to call a car seat a car seat and not sometimes a safety seat and sometimes a baby seat and sometimes a something else? Because that would be like a really good start.

LF: Yeah. And the more things you can agree on, the more things you’ll find to agree on. So start with that. How do I share, you know, the procedures? How do I keep stuff in sync? You know, how do I even reduce the time between, you know, product release, the technical documentation and any formal training that needs to have? How do I make sure, you know, how can I generate FAQs? There’s a lot of things that you could brainstorm that you could do together, which then it fosters that collaboration.

SO: Mm-hmm.

LF: And then figure out what are the technical barriers I’m hitting. And I’ll say this as a vendor and then talk to the vendor and say, hey, here’s the business problem we need to solve. We think it’s a market problem. We think there’s value with you. We need you to fix this. Like we need you to be able to integrate these systems. And again, from the vendor side, if you make a good business case and you can show that the market in general, it’s good for the market, you can probably push their roadmap. But if you don’t speak up, if you haven’t tried, how do you know what those barriers are? So how do you know what to push? So just because it doesn’t do it today doesn’t mean you can’t get a solution.

SO: And the bigger you are, the more we would like you to kindly contact the vendors because…

LF: Yeah, the more money you have, the more clout you have. But I’ll be honest with you. As far as our roadmap on the vendor side, many times anyone who’s willing to experiment and to put some skin in the game as far as a real use case and to work together, I would rather build features and integrations based on real-world examples and real-world data than a theoretical PowerPoint we may put together from a nice product feature. And I know most product vendors are the same.

SO: I’ll have leverage.

LF: So partnering with your tech vendors and coming to them with, this is the business problem we want to solve. This is why we think it’s worth solving. And partnering with them to solve it is going to help to break down some of those technical silos. And the good news is on the MadCap side, because we do have the IXIA, we have the Flare, we have the Xyleme, that’s our vision is to how do we bring it together? It’s not gonna happen overnight because we all have. Like I said earlier, we all kind of made different design decisions which aren’t necessarily all compatible right this second, but we’re figuring out how do we make them more compatible? Like who’s got to kind of give up what and how can we make these work together? And because they’re all in our product stack, we have a vested interest in doing that. And honestly, we’re looking for customers, if there’s any MadCap customers out there listening, we’re looking for customers who want to partner with us on that journey and help us to figure out the answer because we know the problem pretty clear. We know some of the answer, but the only way you truly find the answer is by partnering with customers to figure it out.

SO: So I have to ask you about AI because we’re not allowed to do podcasts without asking about AI anymore. Tell me a little bit about your take on AI in the content universe that you live in.

LF: Yeah, I can, you know, there’s so much buzz about AI generation and the large language models and chat GPT. And I think because it kind of like wowed us all and it made the news and not that there’s not some efficiencies to be found there around summarization and descriptions. Cause one thing we know is that. The quality of the descriptions that go in the LMS and the LXP really drive retrieval or people being able to find something. And humans actually write really bad descriptions. AI does a better job of writing descriptions that search can find. So I think there’s something there there. But what really excites me is AI retrieval. Being able to match content to a person, like to me specifically based on my role context, where am I searching from? Am I searching from within Salesforce? Am I searching within my technical app? You know, what gives some idea of what I might be my problem that I’m having? Maybe even send error messages in what’s my region? What are my current skills? What are my skill gaps that would get me the information that I need faster and just the information that I need, not, you know, the 20 page document and now I’ve got to go find page five of 20. The great thing about AI retrieval is it can just bring me topic seven out of 70 and just bring that back to me. So I think that really solving that retrieval problem is huge, that time to an answer. The second one is AI data. AI’s been doing a lot with data. It’s not new news as far as data classification, looking at patterns. But if we think about if our common mission is performance and people being able to do their job, understanding holistically somebody’s journey from novice to proficiency and expert and what really drove those. And we might find out it’s all on the managers. And I argue a lot of it is their manager, you know, their manager and their coaching and had nothing to do, nothing against the audiences we’re talking to, but had very little to do with the learning team and the comp team. It had a lot to do with the managers, but understanding that and how we contribute into that journey will help us to understand what’s really important. And the nice thing about AI is it can bring in a lot more data and look at patterns that are much more sophisticated than us as humans can. We can’t hold that many variables in our head at one time. So I’m excited about AI to bring personalization of content, matching people to content, helping us better understand the value of the content we write and what drives that value of the content so that we can drive those best practices because I think we guess a lot and we have our ideas, we might be surprised at the answer. And then yeah, I mean, AI generation does definitely have a role. I don’t want to say it doesn’t have any, but honestly, it doesn’t excite me quite as much as the other two.

SO: Well, I, you know, I sort of lost interest early on when I asked chat GPT to generate a bio for me and it informed me that I had a PhD, which I mean, cool, but no. So, you know, it, it just, there were a couple of other things like that. It, and, and you said this earlier, you know, it is, it is important in our context to get the information right. And the thing that ChatGPT and the other generators don’t necessarily do is accuracy. They generate plausible content. But if we care about getting it right, cut the blue wire, then the red wire. no, wait, wrong. So it’s important to have this stuff be correct. And that’s the thing that GenAI really struggles with because it doesn’t really have a concept of correct.

LF: Yep. I think that’s where we are sitting on a gold mine with our content, because if you think of RAD, which is Retrieval Augmented Generation, which is the current, you know, leading answer as far as proprietary information that must be correct, it really is about retrieval. And what it does is it points to your vetted database of content. Well, where are those? By LCMS? CCMS? Gold mines of content, because, well, AI can do unstructured content. So not saying that you can’t give it a PDF or PowerPoint, whatever unstructured content. If you give it structured content, it’s like rocket fuel. It’s just easier, it’s better. And if you tagged that content, even if you use AI to help tag it, but if you’ve tagged that content, now that retrieval accuracy goes up exponentially, so we are sitting on rocket fuel. If you’ve already invested in an LCMS or a CCMS, you’re doing structured authoring, you have rocket fuel to drive your AI solution. And you don’t need AI to do it. It’s not that it has AI inherently in our databases. It’s just that we have the content that’s going to generate those AI agents and help to generate those answers and drive those right answers. And one of the key things when you think about proprietary content in these rag systems is the attribution. So it will provide a response. It’s not totally, it may summarize it, but it’s not rewriting it to the, it’s not just making it up like Jack GPT would, where it’s writing it from scratch. It is retrieving it. It may summarize it, but it gives an attribution. It tells me where it got that content from so as the person looking at it, I can decide whether I trust that source and I can verify it. So if it’s red wire versus blue wire and the wrong blue wire, something’s gonna blow up, I can go check the source and say, okay, yes, I trust that source and I’m gonna cut the blue wire.

SO: And on that cheery and I think hopefully explosive note, that seems like that sounds like a good place to wrap it up. Leslie, thank you so much for coming on. I hope we’ll continue this conversation and drive some positive change and some new cool integration and cooperation possibilities. And with that, thank you for listening to the content strategy experts podcast brought to you by Scriptorium. For more information, visit or check the show notes for relevant links.