Learning at big companies (Part 3) - APIs

By Marc Zao-Sanders

4 minute read

We all need to know about APIs now. As more and better software and more and better data emerges, the opportunity cost of not making good use of it gets very big. APIs - the thing that makes software talk to software - play a big role here. APIs will win. So ordinary business people, generalists, like you and me, need to understand the technology well enough at least to be able to spot an API opportunity.

Big companies have, almost by definition, lots of software and a lot of data. Plenty of opportunities, then, for them to make smart use of APIs. But for L&D teams at such firms, this opportunity is imperative. APIs provide the opportunity for L&D to play on the main stage.

API Explainer

It seems everyone on the internet has tried to explain what APIs are, through infographics, videos and imaginative analogies. I’ve just looked at 30 API explainers. Here are the best I found:

But none of even these quite nails it for me. So here’s my attempt:

  1. The internet is full of useful data (eg real-time weather reports) and software (eg google maps).
  2. It’s a lot more efficient to utilise this existing work than to start from scratch.
  3. APIs enable software to build on that existing work (data or software) to do a better job. This usually means either a better product (using more relevant, correct information) or better placement (where the users are).
  4. This arrangement is beneficial for the giver as well as the receiver of the data / software, and for lone developers through Fortune 500s. A restaurant leverages Google maps to help guide customers to their door; Google gets more data. Facebook leverages the work of tens of thousands of app developers to make their platform ever stickier; those app developers reach a potential audience of two billion users. A start-up leverages Stripe’s payment API to take money from clients; Stripe takes a cut. A website makes it easy for users to log in by doing so through LinkedIn; LinkedIn stays closer to its 600 million user-base.
  5. APIs can leverage a lot of work (eg a full game such as Clash of Clans) or very little. They could just share a single data point. APIs only reveal what you want them to reveal (unlike open source, which puts the whole codebase out there). This means the data that comes from them can be structured just how you (and potential users of your API) want and need them.

It’s as difficult to explain APIs as it is important to know about them and how they benefit us. I suspect different explanations work better for different people. One size does not fit all.

Colt-Fuse-Filtered collaboration

We recently worked on an API with Colt Technology Services and Fuse. The purpose was to bring learning recommendations to the 5,000 staff through Fuse Universal platform. Colt had already chosen some market-leading technology and content when we started speaking to them. In addition to Fuse’s platform to serve as the hub for all learning experiences, they’d picked Coursera, getAbstract and The Training Room Online. On top of this, they wanted skills-based recommendations to make the most of this fine material, as part of their drive towards best-in-class employee engagement.

We got together with the Fuse product team. (That was particularly easy in this case as the HQs of Colt, Fuse and Filtered happen to be within 400 metres of each other in Shoreditch.) Specifically, we got our API to talk to Fuse’s API so that our chat and recommendations would appear for users on Fuse. To the end user, one seamless experience. Users see a chatbot, (provided by us but delivered through an API) answer some short questions and see a personalised set of recommended learning to make better sense of the abundance of content.

Fortunately, interoperability is in Fuse’s DNA and so the project was quick, successful and painless. The entire process from concept to launch was just three months. The end result looks like this:



Steve Dineen, CEO of Fuse, said:

We have a strong belief in interoperability and of having open APIs as a way of achieving this. It’s clear that the industry is moving rapidly away from having one central LMS where all digital learning is expected to be consumed. What is truly exciting about the direction of our industry is we are now starting to see true interoperability with the wider tech landscape rather than being fixated on standards like SCORM and xAPI. A wider view of interoperability brings the whole technology landscape into play and suddenly nothing is impossible, from machine learning translation technology, VR platforms or new leading-edge learning technologies like Filtered.

We are enthused by this modern mindset where an openness to collaborate and accept that each learning tech company does not have to be the monolith technology and should instead be as open to integrating technologies as we are becoming in our openness to integrate libraries. An open API architecture where technology can be exposed on platforms like SharePoint and Salesforce as well as integrating other technologies like Yammer and Filtered rapidly creates a new canvass of creativity for our customers to design on.

And Jonathan Endean, Digital Lead at Colt, said:

Creating a consumer-grade experience that provides an intelligent blend of content and presentation thereof has been key to our L&D transformation in partnership with Fuse, Filtered, Get Abstract and Coursera. People expect ‘intelligent and personalised’ when it comes to technology these days, which further emphasises the need to build, buy and blend solutions that are not only technologically savvy, but that can also integrate with one another in order to provide a seamless (somewhat expected) user experience’.

So, this project is a current example of APIs working fast, by leveraging a tonne of tech (Fuse) and content (getAbstract, Coursera TTRO) work that’s already been done, to deliver something tangible to help people develop themselves.

And there are many other good examples of APIs in learning that are nothing to do with us. Anders Pink brings automated, curated content into Fuse and it can do so for many other learning tech platforms eg Moodle. There are many possibilities out there now.

Steve’s point about the potential to engage with ‘the wider tech landscape’ is spot on. And this is exactly what I meant by claiming that APIs provide us with the opportunity to play on the...

...Main stage

Some business software is bigger and better utilised than any learning software will ever be. Slack, Atlassian and Microsoft’s trio of Teams, Yammer and SharePoint are all examples of such software. This is where staff at big (and small, actually) companies already are, doing work and collaborating with each other. That’s the main stage at work, really. So rather than compete for employee attention and try to entice staff to another platform, you can use APIs as a backdoor pass to the main stage: drop something relevant, interesting and good from the world of learning into the world of work.

This could be some aggregated statistics about what’s popular. It could be what your CEO is reading / writing / recording. It could be some joyous, user-generated video content. It could be some personalised learning recommendations. Pick the right content intelligently and place it intelligently. All of a sudden learning is part of the flow of work. 

Josh Bersin talks about how this is starting to happen now (including some work we’ve done on Microsoft Teams).

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