Top 5 Insights from the 2022 Cornerstone Conference

October 27th, 2022

I spent the middle of last week in Las Vegas–first for Cornerstone's analyst day, followed by their 2-day Convergence conference for customers and partners. It was an informative, fun, and engaging 3 days. I appreciated the opportunity to hear about the changes Cornerstone is making and the executive team's vision for the next 12-18 months.

This blog is a quick roundup of my top 5 takeaways from the event. You can check out the wrap-up video here.

Here are my top 5 insights from the event. I'll dive into each below.

  1. The big announcement: Cornerstone Talent Experience Platform (TXP)
  2. The central theme: A renewed focus on customer and user experience
  3. The smart investment: Skills tech
  4. The possible game-changer: A "non-jealous," open tech architecture
  5. The unknowns: A new leadership team and a big vision

The big announcement: Cornerstone Talent Experience Platform (TXP)

In his opening keynote, CEO Himanshu Palsule walked the audience through the changes wrought on the world since the last (pre-COVID) Convergence conference. He concluded that:

Industries are at a point of inflection that has fundamentally changed how we work and learn. –Himanshu Palsule, CEO, Cornerstone

Emphasizing that Cornerstone is a leader in the learning market, Himanshu said it's time to reimagine how Cornerstone enables its customers to work and learn. He announced the New Cornerstone and its flagship product, the Cornerstone Talent Experience Platform (TXP) (Figure 1).

The Cornerstone TXP aims to support the employee journey from hire to retire
Cornerstone's new Talent Experience Platform includes 5 major pieces.

Cornerstone Talent Experience Platform diagram | Cornerstone, 2022.

This platform includes:

  • A learning experience platform (LXP)
  • An opportunity marketplace (AKA talent marketplace)
  • A content curation studio
  • An Extensible Integration Hub (to make integrations with other vendors much easier)
  • Core learning and talent management capabilities (including all 3 existing LMSs)
  • All powered by skills tech

With this TXP, Cornerstone aims to provide a "true end-to-end talent experience" covering hiring, employee development, performance management, and more.

My take: A single platform is tempting in today's fragmented market

From about 2017-2020, our research saw the number of "point solution" vendors in learning tech explode. (Point solution vendors offer fewer than 5 functionalities and aim to solve 1 or a handful of problems well.) Back then, we wrote about connecting those vendors into a tech ecosystem that made sense for an organization's employees, data, tech infrastructure, and goals. There was a lot of complexity to deal with. And that complexity grew as more potential solutions entered the space.

Now, the pendulum is swinging back toward the center. Organizations are looking to simplify.

A platform that can do it all is enticing–and that's what this TXP promises. Cornerstone says the TXP will enable:

  • Personalized employee development
  • Ongoing performance conversations and annual performance reviews
  • Skills intelligence
  • Content curation

And it'll enable all that in one place, underpinned by skills data, with high quality, at scale. Sounds amazing.

My biggest questions are:

  • How will they stitch all the pieces together? Cornerstone built this TXP using tech from several different systems–some of which Cornerstone built itself and others which they acquired. Stitching it all together in a way that's seamless from a data and user perspective is going to take some work.
  • Will something give? I didn't expect the main conference to cover what's getting cut. But I was surprised not to hear more talk of prioritization, trade-offs, or streamlining during the analyst day.
  • How will they differentiate the 3 LMSs? Executives emphasized that they will not merge the Saba, Sum Total, and Cornerstone brands. That seems duplicative and confusing to customers. I'm curious to see how they'll make it clear–to sales reps, support staff, customers, and so on–which platform best serves which client needs.

The central theme: A renewed focus on customer and user experience

In the past, Cornerstone had a solid and well-deserved reputation as a customer-focused company. More recently–since about 2018–that focus fizzled. Customer and user experience declined. In conversations with customers last week, I heard words like "clunky" and "old school." And in a client panel on the main stage, one customer said:

For a while, as a client, I didn't feel heard. I didn't feel the promises made in settings like this were kept. — Cornerstone client, multinational food and drink processing conglomerate

Now the customer focus is back. The ethos of the New Cornerstone, Himanshu said in his opening keynote address, is customer-centricity.

Evidence of this renewed focus on customers is the addition of a Chief Customer Officer, Toya Del Valle, to the executive leadership team. Toya has experience leading customer success teams and a big vision for customer success at Cornerstone.

Moreover, Chief Product Officer Karthik Suri said he's committed to improving the user experience on the Cornerstone platform. He promised that customers will see changes starting in November 2022. There was a lot of talk throughout the 2 days about human-centered design and doing things in 1 click. In particular, they said they will:

  • Introduce a new user interface
  • Create consistency across products / platforms in the Cornerstone suite
  • Improve the admin experience across multi-step workflows
  • Offer mobile options

My take: Focusing on customers is never a bad thing

I loved seeing this renewed focus on customer and user experience. Cornerstone hasn't had a great reputation in the last few years, and it's awesome that executives were open about those shortcomings. They made it clear they'd heard the complaints.

My questions are:

  • How will Cornerstone marry CX/UX with the complexity of their offerings? Cornerstone has a lot of products offered in lots of different ways. They have the TXP but also offer all those pieces à la carte. They have 3 LMSs with similar capabilities and client bases, at least on the surface. As I spoke with customers at the conference, they wondered: How does all this apply to my organization? What products are suitable for us? How do these changes affect what we already have? How will people find what they need? It may be a challenge to help prospects and existing customers have an excellent experience navigating the current offerings' complexity.
  • Will the focus on customers stick? The renewed focus on customer and user experience is an exciting move, but it hasn't happened yet. With all the big product developments happening, I wonder if Cornerstone will deliver on the promised customer-centricity. There's a bit of wait-and-see in the air. For example, the client I quoted above followed her initial comment with this:

I've seen a shift in the detailed attention to keeping promises, but I am waiting to see what drops in November. —Cornerstone client, multinational food and drink processing conglomerate

The smart investment: Skills tech

I just wrapped up some research on skills tech, which Cornerstone participated in (public infographic here, full report available with a 7-day trial membership here).

A core finding of that research was how powerful skills tech can be. Skills tech–or technology that collects and organizes information about employees' skills–has the potential to help organizations:

  • Better determine the skills needed for specific roles and gauge the qualifications of an individual to fill those roles
  • Engage and develop employees in personalized, tailored ways
  • Create more flexibility and mobility—both in traditional roles and less permanent (project / gig) work
  • Increase equity and inclusion in the development and advancement opportunities available to employees
  • More accurately plan for the workforce, teams, and leaders they'll need in the future

Given Cornerstone's vision for its TXP, investing in skills tech–or an "AI-powered intelligent tech fabric," as they called it–makes a ton of sense. This tech fabric sits at the center of Cornerstone's product strategy and will knit together the disparate offerings in the TXP (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Cornerstone is using skills to connect the elements of the TXP
Cornerstone is using skills to connect the elements of the TXP

Figure 2: Schematic of Cornerstone's skills platform | Cornerstone, 2022

The skills graph, in the center of Figure 2, contains about 53,000 skills mapped to 250 million jobs. The skills exchange (the square on the right of the diagram) will consume 3rd party skills taxonomies and map them to Cornerstone's. That's an exciting feature, since many large organizations have multiple systems that use different skills taxonomies.

The graph will drive functionalities like skills assessment, learning and opportunity recommendations, and skills recommendations (prompting employees to add / approve skills on their profiles). Cornerstone also maps skills to content to enable smarter content curation and recommendations.

My take: Skills tech is the way to go

Skills tech is a smart, necessary investment. Organizations are moving toward skills-based ways of planning and organizing work. It's great that Cornerstone isn't just supporting those efforts as an add-on thing, but moving toward skills as the fundamental way they're knitting together their offerings.

A tidbit that I'm excited about: Using work systems to infer skills! Skills recommendations will be partly based on inferences about employees' skills made from data in work systems (e.g., Salesforce, Asana, Jira, etc.). Few other vendors use data from work systems to infer employees' skills. It's hard to do. But the payoff can be high. Data in work systems are a great source of information about what employees can do, right now, as part of their jobs. This is a possible competitive edge for Cornerstone.

My big question is:

  • What will the execution look like? With skills tech, the devil is in the details. I'm curious how good the skills inference will be. How well will it ingest 3rd-party taxonomies? How deeply will skills be embedded into the other offerings? And so on.

Possible game-changer: A "non-jealous," open tech architecture

3 years ago, Cornerstone was one of the hardest vendors to integrate with. They fought hard to own all the things.

Now, they're saying: "We're not jealous!" (Figure 3).

Cornerstone is going to play nicely with other vendors
Cornerstone announced a new commitment to making integration with other vendors seamless.

Figure 3: Cornerstone's new "non-jealous, open architecture" approach | Cornerstone, 2022

In his keynote address, CEO Himanshu Palsule put it this way:

As much as we want to be the walled garden, best-of-breed talent solution, customers have other solutions in their ecosystem. So we have to integrate better than anyone else. — Himanshu Palsule, CEO, Cornerstone

Cornerstone is committing to playing nicely with all vendors, particularly regarding integrations. Their Extensible Integration Hub will include out-of-the-box integrations with major vendors like Udemy, LinkedIn, Teams, Slack, Salesforce, Workday, and so on–and they'll add more vendors over time. They also said they'll make it easy for customers to build self-service integrations with vendors if there isn't an out-of-the-box connection.

The features highlighted during the analyst day were:

  • Seamless SSO
  • Self-service integrations
  • APIs
  • Webhooks
  • Event streaming

In addition, Cornerstone is opening its skills graph to the public on what they're calling a "Skills Playground." Anyone will be able to play around with the data they have. And in the future, they're hoping the Skills Playground will become an open-source community that uses input from community members to update the skills graph.

My take: I love this change!

This move to a non-jealous, open approach is a big change for Cornerstone. I'm thrilled about it! The ethos of sharing information and being "better together" (another common phrase at the conference) is fantastic.

And this move is timely. It follows a broader trend that we're seeing. Vendors recognize that no one vendor can do everything modern organizations need their HR or learning tech to do. So they're thinking about how to contribute value as one part of a larger ecosystem. This could be a game-changer for Cornerstone. This open approach may help Cornerstone cement itself as a value-adding component of customers' tech ecosystems, rather than a gatekeeper that must be worked around.

My questions are:

  • Will integrations be as easy as advertised? I applaud the commitment to easy integration. But it seems like integration is always harder than planned. I'm curious to see if Cornerstone can make their integration hub as easy to use as they're envisioning.
  • Will the open skills graph pay off? Cornerstone isn't opening up its skills graph for purely altruistic reasons. They're hoping it'll be a way to expand and improve their dataset as well as a source of new business. That seems like a sound approach, but I'm waiting to see if it pays off.

The unknowns: New leadership and a big vision

Cornerstone's leadership team is impressive and energized. And they have a big vision for the New Cornerstone. They assured us that everything they announced at the conference was, at the least, in beta. They said these improvements will be rolled out for a general audience in the next 12-18 months.

The biggest promise was the Talent Experience Platform and all its pieces:

  • Learning experience platform (LXP)
  • Opportunity marketplace
  • Skills studio and skills playground
  • Content studio (skills-enabled content curation)
  • Learning and performance management
  • Extensible integration hub

In addition, they announced:

  • More support for user-generated content, including advanced analytics & reporting
  • Capability models that set global standards for job titles and levels
  • Adding skills to check-ins and performance reviews
  • Manager tools to analyze team skills
  • Continuing improvements to support customers' compliance / regulatory requirements, business rules, and processes
  • Aggregated insights (across Cornerstone products) for admins
  • Position management functionality to support planning, succession, and compliance tracking
  • Enhanced compliance controls
  • Video transcription, search, and recording in-browser
  • A dashboard designer feature
  • Better documentation for developers

That is a long list, and I'm sure there's something I missed.

In addition, many senior leaders–notably CEO Himanshu Palsule and CPO Karthik Suri–are new. Figure 4 shows the entire leadership team.

Cornerstone's leadership team is relatively new
The Cornerstone leadership team is new and diverse, with a big vision.

Figure 4: Cornerstone leadership team | Cornerstone, 2022

Himanshu is 10 months in office, Karthik less than 50 days as of this writing. Neither comes from the HR or learning space–which, as you know, has its own idiosyncrasies and bugaboos. Toya has been with the company for 9 years, but the Chief Customer Officer role is brand-new.

My take: I can't wait to see what's next

Cornerstone’s newly-formed leadership team has promised a lot. There's a lot to be proven.

Which isn't a bad thing at all. I love the big vision, the energy, and the direction.

It simply means some time needs to pass to give the team a chance to execute the vision.

My questions are:

  • Will the outside perspectives help? The CEO and CPO’s relative inexperience with HR and learning tech could be great if they bring new perspectives that move the business forward. Or it could be a problem, if they fall into traps they may have avoided with more experience in the space. I hope it's the former.
  • Is 12-18 months enough? The Cornerstone team has a lot on their plates. They said many pieces are in place to execute everything promised. Maybe the 12-18 month timeframe is doable. I can't wait to see how things shape up.

Final thoughts

It was a pleasure to meet so many interesting, dedicated people at Convergence 2022. The event lived up to its promise of "limitless inspiration." (On that note, the 2 keynote speakers–Amy Poehler and Mae Jemison–were fantastic.) I look forward to seeing what happens over the coming 12-18 months and hope to see everyone next year.

Heather Gilmartin Adams