Saba’s Emerging Vision of Talent Management in an Unsettled World

How does Saba combine three major products and turn the world of talent management around without blowing it all up?

Note from Lance: I wrote over a thousand words on my thoughts on Saba Insight, Saba’s user conference, the weekend after the event. The Monday following the conference, they announced their purchase of Lumesse and I held this post back. I’ve had some time to reflect on both that acquisition and the conference itself, which is what you‘ll read here.

Regardless of what people say with all of the confidence of the world — including me — nobody knows what’s going to happen to talent management in the future. If I knew, I would be selling it to the highest bidder, not writing free shit on the internet about it.

Talent management is changing, though. The din of disruption was an unstated guest at Saba Insight this year. I say unstated instead of uninvited because if Saba has done one thing well, they’ve been transparent about how they think about the future and where the opportunities and challenges lie. That includes the very real challenge of acquiring Halogen Software approximately 18 months ago and integrating the Canadian technology company into the Saba family. Oh, and there’s something that wasn’t announced at the conference with a little company called Lumesse. More on that in a bit.

Like all user conferences, Insight was a great reality check into the nuts and bolts of how HR technology actually gets off the ground. The audience and presenters skewed pragmatic. These were organizations trying to solve real problems, whether that’s working on performance management retooling or rolling out new learning programs. Talent management was alive and well in Scottsdale.

Something I heard many attendees talk about were implementation and adoption hurdles—not necessarily related to Saba, though. How do we get people using the performance management software? How do we convince them that these learning resources will help them in their careers? How do we tie this all to engagement? What do executives care about—and what should they care about?

I was pleased to hear many organizations thinking smarter about building programs that worked from the bottom up, not the top down. There was a lot of focus on employee communications and marketing. Ultimately, the success of talent management is dependent on your people’s buy in.

Unfortunately, there’s still too much talk about issues that I believe hold talent management back from taking a real step into the future.

  1. Thinking programs instead of holistic. Performance management doesn’t work in a vacuum. Learning management doesn’t exist without context about what people need to learn. We need more stories about companies that get the connection between performance, learning, recruiting, recognition, communication, etc… How are we breaking down long-standing silos and actually taking an integrated approach to talent management? Or is the now decades-long promise of an integrated approach so impossible to reach that the focus on creating or reimaginging narrow programs is our best bet to make something work?
  2. Too much focus on executive buy in. It was a question at every session I hit, I think. Which, I get it on one level. We need to get our C-level folks on board and part of that is building relationships and knowing what they care about. On the other hand, most executives didn’t get their jobs by being idiots and ignoring obvious needs. Good solutions don’t sell themselves but it certainly doesn’t hurt. It makes me wonder if people are still pitching programs (let’s fix performance management process) rather than outcomes (let’s improve performance and retention). That might help organizations focus on looking at all potential impacts.
  3. Not enough focus on employee attitudes, behaviors, and beliefs. I still don’t know why generations come up time and time again but it seems to be a poor stand in for actual psychographic data, skills, and competencies. What we lose in this conversation is that our enterprise systems—whether it’s communications, financials, or HCM—need to be more people focused for all employees. I would suggest that instead of focusing on executive buy in, work to trial software that your people actually love to use and have them work with you to get it implemented across the organization.

These challenges, and how organizations using Saba are approaching it, aren’t unique. Years and years of talking to leaders of HR in organizations makes me simultaneously hopeful that there is movement and concerned that we aren’t moving fast enough.

There are some things that are unique to Saba that I do want to highlight.

They are calling themselves a talent development company, which is an interesting move. I’m not 100 percent sure if this represents a change in strategy or approach, but based off my conversations, it seems like it is a reflection of where they’ve landed since the acquisition of Halogen—and maybe where they are going with the addition of Lumesse.

My initial impression is that I thought it pulled them back into their learning comfort zone. I still feel this way, but I think development is one of the most human things that actually happens and can be attributable to work. There’s a counter message that talent, the kind most organizations want at least, doesn’t want to be managed—at least with the suite of solutions most ascribed to this category.

Descriptions aside, in contrast to a generally pragmatic user conference agenda driven by customer stories and product managers, Saba’s vision is big.

This is not a change. The folks at Saba have always been happy to be out front. With all of the talk of AI and personalization at scale, Saba was ahead of this trend by a good three years with TIM (The Intelligent Mentor). Being able to leverage learning from TIM and iterate before competitors were even thinking about it has served Saba well. Their move to add Saba Labs formalizes a culture that already values innovating.

We also got a view into the roadmap that Saba is working on with their Cloud and TalentSpace (formerly Halogen) products. I’ll be honest, I had some concerns with actively selling and building two flagship technologies that have a ton of functional overlap. The addition of Lumesse won’t make things easier—and you can bet competitors are going to latch onto any stories coming from these camps.

I understand the reasons why Saba is staying the course on this today. Saba TalentSpace customers in particular are passionate about this platform. Saba Cloud customers are often there because Saba was the only solution that could meet their complex learning requirements. The same could be said about Lumesse in talent acquisition and learning on an international basis. TalentSpace traditionally focused on the mid-market down to the SMB. Cloud is largely an enterprise initiative, though I believe that is less true today than it was in the past.

Saba executives, on and off the record, will tell you there’s no plan to change this approach. They believe there is a growing market for both and that they have the resources to tackle that challenge—and still gain many of the efficiencies from the acquisition. In public, they were careful to show balance to both, with no favoritism to either platform. They also sold hard on the advantages of these solutions being built together.

Conventional wisdom says it’s really hard to do this. That same wisdom also says it’s something that private equity-backed firms rarely do. I’m willing to suspend disbelief because Saba is making progress and clearly has the trust of Vector Capital to swing big. They are making money and converting legacy customers into cloud customers, something other software companies who have been around as long as Saba aren’t always doing so great on.

This leads us to the epilogue of the user conference, Saba is acquiring Lumesse. I would’ve loved to gauge the reactions of attendees to that news—better luck next year.

Funny side story: At the analyst lunch, Saba President and CEO Phil Saunders was asked a direct question about whether more acquisitions were on the horizon—five days before the announcement. Let’s just say I’m not playing at his poker table next time we’re in Vegas.

Tangent aside, Lumesse has some pretty great technology that not many people in the North American market know about.

  1. Lumesse’s talent acquisition platform is very good. It gives Saba an easy in to international markets and a talent acquisition solution that is in line functionally with the rest of the platform. Talent acquisition is one of the hardest areas to internationalize (besides learning content) and Lumesse has given them a head start on this front.
  2. Lumesse’s learning experience is underrated. Aragon’s Jim Lundy covers this better than I could but in short, Saba bolsters their learning chops with this move—not to mention, again, that Lumesse is built for international markets. Learning content and technology are some of the hardest HCM solutions to get right from market to market.

Read some other great takes from Sarah Brennan, Ben Eubanks, Steve Brooks, and Michael Rochelle if you want to really take a deeper dive into this acquisition. Most of them see many of the same opportunities and challenges ahead.

Saba has had an amazing turn around in the last four years. Considering all of the disruption inside and out of Saba, that’s an accomplishment in its own right.

But history doesn’t dictate the future. Saba has to sell the market on a future vision and roadmap that goes beyond functional rollups, consolidation, customer acquisition, and increasing their international presence. Until that vision is clear, the market uses the vacuum to create its own assumptions.

On the other side of the Lumesse acquisition, we could be looking at a new talent management leader—or whatever you want to call the category. A company that can sneak into the largest enterprise talent management deals in the world—and win.

Other cloud HCM and talent management providers will have their own piece to say about that possibility. Certainly SAP SuccessFactors and Cornerstone OnDemand still lead the enterprise market in talent management, at least for the time being.

But this market isn’t set. Not by a long shot. While cloud giants battle each other and others worry about market pressure, private equity backing has one major advantage: The ability to focus.

I can’t wait to see what it eventually looks like.


Saba’s Emerging Vision of Talent Management in an Unsettled World was originally published in Lance Haun on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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