Published On: June 26, 2019By
Why pick an open source LMS for extended enterprise learning? Listen to the podcast with independent learning tech analyst John Leh


Open source development methodologies are rapidly transforming every corner of the software community. But when should organizations choose an open source LMS platform as the backbone for extended enterprise learning? Tune in as I explore this topic with Lars Hyland, Chief Learning Officer of Totara Learning, a market-leading open source LMS pioneer.



  • Over the past decade, open source software has become pervasive in business environments. This has set the stage for open source LMS adoption. 
  • The primary advantage of an open source LMS is flexibility, so you can customize, modify and scale learning solutions as your business needs change. 
  • With an open source LMS, you also gain access to a community of technical and business experts who are committed to advancing the platform.



Let’s start at the beginning, Lars. Could you tell us a bit about Totara Learning?

Sure. Totara is dedicated to transforming the learning technology marketplace. And we do that by providing a powerful, flexible, open learning platform called Totara Learn.

Since 2010, we’ve grown our user base to more than 1700 organizations in 47 countries. This growth is very much driven by our expert partner network, which now includes about 100 organizations, worldwide.

Excellent. So how do you define “open source”?

Well, it goes beyond the learning technology sector.

Look at smartphones. Invariably, they’re driven by open source – especially on Android. The Internet itself is largely built with open source software under it. If you look around, you’ll see it everywhere.


Today in the corporate world, open source is becoming much more mainstream. Red Hat is one of the original providers of enterprise open source software.

In a recent survey, they found that 69% of chief information officers believe enterprise-quality open source is extremely or very important to their business. And another 20% think it’s important.

In other words, 89% of CIOs are adopting open source as a core part of their technology stack and infrastructure.

Wow. That’s significant!

This trend is naturally extending to learning technology infrastructure. And that’s why we’re bringing the benefits of open source to the learning market.

The key point is that open source technology needs good professional support around it.

That’s why we exist. We provide that support to our partners, who then innovate and provide personalized, customized service to their customers.

So, how does this distinguish you from other learning systems?

Well, with traditional proprietary software, vendors tend to control what a solution can or cannot do to meet the needs of a business. But open source solutions give back that control.

So you’re basically saying that, without open source, organizations need to do business the way a vendor has designed it, within specific configuration parameters? 

That’s broadly correct…

But with open source, you paint lines on the road as guidelines, and solutions are molded to each customer’s needs?

With an open source LMS, there’s freedom to customize in controlled ways to meet specific business sector needs – or even individual organizational needs. This means our customers can differentiate themselves, which is critical.

By combining this open development model with our subscription structure, and by empowering our partners to deliver more at any budget level, the total cost of ownership is much more attractive.

Makes sense…

This means organizations are able to be more agile and flexible – either while saving money or directing their investment where it adds the most value. This helps our customers keep pace with what is a considerable amount of uncertainty in most markets these days.

So, with an open source LMS model, instead of paying license fees, that same budget pays for professional services to develop a unique experience, tailored to an organization’s specific needs?

Yes. And you’ve still got us as an R&D center behind that, continually building-out an innovative core product.

We benefit from a very powerful and informative feedback mechanism through our network of partners and customers who are innovating on the edge. They don’t necessarily have to wait for our roadmap, but they absolutely inform that roadmap.

Their innovation filters back into the core product and becomes something we maintain and support from the center. So over time, with this kind of open, collaborative model in the cloud, total cost of ownership becomes a very good value.

I see…

We want to offer essentially the best of all worlds.

You can tap into a product that is professionally built and maintained exactly as users expect from a large-scale commercial software company. Yet we’ve opened it up, so expert partners and individual organizations can host it wherever needed.

It can be set-up in a cloud or on-premise – wherever you wish. And it’s tailored specifically to your needs.

So there’s a distinction between an open source LMS and proprietary software, which can be quite challenging and expensive for an individual organization to customize on an ongoing basis.


Flexibility is the keyword, here. Decision-makers should really challenge existing providers on that. Because without flexibility, learning solutions don’t really solve any business problems at all.

This is an issue with too many solutions that essentially end up as tumbleweed. These solutions don’t reach their intended audience. And even if they do, the audience isn’t engaged.

So it’s critical is to have a platform and toolset that let you respond to learning needs in an agile way.

I’m curious – how often do you see organizations focused exclusively on the extended enterprise? Or do they tend to look for one system that can accommodate both internal and external audiences?

More frequently, we see larger organizations purchasing or building a solution around an external audience, without necessarily tying-in existing systems that serve internal needs.

Usually, that’s practical, because they may be locked into something they can’t easily change or abandon. So they just leave that alone and start again, separately.


But we also see organizations backfilling from that. In other words, over time, when they see the benefits of the flexibility they’ve achieved with an extended enterprise solution, they’ll discover that they can actually apply it internally. And at the appropriate moment, they actually backfill.

So, let’s quickly clarify your business model. Totara doesn’t interact directly with end-user organizations, correct? Deployment and professional services are always driven through your certified partners, right?

That’s 95-99% true. We were built from the ground up to empower learning technology providers around the world who were building their own LMS-type platforms, but were struggling to maintain them and stay competitive.

As part of our ecosystem, these developers can offer better value, without the burden of maintaining the platform, itself. That’s a significant benefit.

But some buyers (for example, governments) want to work with us directly, so we do that, as well.

Great. And how do organizations become qualified partners?

Our partner network acts like an ecosystem. Some partners are very large consulting firms like Deloitte. Some are small firms that focus exclusively on integration or technology services.

Others add value to the platform with specialized content. And there are learning services agencies that serve particular niche markets by combining strong design, content and platform management capabilities. The range is very broad.

Kineo is one of our founding partners. So is Catalyst IT, which is very strong in open source infrastructure, in broader terms. Plus, our partners are based all over the world, so it’s easy to find a local partner if you wish.

How do you ensure high standards of quality across your network?

We take that very, very seriously. There is a qualification process for prospective partners. And those who join have access to the Totara Community and Totara Academy. This includes a series of courses, certifications and resources that you can tap into, so you’re not left on your own.

That’s important…

This is not just a one-way thing. It’s a collaborative effort. Totara provides fantastic opportunities for partners to grow their businesses and improve the quality of relationships with their customers. We’ve seen that time and time again.

Plus, we invite customers to participate in the community, so they can learn how to make the most of the Totara platform. They can also leverage the community to understand and share practices that improve the quality of online learning experiences they offer.

It’s great that the community leverages the collective wisdom of your organization, your partners and your customers. It also seems like an ideal sourcing tool…

That is true. A new customer may need one type of partner at the outset. But over time, those needs may become more sophisticated. The network can help them find other experts who can step in to help with those additional requirements.

So this really is Totara’s own extended enterprise story. You use your platform to train and certify your extended network of channel partners, so they can support their clients more effectively and grow their businesses more successfully.
In our world, we talk about this kind of use case all the time…

Yes. We see growing interest in extended enterprise solutions across our existing customer base. It’s really becoming much more mainstream for organizations of every size and shape…



About the Author: John Leh

John Leh is CEO and Lead Analyst at Talented Learning and the Talented Learning Center. John is a fiercely independent consultant, blogger, podcaster, speaker and educator who helps organizations select and implement learning technology strategies, primarily for extended enterprise applications. His advice is based upon more than 25+years of learning-tech industry experience, serving as a trusted LMS selection and sales adviser to hundreds of learning organizations with a total technology spend of more than $100+ million and growing. John would love to connect with you on Twitter or on LinkedIn.

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