Podcast: CSOD’s Doug Segers on Why Content Works With Tech


Mark Feffer: Welcome to PeopleTech, the podcast of the HCM Technology Report. I’m Mark Feffer. My guest today is Doug Segers, Head of Original Content at Cornerstone OnDemand. A well-known vendor in the HCM technology space, Cornerstone has been emphasizing its expertise with content as part of its value proposition. We’ll talk about that journey on this edition of PeopleTech. Doug, thanks for joining me. Tell me about this project

Doug Segers:  Sure. So really, original content, and it’s almost, I think actually, yeah, coming up in just a couple of weeks, will be my three-year anniversary with Cornerstone. Really, Cornerstone, up until three years ago, was just distributing content, reselling content from our partners. Then I joined the team, and basically, that was the beginning of original content. A couple of months later, we acquired Grovo, so then we had a full-fledged between my joining on the original content side, and then the acquisition of Grovo, which essentially is original content as well. That was the beginning of the rocket ship that we’ve been on ever since just about three years ago. And it’s funny, because you mentioned just a second ago about the acquisition. I feel like it’s been, I’ve been, we’ve been busy the whole time anyways, so I feel like it’s…

Doug: We have our biggest production next week, so if I seem even remotely scattered on this call, it’s because we have a very big cast, and we’re shooting here in LA next week, and the pandemic, or the COVID’s not doing us any favors, let me say. Let me tell you. But yeah, so it’s been three years, and really, the intent of our original content, in conjunction with our subscriptions, was to have exclusive, original, innovative content to supplement and augment the content that we’re getting from all of our partners, to make our subscriptions as well rounded, and as attractive, and as engaging as they possibly could be.

Mark: You know, I was looking through some of your previews and such, and what was going through my head was just, “Wow, these guys aren’t screwing around.” I mean, it’s really good production values, and all of these things that you don’t always see in corporate learning or corporate video. Where does that kind of commitment come from?

Doug: Well, first off, thank you for saying that. I’m glad that that was your takeaway. That’s great. You know, it’s funny, because when I joined, I remember the first conversation with our CEO at the time, Adam Miller, and coming in and being like, “Wow, there’s so much opportunity here. I’m learning more about Cornerstone.” I came from outside the industry, HR, HCM, learning, all of it, and my background was in media licensing, and before that in entertainment.

So I came into this from a very like, “Wow, you have a giant customer base here. You have this opportunity to create content.” Then, very, I guess, serendipitously joined Cornerstone, and then when I started to really dive into content… I had my own experience with content, from previous employers and stuff, and watching the things that we had to do, and then professional development content as well. But watching it, and just being like… And this wasn’t just… This wasn’t by…

Overall, to comment on what you said, the bar, I think, was kind of surprisingly low, for me. From where I was coming from, out of kind of entertainment and more the commercial, consumer space, looking at content and being like, “Wow, there’s a huge opportunity here, to improve the quality, the fidelity, just the engagement, while still delivering learning content.” So that’s really what came into it, was like looking and saying, “We can do better. We can create content that engages, and learns, and reaches employees.”

And one of the big things for me coming in is like… I remember having this conversation with multiple people on our team in our early days, was I was watching, consuming all this content, getting up to speed, looking at competitors, looking at our partners, looking at a lot of the content that was really popular on YouTube, which is where people go to find learning content as well. So looking and being like, there’s a tremendous opportunity here, to increase the engagement, engagement by meaning like people watching content and be like, “Wow, I’m in this.”

It’s like, we need to start treating our learners as content consumers, because that’s what they are, right? Every single day, especially the younger generations, we’re all consuming content at kind of unparalleled rates, and I think the streaming services have only facilitated that, even beyond YouTube and the social media platforms. So, kind of coming at it from that lens is like, well, what’s popular? What do people like? What are the formats, the genres, the modalities that people are responding to in their personal lives?

And then trying to bring that in, because people don’t stop being people when they come to work. They don’t transition from being an individual who’s consuming content on the train to walking through their office doors and expecting like, oh, wow, this bar that I had up here, the thing that I like, or the podcasts that I’m following, or the show that I’m consuming and watching on the train on the way to work, all of a sudden drops out the window, and I come in and I have this expectation for a really low bar of content.

We can meet people where they are, and there’s an immediate opportunity to think, hey, let’s think of the seesaw back and forth between our employees and our clients’ populations as content consumers, and treat them like that. So that was like an overarching theme, that I think has really permeated our… has been a thread through our development, and even, I think, the influence on the Grovo content that we produced, to really kind of even up the quality around certain aspects of design and storytelling, while we’re still delivering viable learning content.

Mark: Now, one of the things about Cornerstone and content is, you folks seem to take it exceptionally seriously. I mean, I think it was about two years ago, the company said, “Content is going to be a cornerstone of our strategy going forward.” You know, other vendors say things like that, but you guys seem to really be putting some money into it, and sort of walking the walk as it were. Where does that come from? How did you arrive at this idea that, hey, we’ve got to get the content right if we’re going to build a business?

Doug: I think I can speak from my own experience in the conversations I’ve had, and I remember a couple of years ago, when Heidi Spirgi was talking about content. She said, “The thing that’s interesting about content…” I think this is… This has to have been earlier on in her, when she joined, and she said, “Content’s like the golden thread that goes through everything that we do,” right? Regardless of the software suite, learning, development, and HR, all of it, content’s at its core, and to really look at it from a on the surface value of, hey, this is professional learning content, but also everything else that it can do to perpetuate other areas of the business as well.

Because when we start to really look at it, it is everywhere, and it touches every single thing we do, from performance reviews, to how to have crucial conversations, and thinking of it beyond just something that’s in our LMS or PXP, to how is it actually get used, and how can it link to other parts of our software suite, and everything that we do? So I think it’s just something that felt like a huge, not just a creative and editorial opportunity, and a learning opportunity, but also an amazing strategic opportunity, to link it all together in ways that we hadn’t necessarily done before, or that we didn’t see happening from the rest of the market or our competitors in this space.

Mark: Is there a certain slice of your audience that you’re going after with these programs? I mean, is it the millennials? Is it Gen Z?

Doug: I can speak to the originals, and the content that we’ve produced thus far. The first series that we did here on the website [inaudible 00:09:15] was DNA, which was our Digital Native Advancement. That was certainly geared towards gen Z. That came out at the end of 2019. It’s so crazy. I was just talking about 2022, and it just still is dumbfounding to me. But it came out at the end of 2019, and that really was one of the things we came in, and we were ideating on series, and topics, and the type of content that we needed to… and the subscriptions to appeal to a relatively large client base, or user base, and it looked like there was a big opportunity for gen Z content, gen Z themed content, because at that point, coming into 2020, the stat was at the end of 2020, 20% of the workforce will be gen Z. And that’s a super conservative number. That number’s actually much higher when you go outside of the United States.

So there looked like there was an opportunity there, so that series was geared towards gen Z, but the content that we created, and I don’t know if you’ve had a chance to see any of their two-minute nano-learning lessons, but we wanted to make sure that while we were talking to and using gen Z as essentially a voice and a device to get into the learning, the content that we were actually creating was relevant to a much larger audience, so talking about, “Hey, I’m new. My boss likes to send me emails. I don’t understand why she doesn’t just Slack or message me. How can I work with her on this?” And then create kind of like, hey, use email for this. Use messages for this. Pick up a phone and have a conversation for this.

It was interesting, because on that particular lesson, I use it as an example because we got feedback from a lot of non gen Z’ers, a lot of boomers and gen X’ers, if we’re thinking kind of generationally, saying like, “Wow, that was great. I’m going to make my whole team watch this. I don’t even have any gen Z people on my team, but those were guidelines for communicating that we need.” So, when we created the content… And we learned that pretty early on, was that we wanted to make the content inclusive for a larger audience than what was kind of on the surface when you’re thinking about digital natives. And we didn’t even call it… We didn’t put gen Z in the title, because digital natives is a much broader definition, that is inclusive of people who either are or fancy themselves digital natives as opposed to from generation Z.

Mark: You know, there’s so much talk now about the importance of learning, especially when it comes into skills, if that’s going to be a big pressure on employers. Do you think this kind of approach that you’ve been taking, can that get into skills development? I mean, skills learning always strikes me as being really complicated, because the depth of the subject matter you get into. Can this work for that?

Doug: I think so. It’s interesting because… So, a follow-up series was The H Files, and the first season… I say season. I probably shouldn’t say that, program, release of The H Files. I speak in those terms because it’s easy… The first season of H Files was project management based, and we landed on project management because it was something that we were… You know. And this was in, I guess, we started working on this in early 2020. In terms of content that we saw an ongoing ask for from our client base, and something that was a skill that was in many a top 10 list, this is according to the general population.

But, it wasn’t so like, hey, this is project managers for a certified project manager. We need project management content for non project managers. We need basic principles delivered to project managers in a relatable way, that people can understand. So it’s skills development like okay, really a top 10/best practices from beginning to end of project management. And we put a creative wrapper of The H Files around it, around like look, let’s look at project management failures throughout history, and approach it from kind of a docu style that felt more accessible, and the tie back to the learning at the end, and provided practical tips, as well as our activation material, which was offline, printed companion material sort of content that had tips, tricks, facilitation guides, documentation planning docs, that sort of thing.

So, that content is meant to be hey, this is project management for non project managers. We have deeper project management content that follows right after this. We can point you right to a deeper dive into it, but it was almost like an introduction to the subject, and an introduction into project management. I mean, for someone who’s a professional project manager, this would not be the content for them, but for the larger population, it absolutely was, and we have deeper learning.

So, a lot of the content that we’re producing on the originals side tees up other content in our subscription. It links back. There’s no ending to when we finish a program, whether it’s The H Files, or DNA, or Empowering Minds with Liggy Webb, that we don’t… Like, that that’s it. We tee it up so there’s additional conversation, or there’s additional learning in the subscription to point people to. It’s kind of like the beginning of the journey, as opposed to the end. So in terms of like skills development, are we going to be creating Python coding content on originals? That wouldn’t be something that we would do. That’s not our MO. Our MO is to bring people into the subscription, creating engaging content, and send them on a path of discovery or additional learning that they then can hopefully develop and fine-tune their skills. Does that make sense?

Mark: No. No, it does. It actually is a really interesting description of how you do it, so thanks. And I’ve just got one more question for you, for now. Can you sort of step me through the process, the production process, that you go through from the time you settle on a topic? How do you get it put together? How do you get it produced?

Sure. Yeah. I’ll tell you, it’s been an iterative process. It’s been interesting, because this is our first time meeting, but I have no shortage of ideas. Some are really good, and some are really not so good, but they keep coming, right? So there’s a whole process, and pretty early on, when I was getting up to speed and looking like, okay, well what do we need? What’s going to resonate? I was working with an instructional designer at the time, and we were looking at kind of like all these ideas that we had, and topics that we needed to cover, and trying to organize it.

We came up with, at the time, and honestly, Cornerstone, unbeknownst to us, has something else called the same name, so essentially, we were calling it, for internal purposes, our Innovation Index. We were looking at criteria around do clients need this? Is it innovative? Are salespeople going to know how to sell it? Are marketing people going to know how to market it? Is it complex to produce? Is it expensive to produce? We went through all this kind of criteria, with a bunch of questions, and created essentially this index where we rated different ideas, and matched them with topics.

If it kind of passed that piece, then we moved on to true… It was kind of like light research and more kind of anecdotal, topic based, working with the strategy team to tell us like what do we need, reaching out to clients. And if it worked and we thought we were onto something, then it kind of moved to phase two, which was like true research and development, where we were going in, and doing lots of research, consulting with experts, subject matter experts, internally, externally as the case may be, running focus groups, beginning to really dive into like, okay, is there something here? Can we do something different? Is this unique, and is there more meat on the bone than we initially thought?

If all of that goes well, then we end up moving into what essentially amounts as our pre-production process, like yes, we’re going to do this. And in that process too could be like a pilot, like a proof of concept, and those could be from really rough, down-and-dirty POCs to almost a full-fledged like what a lesson would look like. So, when all that happens, we move into a pre-production process, and then it really comes down to the program, and the writing, additional research, all of the instructional design, what’s it going to look like, what’s it going to feel like, how the technical and editorial aspects, how we’re going to produce it, is it live action, animated, is it VO, motion graphics? All of the things that go into the pre-production process, that get us to the end of that, where we can actually then move into production.

Depending on what that looks like, you know, if it’s an animated series, or if it’s live action, if it’s in a studio, if it’s on location, if we’re leveraging internal talent, external talent. All of those kind of variables look different, and in the series that we’ve done thus far, there’s been a mixture of all of those things. Particularly like last year, with the pandemic, and having to kind of course correct, the series that we’re shooting next week was one that we were getting ready to shoot right before the pandemic. We were four weeks away from production on that, and then the pandemic happened, and because it involves people sitting, talking about workplace issues, we had to scrap it. We didn’t want to do it virtually, because it would lose a lot of the moment of people sitting in front of each other, talking through relatively complex and nuanced issues, so it can look a little bit different.

Then, post-production, lots of review, both in terms of the learning, again, more focus groups, having people watch, having clients participate in early content when and where that makes sense. And then we deliver it, so it’s a pretty lengthy process. Some goes much faster than others. One series that we are working on, and we’re super excited about, when we got into the focus groups, we realized like, wow, this is almost two separate series. There’s almost like we need to do the intro series before we do the deep dive series, which is where we were starting, because we saw an immediate need for that. So we kind of course corrected on that one, while we were well into the focus group process on that particular program, so it can look a little bit different for each one.

Then, when we do additional runs, like with DNA, where we’ve come back and we said, “Okay, this is our first release,” which is all around gen Z’ers kind of entering the workforce, and the interpersonal skills that they needed in order to be successful with their teams, their managers, and in the larger corporate organization. When we came back and did more of that at the beginning of the pandemic, we were like, wow, we can do more DNA, but let’s gear it towards working at home. Let’s gear it for the same interpersonal skills, out of the office, all virtual. So, that process went a lot faster, because we had already had our framework in place. We did research, script writing, casting. That was largely animated, or we heavily relied on preexisting media assets to pull that together.

Then, most recently, we did a DNA DEI run, which actually took a little bit longer, just because we wanted to make sure that we got the learning right, where we get into diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging, and with the overlay of DNA. We wanted to make sure that it was authentic and real, and we were answering questions and providing viable information for that space. And that took a little bit longer than the work from home content. So, looks a little bit different from each one.

Mark: Doug Segers, thank you. My guest today has been Doug Segers, Head of Original Content at Cornerstone OnDemand. And this has been PeopleTech, the podcast of the HCM Technology Report. We’re a publication of recruiting daily. We’re also a part of Evergreen Podcasts. To see all of their programs, visit www.evergreenpodcasts.com. And to keep up with HR technology, visit the HCM Technology Report every day. We’re the most trusted source of news in the HR tech industry. Find us at www.hcmtechnologyreport.com. I’m Mark Feffer.

Image: CSOD

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