A Global Community to Improve Learning – An Interview with Michael Croft

By: Victoria Antonelli

A decade ago, Michael Croft began brainstorming a solution to a problem that had plagued both his academic and professional ventures. While in college and during his 12-year “stint” at Amica Insurance Co, Croft was constantly managing an over-abundance of logins, procedures, platforms and devices. As he worked his way from an intern testing software, to an engineer, to an enterprise architect, the number of individual systems he had to learn continued to grow.

“We were always chasing an issue on our customer’s devices because there was no universal way to integrate these diverse solutions,” Croft said. “On any given day, I’d have 12 or more different system logins.” Wouldn’t it be easier if all this information could be stored and accessed from a single source platform?

“I came up with a concept for a universal marketplace of pieces that I could bring into one platform, one login, across any device, and assemble my own solution how I want when I want,” he explained. “I thought, how can I provide a personalized experience in a standardized way?”

In 2010, Croft decided to explore this idea further by starting his own company.

“I launched my company with nothing but a vision,” he explained. “I resigned from my position at Amica, my wife Melanie and I moved out of our home – we rented it to strangers and cashed out everything we had.”

As his company, clients and projects grew, Croft started noticing a pattern.

“Despite how diverse our clients and projects were, I discovered a common design inherent in all of them and the best solutions come from finding the same problems across different environments.” Croft said. “It took a while to see, but I eventually realized that if we built a more flexible, more composable model, every project we designed would’ve been done faster and cheaper. I also thought, what if these companies had the ability to create their own pieces, rather than relying on an outside developer?”

He added that he wanted to put the development and specialization of skills in the hands of the community creating the ecosystem. Croft said they exercised this method internally first for their own needs, which proved to increase profits and reduce costs and resources. It was now time for a test run in the outside world.

“We did a trial with an institute that specialized in Autism education,” he explained. ”it worked out pretty well; it didn’t get to the point…where I could take it and use it exactly as I had intended after that project was done, since it had been too specialized for that particular client, but the proof of concept was a success.”

Around this time, Croft transitioned his company’s focus from custom systems development, to a platform and business model with a self-sustaining ecosystem of talent that could be applied to any industry using tools created and shared by members of the ecosystem.

“I thought about a prior project we had done for Columbia Business School.” he said. “We built a project for them [using the initial focus] turning teaching methods from their faculty into online tools that could be scaled and interacted with in a game-like way. This triggered a bold go-to-market strategy.” he said. Croft further envisioned business schools worldwide creating a global marketplace of specialized learning and development ideas, processes and methods turned digital. He launched the new company, Volute, in January 2015. Croft said he chose the name Volute because, for one, “evolution is a derivative of volute, and it’s an architecture term for a spiral form, symbolizing the cyclical nature of an ecosystem.”

“The name was available and it’s catchy; everybody seems to like it and ask about it,” he added.

It took Croft and his team two years to build the product, which he used his own funds, and to meet with institutions around the world, identify the pain points, and co-create the tools, which led to pre-sales.

“Universities were paying us to co-create tools for a product that didn’t yet exist, which helped confirm the need and demand,” he explained. “It’s a good sign when clients are willing to put their money on vaporware.”

Croft said the company didn’t officially launch their product until January 2017. Their first client to use the platform after publicly launching was the Financial Times & IE Business School Corporate Learning Alliance in Europe.

“Financial Times & IE Business School Corporate Learning Alliance is using Volute to create their own tools and to assemble custom programs delivered to executives at any location on any device,” he said. “Before Volute, they accomplished this by using four or five different systems and a lot of manual labor to deliver one program. This is true of most business schools.”

Croft said this process involves, for example, pulling pieces from Blackboard, Canvas, MOOC’s, Survey Monkey or Qualtrics for assessments, collect all the data, and then calling in a team to manually put all of it together to give a personalized feedback report.

“It’s a nightmare for the institution and it’s a nightmare for the clients, especially when you’re catering to an executive’s schedule, and the institution is working on a time-constraint,” he added. “With Volute, our clients go into one marketplace and drag and drop the tools they want.”

He explained that Volute’s focus is on the engagement, not the content, unlike most learning platforms on the market.

“All these institutions already have content and a lot of it and that’s part of the issue. They don’t know how to centralize it, repurpose and maximize it. We are not content providers; what we do is take their content, ideas, processes and methods and make them better, more versatile,” Croft said. “We’ve created a new contribution economy where thought leaders around the world with great ideas to deliver digital content and knowledge services in a modern, digital age can contribute and benefit from others doing the same. We’re creating a movement allowing passive bystanders to become active participants of change.”

The core value is in how organizations select and connect the tools they want in minutes and deliver unique and personalized solutions in real time to their clients, he added.

“We’ve had 12 universities sign on since January, and eight Fortune Global companies are using it through the university programs,” he added. “We also have over a dozen new institutions in trials and growing. As it expands, we’re incorporating feedback from the community into the platform.”

Croft said key feedback about the platform is the way it feels like a social platform as participants collaborate and engage in a new learning experience.

“One of the new features we’re adding will give every tool its own included dialogue, because each tool is wrapping some type of learning element, digital content or knowledge service,” he explained. “The tool itself is part of a larger set of objectives, but it’s responsible for its own role in the larger objectives, so that part can stand alone, but is reinforced by having other tools that work with it.”

Croft used comments on a Facebook post from a user’s “community” to illustrate his point.

“Imagine each piece of learning where you can have a dialogue around that piece, and from there, create a social network connecting to those people who are communicating with you on your objectives,” he mused. “Users will have their own portfolio in our platform, so they’re able to connect and communicate in a more personalized way.”

Croft warned that he’s not looking to “recreate LinkedIn.”

“LinkedIn has become a test ground for what types of marketing will work,” he explained. “You’re inundated with regurgitated quotes and people looking to sell something; in my opinion, there isn’t enough substance.”

Croft said he envisions Volute’s model to allow for a more personal experience with a goal of connecting people who have a common challenge or objective, and who can actually work together – physically or virtually – to meet it.

“To be a successful company today, you have to be thinking global immediately in such a connected ecosystem,” he said.

To learn more about Volute, visit http://volute.education.