Inkling was founded seven or so years ago with the aim of disrupting the printed textbook market. They were all about helping publishers such as McGraw-Hill and Pearson move their paper-based textbooks to something digital. Over a period of time, Inkling’s experience within these publishing companies, and development of tools to help with the digitization process, saw them develop a platform that had applicability far beyond just the textbook industry.
Fast forward to 2013 when Inkling was ready to productize its content publishing platform, a platform that has a lofty aim indeed -- to disrupt the traditional file-based approach towards content. As the company sees it, Word and PDF files came into existence in a desktop world but haven’t really adapted to a mobile world. Sure you can view files served from the cloud, but it is primarily a static model and no one that maximizes the opportunities that mobile, dynamic content and real-time delivery offer.
I spent time talking with Matt MacInnis, CEO of Inkling, about the company’s genesis generally, and some interesting validation they have just received. First to the validation.
McDonald's has decided to leverage the Inkling platform to replace all of their operations and training manuals. Currently, manuals are largely paper based, and those that are digital require crew members to sit down at a fixed PC. With Inkling, training materials are delivered dynamically, training content can be consumed via mobile device at the particular workstation the crew member is being trained on, and content can be updated centrally and in near-real time.
McDonald's is, of course, a huge employer. In the U.S. alone, the company hires around one million new crew members a year. I spent some time talking to Rob Lauber, VP and chief learning officer at McDonald's. Lauber is the person tasked with bringing McDonald's training systems into the 21st century.
He discovered Inkling, had the company build McDonald's a proof of concept and sort feedback from some influential McDonald's operators about the platform. The feedback was overwhelmingly positive and the decision was made to roll out Inkling. So the company is doing just that, in a staged manner, across the U.S. and Canada with a global roll out planned over the next couple of years.
I quizzed Lauber about the empirical benefits the company expects to see from using Inkling. While it is still early days for the implementation, Lauber expects to see a 10 hour reduction per crew member in terms of the time it take to reach proficiency across the different tasks within a restaurant. Multiply that by the average wage of a McDonald's crew member, and then across the million or so new staff McDonald's hires per year and you have a massive saving.
On top of that, the company previously spent hundreds of thousands of dollars a year physically printing operations and training manuals in the U.S. alone. Given the printing bill, this could only be done a few times a year. With Inkling, printing is no longer required and materials can be updated whenever required. The company has rolled out Inkling to 5,000 restaurants thus far with an ambitious target to accelerate the roll out across the company’s 14,500 outlets in the U.S. and Canada.
Lauber is particular ebullient about the ability McDonald's has to include all different types of content within Inkling -- video and audio files sit nicely alongside text. But quizzes, Q&A content and other dynamic and engaging content can also be included with their Inkling manuals. I was interested to hear if, given he importance of training to McDonald's, Lauber had concerns about going with a relatively young company. He pointed to the fact that Inkling is funded by legendary venture capital fund Sequoia as sufficient to avoid onerous commercial due diligence.
I spent some time talking with Matt MacInnis, CEO of Inkling, to reflect on the McDonald's news but also get his sense of the broader opportunity here. I started off by asking how he feels Inkling is different from other attempts to mobilize content or introduce workflow into documents -- I’ve written many times before about the various strategies existing vendors such as VMware and Citrix, or startups such as SlideRocket and Podio (ironically acquired by those two vendors respectively and subsequently forgotten) have in the space.
MacInnis explained that Inkling is highly focused on transitioning of so-called deskless workers to the digital world. And he’s not referring to mobile salespeople of the like. He’s referring to the massive number of often low-paid employees in semi-manual job who don’t have digital tools in their workplace. MacInnis shared research that suggests that over 82% of employees still use some paper-based job aids to do their work. Those who do have “digital access” often rely on static, frequently out-of-date policy and procedure documents posted on outdated enterprise portals in the cloud.
In a totally different way of thinking about content, enterprises use Inkling to deliver policies and procedures as continuously updated dynamic documents. These living documents behave more like consumer apps and engage the user with videos, interactive simulations, dynamic forms and checklists. In contrast, Word and PDF files deliver static and passive experiences. Inkling’s authoring platform allows business users to create dynamic documents with no technical know-how. MacInnis sees Inkling poised at the intersection of cheap and easy mobile access (through cheaper devices and easier centralized mobile device management) and ubiquitous internet access -- after all, the vast majority of these workers spend their personal time on Facebook, Snapchat and Tinder, bringing them a digital working model in a similar paradigm makes sense.
MacInnis also sees this opportunity as part of a paradigm shift -- in his opinion, Inkling allows files to go away in the workplace. Through successive generations workers have had a file-focused view of the world. The way of transferring those files has changes (from floppy disk, to CD, to USB stick to Dropbox) but the ultimate file focus hasn’t. Inkling wants to change that.
In terms of the competition, I asked MacInnis about the legion of other collaboration vendors trying to do similarly -- Salesforce with Quip, Box with Box Notes, Dropbox with Paper, Google with Google Docs. His thoughts remained the same -- these are not tools that enable a dynamic and engaged way of working with content, but rather tools that layer a veneer of collaboration onto an existing file construct. To add to that, these platforms are all focused almost exclusively (whether they admit it or not) on knowledge workers, and therefore forget the mass of low-skilled workers out there.
Inkling is fundamentally different. Whereas the old world saw operation manuals created in one of the Adobe creative products and then put onto a SharePoint site for consumption, Inkling brings creation and distribution together, and enables a bunch of dynamic content to go with it.
Maybe it’s just that MacInnis is a charismatic guy (he did, after all, spend years working at Apple and helped introduce the iPad, maybe some Steve Jobs charisma rubbed off) but I was taken by the inkling story. I love me a tale of democratization, tech for the rest of us, a focus beyond just the white-collar workers.
That said, I do have some concerns about how easy it will be for Inkling to get traction. While the McDonald's story is an incredibly positive piece of news for the company, I spent a lot of time with a similar company, SlideRocket, who was trying to do a similar job with regards to presentations. Like Inkling, SlideRocket offered dynamic content, analytics, one-source of truth and easier access. But the world was, and still is, wedded to PowerPoint and SlideRocket never found escape velocity. It strikes me that the one differentiation that Inkling has here is its focus on blue-collar workers, that in itself may be enough to avoid the tyranny of incumbency that others have faced.
Either way, I was genuinely excited to see Inkling, and very impressed that a company like McDonald's went with the company. Certainly one to watch in the future.
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