The Fidelis Transition: From Military to Mainstream

Photo from New GI

By Gunnar Counselman

This is a story about a startup with a focused mission, stumbling into an invention that we realized had much broader application.  It’s a sisyphean tale of realizing the magnitude of our purpose, of soul searching, of and ultimately deciding to focus on the technological invention and a broader mission.

The technology is Fidelis’s Learning Relationship Management System (LRM) and the story’s ending isn’t yet written.  But I’ll tell you the beginning.

I founded Fidelis in 2011 in order to solve a problem that had touched me and my family for three generations — the military-to-civilian career transition.  My grandfather enlisted in the Marines in December 1941 and there was a Counselman on active duty for 62 years until I got out in July of 2003.

I know from personal experience that the age old advice to “get your degree” rings as true for soldiers as everyone else, but sadly, most colleges aren’t built well to serve the needs of soldiers.  I was delighted to realize that colleges know that and most of them want help serving this important demographic, so I felt like Fidelis was in a great position.

In founding Fidelis, I was inspired by friends like John Katzman at 2Tor and Paul Freedman at Altius.  They’d pioneered unique models whereby their technology companies would partner with traditional schools to build something together that was impossible for the school or company to do independently.

Fidelis was the first such company focused on solving the challenges of a specific population, in our case, the military.  We knew right off the bat that the military is a true cross-section of society with a massive range of natural talents, educational and family backgrounds, interests, and ambitions.  We had no misgivings that ours would be a heavy lift.

Fidelis was able to form partnerships with a number of first rate schools like the Universities of California, Texas and Florida, as well as Arizona State.  We knew that with top flight partners like these, and a million people getting out of the military every three years, that our software had to scale the myriad kinds of support needed by soldiers. Specifically, we needed tools to ensure that every student formed the kinds of relationships that would help them to succeed in the civilian world – particularly focusing on relationships with mentors, peers, companies and coaches – all in the context of a personalized learning plan.

My cofounder, Anoop Jayadevan, began working to integrate tools that would build personal learning plans, coordinate mentors, form communities and connect with companies to get our grads jobs.  But none of the solutions we looked at were quite right and after months of trying to integrate them, we decided to quit the integration and build something ourselves.

What started off doing a simple software project that quickly got interesting.  The graphic below shows all the point solutions that we needed and the tools that we explored.


Along the way, we realized that what we were building was both really elegant (in our humble opinion), and very generally useful, though we were committed to our mission of military-to-civilian career transition.  We eventually called this collection of capabilities an LRM — for Learning Relationship Management system.

Think of it like a CRM – Customer Relationship Management tool, but unlike CRM tools which are for sales – LRM is custom built for learning.

Here’s a video that explains Fidelis’s LRM in 3 minutes.


When we finished the LRM, our partner colleges made it clear that they wanted to use it for all their students, not just their military students.  At the same time we slowly came to realize that there were hundreds of Veterans Service Organizations that had resources, will, and desire to solve the military-to-civilian career transition problem — they just needed a software tool to allow them to do the very things that Fidelis built the LRM to do.

So I decided, after considerable agonizing, that the best way to do so was to give them the tools, not to compete with them for veterans and limited resources.

Presently, Fidelis is a Software as a Service company selling our LRM to colleges, companies, the military and membership organizations.  We are lucky to have been adopted as a core technology by a number of first rate Veterans organizations including Sentinels of Freedom, 4 Block, Veterans 360, American Military University & Stanford’s Veteran Accelerator.

Who Needs Learning Relationship Management? We All Do

CC BY 2.0 Flickr user meddygarnet

by Gunnar Counselman

People really can’t learn well without relationships. Sure, they can process information and take standardized tests, but a mind by itself can only answer its own questions and is rarely, if ever, inspired.

Even four-year-olds get the importance of people to learning. When you ask them what their favorite part of school is, they always talk about their friends, teachers and the parents who volunteer.

So where did we lose our way? Faced with catastrophic dropout rates, failing grades on international examinations, and an Adderall-fueled lost generation of boomerang students moving back into mom’s basement, that’s the question we are left asking ourselves.

Folks of put the blame in many different laps. It’s either our national obsession with standardized tests, low teacher pay, unions, or the dissolution of the family. But I think it’s a lot simpler than that. I think it comes down to relationships.

We’ve stripped relationships out of schools for the sake of efficiency, making them cold, transactional and unmotivating. People just don’t learn like that. To ensure that every student has the mentors, coaches, and communities that they need, we need Learning Relationship Management (LRM).

Nobody set out to destroy the relational nature of schools, of course. It came about like so many problems, because people were trying to fix something in one place and the fix broke something else.

Let’s go back a generation or two. Our forbearers were working to expand access to education to an entire diverse society for the first time. The numbers of people to be educated grew as we integrated schools (forcibly) and finally set expectations that girls would receive just as rigorous an education as boys.

All of those were critical turning points, but to scale education as never before, schools needed systems. The architects drew upon industrial organizational theory and, in building our industrial system of education, forgot what our four-year-olds know: Learning doesn’t work without relationships. In other words, we built a system that is devoid of the very thing that most supports human growth.

It’s not that people care less about each other now than they used to. There are just a lot more students in education than there used to be and there’s a lot less personal ownership. Professors, teachers, administrators and counselors are human beings, and there is a limit to how many people with whom they can have strong relationships.

In the early 1990s another relationship-based human activity, sales, was being stymied because people couldn’t maintain all the relationships they needed. Tom Siebel invented Customer Relationship Management (CRM) software to help salespeople build and maintain the relationships that they needed to be successful. CRM took off because it allowed salespeople to do what they’d always done, but to do it much faster and with more customers. That’s exactly what we need to do in education, and schools know it.

Over the last couple years, a lot of schools have started to use CRMs for education purposes. They’ve done it because their LMSs and SIS’s aren’t getting the job done. It’s a great idea that works well in marketing, but not so well in learning. CRM is built to drive sales, and it treats customers like passive contacts to be acted upon by the sales people. But learning is active, not passive, and the learner herself is the primary agent in her own education, not just the subject of other people’s agency.

In education, we don’t need CRM. We need a new category of tools–Learning Relationship Management–to:

  • make sure that each student has a personal learning plan that aligns with their long-term ambition for life
  • enable mentors, coaches, advisors, and instructors to collaborate to help students succeed.
  • provide for digital learning communities that strengthen informal learning
  • ensure that each student has exactly what they need to reach their goals
  • allow schools to connect better and more relevant content to their students
  • allow schools to connect with industry to make sure that learners are ready to be productive and self-sufficient upon graduation

As Linda Baer and John Campbell point out in the 2012 book, Game Changers:

“One could imagine future analytical tools coming together in a “learning relationship management” (LRM) system that would be open to faculty and advisors. The system would not only provide a central point for analytics data, but would also provide a way of tracking interventions and related results. The LRM system would provide a comprehensive foundation for end-to-end student support.”

LMSs don’t cut it because they put the classroom at the center, not the students and their goals. CRM doesn’t cut it because it has no role for students to manage their own relationships. It’s time to move beyond Baer’s & Campbell’s admirable imagination and make Learning Relationship Management a reality–now.

Originally published on EdSurge