The LMS is Dead! Long Live the LMS!

RIP The LMS?

Is it really 50 issues ago that “Inside Learning Technologies and Skills Magazine” was launched? Congratulations! At 15 years old it is older than most LMS vendors.  And during those 15 years, the death of the LMS has been predicted with regularity. But is that really the case?  In this article I’ll discuss the origin of the learning management systems, its evolution, and what the future LMS might look like.

An LMS for you, and you, and you…

The last 15 years has seen a near constant stream of new LMS vendors coming to market, one of the most notable recent examples being Cornerstone OnDemand, but also a huge amount of consolidation, such as Docent/Click to Learn becoming Sum Total and Saba acquiring Thinq. Well known US based commentator Craig Weiss  recently tweeted that there are 620 learning systems/platforms out there and that the number is still rising. (Although I wonder how many of those will still be around for the 100th edition of the magazine!)

Most of the long standing LMS systems evolved from tools created to help manage the administrative burden of Instructor-Led courses and as such they are not there to manage your learning but to manage the processes around that learning.  They were (and in some cases still are) training administration systems rather than learning management systems.  And despite an explosion in eLearning over the last 15 years the classroom hasn’t gone away.  In my own organisation, 60% of the customer training takes place in an instructor led event, although of course, the use of virtual classroom technology has increased significantly too.

Feature creep

In complex global organizations such as the one I work in where we train resellers and customers as well as our employees, training administration goes way beyond managing classroom registrations, and LMS’s now include capabilities to manage financial transactions including credit card payments and volume discount programs.

And of course modalities have exploded.  First came elearning. But that wasn’t totally new either – computer based courses had been with us for some time, both as CBT’s you ran on a PC or interactive Laser Disk-based  or tape-based courses.  When the World Wide Web came along, it was an obvious move to put these courses onto a web platform – and where better that the LMS? The desire of many organisations to track and record all learning made the LMS an obvious choice at the time.  Since then we’ve added video and podcasts and job aids – the list goes on.  And having spent over 25 years in Financial Services, the advent of more regulation led to a bigger need to record Compliance related courses to appease the regulators. (Whether that is a good thing is another debate!).

In the last few years, we have seen the addition of Performance Management, Talent Management and Social applications. But for many vendors, the heart of the system remains the management of the processes behind these use cases, which may go a long way to understanding why the user experience is often awful!

I once attended a demo of a new LMS whilst it was still in development. The demo used emails with embedded deep-links, and at one point one of the attendees asked the question “but what does the UI look like?” The response was way ahead of its time: “Why would anyone want to use that when they have quick access this way?” How right he was!

Delivery at the point of need

One of my favourite training sayings is that “learning should be a part of work, not apart from work.” By this, I want to see easy access to relevant content at the point of need. For example, if you need to learn about a product – say a CRM system – then why not have that learning accessible within the product itself, rather than forcing the user to go hunting for it in an LMS? Or have mobile device access to specific content accessible via a QR code on hardware so that the engineer has all he needs on site when he gets there?

The user experience is probably the most often criticised aspect of any LMS – and rightfully so! But that is no surprise when you consider my earlier point that the LMS is predominantly there to manage the administrative processes around learning. This, though, is changing, and not necessarily just by the UI improvements made by the software vendors.

I said earlier that like many other companies, my organization teaches customers in addition to our own employees.   Customers interact directly with our LMS, but also with our dedicated customer portal, our online community, our main .COM site – and many other web properties and applications.  Our customers would prefer a single place to go to get all the information they need, and the ability to surface functions from the LMS using web services is now an important part of an LMS procurement decision.

We’ve already started to use those web services. Access to your current class enrolments is displayed within the Customer portal with plans for other functions to be added. The web services we have available in our LMS platform allow us to deliver the basic things people want to see:

  • Catalogue search
  • Courses I need to do
  • Courses I am doing
  • Courses I have done

…all without going to the LMS user interface.

The second aspect of the delivery at point of need is the ability to deep-link direct to relevant content (a URL that takes the user directly to the content object), either as links in the customer portal or via a QR code. Once again, the LMS needs to be able to provide these links and should become another important part in vendor selection.

The future

Whilst the core administrative  function of the LMS will be needed as long as the classroom is alive, its days delivering page turning elearning are surely coming to an end.  My own organisation is now working with “Adaptive Leaning” – think of this as the idea of the course without an end or a never ending skill/competency assessment that is dynamically adapted minute-by-minute to the unique needs of every student. SCORM has no role to play in this, as there is no concept of completion in this new world. Of course, the LMS may well still be where a learner can access such “courses” but the tracking of progress will be taking place outside of the LMS.

In our case, learning objectives will map to skills or competencies and we may want to bring this together with the remainder of our learning data. But does that need the LMS? Not necessarily! With the emergence of “Big Data” thinking in the learning space, much of this analysis will be taking place in a data warehouse rather than the LMS itself where it can be combined with other customer data such as CRM sales data, Support Desk call data and even data from Social Media and company collaboration tools. Learners will eventually want their data to be portable and the power of the Tin Can Learning Record Store (LRS) will come into play.

So, my vision of the LMS by the time we get to edition 100 of “Inside Learning Technologies and Skills Magazine” looks like this:

  • The core function of managing classroom and virtual classroom courses
  • A place where a learner can find learning paths based on skills/ competency gap analysis
  • A tool to find learning paths that are appropriate for their role
  • A record of all their training and Certification history

I do hope they will not need by then to use the system user interface! The LMS of the future will be delivering all of this at the point of need with content being surfaced via API’s into Customer portals, Collaboration sites, mobile devices and directly into the workflow. And LMS data will no longer be analysed in glorious isolation!

The LMS of the past will be consigned to history – but the things it does well will be done even better and users will not even know they are using it.

This article originally appeared in the October 2014 edition of “Inside Learning Technologies & Skills”

 

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