Learning Management Systems: Expert Advice
Tom Werner, a Senior Analyst for Brandon Hall Research, helps organizations decide which technologies and practices are best for them. He’s an expert in Learning Management Systems and seems to have all the answers, which you’ll find below.
COACH: Is there one umbrella definition for the term Learning Management System (LMS)?
TOM: An LMS automates the administration of training and also, depending on the type of training, the delivery of training. Prior to LMSs, administering training was a paper-based, labor-intensive process (with paper course catalogs, registration and waiting lists, paper tests, etc.).
In the 1980s the first LMSs automated registration for classroom training. In the 1990s, when the Internet came along, LMSs added the ability to delivery e-learning. Today, LMSs support classroom training and e-learning, and some LMSs also have features related to talent management and social media.
Corporate training and schools/universities both use the term ‘Learning Management System’ for systems that support their teaching. The LMS at a corporation and the LMS at a school may or may not look similar to each other, because the training needs of corporations and schools can be quite different.
COACH: How can an organization start to identify its LMS requirements? What key things need to be defined?
TOM: An organization should ask itself, in a nutshell, what do we want to do with an LMS and what do we already have that the LMS would need to interconnect with?
Do we have special needs, such as multiple-language support? E-commerce for selling training? Tracking compliance training? Different portals for different groups? Content-authoring? Specific testing capability? Talent management? Social media and networking? What size is the organization? Also, do we want to load the LMS on our own servers and manage it, or do we want the vendor to host it for us?
This may take quite a bit of discussion inside your own organization. The IT department should be very, very involved. Your HR department should also be very involved because there may be an HR system that has some of these capabilities and needs to be connected with.
COACH: When one’s requirements for an LMS are defined, what criteria should they use to narrow down the search?
TOM: Once you’re clear about your needs, you can identify LMS vendors, contact them, check their web sites, and ask them to send you information about their systems. This can be labor-intensive, but is certainly doable. (At Brandon Hall Research we sell a product called the “LMS KnowledgeBase” that is a searchable database of LMS features and vendors that makes this easier.)
Once you narrow down to a “short list,” you can invite those vendors to demonstrate how their system would meet your identified needs. This is important. You want to see a system in action doing the things that you know you’ll need to be doing. For example, if you know you will need to produce a report showing exactly who has finished a particular course and who hasn’t, you want to see how a prospective system does that.
COACH: What are the must-have features in any LMS?
TOM: Probably the most important capability of an LMS is whether it interoperates with your other tools and systems. If you use a particular e-learning authoring tool, or subscribe to a particular library of off-the-shelf online courses, or want the LMS to merge with your intranet or company database, you want to make sure that the interoperability is there. Has the vendor connected with those tools or systems in the past, and can they demo that for you?
COACH: Can you group LMSs into categories or types? If so, what are they?
TOM: Some LMSs are heavily oriented toward content development (they have Learning Content Management System features). Some are hosted only. Some have very much embraced talent management. Others stick purely to training. Some aim for large enterprises. Others aim for smaller organizations.
COACH: What’s your opinion of free Open-source LMSs?
TOM: Open-source LMSs are an option, particularly for educational institutions (most open-source LMSs have their roots in education). Although an open-source LMS is free to download, it is not automatically an ideal option. You need access to programming help to turn the download into a workable system for you. It’s a bit like baking your own bread or changing your own oil in your car. It could be economical and satisfying, but there are also good commercial options. So consider open-source LMSs but also consider commercial LMSs (we count 118 currently).
COACH: Do you think the use of an LMS constrains an organization’s approach to learning? For example, it’s difficult to integrate social media technologies and informal learning into this type of system.
TOM: LMSs certainly began in an era when the need was to support training that was “delivered.” So LMSs reflected those needs. And a great deal of training is still intentionally very much that way. We’re seeing some LMS vendors adding a lot of social-media and social-networking features to their LMSs: profiles, ratings, groups and communities, and so forth. I’m sure we’ll see more.
COACH: What trends do you currently see in the world of Learning Management Systems?
TOM: The biggest trend is talent management. On the organization chart Training has always been more or less a separate, specialized department. And Training’s original need with LMSs was to computerize its own training processes. But over time, some LMS vendors have been adding more features related to human resources and performance management. Where training stops and other functions start is getting blurrier.
The other trend that is barreling down the road is smartphones. As more people get new phones that have apps and are super-easy to use, LMSs will undoubtedly be beefing up their features related to mobile learning and performance support.
COACH: What do you think Learning Management Systems will be like 5 or 10 years from now?
TOM: Not sure. The LMS industry has always followed pretty quickly what was happening in the consumer computer and internet space. For example, Amazon started selling books online in 1995 and many of the well-known LMSs were started just a couple of years later. As we have more and more ways of getting information (phones, apps, games, and who knows what else), LMSs will certainly evolve to support them.
What key criteria did you use to purchase an LMS? Comment below.