The Future of the Learning Management System

dreamstime_xs_50731317Over the last few days, I’ve had a number of conversations where I was asked for my thoughts about the future of the learning management system (LMS).  I know many of us have a love-hate relationship with our chosen system.  We all know we need to have one, we’re happy with our process for choosing the one we had – and the reasons for choosing it – but we still then have the odd moan or two about it once it’s live and in active use.  And then we start talking with others and begin to wonder what we should do when the current contract is up for renewal.  We want to make sure that the renewal is future-proof.  But what is that future?  Here are my thoughts.

It’s still all about data, isn’t it?

I’m certain that there will always be a need to track learning data.  Rightly or wrongly, we still live in a world where we are required to collate and report on learning activity, be that to certify that our businesses are compliant or to support the formal development of our people.  But does that need to be via an LMS?  As our organisations become more conversant with the concept of “big data”, maybe we will track learning in different ways, alongside other organisational information.

And what about the nature of that learning?  When I start to think about “big learning data”, I become less interested in how many hours of learning has taken place and what the final assessment scores were.  I’m more interested in when and where people took their learning, on what device types and whether these choices resulted in a different pattern of learning behaviour.  I want to then be able to correlate these learning behaviours and preferences with any difference in personal and business performance.  I’m not sure I can easily get that information from the current range of LMSs out there, but these are the learner and learning insights I want – and need – to better inform my future learning strategy and to measure its impact.

We’ll still need the catalogue.  Yes?  No?

Most LMSs offer up learning through a catalogue and if we spend the time and energy when configuring our systems, we can generally match learners to the right content.  That said, we often try to shortcut the cataloguing process, with disastrous results.  So it’s perhaps not surprising that we are typically dissatisfied with the process our learners have to go through to find courses.

As a result, many of us decide to create a new layer that sits on top of the LMS – usually some form of intranet-based learning portal – that offers a more tailored shop window to each learner.  But actually this doesn’t just compensate for our poor tagging and arranging of content in the system.  Instead it addresses the issue that most LMSs struggle to really offer each learner a personalised user experience related to their role, stage in their career or other aspirations.  In my experience, most learners have a general sense of what they are looking for; and just want to find it fast.  Searching a catalogue isn’t really the most efficient use of their time, especially when – for all the issues raised above – the LMS’s search box can sometimes be like a game of Russian roulette.

We need our LMSs to be smarter than they are at present.  They need to know more about each learner and begin to work harder to not only be aware of what each learner might need to learn, but to also serve that up faster.  In a previous post I asked the question “If your LMS was like Amazon” and this remains one of my goals.  I’m also sure we’ll see more noise in this space as the science of “machine learning” gains traction.  The future “learning system” needs to consider “push” just as much as it does about “pull”.  Maybe Amazon would like to enter the LMS market!

And learning is social and collaborative, yes?

Of course it is – and always has been – and most LMSs are now addressing this need with discussion forums and attempts to introduce peer ratings and feedback.  My only qualm – and I’ll touch on this more later – is whether the LMS is the best place to host these social learning conversations.  I’m more minded now to begin to co-locate all types of conversations in one place.  And ultimately we want to use digital communication technologies to both support the learning process and to facilitate the transfer of learning back into the workplace, so this will remain a key future requirement.  What might need to change is how we deliver this.

What about gamification?

Without a shadow of doubt, the current noise about gamification and the related topic of badges will continue to increase.  As we introduce the key principles behind gaming into our learning programmes, we will want our support systems to facilitate the assessment, collation and presentation of the resulting outputs.  Some LMSs are beginning to address this matter, but before we rush too headlong into adding this to our list of requirements, I believe we need to pause and consider the wider gamification of our workplaces.  Again, I’m going to return to this topic shortly.

And all learning is going to be multi-device and mobile

It sure is – if I have anything to do with it!  But are our LMSs ready for this?  I don’t believe so.  Yes, I know that some already have mobile apps, but their functionality is limited.  And I’m not 100 per cent sure if they are based around a true understanding of what multi-device and mobile learning is all about.  We need – whatever deployment systems we use – to offer learners a totally seamless experience, regardless of the device and type of content being accessed.  LMS developers need to start thinking “mobile first” and to not regard their mobile interface as just an adjunct to the main system.

And what about performance support and micro-learning?

I’ve blogged on this a lot of late – my view that we need to start moving away from learning courses to more performance support type content (delivered at the time and place of need) and the need to move towards the use of more micro-learning.  For me, both these are what mobile learning should be about.  But are our LMSs set up to support this?  Again, I don’t believe so.

Both performance support and micro-learning need be accessible quickly and easily on all device types.  A learner does not have the time to spend five minutes looking for a learning asset that might only take three minutes to complete; and which might not even then work on their chosen platform.  This is why I have been creating separate learning apps that do place just the right content into the hands of the targeted audience.  Your typical LMS is still built around the concept of full courses and I believe that we need to think differently about micro-learning and not just think of them as “shorter courses” to be managed in the same way as traditional content.

Integration, integration and integration

This for me is the one thought that makes me question the need for a distinct learning management system.  In most organisations, you’ll find an LMS, a payroll system, a platform for managing talent, the appraisal system, an HR self-service portal, the recruitment site and increasingly an on-boarding solution.  Most will have been procured from different suppliers, have taken up hours of IT staff time and lots of budget to integrate with each other – if there has even been the appetite to do this.  Ultimately, do we have a seamless approach to talent recruitment, development and reward?  Then there’s the corporate intranet with its built-in discussion forums and other collaboration tools and a glint in the eye across Internal Communications and HR to work towards applying gamification and badging to encourage and formally reward internal cross-functional collaboration.  Ask them.  You might be surprised to learn you’re not the only group thinking about gamification and badges.

I’ve learned that operating L&D systems as a silo isn’t the smartest way forward.  It’s not just about competing for scarce IT project management time and budget.  It’s also about ignoring the shared agendas of the different functions in the business and leveraging these collectively.

In the ideal world – and I do appreciate that realising this might only be an option for those businesses with the required budget and resources; and that rare point in time when all the different HR and IT system roadmaps collide at the point of needing to determine the best way forward – we should be offering a totally seamless approach to users from the moment they think about applying for a job, through their successful on-boarding and continuous development, suitably measured and rewarded and delivered accurately.  Talking with my peers, most of us realistically believe this will only come from selecting just one system that does it all.  But that’s a rarity and might also mean having to compromise on some learning management system functionality.

If my LMS has discussion forums, do I really want to inadvertently create a separate social collaboration ecosystem away from that contained within the corporate intranet?  And it’s not just a matter of finding a way to integrate one with the other.  Do I really want to have two competing technologies in play?  I know the folks in IT will say no; and increasingly the owners of the intranet are feeling the same.  And therefore which system trumps which?  Again, the trend I’ve seen is for the more established system within the intranet to be the preferred option.  So what becomes of the system embedded in the LMS?

And similarly, shouldn’t the business operate just one badging methodology and system?  I believe they should.  If someone is earning badges that might lead to a formal recognition of their contribution to the business, then that should be the same whether it’s for learning, business collaboration or on-the-job behaviour of merit.  So if my LMS operates using one approach, but the organisation choses another, then we’re back to silos and competing systems.

Finally, as we move towards offering colleagues more flexible home pages upon log-in, which allow them to organise this screen as they see fit, then do we then want people having to leave their home page to interact with another system?  I’ve seen how, for example, SharePoint 2013 can transform the desktop (and mobile working) experience and I want learners to be able to choose learning “apps” as part of their personalised environment, so they never have to go off elsewhere for their learning.  This might mean LMS providers using APIs differently.  It might even mean SharePoint LMS vendors getting more of a look-in.  But ultimately, along with the other points I’ve raised, it raises the question of what LMS functionality we will need in these new integrated workspaces.

So where does that leave us?

Well, for many organisations and LMS vendors, things might well remain the same and for good, sensible reasons.  The current ways of working will still be appropriate for many and it will take some time for the factors to be in place that facilitate a move to something different.

But for others – and I hope the LMS providers too – the issues I’ve raised will get us thinking about what learning management should really mean.  With the increase in digital approaches spreading throughout our organisations, we should also be very mindful of not continuing to operate in silos.  We should be constantly looking for ways to consolidate how we do things and through which platforms.  I know when you’ve invested millions in a system, it’s possibly hard for some LMS providers to grasp the new landscape I’m proposing.  But where they excel in what they do, I’m sure it’s worth looking at how they offer up their product to those clients with a desire to truly offer a one-stop shop that meets the needs of today’s audience.

The Future of the Learning Management System

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