Is there a future for the learning content management system (LCMS)? Can an LCMS be complimentary to an enterprise content management (ECM) system? If so, what unique functionality should an LCMS provide? Where should the LCMS end and the ECM system begin? To answer these questions, we must first understand why the LCMS was created, then assess where vendors have gone wrong and, finally, offer a new course for the long-term viability of the LCMS.
The Swiss Army Knife has a reputation as a handy tool, a multi-functional device that can perform a variety of tasks in a pinch. Return from lunch with a nagging impediment lodged between your teeth? Break out the plastic toothpick. Cooking up some baked beans at a campsite? Use the can opener. Receive a FedEx at your front door? Open it with the blade.
When presented with industrial-strength tasks, however, there are much more appropriate tools. Dental floss, for example, is a much better solution for dental hygiene than a plastic toothpick, and is used by millions as part of a daily cleaning ritual. Counter-mounted can openers yield much better results than handheld devices, and can be found within the kitchens of restaurants. Rubber-gripped box cutters are infinitely more effective at slicing packing tape than two-inch blades, and are used by loading dock staff at department stores everywhere.
Learning content management systems (LCMSs) are akin to the Swiss Army Knife, whereas enterprise content management (ECM) systems are analogous to the corresponding industrial-strength solution. Both are excellent tools if applied to the right business challenge. Unfortunately, to date, most LCMS vendors have failed to recognize this fact. They have designed competitive, rather than complementary, functionality to an ECM, suggesting that companies use the “handy tool” to perform “industrial strength” tasks. This is a major reason why few companies have deployed an LCMS.
First, There Was ECM
In order to understand why LCMSs were created in the first place, it’s important to understand what they are trying to replace. ECM systems and related document management systems have been around since the mainframe era. They began as simple storage and access solutions employed by relatively few users. As organizations grew more sophisticated, so did the technical and functional capabilities of ECM systems.
ECM systems play an important role within most large companies today, ingrained in the day-to-day operations of almost every department and division. ECM solutions now provide extensive security and scalability, supporting large numbers of users distributed across multiple servers. They provide very deep functionality, including extensive version control, content sharing and user-access capabilities. They also have been designed to easily interface with external media and content creation tools.
The Birth of the LCMS
As robust as ECM systems were in the late ’90s, they still lacked capabilities specific to certain industries, including the learning management space. This fact became evident as more and more companies began to deploy learning management systems (LMSs). ECM systems lacked some learning-specific functionality and workflows, did not contain authoring capabilities and were sometimes difficult to access due to tight control by the company’s central IT department. For these reasons, many vendors saw an opportunity to create a new breed of solution—the LCMS. The potential benefits were compelling:
- Learning-Specific Functionality: LCMS vendors realized that they could fill the functional gaps of ECM systems by being more tightly integrated with the LMS. Therefore, LCMS vendors developed their solutions to sit atop the LMS, pulling directly from the LMS database. This design afforded LCMSs greater visibility to learning-specific information, and they used it to drive capabilities ECM systems did not have. For example, some LCMSs leverage a user’s personal information and learning history from the LMS to automatically suggest relevant content. Additionally, some LCMSs can leverage the same security profiles contained within the LMS to control a user’s access to the content.
- Accessibility: Accessibility to the corporate ECM system was difficult for those within the learning and development department. This problem often stemmed from organizational politics about who is granted access to the corporate ECM system. Training administrators needed access to create courses, but the corporate IT group was reluctant to give up the control. By deploying an LCMS, those within the learning environment could sidestep the issue. They would have complete control over the administration of the LCMS and the content within it.
- The Authoring Advantage: Authoring was another capability ECM systems failed to provide. Eager to fill this gap, LCMSs began to include authoring capabilities, along with content management capabilities, all packaged within a single user interface and data structure.
The Adoption Problem
By the time the LCMS vendors came calling, most organizations had already implemented an ECM system. Building a business case for an additional system, one focused on a niche problem, proved to be difficult. While the importance was clear to those in the learning and HR departments, its significance was obscure to senior executives. To operations management, the incumbent ECM solutions had more comprehensive functionality, superior scalability and better security.
Furthermore, an LCMS required an interface to the existing ECM system. As content is used to develop courses, the content objects tend to change slightly, again and again. Over time, the content within the LCMS takes on a life of its own, even when interfaces are designed to send it back to the ECM system periodically. Consequently, two completely different sets of content emerge—one within the LCMS and another within the ECM system.
This problem strikes at the underlying principles that propel information technology: information sharing, streamlining and efficiency. Also, the total cost of ownership of two systems draws from cash flow and also productivity. Dual content management systems are wholly inefficient, and any compliance shop will view this as a liability.
Capitalizing on Functional Gaps
One of the biggest hurdles the LCMS vendors encountered was justifying the additional costs and maintenance burden for what was viewed by executives as redundant functionality. In order for the LCMS vendors to overcome this hurdle, they needed to convince prospects that LMSs and the LCMSs that supported them provided enough value to justify additional costs and maintenance.
LCMS vendors are just now achieving this goal. Unfortunately for them, the ECM vendors have begun to fill the functional gaps. The majority of ECM vendors have already developed SCORM and AICC components for product suites. These vendors clearly understand that learning material is often based on the content stored within ECM products and that the delta for developing LCMS-type functionality is rather minimal. By comparison, the effort an LCMS provider would have to put forth to replicate ECM functionality is seemingly an insurmountable barrier to entry.
ECM and Authoring
ECM vendors still view the creation of media and content as wholly independent from the storage and tracking of it. Therefore, most ECM vendors have no plans to develop authoring tools. Instead, they integrate with other commercially available authoring packages.
On one hand, this makes sense. Vendors such as Macromedia, Microsoft and Trivantis offer authoring tools far superior to any authoring tools contained within an LCMS. In addition, standards such as WebDAV enable ECM systems to integrate with off-the-shelf authoring tools as seamlessly as any proprietary content or authoring capabilities within an LCMS. On the other hand, even coupled with advanced authoring tools, ECMs fail to address some important requirements within a learning environment. The most obvious of these requirements is support for authoring by subject matter experts and rapid collaborative authoring.
Refining the LCMS Role
In developing content, an organization has three basic options. First, it can purchase commercial courseware, which is inexpensive but also inflexible. Second, it can invest in custom courseware, which provides great flexibility but is cost-prohibitive and time-consuming. The third option is to develop content internally, allowing the enterprise to tap the skills of internal subject-matter experts.
The third option’s flexibility, agility and cost-effectiveness are most desirable. Developing content internally enables a team of people to collaborate in a shared environment, boosting both productivity and the quality of the content. More importantly, it enables an organization to apply the principles of just-in-time learning content development—assembling the right people to develop the right content at the right time.
As the term “rapid authoring” indicates, this type of solution is not intended to provide robust authoring capabilities. Advanced authoring capabilities are already provided by existing solutions like Dreamweaver and Flash. Rather, it is a shared environment with basic authoring features that enable teams of people to collaborate on assembling learning courses. This represents a fundamental shift in the way organizations develop internal learning content.
Today, without the support of a rapid-authoring tool, most organizations must go through a convoluted and lengthy process to develop content. Take, for example, the process companies follow when planning a new product launch. Each department must prepare a presentation detailing its planned activities to support the launch. The department leaders are subject-matter experts who develop the content for the presentation in PowerPoint. When complete, these files are sent to the corporate communications department for polishing. The corporate communications staff ensures that every presentation is aesthetically pleasing, copy-edited and uniformly formatted. They then forward the presentations to the legal department for review. Following any adjustments by the legal department, the presentations are then sent back to the department leaders. These subject-matter experts must review the presentations to ensure that any changes along the way did not materially change the meaning of the content.
This process can take weeks, even months to complete. Often, in fact, the process takes so long that when the editing cycle is complete, the data needs to be revised to accurately represent the current business environment.
In comparison, the shared authoring environment provided by this new vision for an LCMS enables all parties involved to work collaboratively. This dramatically reduces the time to completion and is an especially effective strategy for capturing, retaining and sharing institutional knowledge. Teams with minimal technical ability can easily and cost-effectively transform internal knowledge into useful courses deployed, tracked and managed throughout the enterprise.
Meanwhile content storage and version control are left to the ECM system, diffusing the political battle between operations, IT and learning, while eliminating the maintenance headache associated with duplicate systems.
Like the Swiss Army Knife, if applied correctly, an LCMS can serve a very valuable purpose. Today, there are no tools effectively supporting subject-matter experts and rapid collaborative authoring, despite the fact that these capabilities drive tremendous value. These are the capabilities that LCMSs should focus on for long-term viability.
Ed Cohen is the chief technology officer for Plateau Systems, a leading provider of enterprise software that manages learning and organizational readiness. He can be reached at email@example.com.