The origins of the learning management system (LMS) are unclear. Some accounts portray the development of the first LMS as a tool needed to quantify and report learning in support of a Malcolm Baldridge National Quality Award application. Another account involves a large government agency developing the first LMS to handle a large volume of learning development and delivery.
My guess is that many individuals and organizations have made significant contributions to early learning management technology. From these simple beginnings, the LMS has evolved into an enterprisewide presence that many consider essential to corporate success.
So, how did the learning management system evolve to its current role in business?
A few years ago, we were shopping for a new car, and the one we liked had a feature I had never seen. It was called a “keyless door lock,” a number pad on which you enter a passcode to lock or unlock your car without using your key. Handy, I suppose, if you didn’t have or want to use your traditional key.
We were not particularly interested in the keyless door lock, but we did like the car and ended up buying it. The keyless door lock remained unused for months after we brought the car home, and I didn’t even think about it except when I unlocked my car the traditional way and saw the keypad.
One day, I had a little extra time and decided to program the keyless door lock. After using it for a while, I began to leave my key hidden inside the car and rely on the keyless door lock to get in and out of my car. Finally, I began bragging to my friends about this great feature and making it a “requirement” on my next car.
As we all know, the keyless door lock eventually was replaced with the wireless, remote keyless door lock, and the keyless door lock went the way of the buggy whip. I was heartbroken to see it go.
Why do I tell this story? What could automobiles and the LMS possibly have in common? I tell this story because features such as the keyless door lock don’t become standard equipment on automobiles through some organic evolutionary process. Rather, they find their way onto the car though a well-thought-out strategy and course of action.
The same process is true of the LMS — the wide variety of features and capabilities the LMS offers today are the outcome of a subtle interplay of manufacturers responding to client needs and manufacturers introducing features that no one knew they wanted but soon became “requirements.” These additional features usually are identified and implemented in one of three ways:
1. Learning professionals want a product function, and manufacturers respond. Good companies do a lot of market research to determine just what features learning professionals would buy if they were available to them. This is a foundation of our free-enterprise economic system. It is building a better mousetrap. The good news is products get better and offer features that become requirements. The bad news is products become more complicated, confusing and difficult to implement and use.
2. Manufacturers want to differentiate their products and add features they think learning professionals would use if they were available, but learning professionals don’t yet realize they need the feature. The keyless door lock falls into this category. It is a “build it, and they will come” strategy.
3. Features are introduced when manufacturers respond to their important customers. If General Motors tells its LMS vendor that it would like it to print diplomas in a variety of colors and styles, you can bet that functionality will be in the next release of the product.
This is the fuel that drives the increased capability and impact of the modern LMS. As businesses strive to perform more effectively in our increasingly competitive and accelerating business environment, how can we not look for ways to increase the efficiency and impact of learning management?
The increased visibility, influence and accountability of learning and individual performance in relation to corporate goals, objectives and industry-standard efficiencies make this evaluation a necessity. But has the LMS become too complex and strayed too far from its origins?
The LMS has evolved on many levels. It has experienced significant increases in functionality and its ability to administer learning, which was the LMS’ initial purview. It has remained its core competency over the years.
It is an important competency, but to focus on just this limits our thinking to that “shootout” mentality or that gigantic table we all use to compare different vendors’ capabilities against our requirements. For our discussion today, I suggest we look at not only basic capabilities but also at four categories of more-advanced functions:
1. LMS functionality and availability has evolved to meet business’ increased pace and competitiveness. We all have seen the increasing automation of basic business functions — from inventory control to enterprisewide resource planning, from human resources to travel. Learning management is no exception. Functions that used to be performed on paper or in spreadsheets with a high tolerance for error now must be quantified and precise. The integration of courses, instructors, course facilities and locations has been automated, allowing for faster and more accurate management of learning resources, including automating enrollments, notification, scheduling, tracking, scoring, automatic notification and reporting.
2. LMS functionality has evolved to better address learners’ changing demographics. As the pace of business has increased, so have learners’ ability and preference for a faster and more responsive way to access learning. As in many business functions, individuals are comfortable using a self-service model for learning. In a self-service model, learners know what they need and actively seek to obtain the information they want. This includes course selection, registration and completion information.
3. The LMS has integrated with enterprise software systems. As the importance of learning and learning management has increased, the need for learning management to integrate with more-established enterprisewide systems has increased, as well. The first such requirement was a need to integrate with HR personnel systems. Learning involved most employees in a company, and employee data were a key component that needed to integrate into an LMS. Early systems performed overnight-batch processing to keep the employees in the corporate HR database integrated with the LMS.
Today, emphasis is on the integration of learning management with performance management. Learning’s positive business impact increases with the close linkage of corporate goals and objectives with learning resources. This new model ensures the learning function is aligned with the organization’s objectives and supports its business goals and objectives.
4. LMS functionality has evolved to not only administer learning but also to deliver technology-based learning such as e-learning, virtual classrooms and knowledge management. Before the introduction of technology-based learning, training was done in a classroom, and the role of the LMS was to administer these classes.
With the introduction of e-learning, there was a need to administer classes, as well as the opportunity to develop and deliver classes. In response, nearly every LMS now has a development suite that produces highly compatible e-learning content for delivery through the LMS. The LMS manages and delivers this e-learning content. Today, the modern LMS is equipped to schedule and deliver virtual classroom courses, as well as collaboration.
As we look at the new capabilities and the role of the LMS in today’s business environment, learning management has become a requirement for every business to effectively manage learning in relation to business goals and objectives, and it has increased significantly in strategic importance. The LMS has grown in its basic ability to administer courses, adapted to changes in business requirements (as well as learner requirements), integrated with enterprise business systems and evolved into a role in which it provides the complete portfolio of all functions regarding course development, delivery, analytics and reporting.
Like many technology solutions, the LMS has become increasingly complex and challenging to both select and implement — I speak with many clients who are on their second or third LMS and still are not satisfied. Everyone feels they need more features.
Often, the selection of an LMS becomes about what it can do and not what we require. There is a strong need to manage by consensus in today’s business world and solicit input from a wide variety of stakeholders to build buy-in and support. There is a feeling that you get a better final decision from a wider portfolio of options, but in reality, you simply create a wider range of options that must be prioritized.
On top of this rests the tension among what the business really needs, what stakeholders really need and what manufactures think you need.
I heard a story about a selection process in which an LMS had met dozens of critical requirements but was rejected because it could not automatically print a diploma for learners who successfully completed courses.
Where is the LMS going? I see two significant trends:
1. As learners become more technologically sophisticated, and the pace of business increases, the LMS will provide better support of unstructured search and knowledge management. Many companies already use the capture of informal knowledge as a component of their learning and performance strategy. We see more wiki-like functions in mainstream company usage. Many industry veterans think the LMS of the future will better support unstructured search not only to find courses but also to access unstructured information for performance support.
2. As much as we try to make it more than it is, the LMS appears destined for an increased role as the tail and not the dog as it integrates with performance management and other enterprise systems. The future role of the LMS might be less of an initiator of business goals or objectives and more of an efficient facilitator of learning in support of those corporate goals and objectives. The role of the LMS as a technology solution will increase as the strategic storage, recovery and usage of corporate knowledge grow in support of corporate objectives.
The capability and role of learning management has evolved significantly. The current LMS offers a comprehensive suite of features and capabilities that will meet all but the most individualized business needs. Learning professionals and learning management suppliers have gained experience in the use and value of technology to drive the efficient delivery of corporate development. The complexity in selecting and implementing an LMS has increased, as well.
The challenge for learning professionals is to build teams and consensus in the selection of an LMS while prioritizing what is often a sizeable list of requirements. This complexity will increase as learning management incorporates self-service performance support, knowledge capture, storage and search, as well as the challenge of integrating with enterprise systems.
Learning professionals’ challenge is to stay current in what their business needs really are in relation to the vast array of capabilities and tools available for learning management, with both eyes on the present as well as the future.