Ask a learning architect: Is it time to break up with your LMS? – Chief Learning Officer

Q: I’m writing about my learning management system. We’ve been together for almost two decades and made it through some hard times together, like e-learning during the pandemic and emergency compliance training. But I think I’m outgrowing the relationship. My LMS always wants to be the center of the universe, and it’s such a chore to get it to try new things, like external content and mobile learning. I feel like it’s over. Is it time for us to split?

— Conflicted CLO in corporate

A: Dear Conflicted Chief,

You’re not alone in asking yourself if it’s time to break up with your LMS. Even if it worked well in the past, that doesn’t mean your current relationship is still right. It’s time for some introspection. 

Have you found yourself supplementing your relationship with other apps or third-party systems? When you’re with your LMS, do you ever think, “I wish it had this interactive feature, like my collaboration app, or that embedded assessment, like my quiz tool.” Has it gotten difficult to keep track of all of the workarounds needed to get your LMS to fulfill your needs?

Don’t worry; you’re not alone. A few decades ago, it was common for an organization to pin all of its hopes and dreams on a single, massive system. But we’re living in the 21st century. It’s more acceptable than ever to have an assembly of applications that collectively support learning. In fact, the Gartner Group predicts that, by 2023, more than 70 percent of organizations will need a human capital management suite, with various learning apps, to support corporate learning. But a word of caution: You must do this intentionally. Don’t try to band-aid your relationship with short-lived flings. Have a plan. Grow your learning technology family incrementally, and, most importantly, make sure all of your learning applications talk openly to one another. Communication is key!

Q: I’ve only been with my LMS for a year, but I feel like it’s constantly hiding things from me — holding back information. It’s impossible to get the full story from it, and trust me, I’ve tried everything! Why won’t my LMS open up?

– Down in the Data Dumps

A: Dear Data Downer,

This is an all-too-common story, and unfortunately, it may be challenging to change your LMS, especially if it’s stuck in its proprietary ways.

Does this sound familiar: Your LMS puts on a good face — with slick dashboards of student outcomes — but when you try to look beneath the surface, you hit a black box? Do you have to force your LMS to talk, manually prying the CSV files out of it, only to find only the most basic scores and stats inside them?

It seems like you need a more sensitive and transparent platform. Find a digital learning system that’s willing to listen to your measurement needs, collect the data you want, and share it with you. And you shouldn’t always have to initiate. Your learning platform ought to be willing to publish its innermost data without requiring your personal effort each time.

Finally, make sure your learning system speaks your language. Too often, we’ve seen LMSs claim that they’re open, but in reality, they’re bad communicators — only talking in their own made-up languages and expecting everyone else to adjust. Honey, there are a lot of fish in the sea; you don’t need to play that game! You deserve a learning platform that’s transparent, insightful and deep, sharing openly with you in a language you can understand.

Q: I have a confession. I’m only using my LMS for its automated training. My company is big — and I mean really big — so as long as the LMS lets all my employees click through its screens, I don’t care what else it does (or doesn’t) do. Does this make me a bad manager? 

– Stubbornly Shallow Supervisor

A: Dear Stubborn Supervisor,

You’re not a bad manager, but ask yourself: Is this really working for you? Sure, it’s easy to turn a blind eye to usability problems or bloated features, especially when you’re not really engaged with your LMS. But let’s be honest, are you truly satisfied? And how do your workers feel?

The best relationships are built on a foundation of continuous learning. Imagine your company with a culture of upskilling, reskilling and innovation. Research shows that investing in your employees’ learning pays dividends, with benefits like retention and commitment. And you know what they say about organizations with a big learning culture: they’re more productive, faster to market and more profitable — not to mention five times more likely to manage change and engage their workforces effectively.

Even if organizational learning investment isn’t your cup of tea, you could at least picture your workers doing onboarding or compliance training more efficiently—like though microlearning. That tiny change could, for example, earn you around a third fewer general liability issues and a quarter fewer worker’s comp claims.

So, if you feel ho-hum about your LMS, maybe you haven’t found the right system. Open your horizons and find the learning platform — or platforms — that work for your organization. Don’t settle for a loveless relationship — you deserve more!

Why is the LMS in our crosshairs?

There’s never been a greater demand for technology-based learning, and traditionally, the LMS was a titan of this sector — the one-stop shop for e-learning curriculum, courseware, assessments and student management. However, the dominance of LMSs (at least the conventional ones) is waning.

We wrote this article with a humorous twist, but each of these “advice column letters” highlights a real-world issue you may have encountered with your LMS, such as monolithic software packages that lack flexibility, data silos and proprietary formats that ensnare your data, or low-effort integration strategies that fail to capitalize on the potential of learning at scale.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with a traditional LMS, or more accurately, there’s nothing uniquely wrong with LMSs or other legacy technologies in this sector. Software modernization is advancing at a dizzying pace, and increasingly, CLOs are expected to translate those IT best practices into our portfolios. In practice, that means a vendor-locked, monolithic, server-based application (like an old-school LMS) no longer passes muster. Modern technology architectures use modular open systems approaches — for plug-and-play LEGO-like interoperability — and disaggregated software services that break apart big-box applications into many little functions that run independently.

Modern software practice has also migrated to the cloud, and with that change, has also shifted toward bigger, shared enterprise systems (versus smaller, more dissimilar local ones). Finally, there’s data. As the saying goes, “Today, every company is a data company,” and I think we can safely say that every significant corporate IT system is a data system. That goes for ed-tech too.

So, does this mean you need to break up with your LMS? Not necessarily, but if you want to stay competitive, your relationship needs to evolve. With a little less satire, here are five recommendations for “couples counseling” with your LMS:

Determine your systems’ maturity. Capability maturity models help organizations gauge the quality of their systems and plan future investments. Typically, these models are built like a rubric, with multiple key performance areas and corresponding five-stage descriptions of their maturity from initial (zero) to optimized (four) levels. You can search online for a model that fits your needs or try the open-access Distributed Learning Capability Maturity Model from the U.S. government’s Advanced Distributed Learning initiative. It includes multiple sub-scales across five performance areas, including commitment, design, human infrastructure, technological infrastructure and data infrastructure.

A capability maturity model provides a thorough understanding of where the organization is, and perhaps more importantly, where it needs to grow.

Find early adopters to help you pilot test new ideas. Once you’ve taken stock of your learning system’s maturity, consider which investments will bring the most value. Is there a relatively quick fix? Or is there a particular improvement that promises to yield major rewards? Similarly, are there places where modernization targets intersect with business goals?

Of course, you don’t have to answer these questions alone! In fact, it’s better to enlist the help and participation of business stakeholders. Working hand-in-hand with them will kindle a sense of shared purpose, better align your priorities with enterprise goals, and foster support for your long-term modernization strategy.

Start small and build gradually, reserving the right to learn along the way. Often, this means developing a compelling minimum viable solution to directly impact your stakeholders rather than trying to solve everything at once. In other words, follow lean startup principles for accelerating product development. And, periodically, make sure to revisit your roadmap (or maturity model) to gauge your progress.

Take a learning engineering approach. “Learning engineering is a process and practice that applies the learning sciences, using human-centered engineering design methodologies and data-informed decision-making to support learners and their development,” according to the ICICLE Consortium for Learning Engineering. Learning engineers take a systems approach, looking across a variety of factors such as organizational context, learning technologies, data, analytics and individual differences to optimize learning outcomes. Search online for a variety of recent books and articles on the topic or join the ICICLE professional community to learn from peers working in this emerging field.

Unlock the power of your data. There are hundreds of corporate truisms about data: It’s the new oil; what gets measured gets managed; from data to decisions. You may be tired of those cliches, but they’re no less valid. And, they apply just as well to learning and development as they do to corporate earnings or consumer behavior. In other words, it’s time to invest in good measurements and meaningful analyses — and to unlock your data from single-purpose or proprietary systems, like old-school LMSs.

The data standard xAPI is the industry standard for capturing, storing and transporting learning, development and performance data. It lets you share and aggregate across platforms, like among an e-learning system, a mobile application and an on-the-job assessment system. Using xAPI — and associated measures and analyses—right has a big impact. One case study from AT&T reported a savings of 670,000 production hours by using xAPI to facilitate adaptive e-learning and ceramics manufacturer Villeroy & Boch claimed an extra $2.92 million in revenue from its xAPI implementation.

xAPI is an open-access standard, which means it has no license fees or propriety barriers, and it’s supported by an active community.

Make friends with your IT modernization department. If all of this sounds daunting, don’t panic! CLOs aren’t expected to be advanced technology experts, but you do need familiarity with modern IT. Make friends with the more technical folks in your office or community; you might find that they’re eager to find early adopters for their own improvement efforts.

Keep an eye on software modernization, in general, looking at trends such as cloud computing, development security operations, cybersecurity, identity management, enterprise business systems and data engineering (At least, aim for a passing familiarity with the concepts.)

More importantly, stay abreast of ed-tech trends — which, as a reader of this publication, you’re already doing. Additionally, the Government’s ADL Initiative provides periodic updates on its research projects and working groups, and it helps organize the annual iFEST conference, which focuses on emerging trends in distributed learning. Deloitte also publishes regular updates on major industry trends at the intersection of IT and human capital, including annual Human Capital Trends and Tech Trends Reports, and a weekly WSJ CIO Journal.

It’s OK to admit that your LMS isn’t enough anymore, but you don’t have to split up entirely. Following these five steps, won’t necessarily rekindle the old romance with your LMS, but perhaps you can build a better, more modern relationship with it — redefining your commitment around a data-centric, open architecture, business-minded future.