The term ‘learning management system’ (LMS) has been with us since the mid-1990s. Over the last 25 years or so, their numbers have grown steadily. According to LMS specialists, such as John Leh, Josh Bersin and Craig Weiss (Please note that other LMS specialists are available), well over 1000 of these systems now exist worldwide.
That’s only part of the story, though. LMS software has been around, in some form, since the 1960s. In those days, these systems were allied with proprietary authoring tools. Some Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) LMSs are beginning to revive this trend, after many years when the fashion was for a ‘best of breeds’ approach - mixing LMSs with different authoring tools.
Today’s LMS, and its cousin, the Learning Content Management System (LCMS), should now adhere to various internationally accepted standards and, whatever price you pay, should deliver what you want it to deliver for you. The confusing problem is that, as the world of work is changing rapidly, you can’t necessarily be sure what you want delivered.
Change is forcing organisations of all sizes and sectors to reinvent how they do business. In turn, the skills required to keep competitive in today’s business world are changing – often in unpredictable ways.
Similarly, the learning and development (L&D) professional’s role is changing too – becoming more of a curator of learning opportunities than a deliverer and monitor of learning materials. On its own, traditional training delivery won’t meet today’s needs, let alone tomorrow’s – because, given the rapid pace of change, it‘s too slow a means of knowledge and skills dissemination.
Consequently, alongside a deeper understanding of how to motivate and engage workers confronted with change, technology now plays a key role in supporting enterprise learning. Moreover, learners are using technology to access learning materials informally as well as formally (such as via an LMS) - and some of the learning materials they’re accessing exist outside the LMS’s sphere of influence.
Indeed, this is one reason why – according to technology consultancy Starr Conspiracy’s Learning Buyer research in 2017 - “Only 34% of buyers believe traditional learning technologies can adapt to the needs of today’s workplace.”
Understanding LMSs was difficult enough ten years ago, when L&D’s role in the business of corporate learning was prescribed. Nowadays, there are layers of potential confusion over LMSs for the L&D professional, along with others in the organisation – such as IT professionals, procurement and finance officers – who’re involved in buying the most appropriate LMS for the organisation and getting value-for-money from it.
One of the most basic issues for the would-be LMS buyer and administrator is to decide whether to opt for a SaaS-based or an open source LMS.
“New approaches to learning technology procurement and deployment are gaining ground,” says Lars Hyland, CLO of learning technology software producers, Totara Learning. “Flexibility, innovation and a focus on value is beginning to dominate buying decisions as organisations look for open technology that will free their workforce to learn and re-learn without constraint.
“The value of a SaaS corporate learning model depreciates when your requirements no longer match the functionality on offer,” he adds. “Given an unpredictable future, to be successful, organisations need technology that’s open, flexible and backed by a sustainable business model that’s built to absorb change.”
Distributed by Totara Platinum Partner Engage in Learning, Totara’s products are open source, flexible and applicable by organisations with formal and informal learning needs, both within the workplace and the extended enterprise.
Along with other industry specialists, Hyland distinguishes between the traditional approach to corporate learning - learning ‘just in case’; using reactive, prescribed learning; offering generic one-size-fits-all learning solutions – and the ‘new normal’. This is characterised by learning continuously ‘just in time’; delivering proactive, demand-led learning, and having differentiated ‘mass specialisation’ learning solutions where the customer is in control of the learning.
“Instead of ‘invest and stagnate’, corporate learning is now about ‘invest and adapt’ to bring cumulative benefits,” says Hyland.
The LMS marketplace – with its 1000 or more choices - confuses and frustrates buyers. There‘s little clarity on how features, pricing models and contracting practices can meet an organisation’s needs. Platform offers are, often, too narrow, broad, expensive and/or inflexible. Combined with persuasive tactics and unsubstantiated hype, this can lead to procurement failure.
Where traditional procurement practices aren’t delivering the expected returns - since business needs are changing faster than the time taken to complete an implementation – rigid contracts for an LMS mean being locked into functionality that no longer matches the organisation’s needs. Then the solution is abandoned and the costly cycle starts again.
“Organisations must respond to changing workplace dynamics, new skills and work practices if they’re to remain relevant in the future,” says Hyland. “But they’re struggling to make this transition because they lack access to high-quality, supported open technology platforms.”
Organisations buying software, such as an LMS, now need the flexibility to extend and integrate as part of an open innovation value chain. Where SaaS-based services are concerned, there’s often only one size offered - and limited scope to meet a unique customer requirement at reasonable cost and speed of implementation. On the other hand, with many configuration options, APIs and open access to source code, open technology can empower a solution provider to meet a specific need, within a desired time frame.
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