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January 2018
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Newsletter Article

The LMS Is Not Dead

The learning management system can be compared to a metaphorical lawn, which is always greener somewhere else. It’s the bane of a training manager’s existence, the root of all evil, and other clichés of doom, gloom, and misery.

In recent months, there’s been a bit of a fad of announcing, “The LMS is dead!” You hear it all over the place, from Twitter tirades to assertive articles to conference cohorts to progressive podcasts. But it’s just not true! The LMS, as a product category, is alive and well, and it’s not going anywhere soon. So why do these otherwise sage purveyors of training wisdom make such bold proclamations?

We training folks complain about our various LMSs a lot. An awful lot. Some people hear this, and figure they can use it. If we’re unhappy with the LMS, that must mean we want something else. So people try to provide (sell) it to us. But some of the arguments they present are dubious at best.

The name game

One argument I’ve heard to prove the LMS is dead is that there are so many other options available. I was at a conference where someone proudly proclaimed that they had abolished the LMS from their company forever, as if they had slain a dragon. The speaker had instead built a custom piece of software that he called an employee enhancement knowledge-base, or “EEK” (name changed to protect the clueless).

The custom software offered would-be students options for enrolling in various class offerings and tracked their progress. The system even grouped classes together as programs that offered badges. In other words, he built a custom LMS and called it something else.

When someone asked how this software differed from a traditional LMS that enrolled students into curricula that offered certifications, he stammered and replied—and I’m not making this up—“We don’t use certification; we use badges.”

xAPI does that

Many people are now trying to push the Experience API (xAPI) as a credible threat to the LMS. They say that that xAPI’s learning record store (LRS) will do everything you need to replace the LMS. The problem is, it won’t. xAPI is used to record what you did. That’s it. It offers nothing in the way of managing enrollments, curricula, or certifications. The LRS only records what has happened. Again, though, some propose to use the LRS as the primary system to record learning events, but then build out a custom front end that manages enrollments, certifications, and curricula. You know, an LMS.

One more thing

In the early days of the LMS, we didn’t have APIs, or integration paths, that are commonplace today. In 2004, it just wasn’t possible to get your LMS to talk to your HR system or your online store without a monumental effort or customizations. So LMS vendors would add some of this functionality to their wares. But in too many cases, it was incredibly superficial. You had HR modules that couldn’t handle payroll, for example. Or “integrated authoring tools” that could really only be used to build quizzes, and do so poorly. These were sold as “one-stop shops” and “all-in-one business solutions.”

Today, some vendors have continued down this path, so we have something more than an LMS. Sometimes called a monolithic LMS, or, as I prefer, a TMS (talent management system), these systems continue to add functionality that doesn’t make sense anymore. My favorite example is a chat client that lacks the basic functionality of early AOL instant messenger.

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The result is that companies implement these systems, making use of only 25 percent of what they’re paying for. They look at these systems as a waste that require entire teams to manage, owing to far more complexity than is required to manage employee training. And this leads to further resentment of the LMS. But whose fault is that, really? Why did the business get an LMS that was so expansive, knowing they’d never use most of what it offered? Was it simply because these types of LMSs are the only ones the training manger had ever seen?

None of these arguments mean the demise of the LMS.

For many, the argument is that there are other options that can perform similar tasks to an LMS. But history suggests that simply having options doesn’t kill a platform or product. Commercial terrestrial radio, for example, is almost 100 years old. And despite the cries of doom from many so-called “experts” of the times, TV didn’t kill it. Satellite radio didn’t kill it. Even Internet radio has yet to kill it. In fact, despite well-harmonized claims to the contrary, video has yet to kill the radio star. Why? Radio played to its strengths. Because it’s only audio, there are lower production needs. This means they can do more with less. They can be more agile; they can offer more and different services and programming. Because of this (and many other aspects), radio still survives after a century of service, with little indication that radio will die out anytime soon. Again, a station may go silent. But radio will live on. The LMS will do the same.

Similarly, when people started pushing back against the V8 land yachts that cars had become in the 1970s, the car didn’t die. It evolved. It became smaller, more efficient, and more adaptable. The LMS already started that evolution years ago.

New systems exist that are lightweight, agile, and have shed the silly add-ons. They play to their strengths, offering solid enrollment, certification, and curricula management tools. Then, they provide APIs and built-in integration methods to connect to many existing, far superior, purpose-built services that the LMS vendor could never properly replicate. Some are even built to directly integrate with various platforms, such as Wordpress, Salesforce, or Drupal. Whatever environment you have, there is an LMS that will work for you. They aren’t all the same broadly bloated behemoths anymore.

So, this leads to the last argument that I often hear:

I don’t need an LMS

Maybe not. It all depends on what you need to run your business. Every business is different. There is no one right answer, and anyone who tells you otherwise is lying to you.

Just because an LMS isn’t right for your company, however, that doesn’t mean it’s not good for another company. Most companies don’t need commercial ovens. It doesn’t mean that no one does. I’d be heartbroken if my local pizzeria suddenly got rid of their ovens! If you need to manage learning (enrollments ahead of the class, online courseware, management of certifications or curricula) then you may need an LMS.

The realities are that with the speed at which businesses change, standards change, trends change, regulations change, laws change, changes change, there will be an increasing need to track and manage employee training and knowledge. This could actually increase the needs for these newer, more agile LMSs. But, again, maybe not for you or your company.

We training folks love to say, “It depends,” way too often. But it does depend on what you need. Maybe you don’t need an LMS, but it would make your life easier. Maybe not. Maybe there is another product that will work for you. Maybe not. The point here is that you should do your due diligence to find out if an LMS is right for you. And if so, which one? But take your time, and do it right.

Not to worry. The LMS isn’t going away any time soon.


Article sourced by ATD Links Field Editor Ajay M. Pangarkar.


© 2018 ATD, Alexandria, VA. All rights reserved.

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About the Author
Anthony Altieri is an IDI.o.T. (instructional developer for the Internet of Things) who has wrestled with multimillion-user LMSs for over a decade. He’s an xAPI evangelist and IoT proponent who spends his free time finding new ways to use the LMS to connect students to new and more effective training opportunities. If you’d like to learn more about LMS selection, Altieri offers a two-hour webinar on the topic via GenieCast. Or connect with him on Twitter and harass him about learning styles or vertical video. He hates both.
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