The report of my death was an exaggeration. – Mark Twain
The Learning Management System. The metaphorical lawn which is always greener somewhere else. The bane of the training manager’s existence. The root of all evil. Other clichés of doom, gloom, and misery.
In recent months, there has 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. Except, the problem is that 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, sometimes, 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, it must mean we want something else! So these folks 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 that the LMS is dead is that there are all these other options available. In one instance, 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. “How?” you ask. It was simple. The speaker built a custom piece of software that he called an Employee Enhancement Knowledgebase, or “EEK!” (name changed to protect the clueless). It would offer the would-be student options for enrolling into various class offerings, and track 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 was different 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: no 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 API’s, 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, or whatever else you may have, without a monumental effort (Read: 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… poorly. These were sold as “one stop shops” and “all-in-one business solutions.”
The problem, today, is that 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 recently is chat clients that lack the basic functionality of early AIM (RIP, dear old friend). The result is that companies implement these systems, making use of only 25% of what they are paying for. They look at these systems as a waste, requiring entire teams to manage owing to far more complexity that 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 the 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/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 1970’s, 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 are being offered that are very 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. But just because an LMS isn’t right for your company, has no impact on whether or not it’s 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 the class, serve online courseware, manage certifications or curricula, etc…) 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 your 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 that you should take your time, 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. No worries. The LMS isn’t going away any time soon.