The LMS is dead, long live the LMS! (Swap out LMS with VLE if you wish.) Some love them, some hate them. Some love to hate them. Me? I see downsides and upsides. They work for some, not for others. So here’s my 10 pros and cons.
1. Zombie LMS
Some organisations have a Zombie LMS. At the very mention of its name, managers and learners roll their eyes. Organisations can get locked into LMS contracts that limit their ability and agility to adopt innovations. Many an LMS lies like an old fossil, buried in the enterprise software stack, churning away like an old heating system – slow, inefficient and in constant need of repair. Long term licences, inertia and the cost of change, see the organisation locked into a barely functional world of half-dead software and courses.
2. Functional creep
Our LMS does everything. “Social?” “Yes, that as well”. Once the LMS folk get their hooks into you, they extend their reach into all sorts of areas where they don’t belong. Suddenly they have a ‘chat’ offer, that is truly awful – but part of the ‘complete LMS solution’. For a few extra bucks they solve all of your performance support, corporate comms, HR and talent management problems, locking you bit by bit into the deep dungeon they’ve built for your learners, never to see the light again.
3. Courses, of course
The LMS encourages an obsession with courses. I’m no fan of Maslow’s clichéd pyramid of needs but he did come up with a great line ”If you only have a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail.” That’s precisely the problem with the LMS - give an organisation an LMS and every problem is solved by a ‘course’. This has led to a culture of over-engineered, expensive and long-winded course production that aligned with the use of the LMS and not with organisational or business needs.
4. Cripples content
Throw stuff into Blackboard and it spits out some really awful looking stuff. Encouraged to load up half-baked course notes, teachers and trainers knock out stuff that conforms solidly to that great law of content production – GIGO – garbage in garbage out. Graphic, text, graphic, text, multiple-choice question….. repeat. Out goes simulations and anything that doesn’t conform to the simple, flat, linear content that your LMS can deliver, like WildFire, where course use AI to create high retention learning in minutes, not months.
5. One size fits all
With the rise of AI, adaptive and personalised learning, the LMS becomes an irritation. They don’t cope well with systems that deliver smart, personalised learning pathways. The sophisticated higher-level learning experiences are locked out by the limited ability of the LMS to cope with such innovation. The LMS becomes a sort of cardboard template through which all content must fit. There are the formal courses that most organisations need to some degree, informal learning (often with a social dimension) and performance support (rarely done well from a LMS). But it’s the ‘learn by doing’, or experiential learning, that most LMSs really squeeze out of the mix. It’s often disguised within an LMS delivery as ‘workforce planning’ but that’s a sop.
6. Compliance hell
We all know what happened in compliance training. L and D used the fallacious argument that the law and regulators demand oodles of long courses. In fact, no law and very few regulators demand long, bad, largely useless courses. This doesn’t work. In fact, it is counterproductive, often creating a dismissive reaction among learners. Yet the LMS encourages this glib solutionism.
7. Completion cul-de-sacs
With the LMS, along came SCORM, a ‘standard’ that in one move pushed everyone towards ‘course completion’. Learning via an LMS was no longer a joyous thing. It became an endless chore, slogging through course after course until complete. Gone is the idea that learning journeys can be interesting, personal affairs. SCORM is a completion whip that is used to march learners in lock-step towards completion.
I once questioned the surveillance role of LMSs at a Masie conference, pointing out that the first LMS had been built and sold to Hitler by the then IBM CEO Tom Watson. He went apeshit (I later realised that IBM was a sponsor). But I’ve always been wary of the privacy issues through an LMS. There is general unease among employees about being measured in this way. Now, of course, there are data and privacy legal issues. These vary from country to country, Germany being particularly fierce. This remains an interesting and contentious area.
Explicitly gathering data through an LMS may also have a deleterious effect on learning, making people more nervous than they should be about who is watching their behaviour and why. There is the nagging worry that such data may be used to determine their future in a deterministic and unfair fashion. They’re not far wrong. Take Myers-Briggs, HRs favourite Ponzi scheme, that has been shown to be wrong but is still used, shamefully, to determine recruitment and promotion decisions.
10. Limits data
Given the constraints of most LMSs, there is the illusion that valuable data is being gathered, when in fact, it’s merely who does what course, when, and did they complete. As the world gets more data hungry, the LMS may be the very thing that stops valuable data from being gathered, managed and used.
Now the pros….
1. Migration from classroom
It’s often forgotten that the LMS was, in the early days, the prime mover for shifting people away from pure classroom delivery. This is still an issue in many organisations but at least they effected a move, at the enterprise level, away from often lacklustre and expensive classroom courses. In fact, with blended learning, you can manage your pantheon of delivery channels, including classroom delivery, through your LMS (classroom planning is often included).
Scale has many meanings. Do you want 24/7, on-demand, self-paced, secure, location flexible, responsive, multi-language, global and local, affordable, value-added learning? Without technology this is undoable. An LMS not only gives you scalability, it makes you think on scale and solve the problems that scalable solutions bring. This has been made much easier by metered, cloud delivery.
3. Controls chaos
There are arguments for letting a thousand flowers bloom but this can turn into a nightmare if everyone starts to become auteurs. Amateurism can turn learning into a cottage industry with lots of duplication of content, poor quality resources, unnecessary licence costs and an unmanageable mess. An LMS can bring order to potential chaos.
Large organisations, especially global organisations, need to have some level of consistency in terms of strategy, brand and messaging - this affects learning. Consistent rules about design, development and delivery are not always bad. It can lead, if managed properly, to a rising tide of relevance and quality. An LMS can help an organisation be consistent. There's a reason organisations have marketing, sales and finance departments - they deliver strategic intent. This can be true of an LMS.
Whatever way you cut it, an organisation will have a load of systems that need integrated. However you identify your people, store stuff, deliver stuff and manage data, there will be integration issues. An LMS is simply a single integrated piece of software. It’s that simple. You may want to do without one but you’ll end up integrating the other things you use – and that will be, a sort of LMS (thanks to Andy Wooler for this interesting observation).
6. Manages people
Large organisations need to manage large numbers of people, especially as they come and go. The LMS, linked as it should be to HR data, can ensure that the right people get the right learning. It also allows the organisations to guide learners forward, with essential, even legally required learning and desirable options for induction, relevant management training and their personal development. It gives people choices.
7. Manages stuff
Organisations have a lot of stuff to handle; induction materials, compliance, product knowledge, management needs, practical skills…. To operate in a complex environment you have to be as good as, then smarter than others. This level of complexity needs management. An LMS will manage, not only learners but what has to be learned. With newer authoring tools, such as ADAPT, and WildFire content can be made to look contemporary, with a move away from the linear page-turning paradigm.
Enterprise software may seem expensive but at the ‘cost-per-user’ or ‘cost-per-learner’ level, an LMS often makes sense. Newer approaches to the LMS, like the open source Totara or VLE Moodle, have changed the landscape, offering a lower-cost and more agile approach to the management and delivery of learning.
There’s a good reason for having an IT department. They worry so that you don’t have to worry. There’s a whole load of scary problems around bandwidth, loading, legals and security that most people don’t fully understand. In this age of DoS attacks, phishing, hacking and malware, we should be grateful that these people are looking after our interests. An LMS is a controlled environment that can save us from ourselves.
10. Manages data
All organisations need some level of management data. Let’s not forget that in the supposedly good ol’ days, the only data you got from classroom trainers was dumb-ass, happy sheets. Data, with analysis, gives you insights. Insights are what managers need to make decisions and innovate. A good LMS spits out data and that is useful.
The LMS market has moved on with new players, open source options, xAPI and more data sensitive delivery. The danger lies with those vendors who just see more and more control as desirable, as opposed to a degree of looseness, if not chaos. The arguments between the LMS is dead and the LMS fanboys is often one between realists and idealists. In practice, we need a bit of both. The truth is that this is a multi-billion pound market that grows every year. It is NOT disappearing. There will always be a need for single solutions. I just hope that this does not descend into the mess that is the all-embracing, death-clutch that is ‘Talent management’.