Home > Continuous Learning, PDR Learning Continuum > “LMS Sinks Titanic” & Other Learning Myths

“LMS Sinks Titanic” & Other Learning Myths

I can remember my first Learning Management System (LMS) implementation from years ago. Actually, in those days they called them Training Management Systems (TMS). This one, Registrar, if I recall correctly, despite its limited functionality, worked better to meet our needs than the four LMS platforms I have endured since.  Registrar was simple. It tracked learning. Learning was simple. You did it in a classroom. Period. With the advent of e-learning, the innovation dam broke, and the TMS morphed into LMS and soon a component of a more complex Human Capital Management (HCM) beast. The core competency of registering, tracking and administering training remained intact, but the feature-rich technology largely overran our ability to embrace all the potential it represented. In other words, many training departments fell behind compared to what the technology they owned could ultimately deliver.

That’s not an indictment of any training organization; rather, it is simply the nature of how quickly technology evolves. They say we only use about 10% of our brains. Methinks we are using a comparable percentage of our LMS’s capabilities in their latest evolution. Regardless of how effectively we leveraged the bells and whistles, it quickly became fashionable to hate our LMS. When things began to fail, we blamed the LMS and called it user-unfriendly and inflexible and confusing and words that are not HR-appropriate. “I can never find anything in the #^&*@ LMS…” – seemed to be a favorite end-user lament. Managers whined at us constantly – “Why can’t you just run this report or that report in the LMS?” Why did vendors always say “Sure, our LMS can do that…” – and forget to mention that there may be a small customization involved…with a not-so-small charge…that blows up first time you install a patch…or heaven help you if there is a complete version upgrade. Can you say “fit-gap” analysis?

I swore this post would not become a rant, so I’ll back up the truck a bit and attempt to calm down. Funny what post traumatic LMS syndrome does to a person. Truly, not all LMS stories are nightmares. There are rumors floating around that some systems really do meet all intentions of their owners. Whether they do or they don’t boils down to one guarantee – they all do exactly what they are programmed to do. The technology never fails to deliver; we just fail to configure the technology to meet the needs of the learning environment the LMS supports. We fail to prepare the organization for Change, and in particular, ourselves in the training department, to manage, govern, protect, integrate, and celebrate what the LMS can do. And what’s worst of all, is we fail to see what the LMS cannot do…until we own one…and finally figure out what we really needed it to do. And then we fight it…and hate it…and…and…and.

Owning a LMS is much like owning a boat. I recall a warning given years ago by my dad [about owning a boat], “You’ll be happy twice – the day you buy it – and the day you get rid of it.” Unfortunately, getting into a LMS is a lot easier than getting out of one. Sadly, it’s not as simple as unhooking the trailer and selling it to some other poor slob chasing the mythical happiness of “boat” ownership. If you own a LMS, it is probably because you needed to have one to effectively manage the learning effort in your organization. To many soon-to-be-proud-owners of a new LMS, the technology represents the brass ring promising an orderly transition to competency in the workforce. And that would be a myth. It’s a myth because training managed by the LMS represents only a fraction of what our workforce needs in order to produce tangible business outcomes.

Business outcomes are what we seek, not course completions. Yes, training is necessary, but our focus as a training organization cannot be so myopic to think completion of training yields business results. Granted, good training contributes to results, but our job as a training department is bigger than that. And many of us have no way to show that our efforts really did make a contribution beyond butts-in-seats, courses completed, or hours spent in training. No sales reps close business in the classroom. No managers make crucial decisions to avoid business liability or avoid producing costly material waste during their on-line training courses. Results happen in the downstream, post-training, work context, and the need for flawless performance in the work context is continuous. Workflow demands are continuous. Change is continuous. Why would we expect learning to be any less continuous? Continuous learning, by its nature, writes a check the LMS cannot cash. This downstream environment implies that we now have to support an entire learning ecosystem, not just the formal learning [training] efforts we do so well.

Does that mean the LMS no longer serves a purpose? Quite to the contrary; however, there is a dangerous trap to avoid – Technology represented by the LMS should not dictate learning methodology. Methodology must be the driver. Continuous learning is a methodology. I choose to model continuous learning through use of a Learning Continuum. (See Figure 1)

The LMS plays a role on the continuum, and the newer models that integrate social learning can play an even greater role. Many learning infrastructures require a LMS, but the LMS still represents only “tip of the iceberg” when treating learning along a continuum. We’re beyond training when we go below the waterline on this iceberg, we’re in the work context, we’re downstream, post-training. The percentages of what’s below the waterline are really close to research Josh Bersin shared in a panel discussion, “The Future of the Business of Learning” in July 2009. (See Figure 1)

PDR Learning Continuum

Figure 1

The visible parts of our training effort are manifest primarily in the DEPLOY phase of the continuum, and in some cases, we can include activities in the PREPARE phase. Josh’s research shows we spend an average of 100 hours per year in formal learning activities [training]. Based on a 2,080-hour work-year, that rounds to roughly 5%. My math says the other 95% is spent “below the waterline” in the work context [or on Facebook].

The REINFORCE phase of the continuum is where we find a shift in emphasis to actual performance and production of tangible business outcomes. The REINFORCE phase is where our workforce confronts moments of learning need that the LMS is not designed, nor was it ever intended, to support. Now we’re in the “point-of-attack” world of Electronic Performer Support Systems (EPSS) where the workforce taps knowledge bases in real-time to access targeted, task-level learning assets in their moment(s) of need. Learning of this nature is outside the core competency of the LMS. What this highlights is the fact that the LMS, in and of itself, is not enough to cover the entire learning ecosystem. If we base our learning strategy upon integrating a new LMS, we are going to wind up short and the 95% slice of the ecosystem pie [where tangible business results…urgency to perform…and business liability exist] is at risk.

Every organization that provides training to their workforce needs to manage learning activities and learning assets. Some may be able to pull that off with an Access database or kept on an Excel spreadsheets…have actually seen both in smaller businesses. For mere millions of dollars a LMS can accommodate a globally dispersed workforce in a highly compliance-centric business, and we can even integrate it with the HR Info System (HRIS) suites with competency and performance management and a side order of succession planning. Reference the HCM suite I mentioned earlier. Now we’re talking Saba, Plateau, Oracle/PeopleSoft, etc. Yet even in the realm of high-end HCM complexity, the LMS primarily targets the 5% that we see as formal learning above the waterline. The 95% slice of the ecosystem pie is still at risk…$1+ million bucks later.

Some of the newer niche LMS players tout informal and social learning capabilities, and some do a decent job of integrating with other technology platforms through API plugins to give the appearance of being a seamless system. Some of the smaller players will build-to-suit, and I feel like they are worth considering for the most flexible options if you are truly seeking to meet the needs of an entire ecosystem with continuous learning.

What may be attractive to some is the Software as a Service (SaaS) delivery option some niche players offer, eliminating the large out-of-pocket investment and life support duties of owning your own gear. These offerings open up continuous learning opportunities to smaller businesses that are unable and/or unwilling to drop big dollars on LMS hardware investments and embrace the joys of ownership [remember the boat advice].

Do you need to seriously consider going in this direction?

I’m convinced that we have no choice, especially when we consider the increasing velocity of business. Traditional training can no longer keep pace. Moments of learning need are converging with the demand for flawless performance in the work context. “Just-in-time” is running in parallel with “just-enough” when we look at learning solutions. Learning assets are shrinking…or they should be…and they need to be accessible at the point of need…in the work context. As I’ve written in previous posts, if we are serious about building sustainable learning ecosystems we must be able to:

Deliver seamless, frictionless, and ubiquitous access to the right learning assets to/from the right learners – at their moment(s) of learning need – in a work context-friendly amount – in a compelling and readily consumable format – to/from the right devices.

As we seek the learning ecosystem Nirvana described above, there are similarities and differences in every organization that define discrete learning environments, each with unique characteristics and business learning requirements. Enabling the ability to support continuous learning only adds to the complexity and magnifies the importance of discovering these variables on the front-end – pre-LMS [or any technology] purchase – as they clearly define the profile of each learning ecosystem. I have seen first-hand evidence that talented training traditionalists view this evolution in training methodology as a threat, and they cling to their storyboards and linear life-styles like flotation devices as the ship slowly sinks in budget cuts and reductions in force. Re-invention and technology can be a scary combination and represent as much Change as opportunity.

There’s no denying, that for some businesses LMSs are essential, but they cannot singularly represent holistic technology solutions that hope to sustain dynamic learning ecosystems. Any learning technology solution [LMS or not] should support continuous learning and workforce performance in the “work context”. Establishing learning continuum methodology is foundational to both clarify and plot implementation road maps that define discrete technology solutions. Doing anything less is equivalent to re-arranging deck furniture on the Titanic.

Agree? Disagree? I welcome the dialogue either way.

Interested in the Learning Continuum concept? Does it have a fit in your organization? Considering new or changing technology? We should talk.

Gary Wise
Learning & Performance Solutions Strategist
LinkedIn Profile
Twitter: Gdogwise


  1. December 29, 2010 at 4:35 am

    Thanks for this great analysis, Gary.

    I’m on your side in seeing the dichotomy between the underpinning ‘course/curriculum’ logic of an LMS and the underpinning of the learning process, which is continuous, often unstructured and serendipitous and driven by the almost real-time demands of doing a job well.

    An LMS can help an organisation track activity, but let’s not confuse learning-related activity with real learning.


    • December 29, 2010 at 9:38 am

      Amen, Charles!
      In these days of tightening budgets, I’d rather be a training department viewed as contributing tangible business results than one that can only vaidate how busy they’ve been running folks through structured training classes.
      Thanks for the comment!

  2. December 29, 2010 at 9:11 am

    I’m with Charles: great analysis.

    Another concern I have with the whole notion of the LMS is ownership. The LMS belongs to the organisation. When a team member leaves, their learning record stays with the organisation. Learning belongs (surely?) to the learner. It also implies that learning not recorded within the LMS has less (no?) value.

    I would rather see some kind of non-prescriptive VLE, or a performance management approach that allows individuals to reference their own PLEs.

    • December 29, 2010 at 9:28 am

      Karyn, you’ve touched on an issue of governance that is often overlooked – training history. If the LMS is viewed as the “source of truth”, we are missing some of the most impactful learning a knowledge worker gains. I fear we are so focused on tracking training that we more often than not miss the more meaningful growth in capability provided by informal learning in whatever form it takes. I’m a big fan of EPSS where I can not only see how many specific job aids are donwloaded by end-users, I can identify who downloaded them. Focusing only on formal learning [training] only shows us what training was consumed. With the trend of accessing on-line learning to extract what’s needed and then existing the course [leaving it incomplete…or “in progress” in the eyes of the LMS] I do not see evidence of learning even though that is exactly what just took place. Many LMSs have a “supplemental learning” capability where the learner can insert learning they’ve accomplished outside of the LMS or the organization [organisation…sorry ;)]. The only problem with this feature is the onus is on the learner to make the input. As a worker bee, I don’t have time to focus on reporting…but if I had a performance management goal of external learning, there may be a greater incentive to play the game in the LMS. You are right on…the LMS is “owned ” by the organisation and the governance of the system is bigger than just tracking training. For me, this is one of the greatest shortfalls in LMS implementation…the focus is just on training and not how a manager can leverage a learning inventory to develop his/her staff…and how a learner can validate his/her efforts related to self-development. Thanks for leaving a comment!

      • December 29, 2010 at 11:29 am

        @Gary We are of very similar mind here. We had a such a system at the last company I worked for. And the shlepp of having to add the fact that I had attended X conference or read Y research article was just too much, so most of us didn’t bother.

        And being a proponent of the embedded learning model, I was always falling foul of the perpetual ‘in progress’ status… and energetically talking as many people as possible into adopting the same approach. Learning resources should be there to serve my purposes as a ‘worker bee’, not the reverse. I have no patience with box-ticking for the sake of it.

        L&D (in my not-so-humble ;o) opinion) is supposed to serve the business goals of the organisation by making it as easy as possible for people to do their jobs.

  3. William J. Ryan, Ph.D.
    December 29, 2010 at 9:12 am

    Great example of why we need to put the “C” as content and stop focusing so much on course… just in time is more often a SCO with a link to an assessment rather than a week long course! :)bill

    • December 29, 2010 at 9:35 am

      Bill, I agree and I suggest adding a second “C” as in context…meaning the work context. The concept of learning being a SCO is spot on, and development of SCOs should be shaped by the work context in which it will be consumed. I look at a collection of relevant SCOs as a potential course. Seems a bit backwards compared to traditional instructional design, but then is our objective instructionally sound courses…or creating sustained capability at the point of work? Methinks that kind of comment will torque the traditionalists down tight, but I would feel more proud contributing to zero-defect performance than successfully pushing 5,999 of 6,000 learners through a time management course. But hey…that’s just me.

  4. January 1, 2011 at 12:08 pm

    I have no patience with box-ticking for the sake of it.I don’t have time to focus on reporting…but if I had a performance management goal of external learning, there may be a greater incentive to play the game in the LMS.

  5. January 4, 2011 at 10:40 am

    You are right on…the LMS is “owned ” by the organization and the governance of the system is bigger than just tracking training.

  1. December 29, 2010 at 11:31 am
  2. November 3, 2014 at 12:25 pm

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