“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
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Twitter: Gdogwise