A Caution About The LMS Industry

Whenever you hear someone talking about creating online courses, at some point you are likely to hear the term “learning management”. On the surface this seems relatively straight-forward, but the more you look into it, the more you begin to realize it is a rather loaded term.

In fact, some would contend that learning cannot really be “managed” in the first place – but that’s a conversation for another day.

When you hear someone talk about learning management, it’s often in the context of a learning management system (or LMS). The LMS is the technical infrastructure that is in place to manage (and deliver) the course content to users.

It also acts as a tool for reporting and user management from a learning perspective. For example, you can tell what courses a user has completed, where they currently are in the course, and quiz scores.

But learning management goes beyond the tools and flashy gadgets, it also refers to the processes and team behind the entire initiative – and this is where so many LMS providers ultimately show their naivety.

If you land on an LMS sales page and they focus primarily on features, then proceed with caution. You should be looking beyond the features and at the team behind the platform since this is who you are going to partner with in the long-run for your elearning program.

The truth is, learning management is defined quite differently across a variety of situations. Features are “lifeless”, they aren’t all that valuable by themselves, or when implementing incorrectly – but learning management (from a process sense) is always evolving and is where your real value lies.

If your learning management configuration is in-line with your organizational goals, the entire learning program will prove very successful. Don’t choose a platform for your learning management, choose a partner and proven provider. A company that’s value extends beyond the technology and into real, practical experience.

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About the Author:

Justin Ferriman is the co-founder and CEO of LearnDash, the WordPress LMS trusted by the world's leading organizations, such as the University of Michigan, Digital Marketer, WPEngine, and Infusionsoft. Justin has made a career as an elearning consultant where he has implemented large-scale training programs for Fortune 500 companies. Twitter | LinkedIn

2 Comments
  1. Been doing LMS stuff a long time, so here is a few things:

    LMS is a misnomer. Course Completion Tracking is what it is. A few of the new ones track what folks do in social, but that’s not the core for most. Finally seeing some innovative thinking on competencies and observational (evidence-based) certification in this space. But you aren’t managing learning, you are tracking and awarding completion (not a bad thing in some spaces, but let’s be clear on what this is).

    10 years ago, there wasn’t really enough web tech to make it easy to track things across systems- that’s now changed (WordPress’s plugin ecosystem is actually a brilliant example). LMSs were a compromise to try to get one fairly proprietary standard to ensure some consistent tracking. Today, APIs, data standards, and big data make it easier to cull and analyze data across platforms and make everything dance together. Although having one platform isn’t necessary, one platform to integrate multiple services is better than having to go to tool or site X for assessments, another for social, etc…(again: WordPress is a shining example of offering tools to coordinate convenient handshakes between platforms). And let’s not overlook that actually jumping to different sites in lieu of integrating under one platform can disorient the user and present multiple UIs for the user to figure out.

    For LMS systems, here are a few things I warn about:
    1. UX/UI >= Features. Yes, you need the right (needed, not “desired but not needed”) features. But features can suffer per usability. Test with actual users for usability. (and be very clear on whether Administrator, “Manager” or “Learner” UX is the most important; many systems have decent Learner UX, but awful for Managers and Admins).

    My warning: if a vendor doesn’t have an example of their UI on the site- I think that speaks volumes. And you will be surprised at how many make it hard to see what their LMS experience is like. Chances are the features are strong (probably a long list with checkmarks on the page) but the UI is weak: they bias presentation on their strengths (disclaimer: there are exceptions, not many).

    2. Pricing- they’ve got to have pricing- some baseline pricing- somewhere on the site or available within one phone call.

    Now, I’ve been on the vendor side, and I know there are MANY things that can influence costs (like integration with other systems, security or backup protocols, customization). But if you phone and they can’t give you a vanilla cost on a 1st year (including implementation) and year-to-year cost for the “vanilla” system for X number of users in a simple sentence: extend arms, face other direction and run away from them.

    3. Financial and acquisition risk: A lot of vendors have lost significant amounts of money over the past few years, and the industry is cannibalizing itself. Have your financial folks evaluate vendors for these risks.

    4. YOUR NEEDS > their features
    I call this “shiny object syndrome” and I saw it a TON, both as a vendor and as a participant on a selection committee. The vendor comes in, and in lieu of directing the presentation around “we need X: show us how your system does X”, it turned into “show us what your system does”.

    This generally goes badly. Here’s why. Vendors can have some cool features and they know how to showcase sexy stuff. Recently, I had a client seeking an LMS do this with a vendor who had some really great gamification features. The client got all starry eyed and fell in love with the gaming stuff. When I clarified that gamification was not defined as a requirement, and asked the vendor to demonstrate a feature that was a core requirement, the system “technically” did what was requested, but it was weak and a horrible UX. 3 more of these “requirement litmus tests” and it was clear that the system was not a good fit for this client.

    Often, I have seen folks get starry eyed, fall in love with features they don’t really need, and purchase the wrong item. Ground all presentations in very well-defined needs and you should find a decent fit. It’s when you let the vendor showcase their stuff and follow their lead that this can go wrong.

    5. PARTNERSHIP- THIS ABOVE ALL ELSE
    A vendor partnership is a relationship, and for the money spent, and if you believe in this function in your business- hopefully a long term relationship, not a one-night stand.

    And, the sales cycle is the first date through honeymoon phase. Everyone on their best behavior. Doting on each other, etc… Any sign of service and your needs not being at the center of the vendor’s mission- be very cautious- you may be more invested in the relationship then they are.

    Any indication that service and response won’t be stellar- run. Fast.

    Look up the vendor’s list of clients on the site and contact the clients. They will tell if service/responsiveness is good on not (warning: you will be grading on a curve- generally nobody in the industry is overwhelmed with support given).

    Sorry for the long post- but this is one area that I see a TON of mistakes, a TON of overspend or spending on the wrong fit, and frankly, it ticks me off. Want to give folks a few simple tools to find a great fit.

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