Wednesday, August 04, 2010

A response to the supposed "Death of the LMS" question

It seems very trendy to ask this question currently, but in my view the debate is not very objective. Market pundits often link the discussion of potential demise of LMS to the growth in interest in informal and social learning, defining the LMS as a tool that's relevant only to formal. Other big advocates of the "no LMS" world are often vendors whose vested interests lie in alternative solutions. Neither of these is to my mind a convincing argument.

So what's the reality? We do a lot of research in FTSE100 companies and similar organisations. The reality is that the major business drivers for an LMS within these companies are not just intact, they are increasing. Regulatory and compliance pressure has increased not decreased. Pressure on efficient operational processes has increased not decreased. The importance of talent and capability has increased not decreased. All of these drivers reinforce the need for coherent and automated management processes for learning, and therefore the need for an LMS.

The pressure in most corporates is actually to consolidate their LMSs, as most of them have multiple solutions in different units and geographies, and to better align the processes of the LMS to a 21st century learning model. That means more than just classroom training and click-and-turn e-learning content. The majority of our clients want to adopt informal learning, but this is an add-on, not a replacement for their formal learning. Of course some existing formal courses can get replaced by more efficient and effective informal approaches, but the majority cannot and will not.

The other argument that gets raised against the LMS is that of "tracking". The view seems to be that when a course was formal we wanted to track and report it, but if its informal we don't. If we don't want to track it, we don't need an LMS. Or at least that's the argument. Personally, I think this is rubbish. The entire Internet is tracked. Doesn't matter whether its a PDF, a youtube video, a page of html or an entry in a discussion forum, its always tracked.

The question is not one of tracking at all - its really about purpose of tracking. It is right to say that the purpose of tracking is different between an informal learning resource and a formal course. But it was different anyway between a classroom event and an e-learning module. With informal learning, the purpose of tracking is to ensure relevance, to rate its value, and to sometimes to pay for it if its someone else's IP. These patterns of relevance and value help connect informal and formal learning. After all, this a continuum or ecosystem of learning, not completely separate worlds. All of these approaches have a place together, and ultimately LMS's have to adapt to this new reality, just as they had to adapt to e-learning and virtual classrooms.

Organisations will still need their LMS and the LMS vendors aren't going away - in fact despite the mergers and acquisitions, there are still probably more LMS companies now that ever. The needs of an LMS are changing though to reflect the change nature of learning. Whilst certain vendors may want you to think otherwise, the reality is different.


David Wilson said...

Rhys Brookes of Fusion Universal posted a response to my post in their linkedIn discussion thread. I thought it might be useful if I copied it here and then my response after:

David, I respect your valiant effort to defend the modern LMS but nearly every corporate I know who has deployed one is frustrated by it. The assumption I make is that there is something wrong with all of the people who have implemtend a LMS or their just something wrong in the underlying concept. LMS systems were not designed for learners they were designed for training managers to measure activity. Therein lies the problem. Scorm wrapped courses are not designed with instantly accessibility in mind, they are designed with tracking in mind. If I want to build content for learners that is instantly accessible at the moment they want to turn knowledge into skill (at the moment of need) then there are far better alternatives to an LMS and Scorm wrapped courses.

Humans will naturally go to the method that provides them the knowledge when they need it, which is why the majority of people prefer to ask the person next to them, search Google or YouTube than access the corporate LMS. I wish LMS's had been built with learners and instant access in mind, then the passion and effort we put into the courses we built would have had much greater value then all the ones which sit lonely in an LMS. However, we have learned ... and after being responsible for employing teams over the last 10 years who have designed over 1,000 elearning courses, I will never design an elearning course again whose content is only accessible by an LMS.

I think measuring success by attendance is a false economy. The only real success is the end effect when learning attained is put into practise and this is where LMS's and much of the traditional educational system fails. Learning within any business is a means to an end.

Historically the role of the teacher has been overly focused on trying to put knowledge into a learners head which at least 50% is forgotten an hour after the learning event and 90% because it is used vocationally. LMS's fail because locking a course away in an LMS means that 90%+ of people will never access it a 2nd time because the content held within an LMS system is not instantly accessible and therefore not transferable to the workplace.

The LMS has failed to live up to what businesses need, like Einstein said doing the same thing and expecting a different result is the definition of insanity. It is almost impossible to find a business leader who is positive on the concept of an LMS but there are 2 billion searches on YouTube a day. If you want to learn a skill outside of your work, it is more natural to go to YouTube, find out how and then apply the skill. Given a choice individuals choose YouTube and Web 2.0 ways to find and then apply rather than go back to an LMS. Why ?

David Wilson said...

Rhys, don't get me wrong, there's lots of things about LMSs I don't like either, but that doesn't mean they are not useful or necessary. It is also a mistake to view the role of the LMS purely through the eyes of e-learning. Whilst many organisations were forced to change their Training Admin system for an LMS due to the need to deploy e-learning, managing e-learning represents a small fraction of the functional value and complexity of an LMS.

It seems to me that most of your argument though is about the limitation of the LMS as the interface to learning for learners. In that point we are agreed. Historically, LMSs were designed more for the L&D function than the learners - but this is true of almost every type of enterprise software. Improving the user experience is a key focus area of most of the corporates we talk to and of every major LMS vendor we review.

Partly the problem is the assumption that the LMS was the shop window or point of access to all learning via the catalogue. We have been saying this is wrong for years. In my view, the LMS is likely to be the point of access to learning no more than 20% of the time, and that's likely to be via either a structured development conversation, or via learner search. The other 80% of the time, access to learning should be embedded, contextual, performance-based or via general search. This probably aligns a lot more to what you are saying. Either way, the majority of the LMS should be largely invisible to learners - connecting the dots behind the scenes, ensuring what needs to be reported is tracked, and managing the formal processes than need to be managed.

I wonder whether your main beef is actually with e-learning rather than the LMS. The popularity of YouTube and Google-ised content access is more a reflection on the instant nature of the content rather than the vehicle to manage and track it behind the scenes. You obviously don't like SCORM much, but that's fine, I don't much it either, although technical standards for content management and interoperability is a relevant issue that needs a solution. In my view, SCORM is rather overblown and doesn't serve that basic purpose well, and almost noone uses the more advanced capabilities anyway.

Either way, this is an interesting and important debate, so I thank you for that. All I can say is that researching and analysing what the corporates are doing in reality is our day job. We know they are interested in social and informal learning to varying degrees, but they also all have formal learning and compliance demands. They may be reducing the amount of instructor-led training, but they are not stopping it. The LMS is still a major point of discussion for all of them - partly because of the above, and partly because of enterprise consolidation. If we ignore these, we are deluding ourselves.

Mark Prasatik said...

Spot on from my perspective David. Amazing how accurate you are about my current situation and many of the issues described are the paths we are undertaking.

David Wilson said...

Thanks Mark, always pleased to get feedback.

ps. for anyone interested, i've been asked to join a panel discussion on this subbject hosted by Netdimensions on 18th November. for more info.

Zachary said...

David, I agree with you completely. There are many naive ideas about the usefulness of informal, social learning. Like Ryhs Brookes pointing out that there are 2 billion searches on YouTube a day. So what? People liking to look at funny videos of cats has nothing to do with an organization needing to make sure their employees are capable of doing their jobs.

The internet is filled with mostly garbage - disinformation, bad information, lies, distortions. Saying that a company can leave its training to more informal processes is a nice idea, but there's a reason company's want formal, top-down information transfer. IT's to assure their learning programs don't degenerate into the equivalent of YouTube video comments. (Have you read them? - they're not pretty.)

David Wilson said...

Just posted my prep notes for the questions in the Netdimensions panel webinar with Charles Jennings, Richard Nantel and Craig Weiss.