The Complete Guide to the Learning Management System (LMS)

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What is a Learning Management System (LMS)? How does it work? What’s the difference between an LMS and a Learning Experience Platform?

SECTION 1: INTRODUCTION

Learning management systems are big business. According to the eLearning Trends for 2020, the global elearning market is growing rapidly and expected to reach $398 billion come 2026. Organisations need to be on the lookout for the most efficient and effective learning solutions.

We’re excited about the future of elearning and what the next generation LMS will bring.

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What is an LMS?

An LMS is an elearning software application for ‘administering, documenting, tracking, reporting and delivering educational courses or training programmes’ (Wikipedia). In essence, it’s a system that allows you to train your employees.

The best Learning Management Systems provide exceptional user and learning experiences. Most learning management systems are capable of:

Distributing elearning courses to general populations or specific groups. The course content (often called activities) can be varied. It can include: SCORM, video to screen, web links, quizzes, surveys, and PDFs and any other downloadable resources.

Managing classroom (either physical or virtual) training sessions, publishing training schedules, assigning resources, scoring, self booking and cancellation functions.

Reporting on course completion rates by user and group.

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More recently, LMSs have expanded their functionality to include gamification, social learning and collaboration, and other modern tools and methods. More modern platforms are emerging to deliver a more consumerised experience and to engender collaboration. Learning data and analytics are at the heart of these next generation LMS and learning experience platforms (LXPs).

The most remarkable shift over the last five to seven years was the move to the LMS in the cloud. Most LMS implementations are now cloud based LMS solutions. This has helped innovation by making it easy to deploy new features. It has also kept licencing costs competitive, which helps your bottom line.

What is an LXP?

A new breed of learning platform, sometimes called learning experience platforms (LXPs) or next generation learning platforms, have emerged in the market. A learning experience platform provides a personalised, intuitive, social, in-workflow learning experience that goes beyond the traditional LMS.

An LXP should give the learner an exceptional user experience with adaptive learning paths, easy access to content, and AI-driven search functions and recommendations. It should also accommodate any form of content, including articles, podcasts, blogs, microlearning, videos and courses.

LXPs usually provide a social space where learners can connect, collaborate, share content and network with each other and experts. An LXP can be used in conjunction with an existing LMS that’s used to manage more formal learning content. Learn more about LXPs here.

LMS and LXP Providers

There are thousands of LMS vendors across the globe in a very crowded marketplace. The high end enterprise LMS market is dominated by SumTotal (a Skillsoft brand), Saba, SuccessFactors (SAP) and Cornerstone OnDemand. User-friendly learning systems, like Percipio (by Skillsoft) and Teach on Mars, are also making an impact.

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The Fosway 9-Grid of digital learning systems offers a great overview of the key providers in the market.

SECTION 2: Choosing and Implementing an LMS

CHOOSING AN LMS PROVIDER

If you’re thinking of investing in or changing your LMS, here are some questions to consider. 

Do I like them?

It’s important for you to enjoy dealing with your chosen supplier. Having a good long-term relationship will pay great dividends

Are they responsive?

Responsiveness to emails, phone calls and requests for information is a significant tell-tale sign of a good supplier. An acknowledgement to a request is a very simple yet meaningful gesture, even if the information or answer takes some time to compile.

Do they share freely?

Great suppliers will share their knowledge freely – it demonstrates passion for what they do. Their marketing material should offer a broad range of tactical, insightful and strategic content. When dealing with them face to face they should continue to share their knowledge and experience enthusiastically.

Do they listen?

The best suppliers will focus solely on your requirements, your problems and your constraints. They’ll listen intently and ask probing questions. They keep an open mind at all times and aren’t constrained by their products or solutions. 

Great suppliers will be honest when their solution does not fit. They will offer alternatives even if they have nothing to gain.

Do they coach?

Most suppliers have expert knowledge in their chosen fields. Great suppliers will coach you on new techniques or new technologies until you’re fully equipped to make an informed decision.

What’s the user experience like?

The user experience (UX) is one of the most important critical success factors for any learning technology implementation. Take time to test the system thoroughly from a user’s perspective. Think about how the platform may be used when it’s fully populated.

• Is it easy to find services and content?
• Is it intuitive?
• Is the design and user interface aesthetically pleasing?
• Does it match modern browsing standards?
• It is maybe time to get your users involved?

What training and support is available to me?

Most suppliers build training and support into your contract. Be sure to ask for details of the training package and supporting material.

Many offer basic services, but the best suppliers will be keenly interested in your training and system well-being. They will want your investment to be a success. Good suppliers will go beyond the contract to make sure you’re getting a return.

What’s the licencing model?

This is normally based on the total user population x a price per person per year. If this doesn’t suit your business model, ask for an alternative. Also take time to think about growth and shrinkage of users over time. 

You might want to build in a pro rata scale in your agreement. Education institutions and charitable organisations may avail of better commercial terms.

What’s the administration experience like?

Ease of configuration, reporting, uploading, creating plans and communications are important. You and your team will be spending much of your time managing the system, so having an efficient and enjoyable process will help.

What’s the security like?

Be sure to involve your IT department when it comes to physical and data security (and integration). Your vendor should be willing to supply detailed documents on request.

How well will it integrate?

If single sign-on and integration into other systems is important to you, ask for evidence that it works. Tread carefully here.

What’s the technology roadmap?

Make sure to ask for regular roadmap updates. Ask what’s happened during the last quarter as well as what’s going to occur in the upcoming two quarters, because this will demonstrate consistency. Good suppliers have an agile development process and new features should be a regular occurance.

For more advice, see our blog on 7 deal-breakers for a modern LMS.

Implementing an LMS

Once you have chosen your platform, an LMS and elearning implementation can be a complicated process. Preparation is key in order to avoid wasted time and effort. There are several main phases:

Setting the standards

Before configuration, build and implementation, it’s worth spending time setting standards that encompass all aspects of system usage.

ELearning content planning

An empty LMS is redundant – it’s the services, apps, content and collaboration features that make it valuable.

The configuration phase

Get users onto the system, and set up roles, notifications, workflows, catalogues and reporting.

Training and support

Negotiate what upfront and ongoing training and support you’ll need from your supplier.

Go-live, communications and marketing

Start engaging stakeholders, interested parties and advocates across your business.

SECTION 3: TOP SIX BENEFITS OF AN LMS

For over 30 years, the main function of the LMS was to track completion of training (via elearning). The SCORM elearning content publishing standard was introduced to allow the elearning course to communicate course progress and completion information with the LMS. SCORM also meant (in theory) that elearning objects were interoperable and would work on any LMS.

Over the years, though, the LMS has evolved – particularly most recently – to do many other things to support learning and training in business. If properly planned and executed, implementing an LMS and elearning brings multiple benefits for any large or even quite small organisation.

one

Support L&D to become an efficient service provider

A good LMS, populated with great and relevant elearning content and collaboration tools, enables L&D to solve business problems efficiently. Learning experiences can be created and targeted at different audiences.

The LMS becomes the central hub for searching for and consuming training. It can contain: personal development training, onboarding programmes, management and leadership programmes, professional skills training, process training, compliance training and much more. The LMS can also be used as a communications tool to engage learners and market the services.

two

Reduce Costs and Scale Training

Originally, the main purpose of an LMS and elearning was to cost effectively scale training and learning across large and dispersed audiences. Traditional learning, like classroom training, is too expensive and slow to scale. Nevertheless, it is still, and will continue to be, a vital element of the L&D toolkit. A good LMS and elearning solution will help to reduce costs and provide scale.

In some cases, the LMS has a classroom training management function that makes training event organisation self service for users. This makes the overall process more efficient.

Classroom training can be reduced significantly to focus on practice only, while the theory is covered in preset elearning courses.

Compliance, process and generic skills training can be removed from the classroom schedule completely and replaced with a scalable elearning alternative.

Using an integrated virtual classroom can also create efficiencies, and reduce travel, time and attendance costs.

The role of the employed trainer can be transformed into an online learning facilitation expert, thus making blended learning programmes much more effective. These new roles will add much more value to the business over time.

three

Engage Employees More Than Ever

A good LMS and elearning implementation will have the UX at its core. It can be a rich source of services and knowledge, a place to meet and learn and share.

In today’s changing world, it’s right and appropriate that our learning services inspire users. Forcing them to complete is a tactic of the past. The opportunity with elearning is to significantly impact employee engagement in a meaningful and practical way.

four

Decrease Time to Competence

Digital transformation and AI means that business is changing at light speed. The role of L&D is to pre-empt the supply of, and demand for, future skills. Having a rich, service oriented learning environment that users value means that L&D can find time to plan for the future. With good help and support from forward thinking suppliers, L&D can use the technology to develop scalable learning pathways that reduce time to competence.

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Use the LMS as a Communications Tool

An LMS can store multiple types of information. Its inbuilt messaging service and completion reporting also makes it a very useful tool for sharing feedback and corporate communications.

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Make Compliance Easy to Manage

Compliance courses can be easily distributed across large and geographically dispersed teams. LMS administrators can track progress of different groups and report easily on course completion.

The Benefits of an LXP

An LXP that’s integration enabled can be used as a complementary tool alongside the LMS. It can also be used as a standalone platform.

LXPs can:

Enhance the UX on your existing LMS

Provide new ways of creating and sharing content

Provide new ways of learning, e.g. spaced practice

Improve data and analytics, with a shift from completion status to proven knowledge retention

Be devolved to teams for their own use and problem solving

Solve the problem of capturing tacit knowledge across teams

Provide a new way of servicing generic skills training

Support learning in the flow of work and/or performance support

From “To Do” to “Ta-Dah!”

Learning technology and digital content should easily support L&D in providing services that consumers want to use. Administration and use of technology should be devolved to teams where and when they need it. Through this devolution, L&D can free up precious time to do the things they’ve always wanted to do – identify learning needs, carry out research, self improve, and plan for the future. 

We've all got to embrace flexibility and be prepared to unlearn restrictive, dated perspectives. Unlearning in this way is a key step in moving ahead and thriving in this dynamic industry: unlearning is the new learning. With the right technology, L&D can do more with less, get more enjoyment from their jobs and perform to their full potential.

LMS User Experience

Historically, the LMS catalogue structure mimics the supplier’s library structures, and users are assigned rights to the catalogue. In most LMSs, this user experience of searching for and consuming elearning was unintuitive and time-consuming. Users were often exasperated by the entire process.

The combined experience of navigating the LMS and searching for relevant content was not a positive experience.

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SECTION 4: COMMON FEATURES OF AN LMS

There are thousands of LMSs available in the marketplace. Some are very basic, traditional, and notionally free to use, whereas others are modern, complicated, and incredibly expensive. Few are built with a focus on xAPI and the future, and a good learner experience (LX) and UX. Here is a useful list and explanation of some basic, intermediate and advanced functions and important features available on many LMS platforms.

More information on features and functions of an LMS can be found on the eLearning Industry website.

SECTION 5: GLOSSARY

You can see our full glossary here.

SECTION 7: RESOURCES