Sunday, 14 November 2010

Should you blow up your LMS?

Does your organisation have a learning management system (LMS)? If it does, do you love it or hate it? Either way, what is its role – is it a disabler or an enabler when it comes to learning?

Learning management systems have been around for at least 10 years and were, at one time, regarded as an indispensible component of all e-Learning provision. Today though the nature of learning in organisations is changing to include and acknowledge both informal and social learning which means that the usefulness of the LMS needs to be reviewed.

Why have a LMS?
Many organisations embarking on e-Learning have been recommended to buy a LMS, in fact this is often the first thing they buy, even before the e-Learning programmes, courses, modules, etc, on the advice of vendors. "The greatest scam ever pulled off by vendors was convincing management that an LMS isn't just a database. The second biggest? That they really needed one. The third? That it is a ‘Learning’ ‘Management’ System." (Jane Bozarth, 2010 on Mark Oehlert’s eClippings blog).
A learning management system is basically a software application for the administration, documentation, tracking, and reporting of training programmes, classroom and online events, e-Learning programmes and training content. A robust LMS should be able to do the following (Ellis 2009):
§  centralize and automate administration
§  use self-service and self-guided services
§  assemble and deliver learning content rapidly
§  consolidate training initiatives on a scalable web-based platform
§  support portability and standards
§  personalize content and enable knowledge reuse.
By using a LMS organisations can track its staff’s use of training programmes, their test results, how long they took to complete a course, to name but a few. This capability has led many to say that a LMS is a sine qua non of all regulatory/compliance training and, as this use has much credence, it is difficult to argue against it. However, the current debate is much wider than this, as it would be very difficult to justify the cost of a LMS (which can run into hundreds of thousands of pounds) for just regulatory/compliance training requirements.

The LMS critics
Very recently, both Dan Pontefract and Richard Culatta (2010) have criticized the standalone LMS:
"Those organizations (and frankly public learning institutions) that are clinging to their standalone learning management systems as a way in which to serve up formal ILT course schedules and eLearning are absolutely missing the big picture. Sadly, there are too many organizations like this out there." (The standalone LMS is dead, Pontefract, 2009).
"The traditional stand-alone learning management system (LMS) is built on an industrial age model. There are two specific problems with this model, first it is monolithic within a learning institution and second it is generic across learning institutions." (The traditional LMS is dead, Culatta, 2010).
In addition, research conducted by the LMS supplier IMC found that among larger organisations, most had a LMS, with over 90 per cent having had one installed for more than two years and nearly 50 per cent of these had a LMS installed for five years or more. When these organisations were asked if they would recommend their current supplier only 23 percent said ‘very likely’, with negative responses totalling 50 percent, leading to the conclusion that either they were not completely satisfied or they had made the wrong decision in the first place.
When asked if they were completely satisfied with their LMS in relation to both current and future requirements, only 30 per cent said they were, with an astounding 70 per cent saying they were dissatisfied, and where 30 per cent said that their concerns were in relation to future requirements.
Is it the learner, the L&D function or the organisation who benefits the most from having a LMS? Again, whilst most people are using it to benefit their learners (ie as an enabler) and to capture data of use for the L&D function, such as management reports, there is considerable under-use for the benefit of the organisation, which coupled with a very low level of satisfaction with their current supplier, means most are unable to show a realistic return on their investment in the functionality of their LMS.

The changing nature of learning
Jay Cross has, for many years, been one of the main advocates of ‘informal learning’, which has led to the term becoming established in mainstream use. Although there is no scientifically proven research, it is generally accepted that approximately only 10 to 20 percent of our skills learning comes from formal means, such as training courses and development programmes, and with which the L&D function is typically most comfortable.
The essential approach of a traditional LMS is to ‘push’ content to situations where gaps in skills have been identified. The LMS is key to identifying a skills need, delivering content (in the form of a course, module, etc), monitoring the learner’s use of what is provided, and recording if the learner’s needs have been met.
However, informal learning relies on the ‘push’ of content at the point at which there is a need. This means that the LMS now needs to be able to capture that skills have been acquired informally if the skills database is to be keep up-to-date, otherwise it will become a disabler of learning.
In addition, people are now using public social and collaboration tools to build their own personal learning networks for use in their work. To include all these tools or to retrofit them into the functionality of a traditional LMS is a massive undertaking, although those suppliers who are evolving are looking at ways in which to do this.

What’s the solution?
There are two different viewpoints here. One view is that it is easier and better to add some management capability to the social networking tools rather than retrofit all that functionality into a traditional LMS. The downside of this is from the aspect of data migration to ensure that there is a transfer of data from one area to the other.
The alternative view is to forget the previous approach, because what is needed now is an organisational system which supports and enables an informal approach to learning as, quite simply, you cannot manage or formalize informal learning as it then just becomes formal, managed learning.
This type of system is an example of enterprise 2.0 architecture (blogs, wikis, chat etc). More and more collaboration systems are now appearing in the marketplace, commercial systems like Socialtext and Jive, and open source systems like Elgg and Liferay, which cater for all budget sizes. The use of this type of enterprise system will support the relatively new concept that learning=working and working=learning.

The way ahead
As Don Pontefract has said “Whether you’re in a private or public organization ... start first with a ‘collaboration’ system rather than a ‘learning’ system, and build out from there.” and, even more to the point, “Blow up your LMS.  Find a way to integrate it into your collaboration platform.”(2009).
If you are tempted to go down this route then it is vital that you work with your IT Department or Business Operations on this, as a whole-enterprise approach is required here and not yet another L&D initiative!

(From an article by J. Christian-Carter (2010), Training Briefing, No 55, Croner, Wolters Kluwer (UK) Ltd.)

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