Last reviewed 17 November 2020

Judith Christian-Carter, individual learning consultant, considers why making the right decision on a Learning Management System (LMS) is so important.

For years a Learning Management System (LMS) was a must have for any respected Learning and Development (L&D) function, then it became in many people's eyes the most loathed L&D component. So, how is the LMS being regarded in today's Covid-19 world? Is it still loathed or now seen to be a vital component and, if the latter, what does it need to be capable of doing?

As with many aspects of L&D, fashions come and go. This is particularly true of LMSs whose rise to prominence followed the advent of eLearning back in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Organisations, especially large ones, all jumped on the LMS bandwagon and suppliers were not slow in recognising the business opportunities by making sure that they joined the party. The result was an absolute plethora of LMSs being available, which led to a saturated market and made decision-making difficult.

Then at the end of the 2000s and right on into the 2010s, the use of LMSs started to be questioned by a number of prominent L&D professionals. Their criticism was aimed mainly at the control exerted by LMSs on people's learning, at a time when informal and social learning were coming into fashion, and L&D functions were being encouraged to let go of their control of people's learning. As a result, the LMS market dwindled somewhat but, at the same time, some of the more successful suppliers of LMSs decided to revamp what they were offering by adding tools to help with the prevailing learning fashions, such as informal and social learning. As a result, the LMS business took off again, with some 700 different systems available in 2018!

What is an LMS?

Essentially, an LMS “is a software application used for implementing and administering online training and learning programs. It acts as a centralised training platform that serves as the hub of any learning ecosystem. You can use an LMS to host and organise your learning content, deliver it to your audience, and assess how your learners perform. Once those learners — whether employees, customers, or other users — are provided with a login and password, they can access the LMS and start learning from anywhere with an internet connection.” (Inquisiq, 2020).

Benefits and features

To get the most out of an LMS, L&D functions need to look for the following:

  • ease of use for all users: learners want a good user experience so they can focus on their learning rather than having to navigate a clunky interface; other staff can benefit by having an LMS integrated with HR systems and important third-party services; and for global organisations an LMS that features multilingual support means that the learning needs of an international workforce can be met by people using their preferred language

  • improved efficiency is a must-have benefit that can be achieved through a suite of learning automation features, such as automatically enrolling learners, defining permissions and controlling access to content, etc and thereby saving administrators having to undertake these tasks manually

  • support for multiple learning needs goes without saying in today's climate, so an LMS that can handle virtual instructor-led training, group projects, discussion groups, on-the-job performance support tools and the assessment of performance will provide a system suitable to meet all learning needs

  • meaningful data is so important to organisations in order to make changes and to improve L&D provision, and by generating reports on all manner of outcomes, an LMS really comes into its own.

The features offered by LMSs available on the market today do vary considerably. These are the most important ones that any LMS needs to provide:

  • customisable user interface

  • social learning

  • mobile compatibility

  • learning automation

  • pre-built and customer courseware

  • blended learning

  • the right eLearning specifications, eg SCORM, xAPI, AICC.

Why now?

It would be reasonable to say that as a result of Covid-19, organisations across the world have had to put in place remote working policies. Regardless of specific differences, the one goal all these policies should have in common is to ensure that any work activities will continue non-stop and that any disruption to current work procedures must in no way interfere with the quality of provision or service offered to “customers”.

With remote working, the need for remote learning has never been greater. Offering remote learning opportunities to an organisation's workforce is imperative during these unprecedented times. The challenge now for L&D functions is how to provide, support and manage people's learning remotely, either by introducing an LMS for the first time or by making sure that their current LMS is fit for purpose.

Notwithstanding the key LMS features listed earlier, an ideal remote working LMS should:

  • offer interactive features

  • include instant communication tools

  • have easy accessibility and integrations (mobile-ready, web conferencing tools, etc)

  • allow for the use of virtual classrooms and other forms of virtual learning without any inconvenience.

Where to start

The best place to start, regardless of whether an LMS is required for the first time or one is already in use, is to ascertain what the target audience (learners, managers, administrators, decision-makers, etc) needs an LMS to do. This, in turn, should generate a list of specialised requirements, as no two organisations are the same.

In the past, buyers of LMSs usually went straight to a generalist supplier and often discovered that getting such suppliers to understand their unique organisational requirements was akin to pushing a rock uphill! Nowadays, such a course of action is no longer necessary, as there are specialists available who can help share best practices and who can become an organisational partner in order to ensure that the final LMS solution becomes a competitive differentiator.

The role of an LMS specialist

The LMS specialist will start with executive briefings so that they understand the organisation, it's history, how it was founded, what the mission is, what the organisation's objectives are, who are the target clients and what are the unique differentiators. From there, they will look at what's available and to what extent available LMSs match the needs of the organisation.

In particular, for each LMS, they will look for use cases, the functionality they have, the technical integrations, technical deployment options, how they charge for licences, their cost structure and the type of services they offer. Having short-listed what meets the bill, they then discuss with potential suppliers the provision and cost of providing any missing functions and/or tools. If there is no clear winner, then they will organise some usability testing on a small scale (with five to 10 users) to provide the information by which the final choice of LMS can be made.

Value for money

For those organisations that already have an LMS, many have discovered that some of its functionality and/or tools are either rarely or never used. This is why it is so important to define at the outset what an LMS needs to be able to do organisation-wide, in order to ensure that the final choice will be a solution that is capable of meeting these needs. In today's climate, with remote working and learning rapidly becoming the norm, this approach is even more important than ever.