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Dinosaur? Necessary Evil? Critical Strategic Tool?

Redefining Learning Management Systems

Is the learning management system (LMS) as we know it dead? Not at all, judging from the number of calls that Clarity Consultants receives each year from clients seeking help with selection, implementation, integration, and maintenance. But although those calls suggest that the LMS is alive and well, they lead to an additional conclusion: selecting and implementing an LMS is difficult. There are many choices on the market, and those choices are morphing into talent management systems, social learning systems, and systems tailored to specific industry verticals. The options can be overwhelming as organizations struggle to determine which learning management system to deploy. Two major reports recently issued indicate that many of us are still struggling.

“The Current and Future State of Learning Management Systems,” a survey report issued by Expertus and Training Industry, Inc. in late 2010, has this as its No. 1 finding: “LMS satisfaction is mixed, with a ‘B minus’ average.” In “Learning Management Systems 2011: The Definitive Buyer’s Guide to the Global Market for Learning Management Solutions,” Bersin & Associates went even further, noting, “The learning management system continues to have the largest percentage of dissatisfied customers of any HR system.” On a scale of 1 to 5, survey respondents indicated an average satisfaction score of 3.36.

The thrill is gone, says David a Clarity Consultants LMS implementation specialist. “Many organizations regard their LMS purchase as a means to an end; it brings a great deal of excitement,” he says. But the work is just beginning once the purchase is made.

There is much that organizations can do before, during, and after an LMS purchase to ensure greater satisfaction and smoother implementation, says David, who has worked with organizations such as Intuit and Sunrise Senior Living. “eLearning and blended learning are difficult to roll out,” he says. “However, organizational readiness, including well-defined requirements, proper infrastructure, and understanding, can make the task easier.”

In his report for Bersin, author David Mallon notes that the LMS marketplace is becoming increasingly fragmented as vendors chase adaptability, offering software as a service (SaaS), cloud, and platform as a service (PaaS) models. Furthermore, many major players are adding elements for talent management, social learning, or vertical specialization.

“Almost all systems can handle most eLearning and training administration needs,” Mallon writes. “On the other hand, what the maturity does not guarantee is successful realization of … customer needs; many buyers remain generally frustrated with their systems.”

For many clients, the issue is support, says Amy N., a Chicago-based Clarity consultant who has worked with learning management systems for 11 years. “Many buyers encounter a lot of changes in vendor staffing as buyouts and mergers have affected the market over the past three to five years.”

Think carefully about your requirements before issuing your request for proposal (RFP), advises Amy, who has been involved with two client’s LMS projects from RFP through implementation. Avoid chasing features, she says. Instead, determine what you want the system to do, from a support perspective as well as a functionality perspective.

One major reason for customer dissatisfaction is the loss of focus on the end user, says David. “Learning management systems need much more learner-friendly interfaces, but this is more of a configuration and training issue.”

Configuration is a key LMS buzzword, and the task for which Clarity’s consultants are often engaged. Shivkumar L. is a Clarity consultant with six years of LMS experience. He has been working in New Brunswick, New Jersey, for the Americas division of pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca (AZ) since December 2008. He is responsible for configuring AZ’s LMS to provide product training to more than 6,000 salespeople in North America, as well as new hires added at the rate of 150 to 200 a month.

Salespeople receive training based on their sales team assignments and requirements established by training managers. Offerings include web-based training, instructor-led courses, virtual sessions, and online assessments. Shivkumar has configured the LMS to meet AZ’s needs and also integrated it with other systems, such as AZ’s learning dashboard and Metrics That Matter by KnowledgeAdvisors. The latter system is used to survey participants after learning is completed.

“Although I find the LMS very straightforward, AstraZeneca’s satisfaction is hampered by a lack of tech savvy among the learners,” Shivkumar says.

David, Amy, and Shivkumar all suggest that organizations train learners how to use their new LMS. “The purpose of the LMS is to serve the learner, but many organizations treat the LMS purchase as a software project,” says David. “Learning management systems must deliver training to the user. If it does that well, the purchase will have longevity.”

Bersin’s Mallon, who has been watching the LMS marketplace for a decade, says vendors are doing better: “The biggest leap forward has been a greater focus on the end user, as developers embrace the consumerization of IT. We are finally starting to see a focus on learner-centricity and an improved experience.”

So is the LMS as we know it dead? The market has plateaued, says David. “There’s been a big rush over the past five years to become eLearning savvy. Now the big meal has been eaten, and most companies are satiated.”

One such example is Sunrise Senior Living, which engaged David through Clarity to implement its new LMS. Patti Mirallegro, senior director of human resources organizational development, describes the experience:

We are transitioning from a home-grown system to the LMS we consider best in class. Sunrise really needs a learning solution that helps us deliver learning aligned with our business goals. We sought greater accountability and an improved learner experience. Sunrise, which employs 36,000 people in the United States and Canada, and 4,000 in the United Kingdom, hires for people skills and trains for technical skills.

Once we made our purchase decision, we realized we needed an LMS administrator. We had lost 40% of our team to [corporate] streamlining earlier this year. As we began to walk through the road map, the gaps became apparent. I can articulate the needs of the business, but not implement them.

David has experience in many relevant areas, including having worked with homegrown systems. He provides an excellent line of sight and identifies risks that the business can present to the project team.

Sunrise is following a popular trend, says Mallon, that of configuration over customization. That’s smart, he says, because “customization takes you off the upgrade path.” He notes that he’s been seeing more configurability built into the systems, but “going forward, even that won’t cut it.” What’s next in the world of LMS? Mallon has his eye on the horizon. “We will see an increase in the offering of the platform as a service-ERP in the cloud,” he says. “Providers and an ecosystem of partners will attempt to meet customers’ ideal end goal: total customization, all on the provider’s equipment, all taken care of by the provider.”

In the shorter term, Amy predicts increased deployments of mobile learning, especially for populations such as the one that Shivkumar serves at AstraZeneca. “If you want to do mobile, then due diligence is all the more important,” she says. “Ask potential vendors about their planned future enhancements. Request a road map for the next two to four years.”

Amy also anticipates a shift in the next five years, as vendors integrate or merge with talent management systems. “Learning management may not be a stand-alone system, but rather a component of those systems,” she says.