What does ‘LMS’ mean today?

This is a follow-up to my recent blog Does the LMS have a future?. That blog – and this one – were stimulated by a trip to the Saba user conference where I had simulating conversations with Josh Bersin, Stacey Harris, Ian Baxter of Saba and Andy Wooler of Hitachi and others, leaving me plenty to think about. Much of the conversation there – and here – has boiled down to this one key question:

What does ‘LMS’ mean?

Yes, I know that the three letters literally stand for ‘Learning Management System’, but actually we all know that’s nonsense. You can’t create a system to manage learning. Learning happens inside people’s heads, and it’s a process that can be supported and stimulated, but not managed. As Mark Britz said in a Twitter exchange just after I posted part 1 of this double-entry blog:

RT @DonaldHTaylor: Does the LMS have a future? wp.me/p2n5B-kj / ppl are what learning is all abt. The risk is leaving to a system

He’s absolutely right – you can’t leave learning to a system, or rather you shouldn’t. Despite a projected 2013 global market value of $1.9bn, Learning Management Systems have only a middling reputation at best among L&D professionals. This is partly because when initially launched in the late 1990s they were not Learning Management Systems, but Training Administration Systems, and too often the training materials delivered over them were dull, ‘click next’ materials that were all about compliance, completion rates and not about learning.

That reputation has stuck. And although LMSs have grown in functionality, and materials in potential (although not always in the realisation of that potential), they have repeatedly been over-sold and under-implemented. In fact, as Andy Wooler, Academy Technology Manager at Hitachi Data Systems Academy, put it when we spoke:

“LMS too often stands for Litigation Mitigation Service.”

Andy, a long time user of a variety of LMSs, is no knocker of the systems. In fact, his work in the financial sector has lead him to believe that the ability to track whether people have undergone training to meet the requirements of Sarbanes Oxley and other regulations – the most basic function of an LMS – is itself essential. “Try running an insurance company without those reports and see how far you get,” he says.

But, says Andy, there are others things we naturally want to do beyond compliance. They usually involve making things (learning content, conversations, networks) available to people, along with a way of engaging with these things, and a database of some sort to support this activity. “A web server, an application and a database – you can call that bundle what you want,” says Andy, “but I’d call that a Learning Management System.”

It’s difficult not to agree. You’re in an enterprise, and you want to support widespread learning. You’re going to need systems to help you – co-ordinated, possibly integrated systems that help the social networking and micro blogging make sense of the videos and User Generated Content, as well as the high-quality training materials that you have produced yourself or outsourced, accessible to managers and including prompts and suggestions for stretch assignments as well as ways of managing coaching and mentoring.

As Andy says, you can give those systems any name you want. You can create them yourself or buy them off the shelf, but together they make up a modern LMS, the sort of system which many of today’s more advanced LMS vendors actually sell. Not a Training Management System, but something that actually supports learning when used properly.

In which case, if this is not a Training Management System, what should the letters LMS stand for?

I asked Andy this. What did he think the letters LMS stood for in this richer, more complex set of tools? He thought for a moment and replied “We provide the systems, and add some context. People use this to make sense of the issues they face and then do their work better.” He paused, then he came up with his definition.

“How about ‘Learning to Make Sense’?”

I think he’s right. We need technologies to support learning at work today. We can buy them packaged in a single, centralized system, or we can assemble them ourselves and integrate them as much or as little as we wish. They can be our learning management system, our personal learning environment, our knowledge network or whatever. Whatever we call these tools and systems, the key thing is what they do. Properly implemented, they help us make sense of the issues we face, and work a better as a result.

11 responses to “What does ‘LMS’ mean today?

  1. Thanks for the post Donald. Having recently (working with an amazing team) introduced a new learning and development approach, we had a conversation around what to call it … We found out a long time ago that the word “system” made us cringe… back then it was in the context of “customer relationship management systems” –
    It makes me smile to think of applying the principle of systematically managing relationships with partners, family and friends how strange that would be. Hmmm now there’s a thought, my Dad is, well let’s say a bit random, so maybe as an exception that would work better with him! But that’s families for you eh!
    Back to matter in hand …. The principles that lay behind the development of our new bespoke software are the creation of an integrated learning performance place, with a strong social learning community element and somewhere people contribute to the learning experience and journey. What I mean by this is that our colleagues can gain ‘social credit’ along the way … adding their own content which others use and a bit like trip advisor, comment on and rate. The new approach provides a space where colleagues can take control of their own development matching them selves up with what it takes to be job ready, (here’s where out little bit of gamification come in, a little avatar runs up the job ready track!.. but that’s another story), a great performer and develop their careers further.
    So it’s great to see the words “management” and “system” dying out and being replaced by what suits the people in the organisations they are there to help.

  2. A very accurate conclusion that both L&D and training professionals should find it easy to agree AND act on.
    Use whatever admin “tools” you need to keep track of formal individual an organizational development but accept the fact that learning has its own needs for dedicated and fully adjustable support. From prep to classroom all the way to results via a dedicated learning transfer strategy involving key stakeholders.

    To be very hands on http://www.promoteint.se is a great example of this.
    Anyone got any more examples?

  3. Michelle Parry-Slater

    Renaming LMS is a good challenge. Why not follow Education calling it a VLE, virtual learning environment. Or LRC, learning resource centre. We are looking for such a product now and I am amazed at the cost of the big players for essentially an empty library. I want a socially collaborative tool, without having to pay extra as this surely needs to be a standard feature these days. It seems that the only people not to have heard of 70:20:10 are the mainstream LMS providers. Never mind changing their name, they should change their products too!

  4. I suspect the key point is your “integrated systems” comment. Many people will only engage fully with LMS functionality/content if it is embedded in their day-to-day work. The reporting engine may still be an LMS but I suspect the future will be that contextual learning will be served up increasingly within the software/workflows your learners use rather than accessing the LMS directly.

    • Agreed – it is essential to go where the learner is.

    • Totally agree that contextual learning (and I would add contextual collaboration to that) should be delivered at point of need. Any decent LMS should be able to provide API’s or deeplinking abilities to make that happen and take learning to the learner, not the other way around.

  5. Don, I like your emphasis on the need for L&D teams to add value by understanding the business rather than simply producing the same sort of materials they always have done. To use any learning technologies wisely (including LMS) we need to understand the business and share that knowledge with the workforce. Really I don’t care what LMS stands for as long as we’re sticking to that very important principle.

  6. The LMS is just a repository and tracking device for what content has been accessed and by whom. It cannot determine learning outcomes anymore than a television can make programmes. Like you say Don…learning takes place within the learner. We can attempt to evaluate such learning in proper context of the business or with the relevant subject matter experts to validate or embed learning. Learning takes time. To make an LMS and lots of content available is one step. If employees are not given TIME to learn within the context of their roles and needs..then it will be difficult for effective learning to occur. Can we really do more with less. Can we really learn deeply without time and context? I’m not so sure we can. Its a great money spinner though, so hats of to the vendors.

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