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.