Caution: potential hard to swallow realities ahead!
If 2020 taught organisations one thing then it was the fundamental importance of adapting to disruption. COVID-19 effectively halted the world overnight, after which organisations had to speedily find creative solutions to many problems, including learning and development.
In light of the above, one of the challenges of 2021 (and beyond) is for organisations to improve sustainability of their learning platforms in order for learning and development to remain engaging, relevant, quantifiable and equitable for both learners as well as their organisations. Sad as it may be, this could mean ushering in the end of era for traditional LMSs.
Are LMSs delivering sufficient value?
At the time of writing there are just shy of 600 LMSs listed on elearningindustry.com. Let us assume that there are approximately an additional 200 systems to choose from, making the grand total of available LMSs somewhere around the 800 mark. That’s sizeable when compared to other software solutions!
The majority of these systems are “traditional” LMSs meaning that their core focus is on consolidating and disseminating content electronically to learners together with topline reporting – and that’s really the extent of their design envelope. Some LMSs may have the one or other function or module that the next does not offer, however all traditional LMSs are hamstrung by the legacy eLearning standards and architecture that do not allow for detailed measuring nor reporting. This, together with the learning and development demands that specifically COVID-19 has exacerbated, is proving to no longer be sufficient for many organisations and their LMSs value, in turn, has significantly diminished in a relatively short space of time.
How are “Sustainable Upskilling Solutions” different?
SUSs offer significantly more value compared to a traditional LMS given that they have absorbed the LMSs functionality on a whole while furthermore adding learning touchpoints that were previously not accessible, thereby allowing a comprehensive learning experience for both the learner as well as the organisation.
- In order to showcase the key differences, one has to first look at why organisations deploy a learning platform, COVID-19 aside:
LMSs are deployed with the aim of disseminating electronic multimedia content for the purposes of consistency, ease of distribution, easy tracking and reporting (albeit topline) as well as cost savings.
SUSs on the other hand provide organisations with a mechanism to easily and sustainably train their entire workforce. This extends to catering for a comprehensive blended approach, including measurable and quantifiable video lessons, as well as amalgamation, with Learner Experience Platforms (LXPs), if required. Lastly, SUSs are set out to measure the value that training brings to an organisation, which is typically based on evaluation models such as CIPP (Context, Input, Process and Product), the Phillips ROI Model or the Kirkpatrick’s Training Evaluation Model.
Either model, or a combination thereof, is directly embedded into a SUS. In the case of the Kirkpatrick model, a LMS can only measure learner reaction (level 1) as well as learner competencies (level 2) whereby a SUS will additionally also measure behaviour change (level 3) from which results, such as return on expectation / investment (level 4) can be calculated.
- From a system deployment perspective there are also vast differences between LMSs and SUSs:
LMSs are most commonly deployed via remotely hosted or on-premise (self hosted) solutions. With remotely hosted solutions organisations often experience longer deployment times, manual updating and thus unsynchronised version deployments as well as expansion and scalability limitations. On-premise solutions place the onus of deployment on the organisation meaning that they are solely responsible for setup, hosting, access and security, which are all not trivial. There are good reasons why organisations are steering firmly away from on-premise servers since approach is no longer in line with best practices standards.
Conversely, SUSs are deployed via genuine, multi-tenant cloud solutions, often referred to as “Software as a Service” (SaaS), meaning that the vendor manages and maintains the cloud environment in full. The customer successively benefits from the same real-time and up-to-date version. The true benefits of genuine, modern and multi-tenant cloud solutions are better accessibility, efficiency, scalability, lower cost, enhanced security as well as data and insights.
- Most LMSs still make use of legacy eLearning standards that curtail the advancement and thus limit the value proposition. Here too SUSs are different.
The majority of the LMSs are built around “content containers”, such as the SCORM, AICC, CMI5 and xAPI standards. These content containers are authored on dedicated authoring tools, whereby all content is deployed within this container. Content containers comprise three shortcomings: lack of measurability (despite “modern” content containers claiming otherwise, extractable data remains limited), which also extends to a lack of assessing capabilities, authoring tool cost and complexity as well as overall poor user experience. On the latter, long content deployment times and pop-ups come to mind.
SUSs on the other hand natively support “content containers” in addition to “common content standards” such as Microsoft Word and PowerPoint, Adobe PDF, MP4 video, MP3 audio, YouTube, Vimeo and Thinglink, to name but a few. This principle ensures the future proofing of training content, genuine ease of use as well as flexibility, which is expressed in quantifiable data touchpoints and easy content authoring alternatives. User experience is elevated since SUSs deliver content via the same mechanisms that over-the-top content platforms, such as Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and Hulu, make use of, translating to lightning-fast content delivery.
- Reporting is a key element for both LMSs and SUSs since reports are used to give feedback to the organisations on learner progress, performance, engagement and completion rates. Again, there are differences between LMSs and SUSs:
Due to the architecture of LMSs being built around content containers (such as SCORM), which limits the data that can be extrapolated from the container, reporting is generally very topline and lightweight. More sophisticated LMSs allow the user to utilise report generators, however these do not offer the flexibility to cater for any and all reporting needs, for example legislative reporting.
SUSs have a much more granular approach to learning and as such reporting. Besides “standard” reports that are delivered by a LMS, SUSs cater for genuine custom reporting requirements. SUSs allows organisations to access the reporting environment via external gateways, such as an API, which allows an organisation to create custom reports from any and all data comprised on the SUS. Taking this concept a step further, SUS even allow the inclusion of data from external / third party systems, such as a HCM and CRM, to be integrated into the custom reporting environment. This allows the organisation to generate genuine reports that speak to all requirements, even complex legislative reporting.
- Functionality is also a key differentiator between LMSs and SUSs. As previously mentioned, there are a plethora of LMSs on the market and while most systems appear to be different, there is a lot of commonality when one looks “under the hood”:
As a result of the underlying LMS architecture, most systems are limited to the same functionality: disseminating content to learners. When comparing LMSs side by side this becomes apparent. Some LMSs boast additional “functionality” such as eCommerce, white labelling and integration, including calendar configurability, however these elements do not generally make a learning solution more sustainable.
The value proposition of SUSs is typically quite expansive and offers functionality that is aimed at the learners’ benefit based on the training evaluation models that were discussed previously. In addition to standard “LMS functionality” SUSs typically incorporate a number of learner touchpoints and engagement mechanisms, such as microlearning, a Knowledge Base and numerous gamification options however also include learning facets for instance comprehensive assessment suites, proctoring, performance management and audit functions, as well as indefinite learner profile retention, learner affinity measurement metrics and feedback loops.
When comparing LMSs and SUSs from the viewpoint of not just the learner but also the organisation, it becomes apparent that SUSs are better suited at delivering comprehensive value. The question that has to be asked is whether a traditional LMS is adequate to serve the current needs of the organisation, which due to COVID-19 may have significantly shifted, let alone those of the future, whatever that may look like. Perhaps training departments need to consider spending more time measuring the effectiveness of their training interventions on systems that can stand up to this task and less time on creating content which may look pretty but does not really achieve the required results.
To quote the Kirkpatrick partners: “As you already know, training budgets are among the first to be cut when economic times get tough. Whether you’re one of the in-house survivors or a struggling consultant, you can no longer coast on lofty notions about continuous learning and employee development. You need to provide compelling evidence that training delivers bottom-line results.”
This, and more, a SUS reliably delivers.