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Learning Management Systems: What is a Learning Management System?

Posted on May 29, 2011 By Jake White

In our 21st-century knowledge economy, an organization's ability to accumulate and apply critical expertise is the hallmark of success. Organizations that know how to learn, disseminate best practices, and stay on top of changes in the market will outlast their competitors. One of the most valuable tools that organizations can use to embed these competencies into their culture is a learning management system (LMS). An LMS is a tool that has great appeal for leaders of training & development, human resources, compliance, safety, equipment/fleet management, as well as operations management. In this post, I discuss some of the challenges of selecting the right LMS for your organization. I hope this will be helpful to any professional who is exploring purchasing an LMS or considering switching from their current system. (And I won't make a sales pitch until the end!)

A learning management system is a powerful tool for tracking training, deliver e-learning, and reporting on organizational learning. These are some of the essential features of most learning management systems. One industry report by Bersin & Assoc. estimated that there could be as many as 500 systems that provide these services. Finding the right system for your organization can be very challenging. In many cases, going with the market leaders is the wrong approach. Often, their prices are the highest, and their features are overkill for most organizations. Moreover, navigating these systems can be very cumbersome and frustrating for administrators and users alike. But going with some of the smaller systems can also be a mistake. Although they typically will have excellent prices, their product is usually underwhelming. Administrators often become frustrated when they have to go to the provider to make basic changes in their system settings or find out later that the system does not have many important features that larger systems have.

I have spoken to many Directors of Learning & Development who have purchased an LMS, switched, bought another LMS (and sometimes changed again!). Switching can be difficult, but sometimes it is the best thing to do when the system you are using is not working well for the organization. I know one Training Director who had purchased three different systems within the past five years! An LMS is critical to their business (construction), as they track safety training and other compliance training. They also need the system to ensure that all employees have met a certain standard of competence. And finally, they use an LMS to develop their future leaders, and tracking progress in this area is essential for the future viability of their business.

I know another Director of Learning & Development at a cell phone company. They implemented a low-cost solution but quickly became frustrated with its weaknesses. This manager said to me, "I guess you get what you pay for...we should have done it right the first time." (They are one of our customers now.)

When you look for an LMS provider, find one that is willing to say, "Our product may not be a good fit for your organization." Be weary of salespeople who seem to be promising the world. The truth is, every system provider has made trade-offs. For example, one system provider might pride itself on customization functionality—making it possible for administrators to design the site pages however they want. This approach works great for large organizations that have large web design teams and plenty of training & development staff to work with designers to come up with a professional look and design (though, frequently, with each system update, significant fixes are needed). But small and medium-size organization usually do not have a web design team on staff, and can't afford to pay outside designers every time they want to update their system. So the highly-customizable LMS is not a good fit for the small and medium-sized organizations. On the other extreme, there are smaller LMS providers who do all of the design for you (which can be great). This can be a good option when an organization does not want to bother with design, and would rather spend their limited resources using the core features of the LMS to add value to their business. Some buyers become frustrated at not being able to make any changes to the design of their system. The issue of customization of design is just one example of the many trade-offs that LMS providers must make to come up with a system that is marketable. There are many others that we could discuss.

The reality is that no system can be all things to all buyers. So buyers need to understand what key functionality they will need, and separate this from the nice-to-have features. The ideal is to find something that has everything you need, is easy to use and implement, is reasonably close to your budget, and has a few more features that add value. Two rules of thumb, don't go cheap and don't go big. If you make it about cost alone, you will end up with a system that is inadequate (esp. if you are a growing organization), and end up spending more money switching down the road (I have seen this, and experienced this first hand). If you look only at the more mature LMS companies, you may end up with something that not only costs too much, but you'll get feature overload, and will likely find that they system is cumbersome (it was built 8-12 years ago, and its underlying architecture is limited or outdated).

OK, here's my sales pitch. We have worked hard to come up with an LMS that has the more critical features, as well as some important new features that many other systems do not have. We have done this while also maintaining the system's ease of use and attractive interface. After extensive research, we believe we have found the "sweet spot" for many of the trade-offs that can make a system too much or too little for many organizations. Torch LMS is a system that will delight new buyers and give significant relief and satisfaction to current users of other systems. Contact us to set up a demo of the system.