Future of Learning Office Tech

Learning Management In The Age of Engagement

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Written by Lenny DeFranco

This is the fourth entry in a five-part series of blog posts examining the place of learning management systems in today’s L&D landscape. Click here to see Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.

In May 2014, Corporate Learning Network sat down with enterprise learning professional Chris Rosso for a conversation on the future of workplace learning software. It was an area of considerable expertise for Rosso, who at the time led training for over 50,000 employees on one of the world’s best proprietary learning management systems. He was slated to be the keynote speaker at “NextGen LMS,” Corporate Learning Network’s upcoming expo. If anyone saw the future coming, it would have been him. But when asked what the ‘next generation’ of the LMS might actually be, Rosso balked at the question.

“For me it’s a misnomer, to be quite honest. I guess I have a big question around, is there a future for the LMS? I almost want to rephrase the question: what’s the next generation of learning technology?”

For the rest of the interview, Rosso detailed his plans to swap his existing LMS—which he had been integral in building—for a more powerful kind of technology. Something that would be able to curate content and serve as a system of record “without constraining us to a learning management system.”

LMS distraction

When a technology’s evangelist is talking like this, you know it’s in trouble. It’s no surprise, then, that almost 40% of L&D managers want to escape their LMS. Only a third would recommend their current LMS to another company. Satisfaction ratings have never been lower. A change is due sooner or later.

What is it about the LMS that so many learning professionals dislike? What will eventually replace it? Most importantly, when will it arrive?

Two years after Rosso’s interview, the answers to those questions are finally coming into focus. The LMS is still widely used, but more and more every day, new learning solutions are pointing the way forward. At their core is a new question: are you managing learners? Or empowering them?

The LMS hasn’t kept up with the rest of the world

At the beginning of 2016, we can anticipate the next generation of learning technology in broad strokes. Mobile will be a pillar of L&D for years. On-demand content and responsive design will become to learning’s future what the slideshow was to its past. Data will make learning smarter and the experience more personal. These are just a few of the changes on the way. All of them spell an end to the learning management system. 

Already, the technology has outlasted its shelf life. And that’s not a knock against the LMS itself. This was software originally designed to replace printouts and three-ring binders in the 1990s. The fact that we’re still using LMSes two decades into the era of search engines and big data is a testament to how serviceably they’ve stored content and user data until now. Acknowledging the evolution of learning technology isn’t a denigration of the LMS any more than praising Slack is an insult to AOL Instant Messenger. Times change. Your smartphone is many times more powerful than the phone you had when your LMS was developed. Shouldn’t learning enjoy the same progress?

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So far, it hasn’t. For example, the world outside the bubble of L&D is creating and using data at an explosive pace. Meanwhile, only a third of learning systems currently generate more data than they did a year ago. (And only the same third say they’d even be able to analyze it.) By not incorporating user information, L&D is wasting a huge opportunity to enrich the learning experience and build smarter systems.

This is just one crippling inefficiency with LMS technology. It’s not particularly good at search, either, or personalization, or customization, or a host of other things we take for granted elsewhere. Each of these shortcomings hinder user engagement.

The LMS is still around because it fulfills an important function, but that won’t save it forever. Like all outdated but essential technology, learning management systems will deprecate and hand down their functionality to a lineage of superior iterations. These new learning solutions will have much larger ambitions than simply storing and deploying material. They’ll be powerful systems with quality content and expert pedagogy, designed to engage learners and meet changing consumption habits.

But a bigger scope is just one difference between the LMS and the next generation of learning technology. The most important evolution will lie in the new solutions’ ability to engage people—and leave “learning management” behind.

Mobile use grew 58% in the past year. App personalization technology grew 332%.

Mobile use grew 58% in the past year. App personalization technology grew 332%.

Disengagement: the ultimate missed opportunity

The LMS was built to support a top-down view of knowledge. A manager saying to an employee, This is what you need to do your job. Learn it.

That’s not how learning works these days. As Danny Crichton wrote in TechCrunch last year, humans in the age of Google are more aware than ever before of just how much information we don’t know, but have available. Information overload is why millennials move from job to job and consume data like junkies: learning new things promises new experiences, alleviates “FOMO,” and contributes to a fuller identity. The more information that’s out there, the more we’re compelled to bring ourselves to it.

info ageBut merely consuming new information is one thing. Real, sustained behavior change is what leads to transformation and fulfillment. It’s easier said than done; change takes time, energy, and commitment. Just think about how many personal development projects you’ve probably abandoned—learning to paint, picking up French, getting in shape. It’s hard to have that kind of discipline for most learning objectives.

Two qualities make it easier to stay enrolled in the hard work of real transformation: enjoying the experience and seeing results. Those twin benefits are what create an engaging learning experience. People have to like doing it, and they have to feel it working.

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If HCM software is to stand any chance of engaging modern employees, it has to deliver effective learning in one cohesive solution. A piecemeal tool like the LMS doesn’t cut it. Having the best LMS in the world doesn’t answer the other important questions about the learning experience: what content are they consuming? Is it presented in a way that leverages effective learning strategies so it’s not just in one ear and out the other? Is the system getting to know the learner every time they use it? Does it not only push content, but align culture? 

LMSes aren’t built to answer those questions. They’re built to manage learning on a superficial level. The holistic solutions supplanting them aren’t interested in learning management. They’re after learning engagement.

Give us everything we need

Many contemporary LMS providers claim they’re more engaging than they used to be. Often they’re referring to slick design and other marginal improvements over the traditionally clunky LMS interface. But the impact of those features is small. Modern workers live in an intertwined ecosystem of digital applications. Seamless functionality is table stakes. You don’t use your favorite app because it works well. It’s supposed to work well. You use it because you want the job it performs, because you like how it makes you feel. Those apps you love, in other words, are focused on engaging you as a user.

LMSes confine themselves to an incomplete sliver of the learning experience. The learning systems powering the next generation of L&D will, of course, store content and data. Those jobs are important. But being a system of record isn’t enough by itself anymore. You need to provide a system of learning engagement that lets people star in the story of their own development.

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