There’s not a lot of love in the world for the poor old learning management system (LMS). Before today’s era of consumerized, ecosystemic learning solutions, businesses that wanted to train their people would use an LMS to store and deploy educational content. Employees would consume the usually-mandatory content, and return the LMS some kind of completion feedback. The technology was received about as well as any clumsy software could be received by a captive audience. Not many people liked it.
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In recent years, that disdain has spread into the ranks of L&D itself. Brandon Hall Group’s research has spelled out the slow demise of the LMS for years: in the most recent report, almost 40% of companies said they were looking to replace their system. A third confirmed that they would not recommend their current LMS to a colleague. Satisfaction ratings are at an all-time low.
Apart from user-repellant design and feeble functionality, what is going so wrong for this technology? Has learning changed so much in the 21st century that it no longer needs managerial administration? What about the LMS do learning professionals dislike?
The LMS’s shortcoming, in short, is that it offers an incomplete, unsatisfying version of workplace development. Learning is not something that should be “managed.” It’s something that is sustained organically. When an organization programs learning at all, it should be to improve learner engagement, performance, and growth opportunity. “Learning management” is Orwellian Newspeak compared to the actual feeling of learning something in the right way, at the right time. Rather than letting people drive their own learning, LMSes micromanage the experience to no one’s benefit.
When learning is effective, it drives business results in a number of ways. It leads to continual performance improvement, for example. It engages employees and aligns culture. An LMS can’t do any of that. Sure, the interface works fine to push out content at a specified frequency, but it doesn’t attract anyone to use it of their own volition. It definitely doesn’t engage learners.
Nor does an LMS have feedback loops. These lines of communication allow learning to be a dialogue, not a dictate. Ideally, a learning solution has at least four routes of feedback beyond simply L&D to the learner:
- Learner → L&D: Learners can respond to the content they’ve consumed.
- Learner ⇆ manager: Learners can work with frontline managers to hit their personal goals outside the purview of the larger L&D curriculum.
- Manager ⇆ L&D: Managers can take charge of their managerial growth. This dialogue is how great leadership is developed.
- Learner → learner: Learners not only take an active role in their own educations, but participate in the education of their peers. An intriguing, nascent idea.
Learning management systems don’t offer these feedback channels. They’re all about one top-down application: an L&D admin telling a learner, “Hey, learn this thing.” And LMSes don’t even excel at that function. They’re too boring and mechanistic to be engaging.
All of which is to say that an LMS doesn’t deliver learning in a way that will change behaviors—the real reason to learn at all. Accomplishing lasting behavior change requires realistic content delivered with effective practice techniques: spaced repetition, self-testing, variation, interleaving. An LMS doesn’t offer scenario-specific learning or allow for dynamic learning techniques. It doesn’t, therefore, move the needle of business performance very much at all.
“LMS” has become a four-letter (acronym) in learning and development circles because, in administering a very flimsy type of content delivery, the software more or less prohibits real learning from taking place. “Learning management” isn’t just a generic substitute for high-quality learning; it’s a cheap knock-off product entirely.
When LMSes were on the cutting edge of technology, they marginally improved upon the bulky binders and in-person snoozefests that came before them. Today, however, an ineffective learning tool doesn’t cut it. We’re not in a knowledge economy anymore; we’re moving ever further into a learning economy. Your company’s competitive advantage isn’t what your people know, but how well they learn. Technology has grown up in L&D, and LMSes are still stuck in the old ways. Don’t get stuck along with them.