Published On: January 8, 2020By
Top 2020 LMS trends - Analyst John Leh shares 16 predictions for extended enterprise learning systems

New year. New decade. No better time to step back and look at the big picture. And today’s learning systems market definitely gives us plenty to consider. But which 2020 LMS trends really deserve your attention?

Based on my work as an independent advisor to learning tech buyers and sellers, I’ve outlined 16 key extended enterprise learning trends and related predictions. Certainly, other factors are shaping the extended enterprise landscape – and we’ll dig into those as the year unfolds. But let’s start now with the issues and opportunities at the top of my watch list…

2020 Extended Enterprise LMS Predictions

1) Industry Consolidation Rolls On

Ever since cloud technology burst onto the scene a decade ago, hundreds of new learning solutions have entered the market. These are mostly “specialist” platforms. They differentiate themselves not only through innovative functionality, but also industry-specific expertise, integration capabilities, professional services, accessible pricing and other unique characteristics.

For years, fresh variations on an LMS theme have been popping up in every imaginable niche. But the industry’s unbridled expansion started to lose steam a couple of years ago, when vendors began seeking growth through acquisition.

This consolidation trend remained front-and-center in 2019, with M&A headlines like these:

Here’s where this is going…

Despite ongoing consolidation, the learning systems market as a whole will continue to grow at a rapid pace. And as vendors focus more heavily on gaining market share dominance, buyers should prepare for further M&A confusion, uncertainty and disruption.

Service continuity is always a top LMS purchasing concern. But now, selecting the right partner with longevity is more important than ever.

2) Talent Management LMS Platforms Struggle With Extended Enterprise

Old-guard talent management LMS providers are in a quandary. You know the names – Cornerstone, OracleSaba Software, SAP SuccessFactors, SumTotal Systems and Workday. They offer powerful employee learning management systems that are integrated with broader talent management suites.

Compared to specialized extended enterprise solutions, these vendors rarely (if ever) spend R&D dollars on pure extended enterprise innovation. And it shows.

Old-guard LMSs do compete for extended enterprise opportunities, and sometimes they win. But success is limited mostly to highly complex scenarios where organizations must serve both employees and external audiences, and advanced HR/compliance functionality is mandatory.

On the other hand, these systems are often considered too powerful, costly and unfocused for pure extended enterprise deployments or for SMBs that need a single LMS to serve their employees and external audiences.

Talent-suite LMS vendors will continue to get their extended enterprise clocks cleaned while they struggle to land a diminishing number of large-scale employee-focused opportunities.

3) Specialists and Cloud LMS Vendors Win the Extended Enterprise Race

Which specialized LMS vendors are stealing thunder from big-name talent-suite LMS vendors? Good question.

Strong contenders include pure-play extended enterprise solutions like BlueVolt, Community Brands, Learndot, NetExam, Skilljar and Thought Industries. But because these platforms are designed specifically for external audiences, they may be too limited for some scenarios.

This is why we see increasing interest in cloud LMS platforms that are flexible enough to support any type of enterprise-class solution – internal, external or a combination of audiences. Leaders in this category include AbsorbAdobeDoceboLearnUponLitmos and TalentLMS.

These vendors (and many more) offer modern, turn-key solutions that are highly engaging, affordable and scalable. So when LMS buyers compare these solutions with talent-suite platforms, the choice is easy.

This year, talent-suite LMS vendors will still focus on employee-specific business needs, while the rest of the LMS industry feasts on an abundance of extended enterprise opportunities.

4) Customer Education Remains a Golden Ticket

Try to name a corporation without customers. Good luck! That’s why customer education is such a hot segment of the extended enterprise universe.

Training now plays an essential role in attracting new prospects, converting them to customers, empowering them to use products successfully, convincing them to increase product use over time and encouraging them to become brand advocates.

It’s a fact that educated customers are more profitable customers. Training is proven to reduce churn, increase retention and improve satisfaction. So, what business wouldn’t want to achieve measurable benefits like these?

Corporations that don’t invest in customer education will lose many of those customers to competitors who make education a priority.

5) The Association LMS Segment Becomes Even More Distinct

For years I’ve said that associations are a unique LMS segment. Now, winning business from professional associations is difficult for generalist cloud LMS providers and impossible for talent-suite vendors.

That’s because innovative continuing education specialists are leading the way. For example, BenchPrep, Blue Sky eLearn, Community Brands, EthosCE, WBT Systems and Web Courseworks have made significant inroads in this market niche.

All of these vendors bring tremendous domain expertise, along with support for certifications and blended learning experiences, integration with association management systems, B2C and B2B ecommerce capabilities and pricing strategies designed specifically for non-profit organizations.

The association LMS segment will become more clearly defined, as consolidation continues to narrow the number of vendors in this space.

6) B2B Commerce is an LMS Innovation Hot Spot – With Good Reason

When we began analyzing this market six years ago, many vendors thought they could create the perfect extended enterprise solution by adding a shopping cart and content pricing to their existing employee-focused LMS. Times have changed!

Now, LMS buyers expect sophisticated B2B capabilities for bulk content sales to resellers, corporate partners, customers or corporate association members.

Bulk sales functionality is important because content development costs are fixed. It makes strong economic sense to package and sell every piece of content in as many ways as possible before they become dated.

To support this strategy, ecommerce-savvy LMS vendors now incorporate automation that makes it easy to create branded customer sites, populate them with pre-purchased content and promote relevant selections to users through CRM and marketing automation integrations.

They also deliver content instantly through advanced transactional capabilities such as pre-assigned tokens. In addition, visual dashboards now make it easy for administrators to monitor individual and aggregate training progress, licensing usage and even ROI.

As training businesses strive to squeeze even more “juice” from every piece of content, ecommerce LMS providers will further enhance and automate their platforms in useful new ways.

7) Training and Marketing Lines Blur Further

Way back in early 2014, I noted that extended enterprise training professionals are a hybrid breed. I called them “instructional marketers.”

Since then, the overlap between instructional specialists and marketing professionals has become even more pronounced, and the need for cross-disciplinary training can no longer be ignored.

This kind of cross-training isn’t formally available from universities or employers, so individuals need to educate themselves. Fortunately, it’s not too hard. I did it.

Start by developing strategic know-how in market segmentation, competitive analysis, customer journey mapping, content marketing and product positioning. You’ll find excellent guidance from sources like Content Marketing Institute and MarketingProfs, along with online courses from sites like Coursera, Digital Marketing Institute and LinkedIn.

It’s equally important to develop hands-on skill with top digital marketing tools. Leading vendors typically offer free training to all. Examples include:

If instructional specialists don’t embrace the marketing side of learning strategy, marketing folks who gain instructional design and content expertise will move the ball forward. It’s not a question of if, but when. And progress is already past due.

8) Integration, Integration, Integration

For successful business results, extended enterprise learning platforms must be integrated with an organization’s broader tech stack. Integrations are critical because they ensure that an LMS seamlessly “snaps” into your ecosystem so it can leverage available data and functionality.

However, integrations are not created equal. Generally, there are two approaches:

•  Custom integrations
These are designed and built on top of whatever APIs an LMS vendor makes available with its platform. They come with initial set-up costs and ongoing maintenance fees.

•  Productized integrations
Increasingly popular, these pre-built connectors are available as standard LMS functionality. They’re activated simply by entering a code from the target application. Common examples include:

  • Marketing automation
  • Customer relationship management
  • Customer service management
  • Data integration software
  • Virtual classrooms
  • Ecommerce platforms
  • Learning record store
  • Content authoring
  • Gamification
  • Proctoring
  • Finance
  • Fulfillment systems
  • SEO

Adoption of productized integrations will accelerate rapidly as organizations abandon the concept of custom integrations.

9) Skills and Competencies are Back Again

Skills and competencies management is the training industry’s “white whale.” For the entire 25 years I’ve worked in this industry, we’ve been chasing this elusive beast, with little success.

The concept sounds promising enough:

  • Assign appropriate skills to each job role in your organization.
  • Create relevant training content for each role, so employees can develop the necessary competencies to perform effectively.
  • Include evaluation tools so employees and their managers, peers and customers can rate their performance.
  • Add robust reporting to track individual and collective progress.

For decades, talent-suite platforms have offered this kind of functionality. But most organizations never even touch these features. Why?

Developing an accurate skill profile for every role takes a tremendous amount of time and effort. Plus, mapping and updating training content for each of those skills is even more time-consuming and difficult. As a result, few projects ever even get off the ground. And those that do often implode from their own weight.

At last, however, we’re seeing several promising breakthroughs on this front:

  • Rather than relying on individual employers to create and manage their own skills models, solution providers like CrossKnowledgeDegreed, LinkedIn and Schoox are predefining competency frameworks and mapping their training content to these models.
  • Also, associations are leading the way with targeted industry skills models, so members can manage their professional development throughout each stage in their careers.

Both of these innovative approaches to skills and competencies will be more widely embraced, as employers abandon their DIY obsession of yesteryear in favor of more highly leveraged solutions.

10) Open Source Gains Legitimacy in Extended Enterprise Learning

Over the years, open source has become associated with strength in the academic LMS space. But this perception is rapidly changing, as platforms like Totara, Moodle Workplace and Open edX make a serious dent in the corporate extended enterprise marketplace.

Why? Because these systems are robust, highly flexible and generally provide high-end capabilities for a lower total cost of ownership than many commercial systems. Plus, they’re configured, deployed and supported by partners who offer specialized expertise in every imaginable market niche.  Examples include eThink EducationExtension EngineKineoMindQuest LearningRaytheon Professional ServicesRemote Learner and Synegen.

Open source is particularly attractive for extended enterprise scenarios because licensing fees are usually non-existent. In other words, a training business can scale rapidly without incurring any incremental licensing costs. This means that more of the budget can be invested in content and marketing that move a business forward.

Look for much broader adoption of open source as a backbone for large-scale, corporate extended enterprise learning solutions, as decision-makers recognize the benefits of this approach.

11) Differentiation Matters More Than Vendors Think

As an analyst, I’ve personally seen hundreds of learning systems demos. And as a recovering LMS sales guy, I constantly wonder why vendors choose not to lead with their unique strengths. The answer may sound surprising, but too many vendors don’t accurately recognize their key differentiators!

It’s not easy for any vendor to calibrate others’ capabilities accurately. The market is confusing, life is busy and public information is often incomplete or outdated. As a result, vendors are more in-the-dark than you (and they) would think.

In presentations, I always ask vendors to describe the business problem they solve and the kind of customers who gain the most value from their systems. Yet too often, these discussions focus on “me too” features, while discounting capabilities that distinguish their platforms. For example, nearly every vendor emphasizes its modern user interface and instant access to content (minimal clicks), even though this kind of functionality is now commonplace.

Perhaps they’re too close to see what seems obvious to me.

Buyers and sellers, alike, will increasingly turn to independent research sources for help in understanding the dynamics of the LMS landscape and the position of individual vendors. Fortunately, that means job security for me.

12) The Learning Experience Platform Niche Remains Visible But Limited

Learning experience platforms (LXP) like Degreed, EdCast, FilteredFuse, Percipio and Valamis have made quite a splash. An LXP is a powerful aggregation tool that provides a single point of access to relevant content from various systems. This has tremendous value in organizations with multiple learning systems and other content sources.

LXPs have definitely taught clunky LMSs a valuable lesson about how to up their game in user interface design and content personalization. They’ve rekindled interest in skills development and real-time performance support.

But it’s important to understand that an LXP is not an LMS. For example, LXPs don’t manage compliance, training assignments or scheduling deadlines.

What’s the bottom line for buyers? Most modern cloud LMS platforms now include LXP-level functionality. So if you have only one LMS, adding a third-party application is probably overkill. And if you’re purchasing your first learning system of any type, you’re likely to need a full LMS.

However, if you have multiple employee LMSs and other content sources (as many larger organizations do), an LXP is a must-have.

Extended enterprise interest in standalone LXPs will fade, as LMS platforms further improve their experience design and personalization functionality, and as talent-suite vendors enhance their front-end and integration capabilities.

13) AI Is Still On Its Way, But Don’t Wait Up

Most vendors I interview claim that their products include some level of machine learning or artificial intelligence. However, I’ve found that these capabilities are still fairly limited.

On the backend, reporting and analytics automation is where AI is making the most progress. And in terms of user experience, AI-powered content recommendations are improving learning engagement.

For example, suggested content can reflect a user’s professional interests, training history and progress, media preferences and preferences of a user’s peers. Even data from external systems (like a CRM) can be factored into the mix.

Although these advances are promising, vendors remain slow to discuss their AI “special sauce” in detail. Plus, it’s still impossible to see AI or ML at work when evaluating an LMS platform, because sufficient data is never available in a sales environment. Convenient!

Artificial intelligence and machine learning will increasingly influence learning content and systems. However, I recommend that buyers proceed with caution, because truly “intelligent” LMS capabilities are more on the theoretical bleeding edge than in the mainstream.

14) xAPI May Never Arrive

I’ve helped more than 60 organizations complete a thorough learning system selection process. Almost every one of those organizations said they wanted an xAPI-compliant LMS.

My reply is always the same. “Great. How are you using xAPI now?”

Then I wait to hear buyers say, “We aren’t using it yet, because we don’t have an xAPI-compliant system.” Right. This leads to my next question: “So how do you plan to use xAPI in the future?”

The answer is invariably some form of the following: “We have no idea. But if it finally arrives, we don’t want to miss it.”

Folks, don’t hold your breath. xAPI won’t be mainstream anytime soon (if ever). But that doesn’t mean you can’t measure and analyze learning behavior, anyway. Here’s why:

The big promise of xAPI is that it tracks specific informal learning activities and associates those activities with individual users. For example, did John Q. Learner read a book, visit a website, download a white paper or attend a tradeshow?

Well, guess what? The business world already has systems that track all that. They’re called CRMs. They don’t use xAPI – and they never will.

HR and L&D professionals who focus on employee training will continue to wait for the xAPI train to arrive. Meanwhile, extended enterprise learning systems will double-down on CRM integration.

15) LTI Gains Traction as an Extended Enterprise Standard

If you’re still concerned about xAPI, you’ll be glad to know there’s another much more promising standard in town. It’s called LTI (learning tools interoperability).

LTI is actually an academic LMS data standard that is starting to make inroads in corporate environments.

Basically LTI is like SCORM, but it doesn’t require content to reside on the same server as an LMS. This gives B2B content sellers the opportunity to maintain content in a central location, and serve it on-demand to any LTI-compliant LMS upon request.

For training content providers, this approach is logistically far superior to sending a file to customers who must load it on their LMS and then update it on an ongoing basis. SCORM offers a workaround to this file-sharing problem through cross-domain “stub” files. However, LTI is a much cleaner solution.

Corporate reliance upon the LTI standard will eventully surpass xAPI usage.

16) Full-Tilt Learning Experiences Come Closer

Not long ago, video content and mobile-responsive design were at the leading edge of learning experience design. Now they’re the norm. So what’s next?

We all want richer digital experiences. And just as learning platform innovators took cues from online consumer sites a decade ago, it’s vital to keep rising to user’s expectations. But which next-level advances will add value? Keep an eye on these three:

•  Mixed Reality
Experiential learning supported by AR (augmented reality), VR (virtual reality) or MR (mixed reality) is not just an extension of today’s video content. It involves a much deeper level of engagement – immersive, real-time and interactive in ways that on-demand or streaming video, alone, can’t touch.

Early applications are proving to be highly valuable, particularly in medical education, manufacturing, aviation and other high-risk environments.

•  Natural Language Processing
Consumers are already driving a massive wave of conversational computing adoption. (Hey Google, Alexa and Siri!) The failure of many first-generation business chatbots demonstrated the limitations of voice-driven automation. However, early lessons learned have led to a resurgence of improved applications.

For extended enterprise training providers, the potential upside is significant. By overcoming the design complexities of screen readers and digital keyboards, conversational computing technology can make learning experiences far more accessible to a much broader market.

•  5G connectivity
5G is one of today’s hottest technology trends – and with good reason. Imagine how nearly instant online response time will transform not just training experiences, but every aspect of our lives! 5G isn’t expected to be widely available for several years. But once it does kick-in, significant return on investment won’t be far behind.

How should you prepare? Smart companies are starting to think ahead by outlining goals, strategies, concepts and pilot programs that can be tested as infrastructure upgrades become available.

Few organizations will take the time and energy now to consider the future implications of very early-stage emerging technologies. But these forward-thinking organizations will be better prepared to adjust and gain first-mover advantage when the time is right.

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About the Author: John Leh

John Leh is Founder, CEO and Lead Analyst at Talented Learning and the Talented Learning Center. John is a fiercely independent consultant, blogger, podcaster, speaker and educator who helps organizations select and implement learning technology strategies, primarily for extended enterprise applications. His advice is based upon more than 25+years of learning-tech industry experience, serving as a trusted LMS selection and sales adviser to hundreds of learning organizations with a total technology spend of more than $100+ million and growing. John would love to connect with you on Twitter or on LinkedIn.

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