2021 Learning Systems Trends: An Analyst’s View

Learning systems trends 2021 - an analysts view - see what learning tech consultant John Leh sees ahead for the extended enterprise LMS market

Goodbye 2020. It’s (finally!) time to say hello to 2021 and look forward to what’s ahead on the learning systems front. Where should we begin? Let’s start with the obvious…

Saying that this past year was unpredictable and challenging is an understatement. As chaos took hold around the world, organizations everywhere conducted a quick status check, made mandatory lockdown adjustments and stepped into the unknown.

As a result, many business decision-makers suddenly saw a need for experts in online learning and related technologies. The long-awaited “seat at the table” was finally available. But that seat was most likely at your own table, while you attended a Zoom meeting. No one saw that coming.

Clearly, 2020 rewrote the rules for business, work and daily life. The massive pandemic disruption created an opportunity for learning technology providers in every sector to gain ground – and many did. As a result, we’ve seen innovation blossom across-the-board. And as an independent learning systems market analyst and selection consultant, I found it to be a thing of beauty.

So what’s likely to happen next? Well, as we learned in 2020, there are no guarantees. But to summarize my forecast in a single phrase, I’d say “more.” In other words, multiple significant trends will continue to gain steam. Here’s what I expect to see more of in the coming year…

 


16 Extended Enterprise LMS Trends for 2021

1) Digital Transformation Accelerates

During the pandemic, I’ve spoken with countless learning professionals. The most common and consistent theme I hear is that digital transformation is moving faster than ever – and its pace continues to accelerate.

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This full-tilt dash into the digital realm is shaping everything about learning systems, including selection, purchasing, configuration, content conversion and deployment of new learning platforms, as well as enhancement and expansion of existing systems.

The progress achieved in 2020 has ignited a new competitive war, as organizations everywhere now realize what’s at stake. They see how digital learning experiences can be a measurable differentiator for nearly every use case application in every industry. This has massive implications for the 2021 learning systems market. Fasten your seatbelts.

2) Learning Systems Specialization Sharpens

During the last decade, hundreds and hundreds of new learning systems entered the market. It seemed like everyone simultaneously had the same idea – an LMS should focus on learners and the process of learning. What’s more, they should be affordable, easy to use, simple to deploy. What a concept!

Many of these companies have grown, yet struggled to position themselves as more than just “another LMS.” Over time, specialists have emerged by intentionally or accidentally focusing on a particular audience or use case. Now, learning systems innovation tends to focus on functionality, integrations and vendor services needed to excel within a particular specialty.

As a result, one-size-fits-all vendors are being left behind in favor of those who serve clearly defined audiences, such as employees, customers, channel/partners, associations, higher education, K-12, commercial training companies or corporate extended enterprise constituents. And within these market segments, look for further specialization by industry or geographic location.

3) Mergers and Acquisitions Intensify

Despite an economic full-stop that shook global business to its core, learning industry investment and M&A activity remained strong in 2020, especially in sectors where the pivot to digital learning moved from a leading-edge concept to a mission-critical necessity. For example:

LIFE SCIENCES HIGHLIGHTS

WORK SAFETY & COMPLIANCE HIGHLIGHTS

  • SafetyCulture, a leading workplace safety and quality platform, acquired EdApp, a mobile training solution to provide free access to microlearning resources for millions of workers in multiple industries.
  • KPA, a provider of workforce health and safety compliance software for the steel industry, acquired safety education market leader, Multimedia Training Systems.

REMOTE WORK HIGHLIGHTS

RESKILLING & CERTIFICATION HIGHLIGHTS

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Also last year, the consolidation trend that had already been reshaping the LMS landscape continued to make its mark, with multiple large-scale deals. For example:

WORKFORCE LEARNING HIGHLIGHTS

OPEN SOURCE LMS HIGHLIGHTS

Going forward, we expect to see even more fallout from the combined impact of ongoing LMS industry consolidation and pandemic-related business uncertainty. However, we also anticipate new high-value investment opportunities, as innovative technologies continue to move the meter on digital training transformation.

4) Modular Solutions Make a Comeback

It’s fascinating to watch history repeat itself – again. Earlier in my career, learning systems included a variety of different “modules,” including LMS, LCMS, social learning, performance management and talent management.

The idea was to land one or more modules and expand the stack over time. But pricing models spun out-of-control as vendors sought incremental revenue streams from each add-on. Many buyers became locked-in by costly customized LMS deployments, so they objected to paying even more for additional functional “modules.”

In response to the outcry over vendor nickel-and-diming, new cloud and “next-gen” solutions were developed, offering access to full functionality for a single, all-inclusive price. The market has never looked back.

Now fast-forward 10 years. Cloud-based learning systems are comprehensive and mature. And now they’re starting to move back toward modularization. Interestingly. these modules tend to be defined in very familiar ways:  LMS, authoring, performance management, talent management, mobile app, social, integrations, analytics and more.

Let’s hope this “building block” approach doesn’t lead to the same kind of pricing issues we saw in the past.

5) Virtual Training Growth Goes Beyond COVID

Before Covid-19 struck, Zoom, GoToMeeting, WebEx, Adobe Connect and Skype had a place in many individuals’ lives. But now, everyone with an internet connection has likely participated in some form of online meeting or training session. (And who could’ve guessed that “Zoom fatigue” would become part of our common vernacular so quickly?)

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Regardless, virtual events have become an organizational necessity. No doubt, live gatherings will eventually return. But I expect organizations to build on what we’ve learned from this grand pilot program of 2020.

That means we should see an emphasis on innovation in virtual learning and virtual events, rather than a regression to pre-2020 levels. I see innovation happening with support for break-out groups, hybrid virtual/live events, mobile integration, enhanced learner data tracking, 2-way integration, single sign-on and more.

A few organizations like BlueSky eLearn, CommPartners, Community Brands Freestone, CSOD and D2L provide proprietary virtual tool technology, but most LMSs take a more agnostic approach to third-party integration.

6) Artificial Intelligence Continues to Advance

Artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) are not actual features you’ll find in an LMS. Instead, they’re enabling technologies that make learning systems work better. I like to say that AI and ML are difficult to demonstrate and extremely easy to exaggerate.

The use of AI and ML in learning systems is growing exponentially. For what purpose? They help drive personalized content recommendations, data analytics, content tagging/categorization, skills assignment, content authoring, video/audio transcription, voice-overs, support bots and much more.

Learning solutions that are pushing the AI envelope include Authentic Learning Labs, Cornerstone, Docebo, Degreed, EdCast and Valamis.

7) Productized Integrations Gain More Traction

Every LMS provides an open API that clients can use either to push or pull data between systems and trigger specific functionality. However, custom integrations require technical time to set-up and test, and ongoing effort to maintain. Productized integrations are pre-built, provided by the LMS vendor and allow two or more systems to be snapped together by anyone.

Popular “category” examples of productized LMS integrations include:

  • Communications
  • Content authoring
  • Customer relationship management
  • Customer service management
  • Data analytics
  • E-commerce platforms
  • Finance
  • Fulfillment systems
  • Gamification
  • HRIS integration
  • Learning record store
  • Marketing automation
  • Proctoring
  • SEO
  • Single sign-on
  • Social learning
  • Talent management
  • Virtual classrooms

Learning systems vendors with the broadest sets of productized integrations include Brainier, Cypher Learning Matrix, Docebo, LearnUpon, SAP Litmos, Skilljar, TalentLMS and Thought Industries.

8) The Rise of the SME

Extended enterprise learning was once the exclusive domain of corporations. Not anymore. Independent subject-matter experts are everywhere. And increasingly, they’re relying on digital learning platforms to create and sell their instructional content to individuals and businesses.

With the 2020 quarantine, people suddenly redeemed time that would otherwise be spent commuting to work or traveling long-distance on business trips. Even vacations were off the table. So, many professionals (including me) used that extra time to convert knowledge into educational content so we could sell it online.

You’ll find a broad spectrum of solutions for individuals and small training companies who want to start small and expand their vendor commitment over time, as their business grows. Love it. Some great SME-driven learning sites examples you can visit include Karl Kapp’s Learning & Development Mentor Academy, Josh Bersin Academy, and now our very own membership-based Talented Learning Center.

Examples of learning systems that support the unique needs of individual SMEs include Kajabi, Teachable, Thinkific, LearnDash, LifterLMS and TalentLMS.

9) Analytics Tools Dig Deeper

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Long before data analytics was considered cool in the learning tech industry, extended enterprise learning professionals understood the value of measuring training impact. For decades, organizations have been training customers and partners and then measuring related business performance by combining data from their LMS, CRM and other business systems.

There are several levels of analytics sophistication:

  • Export LMS data to a dedicated data analysis tool like Tableau, Qlik or PowerBI. This approach assumes that the organization licenses one of these tools and has sufficient expertise and resources to build relevant reports and dashboards.
  • Pull business data into the LMS and analyze it there. This avoids the need to license a powerful analytics tool, but the training organization needs sufficient expertise and bandwidth to manage these activities. It’s also essential to choose a learning system with high-end analytics. Providers that support this approach include Docebo, Holmes Corporation, Schoox, Thought Industries and Valamis.
  • Export/integrate data through a dedicated training/HR analysis solution like Authentic Learning Labs, OrgVue, LearningPool or Visier. This combines enterprise-level analytics tools along with expert services to interpret data and support business needs.

Quantifying an organization’s training impact will never grow old. And now that job is easier because many learning systems offer reporting and analytics that incorporate data from sources outside the LMS. But we can expect learning performance insights to become even more powerful, as intra-LMS analytics becomes a reality.

10) Customer Education is the Next Business Must-Have

The customer education market is hotter than ever. It’s actually been screaming hot for years, but COVID helped boost market momentum. Why? Many corporations instantly felt the sting of relying too heavily on in-person activities for customer onboarding.

In the past, it was common to fly trainers around the country (or beyond) to deliver live one-on-one or classroom training. Not anymore, thanks to pandemic travel restrictions. But customer education is integral to business success, so NOT training customers isn’t an option. And now, digital has become the most viable path.

Because customer education is tied directly to corporate revenue, customer satisfaction and overall business success, there is plenty of appetite and no lack of spending in this market segment. In response, learning systems vendors are innovating rapidly to out-pace the competition.

Stepping up to meet the continued surge in demand are customer-oriented learning systems like Intellum, Learndot, Skilljar and Thought Industries, D2L, along with broader EE cloud LMSs like Absorb LMS, Docebo and TalentLMS.

11) Personalization Goes Hyper

In the past, LMSs would personalize a user’s experience based on job title, organization or geography – data usually synced from an HRIS system. With that little bit of metadata, users could be grouped, assigned content (with completion rules) and provided or denied access to content and functionality.

Now, metadata and related business rules are much deeper and involve two-way communication. Actions within the learning system can drive actions outside the LMS, and vice versa.

For example, new sales data entered into a CRM can initiate the spin-up of a new customer LMS portal, upload and create accounts for learners, assign content, track completion progress, and usage patterns to enroll learners in external marketing automation or reward campaigns in non-LMS applications. Impressive stuff.

Vendors to watch in this space include Community Brands Crowd Wisdom, CrossKnowledge, Cypher Learning Matrix, Degreed, Docebo, Totara Learning, Thought Industries, Schoox and Valamis.

12) Adaptive Learning Saves Even More Time

Think of adaptive learning as the flipside of the hyper-personalization trend. Hyper-personalization happens at the platform level. Adaptive learning happens within the learning content. At its simplest, the content path can show or not show certain elements based on core job/role/organization fields, or by using hyper-personalized data fields to modify training paths.

Use case scenarios include using pretests, previously acquired skills or completed content to create a custom learning path, including personalized study plans to move learners through long and complex journeys. Adaptive learning saves time for learners, as well as organizations that want to achieve demonstrable proof of achievement of specific competencies.

Leaders in adaptive learning include BenchPrep, Community Brands Crowd Wisdom, Cypher Learning Matrix, Docebo, SAP Litmos, Thought Industries and Web Courseworks.

13) Authoring Finds a Home Inside the LMS

Most of the growth and innovation in the learning systems market is occurring in the extended enterprise space. Why? Because if you train external audiences or sell instructional content to individuals and businesses, developing content to support your intellectual property is mandatory. Organizations rarely share third-party instructional content with external audiences. This is where an embedded authoring tool can add tremendous value.

Why not use an external authoring tool? Well, you can, but intra-LMS authoring is faster, easier, more integrated with the LMS. Plus it can provide many of the same capabilities as a third-party authoring tool.

The perceived downside is a lack of portability if you decide to move to a different LMS. That’s certainly a consideration. However, you can minimize that risk and future unwanted effort by developing a thoughtful strategy for naming, building and maintaining content with an embedded authoring tool.

Some of the best learning systems with embedded content creation tools include Blue Sky eLearn, Community Brands Crowd Wisdom, D2L Brightspace, Northpass, Teachable, Thought Industries, Totara and Web Courseworks.

Another interesting related development is the emergence of authoring tools that can be used as standalone solutions or in a variety of LMSs – for example, Learnie, OmegaNotes and Authentic Learning Labs.

14) Certifications Take Center Stage

Certification isn’t a new concept. Maybe that’s why there are so many different standards and definitions of the term – even within the same organization. In some cases, certification can be achieved simply by completing a single course and an online test. In others, it may involve weeks or months of training, followed by a live proctored exam.

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Often, successful completion comes with a digital badge, certificate or postscript attached to your name, which can be shared on LinkedIn and other websites, in email and in professional documents. This makes certification an attractive way for organizations to build a branded content business, while learners gain immediately marketable knowledge and skills.

Not surprisingly, the pandemic has led many individuals to expand their professional skills through online learning. This increased demand for continuing education has, in turn, led to increased interest in certifications. And as employers emphasize the need for workforce reskilling, it’s likely that certification training will remain a hot trend for years to come.

Because certification is so popular, many learning systems offer strong capabilities. For instance, AccordLMS, BenchPrep, BlueVolt, EthosCE, Gryus, Learndot, NetExam, Skilljar, TalentLMS, ThinkingCap , Meazure Learning, Docebo, WBT Systems, KMI Learning and Thought Industries are only a few leaders in this space.

15) Testing Prep Comes Along for the Certification Ride

The flipside of certification is testing prep. The more serious the certification, the more serious the final examination.

Every LMS has the ability to create a basic assessment and use it as a pre-test. But this is different.

Often exam questions are pulled from an organization’s body of knowledge, training chapters, modules, units, programs, or skill and competency models. In essence, the final exam represents the collective score from many different knowledge areas. Testing prep helps learners study and practice their way through to competency.

Examples of testing prep innovation include the ability to create personalized study plans, question pools, randomized questions, confidence levels, spaced repetition, peer ranking and mastery tracking. Also look for mobile apps for learners, and AI-driven psychometrics and test-item analysis for preparation providers.

Leaders in testing prep include BenchPrep, Community Brands Crowd Wisdom, Web Courseworks, BlueSky eLearn and NetExam.

16) Mobile Apps Continue Their Resurgence

I’m old enough to remember pre-mobile LMS days. Actually, it wasn’t that long ago. When the smartphone revolutionized the world, the vast majority of LMS and talent management solutions weren’t mobile, to say the least. As a stop-gap, many vendors developed mobile apps for learners. But getting individuals to download a separate app and log-in was a constant challenge.

Soon, cloud-based learning systems were born. And because many of these solutions were built with mobile-first learning in mind, apps went out of style.

Now, mobile apps are making a comeback – but this time, access and log-in issues are no longer a barrier. Also, today’s apps leverage inherent mobile capabilities like texting, status notifications, geolocation, phone calls and photo/video uploads. These can enhance a variety of on-the-go learning activities, such as on-the-job training assignments, instructional games, learner-generated content sharing, question-of-the-day updates and social learning interactions.

With social distancing as the “new normal,” the need for mobile apps of every kind has increased, and mobile learning is no exception. In this environment, mobile app innovators like Growth Engineering, Absorb LMS, D2L, Docebo, Learnie and Tovuti should continue to shine.

 


Conclusion

Whew! There’s a quick 3000-word overview – and I’ve only just scratched the surface! 2020 was a busy year for anyone involved in buying, selling, consulting, creating and marketing online learning content and learning systems. 2021 is going to be even busier.

I’ve been working squarely in the middle of the elearning industry since 1995. So I’ve seen a lot. And I can tell you with confidence that learning solutions have never been more relevant and needed by organizations of all kinds. It’s time for us all to step up and lead at every level.

I’m betting on your success in 2021.

Thanks for reading!

John Leh
About John Leh (215 Articles)
John Leh is CEO and Lead Analyst at Talented Learning, LLC. Named among the “Top 20 Global Elearning Movers and Shakers” in 2018 and 2017, John is a fiercely independent LMS selection consultant, blogger and podcaster who helps organizations select and implement learning technology strategies – primarily for extended enterprise applications. His advice is based on more than 20 years of industry experience, serving as a trusted LMS selection and sales adviser to more than 100 learning organizations with a total technology spend of more than $65 million. You can connect with John on Twitter at @JohnLeh or on LinkedIn.

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