In 2016, it makes more sense to think of a LMS as part of a digital business ecosystem, rather than a standalone island destination. LMSs are integrated into many different types of applications to share data and drive business workflow. There are a variety of approaches to LMS integration. Vendors can:
- Provide an open API library consisting of available scripts that a tech-savvy buyer can use to automate integration with client systems.
- Provide pre-built connection APIs that can be used to automate many of the integrations outlined in this section. Pre-built API connectors can be turned on by checking a box and entering the appropriate API “code” to link the two systems.
- Have a private API library or web services that require the LMS vendor to build and configure the integration. This is probably the least attractive option due to cost, but necessary with complex integrations.
- Use flat files (txt, csv) to transfer data via a secure FTP folder in batches at predetermined time intervals. This is commonly used for HRIS and ERP integration.
The chart below shows the most popular LMS integrations according to 72 LMS vendors we surveyed.
Types of LMS Integration
eCommerce Payment Gateways
An ecommerce gateway is the entity that does the actual credit card processing and deposits the money into the LMS owner’s bank account. Most commonly, LMS vendors do not collect or store credit card information, but rather integrate with a third-party payment gateway. Examples of payment gateways include Paypal, Authorize.net, Stripe and many more. Many medium and large-scale organizations typically have a payment gateway in place, and the LMS just needs to tie into it.
Most LMSs that support business-to-consumer ecommerce also provide a storefront and shopping cart. This includes tools to set and manage prices, shopping cart functionality, as well as support for discounts, coupons, and related features. Alternatively, some LMS cloud vendors integrate with third-party ecommerce sites such as Shopify and Magento to deliver ultra-professional storefronts with a full breadth of ecommerce capability. The integration strategy provides more power, but often delivers a non-unified interface for learners.
Customer Relationship Management (CRM)
Integrate a CRM and a LMS together and you have the most measurable training program in history. With shared common audiences, user experiences and most importantly, shared data, organizations have an unprecedented view into the value of training. Have partners sold more or less after being certified? Do customers renew at a higher rate, or buy complementary products when trained vs. untrained? An integrated CRM/LMS solution can answer all these questions and more, turning learning into a strategic, measurable tool, as well as a competitive differentiator in any industry. The most common CRM integrations are with Salesforce.com and Microsoft Dynamics.
Google Analytics is a vital service that lets website owners track everything about their visitor traffic—where it comes from, how long they stay and what they do while moving through the site. Google Analytics tracks a visitor’s access device, browser, previous website, pages visited, time spent on the page, next site visited, language, IP, precise geographic location, age and much more. Most of this data is only nice-to-know for employee learning initiatives, but it is mission critical for extended enterprise initiatives targeted at channel partners, franchise, dealers, prospects and customers. Ongoing visitor insights can be tied to promotional programs and data that justifies your ongoing ROI business case.
Global Taxation Management
Training is non-taxable in all US states. However, outside the US, training is taxable at different rates, depending on the country or local jurisdiction. The tax charged might be based on where the training was created or consumed, or which currency is being used. All of this is terribly confusing and generally impossible for a LMS vendor to manage. Fortunately, the best global extended enterprise LMSs integrate with global taxation management software – primarily Avalara.
Human Resource Information System (HRIS) or Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP)
A corporation typically has a human resource or enterprise resource system in place that keeps track of all employees, their HR status, payroll and many other HR and business functions. These systems are the upstream core systems that feed user, manager, organization and role data into the LMS. If an employee gets a new job or is assigned to a new manager, that information is passed to the LMS, and the user’s permissions may change accordingly. Although these types of integrations can happen real-time via APIs, it is still common to do a nightly batch upload. HR/ERP integrations are usually one-way, but can be two-way when the HR/ERP system is the master record keeper. The most common integrations of this type are with Oracle, SAP, Infor and Lawson.
Single Sign-On (SSO)
SSO is used to log users into an LMS behind the scenes, as long as the users are known and named. SSO is most commonly deployed in employee LMS solutions. The common use case is an employee who logs into the corporate “network” and then can access multiple corporate systems without being forced to manually log in and out of each system separately. The most common corporate SSO integrations are Active Directory, LDAP, OAuth and SAML but social media single sign-on is rising in popularity.
For extended enterprise audiences, a rising trend is to allow learners to create an account or sign-in using their social media username/password credentials. The next layer of sophistication allows learners to share catalog content, certifications to their Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Google+ feeds or profiles. This can easily increase brand and content awareness and interest in learning programs beyond an organization’s active customer base.
Talent Management Systems
Many talent management systems such as Cornerstone, SuccessFactors, Oracle, SumTotal and Saba have their own proprietary integrated LMS solutions. These competitive solutions will not integrate with each other so an integrated talent suite is generally provided by the same vendor. The major exception to this is Workday who encourages integration with a third party LMS until they release their own LMS in the second half of 2016.
Many vendors support some level of integration with popular third-party virtual classroom tools like GoTo Meeting, Adobe Connect or WebEx. Virtual classrooms, webinars, webcasts and online meetings are all loosely synonymous terms. Virtual classroom functionality is similar to instructor-led management functionality, except that the location of the event is online. The integration allows administrators to schedule the event in the LMS, and it is automatically scheduled in the third-party virtual tool. At the time of the session, learners enter the live event via the LMS without ever knowing that a separate virtual tool is being used. The virtual tools track and report attendance, attention, notes, chat and other data back to the LMS.
xAPI (Tin Can)
xAPI is a communication standard that allows for tracking and reporting of informal or formal learning activities conducted outside of the LMS portal. A Learning Record Store (LRS) is a database used to store all of this data, and can be standalone or integrated into the LMS database. Among other things, cutting edge LMSs are using xAPI to provide learners the ability to record external learning activities they completed, including conferences attended, websites visited, books read, videos watched and MOOCs completed. This data is available on their LMS user profile transcript, and can be shared to their social learning networks if desired.
The corporate LMS is no longer a destination but rather an integral part of a broader ecosystem. LMS vendors have a variety of automatic and manual methods of integrating the LMS. As the industry trends to pre-built connectors, integration is getting easier, cheaper yet more strategic than ever before. Tying marketing, learning, ecommerce and other business systems together helps elevate the LMS from a cost to a strategic profit center.
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Now Available — LMS Almanac: Corporate Edition 2016
In the LMS Almanac: Corporate Edition 2016, we provide a comprehensive LMS Requirements Guide outlining many functional, technical, service and business requirements — including integrations. The video below will introduce you to the Almanac.