If you’ve ever crossed professional paths with me, you know I’m willing to talk learning tech shop with anyone — vendors, buyers and practitioners — anytime, anywhere in the world. Every day I meet new experts and exchange ideas about what’s good, bad and ugly in the world of learning technology.
It’s not just because I’m a learning tech fanatic with more than 22 years of LMS/elearning industry experience. It’s also because I’m a fiercely independent analyst and LMS selection consultant and it’s my job to know what’s happening among the hundreds of vendors who are pushing the boundaries of LMS innovation. My readers and clients demand it.
Revisiting a recent conversation
Recently, Lars Hyland, Chief Commercial Officer of Totara, asked me to discuss LMS trends as part of their ongoing, incredibly interesting “Disruption Debate” series for their blog. Of course, I jumped at the chance to learn and add my voice to the very distinguished mix!
As I look back at that Q&A, I see key market opportunities and issues that are very much on my mind these days. It is a logical follow-up to the forward-looking LMS market analysis I published earlier this year. So as you read my expanded comments below, think of them as a mid-year market snapshot.
And of course, if you’d like to talk directly about how these topics apply to your organization, I invite you to contact me.
1) What opportunities are changing the LMS landscape?
The job of a senior HR or L&D professional hasn’t gotten any easier over the years, but I’m optimistic about the breadth and depth of technology available to learning leaders today. Here are three ways technology is providing upside assistance:
- Lower complexity and cost: Traditionally, the transition to an LMS was notoriously deliberate, time-consuming and expensive. Those realities meant that decisions were driven more by cost savings than the interests of learners. But modern learning technology is far more accessible and much less cost prohibitive. This is a primary reason why market growth remains strong.
- The rise of mobility: In less than a decade, our society has fully embraced mobile device use for nearly every aspect of daily life. “Always on” mobile connectivity has opened doors to a whole new level of learning. We are quickly moving away from the classic “prepare for everything” approach to learning solutions. The idea that all related content must fit into a single, structured “course” has become a thing of the past. Instead, the focus is shifting to supporting real-time learning and performance.
- Custom learning experiences: Now it’s possible to map learning experiences to the specific interests, needs and behaviors of learners, over time. We can promote continuous learning by creating a series of events and online activities, supported by resources that remain available on-demand, at a learner’s discretion. Plus, with technology like xAPI, we now have the ability to track and analyze learning interactions with incredible precision. This kind of feedback is vital to link learning activity with business outcomes and inform ongoing program improvement.
2) Where are the most visible results?
The most innovative learning leaders are focused on making a demonstrable business impact. Of course, organizations still need to deliver compliance and other training basics, but where do you invest beyond those priorities? Smart organizations are looking at ways to leverage technology by extending learning across the entire value chain — to suppliers, channel partners and customers. This kind of holistic business learning strategy has potential not only to pay for itself, but also transform L&D from a cost center to a profit center.
3) How is innovation affecting learning content?
Perhaps the biggest content breakthrough is the prevalence of crowdsourced knowledge. The way we find and consume information today is vastly different from only a decade ago. For example, think about social media. When a gadget breaks, our first move is to search for instant answers on Google, Twitter or Facebook, or we log into YouTube and look for relevant video tutorials. We can reach out to peers we know, or talk with experts we’ve never even met. People who don’t know what elearning is are engaging in do-it-yourself elearning every day.
Corporate learning organizations need to harness this just-in-time use of crowdsourced knowledge and integrate it with formal course content. We all want deeper knowledge and better skills, but in many corporate environments, the time and incentives for learning and development have been diminishing. To encourage lifelong learning, we should consider how people learn outside of formal training, and create ways to acknowledge their efforts and accomplishments. Professional micro credentials and digital badges are starting to take hold as universal tools that employers, academic institutions, associations and commercial training providers can use to encourage lifelong development and begin closing the skills gap.
4) Uncertainty and change — what role do they play?
We’re living in an age of economic, political and business uncertainty. Org charts, job roles and talent requirements that companies locked-in years ago are no longer a sure thing. Today’s challenge isn’t just about learning how to deal with ambiguity. It’s also about learning how to manage when the pace of change is relentless and seems to be accelerating over time.
Many companies are shifting their talent strategy to rely less on full-time employees and more on contractors. Some studies estimate that “contingent workers” now comprise up to 40% of the post-recession workforce. In this new era of the fluid, self-managed workforce, how do we motivate people to continue developing their skills and competencies? In my opinion, technology promises multiple answers.
One strategy involves “aggregated” content syndication — using APIs to deliver high-value learning content through your LMS, rather than trying to build it all internally. Ready-made training courses and self-service resources from proven partners like Lynda.com or Harvard Business School can be a relatively fast, easy and cost-effective way to support a diverse, fluid audience of independent learners.
When it is hard to predict the future, the more flexible and extensible your learning technology is, the better. Easy integration across systems is particularly important. For example, at Talented Learning, we use Slack to communicate and collaborate in real-time about various projects and topics. We rely on Zapier APIs to snap various systems together and reconfigure on-the-fly. Organizations can use this same approach to design and manage a scalable centralized learning ecosystem, including HR systems, marketing software, email tools, reporting, ecommerce — you name it. You have the freedom to choose the best tools for your needs and bring them together in one highly accessible location.
5) Where is the LMS heading?
Learning technology continues to evolve at a mind-boggling pace, with innovative new companies constantly pushing the boundaries. Hardly a week goes by when we don’t discover a new learning platform vendor, or hear about new tools that challenge traditional training methods.
Previously, I sold learning management systems for 13 years. When the wave of cloud LMS vendors began to arrive early in this decade, I wondered how the market would support so many solutions. Then four years ago, I founded Talented Learning to give customers independent insight into what’s available. I have now reviewed over 130 systems in-depth, and I definitely see some trends emerging.
Several future-minded observations
- In the past, nearly all buyers hated their LMS vendor, usually because the systems were too complex to implement and manage in-house, and customer service was poor. However, with cloud solutions, satisfaction is increasing because vendors have a good incentive to keep customers happy to earn ongoing subscription fees. However, because cloud platforms are relatively easy to set up, many buyers no longer need to hire professional services teams to implement and manage their LMS.
- With hundreds of vendors participating in today’s LMS marketplace, we increasingly see specialist systems designed to solve “niche” problems. These are not kitchen sink solutions. They are precision tools, aimed at particular customers who are grappling with well-defined problems.
- We also see vendors that focus on serving specific business sectors, where they develop industry expertise and then apply learning technology very strategically.
- On the other end of the spectrum, some SaaS LMS vendors offer minimal functionality to address “entry-level” learning management needs. These are low-cost, simple solutions. Although they have obvious limitations, these options are opening the door to customers who previously couldn’t afford the cost of implementing, customizing or maintaining a full-scale enterprise-class LMS.
- With so many basic SaaS systems, there is a special need at the high end of the market to provide “custom learning experiences” that are commerce-focused and blur the content/platform line. (Learn more about this by at our on-demand webinar “Custom Learning Experiences: When No LMS Will Do.”)
- I don’t know who will ultimately win the battle of the LMS market, but I am confident that on-premise solutions are going to lose.
6) What are your tips for LMS buyers?
With so many moving pieces in today’s learning ecosystems, it’s essential for buyers to have sources they can trust for complete, transparent, up-to-date information and advice.
However, I’m constantly struck by first-time LMS buyers who don’t know the level of help they need. Many decision makers try to do all the heavy lifting themselves, not realizing how difficult it can be to find a strong learning technology fit. If they don’t find someone like me who can help define their requirements clearly and narrow the field, they can waste a lot of time and money going down the wrong path.
On the other hand, there’s a common misconception that you can’t believe vendors because everything they say is biased or downright misleading. I spend most of my life verifying the commentary coming from industry players, and I can assure you that much of the educational information from LMS vendors is valid and useful.
So my advice is for LMS buyers is to check out freely available blogs, research, and whitepapers from leading vendors and independent sources. If you read learning industry blogs for only 10 minutes a day, 6 days a week, at the end of a year that’s 52 hours of relevant education! Most of us spend more time than that just checking our Facebook feed. Instead, you could devote a little time to reading each day, and soon you’ll know enough to make smarter learning technology choices for your organization. (And if you sign-up to follow this blog, I’ll do my best to make it worth your while.)
Thanks for reading!
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