Welcome to our 5th annual trends post! When you look at the list below you might wonder why we’re not calling this our 2019 Book of Learning Systems Trends. Well, a lot is happening in extended enterprise learning and we want to touch on all the high points.
In fact, this guide is like the learning systems landscape, itself – deep, broad and multi-faceted. As analysts, we strive to make sense of the complexity, not just because it’s fascinating but also because we want to help you make better-informed software decisions.
Many analysts predict what might happen with “crystal ball” forecasts. Our trends lists reflect how learning systems buyers are actually driving innovation with their dollars!
These observations are based on continuous frontline experience with both sides of the purchasing table. Every day, we interview vendors to understand their product strategy, features and roadmap. Then we use that intelligence to help buyers define their requirements and evaluate qualified systems.
We hope you’ll find this guide helpful as you prepare for the year ahead. And we invite you to bookmark the page, so you can return to it as a resource in the future. Now, let’s get this New Year party started!
Top Learning Systems Trends for 2019
1) Vendor Expansion and Consolidation Continue at a Brisk Pace
As 2019 begins, 762 vendors are on our learning systems radar – and new innovators are entering the fray all the time. With so many players and so much pressure to differentiate, it’s no surprise that some are growing their business through acquisitions.
M&A transactions are an excellent indicator of the industry’s overall health and direction, so our analysts continuously monitor deals. In 2018, we tracked 40 notable acquisitions – up from 35 in 2017. For example:
CONTINUING EDUCATION: Solutions in this category are designed for organizations that sell professional development content, including associations, mission-driven nonprofits, commercial training providers, trade schools and entrepreneurial subject matter experts.
Most vendors excel in only one of these areas. That’s because each category involves distinctive use cases, technical requirements, professional services and licensing models. However, within each category, you’ll find a variety of vendor approaches, from specialists with only one application to generalists that support all needs.
3) Five Use Cases Propel Extended Enterprise Learning
Over the past five years, we’ve talked with countless expert practitioners and vendors about use cases and applications that drive extended enterprise learning. The most frequent scenarios include:
Customer onboarding and ongoing education for SaaS software and other products;
Learning, test prep and certification management for members of professional organizations;
Marketing and sales of continuing education to professionals and trade workers;
Training and certification management for corporate channel partners;
Rapid deployment of employee and partner training for product rollouts, mergers/acquisitions and global business expansion.
4) The Extended Enterprise Comes Home
For years, large talent suite LMS vendors generally ignored extended enterprise needs among their Fortune 2000 accounts. Therefore, many of these companies selected specialized systems to support external learning audiences.
However, these choices tend to be made by individual business units or regional offices. As a result, many large companies have been operating multiple LMSs. It’s not uncommon to see 3, 5, 10 or more concurrent systems.
Often, different groups share common content requirements, yet each creates and maintains its own content. This redundancy is more costly, less efficient and dilutes the overall brand.
Now many organizations are consolidating their disparate learning initiatives under a more centralized IT framework. Is this easy? No. Does it increase the need for clear learning governance rules and active oversight? Yes. But is it worth the effort? Usually.
5) Rise of the “Agile Business” Learning Platform
Change is a relentless reality for organizations everywhere. And one of the biggest challenges associated with change is the ability to deliver learning solutions that adapt at the speed of business.
For example, when you update a popular product, how can you be sure your most up-to-date training is immediately available to all sales, marketing and customer service staff – as well as customers, suppliers, distributors and others who need to know?
This is why some companies are choosing what we call the “agile business” learning platform. These systems can be configured, customized and deployed in days, not months. They feature built-in content development tools that make it easy to create and deliver targeted content to multiple audiences.
They also make it easier to plan, track and evaluate training effectiveness holistically across all audiences. Plus, they scale on-demand with usage-based licensing at a predictable cost. Examples include Absorb, Accord, Cypher Learning, Docebo, Litmos and TalentLMS.
6) Ease-of-Use is the New Normal
Not long ago, nearly everyone hated LMSs because they were so hard to use. But those systems were designed for a handful of training administrators, not tens of thousands of employees and customers.
Fortunately, the consumerization of business technology has changed all that. Learning systems vendors have dramatically improved their user interface design and the underlying logic flow. Now, most learning platforms are much easier to use for learners, administrators, instructors and content authors, alike. If you can’t say the same for your learning system, it’s time to switch.
7) Learning Experience Platforms Pressure the Pure-Play LMS
One reason why LMS design has improved is the arrival of the learning experience platform (LXP/LEP). When frontrunners Degreed/Pathgather and EdCast brought this concept to the corporate market several years ago, LMS vendors were forced to incorporate fundamental LXP/LEP functionality so they could remain relevant.
Distinctive features include Netflix-style image-based course libraries, with titles grouped by topic, new releases and custom collections. Additional features include AI-driven daily content recommendations based on topics of interest, consumption patterns and social activity.
Going forward, it’s unlikely that LXP/LEP platforms will displace full-fledged learning systems. There’s no incentive for LXP/LEP vendors to add complex compliance and extended enterprise functionality to their solutions. However, we do expect LMS vendors to continue adding value to their platforms with features inspired by LXP/LEP providers.
8) Built-In Content Authoring Becomes a Must
We first noticed this trend last year. Now it’s hard to find an any extended enterprise learning system without integrated authoring. These built-in tools are economical and easy to use. They can either augment external applications like Articulate or Lectora, or eliminate the need to use them altogether.
On the downside, if you switch systems in the future, you may face content portability issues. However, since authoring and the LMS are so tightly integrated, reauthoring your courses for sale is often also a reason to switch LMSs. Advanced innovation includes true LCMS/CMS capabilities that allow use and reuse of asset libraries (media, snippets, content, lessons, pages – any content) across the platform.
9) AI and Machine Learning Make Strong First Impressions
Every vendor we meet these days wants to emphasize existing or upcoming artificial intelligence capabilities. But what does AI really mean for a learning platform in 2019?
Primarily, vendors are using AI to analyze large data sets so their systems can identify usage patterns and present personalized content recommendations. Data factors can include course registrations/starts/completions, media preferences, selected topics, content tags and “likes”, anonymous and known peer content recommendations, time-in-content, job title and other profile demographics.
Advanced systems are introducing AI and machine learning to analyze performance data, test/Q&A responses, survey feedback and other intelligence to identify trends and generate automated actions or insights for learners, instructors, administrators and learning program sponsors. The possibilities are vast and exciting.
If you think skills and competencies are nice but nebulous, you may be surprised to know that continuing education providers are applying them in a very practical and concrete way. An increasing number of organizations are working with experts in their industry to create skill and competency frameworks that can span from childhood to retirement.
For each stage in the professional lifecycle, organizations define and constantly update the hard and soft skills needed for success. Then they tie educational goals and events to each of those stages, so learners can develop appropriate skills as they advance through their careers. The whole framework doesn’t need to be in place on day one. Instead, smart organizations develop these frameworks over time, focusing first on segments with the strongest career impact.
11) The Gap Narrows Between Formal Education and Work Readiness
As an offshoot of competency frameworks, continuing education providers are also mapping comprehensive lists of skills needed for a successful workplace in their respective professions. Formal education focuses on technical proficiency, but is often light on soft skills such as leadership, meeting management, self-discipline and collaboration.
By working closely with professionals at all stages in their careers, these organizations can pinpoint critical skills that are missing from formal education and certification programs. With these insights, they can proactively help new professionals close the gap, so they can more quickly become highly effective contributors.
These paths can include all kinds of activities and experiences, including self-paced learning, virtual events, cohort projects and mentoring activities. Often, gamification capabilities are also built into the process. For example points, rewards, awards, leaderboards, personalized text messages and daily study goals engage learners and help increase completion rates.
One of the most successful examples of extended enterprise directed learning paths is the logic behind the highly successful Trailhead training program for aspiring Salesforce developers.
13) Learning Systems Put Search on Steroids
Search functionality is playing an increasingly vital role in both corporate learning and continuing education. We see three contributing factors:
First, “federated” models now expand search beyond the LMS to include content from across the organizational ecosystem (AMS, CMS, CRM) and beyond;
Second, the ability to search not just for metadata but directly within content (such as PDFs, videos, online content and discussion forums) greatly improves results;
Finally, the ability to tag catalog content by any characteristic (cost, location, media type, channel, instructor, topic, skill, competency, job, years in industry, credit type) means it’s easy to create search widgets (a la Best Buy or Amazon) that let users easily filter and find relevant content.
14) AMS/LMS Lines Blur for Associations
Where does an association management system end and a learning management system begin? The boundary has never been clear, but the differences have become even harder to detect.
Association LMS vendors continue to broaden their capabilities to include traditional AMS features (such as event management, event-specific mobile apps, video capture, virtual events, CRM, marketing automation, membership purchases). What’s more, we see associations moving their catalog management and shopping process for digital and physical products from the AMS to the LMS because they prefer the LMS user experience. We don’t expect this AMS/LMS fog to lift anytime in 2019.
15) Organizations Cash-In on B2B Content Commerce
In extended enterprise learning, the ability to sell content to organizations with their own learner based is a central business need and LMS requirement. B2B learning systems are stepping up to the plate with solutions that support all facets of bulk content purchasing and delivery.
For example, purchasing organizations want to redistribute content by providing access codes or coupons to potential new users access. They also want branded portals to “house” this content, and some want segmented content libraries based on various licenses or products they resell. Dashboards are also important to help bulk content resellers manage license/seat counts and monitor usage.
Innovative learning systems integrate with CRM systems like Salesforce to automatically generate customer portals and populate content based on sales or actions that occur outside the LMS.
16) Customer Education Continues to Dominate as a Standalone Segment
As we noted last year, businesses everywhere are tapping into customer success as a source of competitive advantage. And for many product and service companies, customer education plays a significant role in customer acquisition, onboarding, retention and profitability.
Although employee-oriented learning systems can be used for this purpose, it’s not a natural fit. Customer-facing departments typically fund, develop and deliver training to their constituents, and they typically prefer learning solutions that integrate with Salesforce CRM. This is why specialized customer-focused learning systems continue to gain traction. In fact, we estimate that this will remain the fastest growing segment in the learning systems space.
17) LMS Widgets Bring Learning to SaaS Users
For years, we’ve talked about the importance of removing silos between learning systems and the rest of the world. So who can resist the allure of in-app learning? With embedded widgets, you can create a window that brings some or all of a learning application, content or expert help directly into another software platform. Any content launched or consumed outside the LMS interface is still tracked just like any content in the LMS.
This is one more compelling case of bringing learning to learners on their terms. It’s often by SaaS software applications for customer onboarding and ongoing education, where it is proving its value in driving product adoption and retention.
18) Microservice APIs Connect with the LMS Market
Microservice APIs (application programming interfaces) make it super easy to integrate multiple systems. APIs use standardized technology that enables information exchange between SaaS software systems and automated workflows.
Implementing an API can be as simple as entering a code from one system into a form field in the admin interface of another system. For example, when you enter a virtual classroom API code from Zoom or Adobe into an LMS, you can automate scheduling, notification and attendance tracking for that event.
A more advanced example involves a system of triggers and actions to automate a business workflow. For example, when a customer purchases a course from your website, the transaction can be noted in your CRM and the data can be passed to your LMS, so a new account is automatically created there and in your customer support system. Notifications are sent directly to the buyer, explaining how to access the content, and the customer’s progress can trigger subsequent actions in other applications in your ecosystem.
Examples of microservice aggregators and workflow enablers include Zapier, MuleSoft, Workato and Azuqua. Enabling tools from these companies are opening doors to dramatic improvements in extended enterprise business efficiency, as well as customer engagement, retention and profitability.
Marketing professionals rely on tools like MailChimp, Drip and Pardot for automated email campaigns that keep their brand top-of-mind with potential customers.
For example, when someone signs up for a whitepaper on your website, you can add that prospect’s record to a campaign that sends email messages requesting feedback, recommending related content or promoting relevant products.
Extended enterprise learning platform providers are recognizing the value of this marketing technique because it’s a highly effective way to convert anonymous website visitors to known prospects and paid customers. Interestingly, the need to rely on third-party apps for this kind of functionality is decreasing as marketing tools increasingly find their way into learning systems’ core capabilities. We expect to see more of this in the coming year.
20) Mobile Apps Swing Back Into Favor (For Now)
Ah, the pendulum of learning systems life! In 2019, the number of smartphone users is expected to reach 2.5 billion, with more than 2 million apps available for both Android and iOS. Remarkable how far we’ve come in only a decade!
I remember the early days, when the mobile app surge surprised the learning industry. It wasn’t pretty. Then the pendulum swung back toward responsive LMS design – first for learners, then for administrators, and finally for instructors. Now the pendulum is swinging back to specialized mobile apps for incremental learning capabilities.
What kind of capabilities? Well, we’re seeing event-specific apps, class registration supported by geolocation, distance-based OJT interactions involving videos and picture sharing, course assignments and reminders via text notifications, question-of-the-day apps, spot polls and offline/online content sync. Great progress, but it may only be a matter of time before the pendulum swings again. For example, we’re seeing creative things happening outside the learning space with instant apps (no need to download).
21) Updated Accessibility Standards Shine a Light on User Experience
Inclusive software design is good design. It’s not just about complying with regulations to avoid business risk and litigation. It actually expands your addressable market. So why don’t more learning systems developers emphasis accessibility?
That’s likely to change this year, in the wake of updates to the federal government’s ADA/508c regulations. These policies ensure digital content and applications are fully accessible to people with disabilities. The new standards refer to Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG 2.0 Levels A and AA), with Level A focused on making alt text available in traditional images for screen readers, and Level AA extending these standards to video.
LMS vendors have been lax about adhering to these guidelines, but recent lawsuits filed against multiple websites and higher education institutions are likely to bring new attention from learning systems buyers. Innovative vendors using this policy refresh as a competitive differentiator by combining available third-party testing with certification of learning portals and apps they provide. Smart move.
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John Leh is 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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