Clark Quinn's Learnings about Learning
(The Official Quinnovation blog)

10 May 2010

Why bash the LMS?

Clark @ 6:02 am

In response to a query about why someone would question the concept of the LMS, I penned the (slightly altered, for clarity) response that follows:

What seems to me to be the need is to have a unified performer-facing environment.  It should provide access to courses when those are relevant, resources/job aids, and eCommunity tools too.  That’s what a full technology support environment should contain.  And it should be performer- and performance-centric, so I come in and find my tools ‘to hand’.  And I ‘get’ the need for compliance, and the role of courses.

So, what’re my concerns?

On principle, I want the best tool for each task.  The analogy is to the tradeoffs between a Swiss Army knife and a tool kit.  There will be orgs for which an all-singing all-dancing system make sense, as they can manage it, they can budget for it.  In general, however, I’d want the best tool for each job and a way to knit them together.  So I’d be inclined to couple an LMS with other tools, not assume I can get one that’s best in all it’s capabilities.  I’m sure you’ve seen the companies that put in some version of a capability to be able to tick it off on a feature list, but it’s a brain-dead implementation.

Also, I do worry about the DNA of the all-singing, all-dancing.  I was asked whether a social system and an LMS, each with the same features, would be equivalent. Yes, but.  It depends on the learner experience, and that could be different.  The feature list could be identical, and all the features accessible, but I’d rather have it organized around the learner’s communities and tasks rather than courses.  But even that’s not the big worry.

My big worry, both at the individual and org level: is that focusing on an LMS, and talking about an LMS, focuses on formal learning.  And history, tradition, and a bunch of other things already have made that too much the emphasis.  Yes, I’m on a crusade, not to replace formal learning, but to put it in balance with the rest.  And given all the weight tilting towards formal, I think the pressure has to be to push much harder on non-formal before we’ll get a balance.

As an aside, my take on Snake Oil is that it’s actually about the social space, not LMSs.  Everyone who can program a DB is suddenly a social media vendor.  And lots of folks who’ve used twitter and blogged a few times are suddenly social media experts. That’s the snake oil; and it’s SoMe, not LMS (it happened there, too, but that’s past).

I don’t want my colleagues who work for LMS companies to take the bashing personally; I’ve great respect for their integrity and intellect, but I want them to understand that it’s a mission.  I’m not anti-LMS, or anti-LMS vendor; I’m anti-’courses are the one true learning’, and I’m afraid that leading with the LMS is a slippery slope to that place.

LMSs are a tool, social networks are a tool.  I’m perfectly willing to believe that “the remaining LMS vendors are adding Web 2.0 / Social / Collaborative functionality into their offerings in a robust way”, but then don’t call it an LMS!  LMSs are about ‘managing’ learning, and that’s not what we want to do (nor, really, can do), nor do we want organizations thinking like that.  We want to facilitate learning.  Call them learning infrastructure platforms (you wanna give me some LIP?), or something else.

But if someone keeps leading with ‘learning management‘, I’m going to keep suggesting a different path.


  1. I’m against “Learning Management Systems” (and have written more than my share of pithy observations on the subject.

    But I completely support the concept of “Lunch Management Systems” for large companies. For too long, we’ve allowed employees to choose what they want to eat, when they want to eat it, and how they want to consume it.

    Most employees are too stupid to make these critical choices (some actually don’t even EAT lunch), so the company just has to start measuring and verifying what’s going on in this critical performance area.

    The LMS will allow management to monitor exactly which entrees have been consumed, how long it took the employee to eat them, and (with the appropriate Content Registering Assessment Plugin) even how much waste was passed by their digestive system. This allows the C-Suite executives to view a dashboard in real time, showing the throughput and output.

    We can also make sure that employees are only choosing food appropriate to their job posting — Red Bull for programmers, high carbs for the warehouse workers, and red meat for the MBA crowd. Users will be prohibited from registering for lunches that are not job-appropriate, therefore saving valuable resources.

    Most importantly, food consumers can regurgitate food for others in their department — a sort of “Eat Once, Serve Many” model for lunch that will save big dollars in costs of overpaid Food Designers and Developers. There’s no need to develop content appropriate to specific eating styles — just put it all in one big pot and let all the employees belly up.

    I’d better get busy and patent this concept.

    Comment by Dick Carlson — 10 May 2010 @ 6:24 am

  2. [...] Clark Quinn describes the need: What seems to me to be the need is to have a unified performer-facing environment.  It should provide access to courses when those are relevant, resources/job aids, and eCommunity tools too.  That’s what a full technology support environment should contain.  And it should be performer- and performance-centric, so I come in and find my tools ‘to hand’.  And I ‘get’ the need for compliance, and the role of courses. [...]

    Pingback by Harold Jarche » A unified performer-facing environment — 10 May 2010 @ 6:39 am

  3. Following up on Dick’s excellent comment, here’s a snip from a post I made last year:

    Learning and becoming knowledge-able are now basic requirements for every worker. These are basic requirements for life, as much as food and water. We don’t manage what or how our employees eat and we don’t need to manage their knowledge or learning. We can make it easier for them to learn and share knowledge though, just like putting in a cafeteria or a water fountain. Workers need support and tools to develop these personal processes but the organization should stay out of the business of knowledge and learning and instead focus on collaboration.


    Comment by Harold Jarche — 10 May 2010 @ 7:22 am

  4. [...] Quinn has some great thoughts on “Why Bash the LMS“.  While the article is a bit more balanced than it might sound from the title, I still like [...]

    Pingback by Soundings: Best Practices in Teaching and Technology » More Fun Bashing the LMS — 10 May 2010 @ 1:34 pm

  5. Hey Clark,

    Great post. I agree on a lot more than we disagree about. I think the best tool for the task is the right approach, but I worry about duplicate user profiles, search, reporting SSO, multiple email integrations etc… I also think that while not all orgs need an all signing, all dancing solution, they do all probably need an LMS, at least if they need to manage compliance and related learning etc… And if they do, why not leverage the social features in there for marginally more money, rather than buy a completely different system where all of those integration issues need to be addressed? I understand about creating balance, but I also don’t want to see us create a bunch of silos either. Been there done that (LCMS, EPSS, KM etc…) and it’s not fun for vendors or clients.

    As to the naming thing, been there and done that too. When I was at KP, we told an analyst that we were going to rebrand ourselves. The next year we were dropped from their LMS report and they even wrote a caution that we were leaving the LMS space. (This was well before the Mzinga business and therefore completely erroneous.) But the sales and business impact was huge. I think that might be changing. At Learn.com, we recently re-tag-lined ourselves as a Knowledge Platform much to the delight of both Gartner and Forrester, and Bersin recently did a study about the advent of Adaptive Systems (where we were listed as the leading vendor). I think analysts are starting to realize that LMS and even Talent Systems are too limiting as category descriptors. That said, it’s still a chicken and egg thing. Evolve too fast and you can’t find any mates. Evolve too slow and you die. It’s a tough balancing act right now for us as vendors because we have thought leaders like yourself running (minimally) two years ahead of where the industry is at. We still need people to buy our stuff to grow right? Most L&D professionals are late to the party, and if we went to market as an adaptive portal which is closer to what we really are, we’d never be considered for LMS or TM RFP’s etc… I’d rather convince the 5-10% of our market that’s asking about social in a meaningful way that we can meet their needs than be excluded from the selection process of the other 85-90%. I’m sure that’s true for all of us and not limited to Learn.com

    Anyway, my two cents. I’ve misjudged the market twice already in my career, once with Firefly, a software simulation tool, and once with Knowledge Exchange, an integrated social learning, EPSS, training platform. Firefly was, unfortunately, too sophisticated for the typical L&D buyer who just wanted to play with the finger paint that is Captivate. And Knowledge Exchange was at least a decade too early. I’m a slow learner, but even I recognize that there is a pretty serious disconnect right now between where we want to go and where the market actually is.

    Comment by David Wilkins — 12 May 2010 @ 3:39 pm

  6. Kevin Kelly’s Lifestream entry today fits with my view of what’s going on with LMS.

    KK Lifestream update

    The harsh news is that “getting stuck on a local peak” is a certainty in the new economy.

    Instability and disequilibrium are the norms; optimization won’t last long. Sooner, rather than later, a product will be eclipsed at its prime. Indeed, an innovation at its prime increases its chances of being eclipsed. In Mastering the Dynamics of Innovation, a study of innovation in the automobile industry, Utterback concludes that “an unhappy byproduct of success in one generation of technology is a narrowing of focus and vulnerability to competitors championing the next technological generation.” The product may be perfect, but for an increasingly smaller range of uses or customers.

    While one product is perfecting its peak, an outsider can move the entire mountain by changing the rules. Detroit was the peak of perfection for big cars, but suddenly the small-car mountain overshadowed it. Sears was king of the retail mountain, but then Wal-Mart and Kmart’s innovations created a whole new mountain range that towered above it. For a brief moment Nintendo owned the summits of the video-game mountain until Sega and later Sony built separate mountains even higher. Each of the displaced industries, companies, or products were stuck on a less optimal local peak.

    There is only one way out. The stuck organism must devolve. In order to go from a peak of local success to another higher peak, it must first go downhill. To do that it must reverse itself and for a while become less adapted, less fit, less optimal. It must do business less efficiently, with less perfection, relative to its current niche.

    This is a problem. Organizations, like living beings, are hardwired to optimize what they know–to cultivate success, not to throw it away. Companies find devolving unthinkable and impossible. There is simply no allowance in the enterprise for letting go.”


    Comment by Jay Cross — 28 May 2010 @ 8:38 am

  7. [...] Why bash the LMS?- Learnlets, May 10, 2010 [...]

    Pingback by May – June 15 Great Ones — 14 June 2010 @ 10:31 pm

  8. [...] Google Wave Mean the End of the LMS? by folks like Michael Feldstein and now we have the gong of Clark Quinn at his Learnlets Blog with his “unified performer-facing environment. The underpinnings of these [...]

    Pingback by Saba - The People Management Solution for Enterprise and Midsize Organizations — 6 August 2010 @ 4:07 pm

  9. [...] the center of the universe, What is the future of the LMS?, When to LMS, A case for the LMS?, Why bash the LMS?, A Defense of the LMS (and a case for the future of Social [...]

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