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

6 May 2010

A case for the LMS?

Clark @ 10:48 am

My Internet Time Alliance colleagues Harold Jarche and Jane Hart have been (rightly) eviscerating the LMS.  Harold put up a post that the “LMS is no longer the centre of the universe“,  while Jane asked “what is the future of the LMS“.  Both of them are recognizing the point I make about the scope of learning in thinking about performance: it’s more than just courses, it’s the whole ecosystem.

I think that, before we completely abandon the LMS (and that’s not necessarily what they advocate), we should examine the key capabilities an LMS provides and determine whether that role can be taken up elsewhere or how it can manifest in the broader system.  I see two key functions an LMS provides.

The first role is to provide access to courses: there’s one place where learners can go to sign up for face-to-face courses, or access online courses (whether to signup and then attend a synchronous event or to complete an asynchronous one).  Providing access to courses is a good thing, as there are situations where formal learning is the appropriate approach.

A second role is to track learner usage and completion of courses. Again, ascertaining an individual’s capabilities is valuable, whether it be by programmed assessment, 360 evaluation or otherwise.  Linking these interventions back to organizational outcomes is also valuable to determine whether the original objectives were appropriate and whether the intervention needs modification.  (BTW, I’m definitely assuming for the sake of the argument that there’s an enlightened analysis focusing on meaningful workplace objectives and an enlightened design combining cognitive and emotional design into a minimal and engaging experience).

Other capabilities – authoring, communications, etc – are secondary, really.  There are other ways to get those functions, so focusing on the core affordances is the appropriate perspective.

How do you provide learners with the ability to access courses?  The LMS model is that the learner comes to the LMS.  That’s a course-centric model. In a performance ecosystem model, we should have a learner performance-centric view, where courses, communities, resources (e.g. job aids, media files), etc are aligned to their interests, roles, and tasks.  Really, performers should have custom portals!

Similarly, tracking performance should cross courses, use of resources, and community actions to look for opportunities to facilitate.  We want to find ways to assist people in using the environment successfully, to augment the elements of the ecosystem, and to align it to the performance needs.  This is a bigger problem, but an LMS isn’t going to solve it.

All this argues, as Jane suggests in a followup post on A Transition Path to the Future, that “It may be that you want to retain it in some cut-down form, or it may be that it is providing no real value at all, and it is a barrier to ‘learning'”.    Harold similarly says in his followup post on Identifying a Collaboration Platform, that you “minimize use of the LMS”.

You could make access to formal learning available through a portal, but I think there’s an argument to have a tool for those responsible for formal learning to manage it. However, it probably should not be a performer-facing interface.

The big problem I see is that it’s too easy for the learning function in an organization to take the easy path and focus on the formal learning, and an LMS may be an enabler.  If you take the Pareto rule Jay Cross (another ITA colleague) touts where we spend 80% of our money on the 20% of value people obtain in the workplace from formal learning, you may have misplaced priorities.

It is likely that the first tool you should buy is a collaboration platform, as Harold’s suggesting, and LMS capability is an afterthought or addition, rather than the core need.  Truly, once people are up and performing, they need tools for accessing resources and each other. That infrastructure, like plumbing or electricity or air, is probably the most important (and potentially the best value) investment you can make.

Yes, you need to prepare the ground to seed, feed, weed, and breed the outcome, but the benefits are not only in the output, but also the demonstrable investment in employee value and success.  Let an LMS be a functional tool, not an enabler of mis-focused energy, and certainly not the core of your learning technology investment.  Look at the bigger picture, and budget accordingly.


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