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

18 May 2010

When to LMS

Clark @ 7:14 AM

Dave Wilkins, who I admire, has taken up the argument for the LMS in a long post, after a suite of posts (including mine).  I know Dave ‘gets’ the value of social learning, but also wants folks to recognize the current state of the LMS, where major players have augmented the core LMS functions with social tools, tool repositories, and more. Without doing a point-by-point argument, since Dan Pontefract has eloquently done so, and also I agree with many of the points Dave makes. I want, however, to point to a whole perspective shift that characterizes where I come from.

I earlier made two points: one is that the LMS can be valuable if it has all the features.  And if you want an integrated suite.  Or if you need the LMS features as part of a larger federated suite. I made the analogy to the tradeoffs between a Swiss Army knife and a toolbox.  Here, you either have a tool that has all the features you need, or you pull together a suite of separate tools with some digital ‘glue’.  It may be that the glue is custom code from your IT department, or one tool that integrates one or more of the functions and can integrate other tools (e.g. SharePoint, as Harold Jarche points out on a comment to a subsequent Dave post).

The argument for the former is one tool, one payment, one support location, one integrated environment.  I think that may make sense for a lot of companies, particularly small ones. Realize that there are tradeoffs, however.  The main one, to me, is that you’re tied to the tools provided by the vendor. They may be great, or they may not. They may have only adequate, or truly superb capabilities.  And as new things are developed, you either have to integrate into their tool, or wait for them to develop that capability on their priority.

Which, again, may still be an acceptable solution if the price is right and the functionality is there.  However, only if it’s organized around tasks. If it’s organized around courses, all bets are off. Courses aren’t the answer any more!

However, if it’s not organized around courses, (and Dave has suggested that a modern LMS can be a portal-organized function around performance needs), then why the #$%^&* are you calling it an LMS?  Call it something else (Dan calls it a Learning, Content, & Collaboration system or LCC)!

Which raises the question of whether you can actually manage learning.  I think not. You can manage courses, but not learning.  And this is an important distinction, not semantics.  Part of my problem is the label.  It leads people to make the mistake of thinking that their function is about ‘learning’ with a small ‘l’, the formal learning.  Let me elaborate.

Jane Hart developed a model for organizational learning that really captures the richness of leraning. She talks about:

  • FSL – Formal Structured Learning
  • IOL – Intra-Organizational Learning
  • GDL – Group Directed Learning
  • PDL – Personal Directed Learning
  • ASL – Accidental & Serendipitous Learning

The point I want to make here is that FSL is the compliance and certification stuff that LMS’ handle well. And if that’s all you see as the role of the learning unit, you’ll see that an LMS meets your needs.  If you, instead, see the full picture, you’ll likely want to look at a richer suite of capabilities.  You’ll want to support performance support, and you’ll absolutely want to support communication, collaboration, and more.

The misnomer that you can manage learning becomes far more clear when you look at the broader picture!

So, my initial response to Dave is that you might want the core LMS capabilities as part of a federated solution, and you might even be willing to use what’s termed LMS software if it really is LCC or a performance ecosystem solution, and are happy with the tradeoffs.  However, you might also want to look at creating a more flexible environment with ‘glue’ (still with single sign-on, security, integration, etc, if your IT group or integration tool is less than half-braindead).

But I worry that unless people are clued in, selling them (particularly with LMS label) lulls them into a false confidence. I don’t accuse Dave of that, by the way, as he has demonstrably been carrying the ‘social’ banner, but it’s a concern for the industry.  And I haven’t even talked about how, if you’re still talking about ‘managing’ learning, you might not have addressed the issues of trust, value, and culture in the community you purport to support.


  1. […] about Learning Management Systems. Food for thought for schools thinking of Moodle and others: When to LMS Share and […]

    Pingback by When To LMS | Greenpike Technology — 18 May 2010 @ 11:14 AM

  2. I’m in the process of building a web resource for career guidance…I too feel that a plain LMS would not be enough to achieve something like this. I am in the process of searching for tools which i can integrate.

    Comment by Manoharie — 18 May 2010 @ 11:33 AM

  3. Clark, first, let me say “great post.” I think I agree with all of it, with one caveat and one explanation.

    First the caveat: while I fully support the federated argument and think it’s a valid approach (maybe even preferred approach), I don’t think we should underestimate the effort to “glue” it together. Minimally it requires a shared profile that can be accessed by multiple apps, a unified activity stream that can take input and send output to multiple apps, and multiple search API’s in addition to SSO and all that. (I’m assuming here that reporting takes care of itself if you can have a consolidated profile and activity stream.) That’s a glue my friend… ; ) Is it doable? Sure, but it’s real work and you also have to worry about changes that individual vendors might make that could blow it all up. At some point, it might be easier to just build the social apps you need (which is I guess a third model if the IT / IS groups are invested).

    Second the explanation: as I noted in one of my earlier comments to you, there are a lot of factors when you rebrand not just the company, but the market you serve. If we stopped referring to ourselves as an LMS, would we still be included in RFP’s? Would analysts still include us in Waves and Magic Quadrants? Would buyers who are still buying “pure” LMSs think of us or would we be “too big” for their needs? My previous experience with this was many years back with KP, and it was messy. I think the market conditions are different now, but even so, it’s not an easy move. For now, we’ve created a new tagline for ourselves, the Knowledge Platform, which I like. But we’re still solidly in the LMS market as well. Would love to hear any other thoughts on how to manage the transition given the current state of the market.

    Comment by David Wilkins — 18 May 2010 @ 4:48 PM

  4. Dave, thanks for the feedback. You’re right, a 3rd option is to build, perhaps out of open source components, or on top of a flexible platform. There are no right answers, there are only tradeoffs. Though I have to say that I’ve some sympathies towards thinking maybe a content management system might be a better DNA, cf earlier post.)

    I can understand your argument for the branding problem, and I sympathize. While ‘learning’ still has some baggage, I like a ‘learning platform’ or a ‘learning infrastructure’ approach (it’s the term ‘management’ that to me is the problem). I think ‘knowledge’ has some baggage too, of course. In fact, trying to find a label that conveys the right image (not dragging up any images of ‘training’ that will lose your ability to talk to the C-suite) but covers the whole range has been problematic. Hence my use of ‘performance ecosystem’ and Jay’s ‘workscapes’. Good luck!

    Comment by Clark — 18 May 2010 @ 7:37 PM

  5. Good post, and good comment from Dave already as well. I definitely concur with Dave’s view regarding the amount of effort that would be needed to creat the “glue” Clark is talking about — for most organizations, today, that effort would be too great — they’d more often rather have a single platform that can cover all their formal learning needs, and say 80% of their informal/social learning needs, than glue together best-of-breed tools. And I disagree Clark that this would mostly be the case with smaller firms — yes, definitely for them… but I think very often with larger ones too. There are exceptions of course, orgs with really deep pockets or special needs/demands — the CIA is an increasingly famous example. I don’t know for sure what they use as an LMS, but they use a wide range of open source tools for things like wikis (mediawiki), blogs (wordpress), micro-sharing (laconica), and various other social media tools internally (perhaps some home-baked). IBM also uses a lot of different tools glued together — but many they developed inhouse I think. But I don’t see most corporations wanting to go either of these routes anytime soon. Overall, I think the “modern LMSes”, like ones Dave mentioned several times in his posting, are more attractive and balanced for orgs *today*. Again, if SharePoint 2013 or whatever adds formal tracking of courses, online books, learning paths, and all the other traditional LMS functionality Dave listed, then that would really shake up the world… but I see no evidence that SharePoint, Jive, SocialText are doing that.

    As for your concern about the name “LMS” and the word “management” in the name in particular… I don’t really get it. I mean, all the social learning tools — wikis, blogs, forums, micro-sharing, social bookmarking, social networking profiles, etc. — admit to some level of “management”. For instance, blog comments and forum postings can be moderated. Wikis can allow direct edits, comments only to some pages, or even workflows for approval. And all of the above can be governed and hence managed by social media governance policies and so on. Wise companies will shift some of their instructors/instructional designers/etc. into Community Manager roles — note the word “manager” there. Do you disagree with this notion, core to the very name of the Community Management Roundtable group, and increasingly a job function in organizations?

    Further, all the participation can be tracked and reported on — and this is a major selling point of the most robust platforms (including the LMSes that offer all or some of these Web 2.0 tools). So what is the hangup with the word “management” and the name “LMS”? I’ve read all your posts on this Clark, but I still don’t grok it. Here is my perception: it *seems* like you have an inflexible, rigid concept of “LMS” — that is all and only delivering and tracking “courses” (formal content, not informal, social, user-generated stuff). It seems like you formed your concept of “LMS”, many years ago, abstracted from the dominant concrete instances of LMS from say 1990s until say 2007 or so, but cannot now expand the concept to include informal/social components, and how those — more loosely speaking, but still accurately speaking — can be managed by the LMS platform. And I sense the same issue with postings from Cross and Pontefract — an unwillingness to let your concept of “LMS” expand to include social/informal functions, and the way in which they are accurately said to be “managed” in an org.

    Where am I wrong here?

    And lastly… there is no way the industry will start having RFPs/etc. for software called Workscapes or “performance ecosystems”. I just highly doubt that. I like Jay and your and Pontefract’s *concepts* here — I’m just saying those won’t ever be the genus names of a product or offering type that people sell or otherwise provide in the marketplace. Or that they even put into reports to the C-Suite as what they accomplished in the past fiscal year… as in “We instituted a workscape to better enable social learning in our organization.” At least, I doubt it that will happen. I think far more likely will be people in the industry will expand their concept of LMS along the lines Dave and I are suggesting they should — and/or expand their concept of social software to include formal learning management (IF those vendors ever add that functionality) — at which point we’ll have convergence (again, something I Dave was saying could happen).

    — Tom Stone

    Comment by Tom Stone — 20 May 2010 @ 5:32 PM

  6. Tom, a couple of comments. I admit social media typically has administration and facilitation, and yes, Community Managers who do that (I prefer Community Facilitators, BTW). My problem is that really you administer and manage courses, not learning. I’m largely trying to keep people from sliding into the ‘command and control’ model rather than move towards an ‘inspire and empower’ model. There are lots of people trying to make it easy not to change fundamentally, and yet I believe that such change is not only desirable, but potentially necessary. So I’m trying to change thinking by working on framing the discussion in ways that don’t easily support the status quo.

    Not sure I buy that most IT groups want an OTS solution, and if they do, it’s liable to be SharePoint. True, I advocate that the folks in charge of the learning infrastructure be, if not the learning organization, then IT coupled with the learning organization (and I think there’ll be a merger there somehow). So I do want the learning org playing a role, but with a broad view of learning (including performance support and eCommunity) and a facilitation approach, not an ‘event’ based model. And, yes, this is in conflict with compliance and certification, but that stuff is well-understood and not worthy of much cognitive effort, even if it does need to happen. It’s necessary, but not interesting, and less so than the issue of competitive advantage. As I’ve said elsewhere, optimal execution is going to be only the cost-of-entry, the real advantage will be innovation – solving new problems and creating new services and products – and that’s not going to come from compliance or certification. That’s going to come from impassioned self-developed experts, not butts in seats.

    I *have* said (repeatedly) that if a system (even with LMS as it’s DNA instead of social or content management or whatever) includes portal and community capabilities, it’s a good thing. I question calling it an LMS then, as I think you’re hindering it’s validity to a broader audience (while maybe you keep the LMS label when selling into the learning unit), but I think the value prop is to more than just the learning org (unless it’s the unlikely situation where the learning org has real credibility in the C-suite).

    And I think you’re arguing apples and oranges about the RFP. I’m not a tool vendor, so I won’t reply to an RFP for a LMS. I would reply to an inquiry about learning strategy (and have). Then I’d work with them to look at what they have, what they need, and what the best solution would be. There might be an RFP for a LMS that came out of that process, but it might also be an RFP for a portal solution, or a social network solution, depending on the contextual circumstances: their existing infrastructure, needs, IT department, and more.

    I see that a more capable system that includes (and even is based upon, orginally) an LMS, is a valuable framework for what I’m talking about. I jut don’t want to talk about *learning* ‘management’, and I don’t want to focus on rote formal learning, which is what I’m afraid the CORE functionality of an LMS is about, and worse is what comes to mind when people think about it and use the term to address the core purpose.

    Comment by Clark — 22 May 2010 @ 2:15 PM

  7. All of you are right. What differs between the views of Dave+Tom and of Clark+Internet Time Alliance is who we see as our customer.

    For the majority of customers, Dave nails it. Most customers need categories, comparisons, and so forth. LMS is in their comfort zone.

    Early adopters are after something else. These enthusiasts want to be involved in putting together solutions that out-do the current products. They’re willing to experiment with things that don’t yet have a name.

    The new view, I’ll call it the Workscape perspective, weaves informal and social learning into workflow. That’s something no LMS is ever going to do; it’s basic infrastructure. Training departments are not going to take over core corporate functions.

    Workscapes have not crossed the chasm; LMSs did so at the turn of the century.

    Dave and Tom would be fools to abandon their LMS customers. We’ll see if their organizations can pull off a rarity in business, the ability to persevere through a phase change.

    This reminds me of the old joke about how God could create the Earth in seven days. He didn’t have an installed base.

    We at Internet Time Alliance are trying to create the future. Our clients are out to break the mold. Many LMS customers are happy to concentrate on what’s worked in the past; they don’t have the bandwidth to experiment.

    Beautiful day here in Marrakech.


    Comment by Jay Cross — 28 May 2010 @ 2:57 AM

  8. You can manage courses, but not learning – I totally agree. After all, the vast majority of learning in the workplace is informal.

    With regulated learning such as compliance training perhaps an exception, a learning portal is really what is needed in the workplace. I advocate an Informal Learning Environment or ILE (http://tinyurl.com/informal-ILE).

    When we shift our object of measurement from activity to outcome, it makes more sense to use the LMS to manage formal assessments and record competence.

    Comment by Ryan Tracey — 8 July 2010 @ 1:17 AM

  9. I have never used a formal LMS in the workplace and I have worked for several major corporations– or maybe I did and just didn’t realize it. When I think of LMS I think of a university application. As for the workplace, all of the companies I have worked for usually leave it up to the employee to learn what they need–usually without any formal guidance, software or coursework.

    Comment by Communications Forum — 27 January 2011 @ 8:17 AM

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