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What to Do With a Broken LMS

Most large organizations rely on a learning management system (LMS) to run and support their enterprise’s learning programs. But many of these systems were conceived in the 1990s and are showing their age. In addition to poor usability, unreliable performance and limited scalability, these legacy systems predate the cloud computing revolution and lack basic social and informal learning tools and global connectivity.

“The need for linking traditional learning to emerging learning functionalities, as well as connecting learners globally, is only getting more important,” said David Mallon, vice president of research at Bersin & Associates. “So if an organization’s reached the point with sufficient motivation and budget to add next-gen LMS capabilities, then no time is better than now. It’s definitely worth doing.”

While there’s no question that aging learning systems must be updated to meet modern learning needs, many learning leaders are debating how to efficiently and cost-effectively fix a broken, outdated LMS — whether it’s best to build or buy. There are a few common scenarios:

• Build a learning portal — keep legacy LMS.
• Buy a learning portal — keep legacy LMS.
• Build a next-gen LMS — replace legacy LMS.
• Buy a next-gen LMS — replace legacy LMS.

Resist the Temptation to Build a Learning Portal
Building or buying learning portals to remedy legacy LMS issues aren’t on many companies’ radars, as compared to a few years ago, Mallon said.

However, learning portals do provide a quick fix for updating LMS functionality. But building a learning portal from scratch may be unnecessary, and is a poor allocation of risk and resources, since pre-built portals are available.

Some learning organizations are still tempted because IT departments already build portals, so developing a learning portal doesn’t seem all that different or difficult. And executives are often enticed by the potential cost savings associated with using internal resources.

However, it’s not as easy to build a learning portal as it may appear on the surface. Complications can include:

• Lack of existing infrastructure to connect the LMS and portal.
• Web services or API connectors are not suited for creating dynamic, Web 2.0 environments needed to improve usability.
• Limited knowledge and scope on how to leverage the LMS for meaningful business impact.
• Insufficient planning to implement long-term portal support.

Not only do these complications bloat learning portal development costs and delivery times, they also can produce a portal without a true learning focus or that never works to begin with.

Buying a Learning Portal: A Good Short-Term Solution
Learning portals extend the intelligence and functionality of an underlying LMS, while shielding learners from the system’s natural complexity. Usually they provide a more effective, Web-based, centralized structure that learners are more likely to use and understand.

In a custom learning portal project, it can be a struggle to build even basic functionality, such as search and register engines, in a way that’s simple to maintain and meaningful to all audiences. However, basic and advanced features such as social networking and informal learning can be built in and road tested to work in pre-built learning portals — upgrading LMS capabilities rather than building from scratch.

Some benefits of buying a well-designed learning portal include:

• Reduced search and navigation times.
• Increased self-service registration.
• Increased training and e-commerce revenue.
• Lowered support costs and fewer help desk calls.
• Improved training customer service.

In 2010, data storage company EMC had a working LMS, but its user interface was tough to operate and not intuitive, so the company decided to invest in a new learning portal. Going with a known system made more sense than building one due to cost and time-intensive requirements to customize its legacy platform. Plus, EMC Education Services was not ready to replace its LMS.

“We needed to provide our customers and channel partners with an optimal, simple way to use and manage all of their learning,” said Tom Clancy, EMC’s vice president of education services.
Adding a learning portal on top of its LMS improved the experience for the company’s training customers. “Investing in proven learning portal technology was a great solution for meeting our current learning goals,” Clancy said.

Mallon said corporate executives aren’t building LMSes internally because learning is a complicated niche market, and most lack the experience and expertise to do so. Further, it can be more expensive and time-consuming to build an LMS versus buying a newer, more advanced platform.
While building a next-generation LMS isn’t always a viable option for learning organizations, some corporations are experimenting with virtual learning environments (VLEs), such as Moodle, or enterprise content management (ECM) programs, such as SharePoint, to address usability, scope and reliability issues.

Moodle is a VLE designed to support learning in the academic community. While there’s growing interest in applying it to corporate learning, actual implementations are limited.

“Few corporate organizations have adopted Moodle as a strategic learning platform. And if they have, Moodle’s just one component of a traditional learning technology infrastructure, alongside an LMS and other e-learning tools,” wrote the author of a 2012 Elearnity report.

Moodle lacks the functionality to manage as a lightweight LMS in a corporate learning context, unless it is substantially customized. In rare corporate deployments, the desired enhanced functionality often comes from vendor modules versus Moodle code.

Companies are also augmenting “bare-bones” LMSes that only meet basic reporting and delivery needs, with collaboration software. This is a passable building option only if a few cutting-edge capabilities found in 21st century LMSes (Figure 1) are desired.

Buying a Next-Generation LMS
There are a growing number of cloud-based LMSes on the market that present a fresh way to address learning.

By unlocking the full power of the cloud and employing Web 2.0 technologies, this new breed of dynamic learning platforms empower global organizations to deliver far more easy, effective and responsive learning. Further, since they were developed post-millennium, they often feature the intuitive, self-service design today’s learners demand.

These learner-centric LMSes are solid choices for enterprises that want traditional and state-of-the-art learning system features and functionalities in one ready-to-go, simple-to-implement, proven and tested platform.

Despite the many benefits, there’s one major drawback to buying a new learning system — cost. While most new-era LMSes are less expensive than legacy platforms were a decade ago, they still require a sizable investment.

If an organization doesn’t need advanced learning features to drive learning progression, buying a new LMS is not worth the expenditure. However, if the company can benefit from the innovative capabilities of a modern LMS, it will reap ROI.

“In many cases, it’s cheaper and easier to ditch failing LMSes and start fresh,” Mallon said.

Before buying an LMS, research the options. Providers may claim to deliver all of the aforementioned new-age features, but some don’t, some are developing them and some patchwork outsourced programs.

Whether to build or buy a new-generation learning system is a critical question corporate leaders must take seriously. Building a learning portal or an LMS has inherent risks and can be a costly, time-consuming endeavor. Buying learning technology can improve LMS reliability and bringing its functionality into the 21st century.

These new-age learning systems can provide a ready-now solution that grows with an organization’s needs, serves a global learner base, integrates social and informal learning and delivers intuitive, engaging usability.

Ramesh Ramani is the founder and CEO of Expertus, a global, cloud-based LMS software and service provider. He can be reached at editor@CLOmedia.com.

• More than 70 percent of large companies have an LMS, and almost 30 percent are considering replacing or upgrading them (Bersin & Associates 2011 report).
• The No. 1 challenge for learners is LMS usability; 45 percent grade LMS performance at a C, D or F (Training Industry and Expertus 2010 survey).
• One-third of learning professionals believe the LMS can impede learning (e-Learning Guild 2010 survey).