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A Defense of the LMS (and a case for the future of Social Learning)

May 12, 2010

For some time now, I’ve seen a growing negativity toward LMS solutions by a pretty wide group folks in our space.  Many of whom I really respoect.  I see it in blog posts, comments, posts, LrnChat discussions, and all sorts of places.  90% of this negativity seems to be directed at the formal nature of LMS, the percieved lack of flexibility, or the lack of learner “control.”  In just about every case, the argument seems to be that “social” or “informal” will fix all this — social platforms like Jive or Sharepoint or maybe just loosely joined collections of social apps, like WordPress, Twiki, and Yammer.  One post I saw even suggested that Google Analytics could be used to replace reporting in an LMS (arguably the most ridiculous thing I’ve read in some time).

Suffice to say I don’t buy any of the above arguments and I largely disagree with my professional colleagues.  Not because they are wrong about social, but because they get so little right about LMS.  In my opinion, many of the critics are operating from a limited or outdated data set.  Here’s my take: if you haven’t used an LMS as a learner in the last couple of years or implemented an LMS to solve a real world business problem, I would humbly submit that you lack the necessary frame of reference to make sweeping statements about the whole industry.  And if your only experience is from five years ago or even from yesterday, but you’ve only ever used one solution, then, again, you don’t really have the breadth of experience necessary to judge the 200 or so vendors in this space.  Not even close.

As fate would have it, I do have that experience and frame of reference.  As the VP of Product Marketing at a leading LMS vendor, I’m involved in planning our own product’s future, and I’m required by the nature of my role to keep up with what competitors are doing and what industry analysts say about our space.  I’ve also been in the L&D, EPSS, HCM, Knowledge Management, Tech Writing, simulation, gaming, social learning “improve organizational performance through people” space for over 15 years.  In other words, I have a pretty good breadth and depth of perspective on this issue, and I can say, unequivocally, that today’s LMSs  do a hell of a lot more than track courses and curriculum and are just as valuable as “social systems.”

Let me also just say, before I defend the central role of LMS solutions, that I obviously agree there is a significant role for social interventions (I mean really, just read the title of this blog or any of my 100 or so other posts or my SlideShare presentations or webinars or published articles etc…). This week alone, I’ve done three social learning webinars or presentations, one of which was on the intersection points between HPT and Social / Informal Learning.  Needless to say, I’m not exactly a Luddite or knuckle-dragging LMS defender when it comes to technology or new approaches.  That said, I don’t think that this is an “either / or” type of inflection point (any more than the rise of “e” learning and WBT was).  This is an “AND” join.  And one really necessary part of the “AND” in this equation is formal learning and LMS.  It’s time someone said so.  And I guess that someone is going to be me (because as much as I love @Quinnovator, his “case for LMs” was a pretty weak case…; )

Argument #1: LMS is an essential business application (whether Jane likes it or not…)
Even if you wrongly believe that LMS’s are only about tracking courses and assessments, reporting on compliance and certifications, and pushing content onto new hires or to address learner skill gaps, LMSs still deliver unmistakable business value.  Why?

While it’s true that 80% of companies valuations today come from intangibles like “know how,” human capital, talent etc…, it’s equally true that codified best practices, processes, and knowledge still exists, in abundance.  It’s equally true that depending on your organizational focus, you will need some perentage of your workforce to just “know stuff” or to develop unconscious competence.

I used to have this argument with EPSS advocates all the time too.  Their view was that all systems should be so easy to use, no one should ever need training (a nice goal but absolutely impossible to achieve in the real world), or if that wasn’t possible, that we should layer additional interface and support tools right into the experience to minimize what they needed to “know” to effectively do their job.  Again, great in theory, ridiculously hard in practice (though attainable with the right teams).  My argument was simple, even assuming that all of that works as designed, there is still a butload of stuff that people need to “know” to be effective.  There is a butload more stuff that they need to be able to “do.”  Not by looking these up by reference or by relying on the system, but through instant, millisecond decisions based on knowlegde and expertise that is second nature.

The same holds for social and informal learning — “phone a friend” works great on “Who wants to be a Millionaire” and in real life too, but just as often, we’re actually on Jeopardy and we better know some shit right then and there.  While social and informal learning can help with this, formal training via simulations, assessments, role-plays etc… provide a far more efficient model to drive higher levels of competence to the masses on specific known skills and knowledge.

It’s also true that on the other end of the spectrum, we have a lot more people who need “Intro training” and “How to be a [insert job role here].”  According to the Department of Labor, 50% of the US workforce has been at their current company less than two years.  Can anyone say “onboarding” training?  Also according to the DOL — new hires entering the workforce today will have 10-14 jobs before the age of 35.  Granted most of these will happen earlier in their careers, but even among older workers, job hopping is very common.  Again from the DOL as of 2010: “Among jobs started by workers when they were ages 38 to 42, 31 percent ended in less than a year, and 65 percent ended in fewer than 5 years.” ( In other words, among even the most experienced workers, 1 out of 3 is switching jobs every year.  Suffice to say, US companies are doing a whole shitload of onboarding and job-role related training.  All of which should be standard and automated.

Hire me into the HRIS, push my data via data feed or web service, create me in the LMS, assign me my Onboarding plan and assign me a Job Role related plan.  Bam, bam with no need for manual process. Oh yeah, also assign me any required Compliance Plans or Required Certifications or CEU’s — cuz, you know, there is that whole get fined “millions of dollars for being out of compliance” thing that businesses need to think about…  Oh yeah, also drop me into a new hire community automatically based on my hire date, and as part of my Job Role related learning plan, also grant me access and send me a link to a relevant community of practice or discussion forum(s).  Wait, you mean LMS’s can do that?  Yeah, welcome to the future…  Well actually the past since our LMS has been doing all of the above for over five years now…

While I touched on Compliance and Certification above, let me just add to that a bit here.  I’m not sure that critics of LMS understand how big a deal this is.  This is not a nice-to-have.  It’s not a “do it because we have to” and therefore, “spend as little as possible” kind of issue.  This is a “do it right or jeopardize your company” kind of issue.  If you are in healthcare, finance, pharma, manufacturing, or one of a dozen other industries there are certain kinds of regulatory compliance you need to show.  Sometimes, it’s as simple as OSHA training, but other times it as complex as JCHAO reporting.  And if you are in pharma, not only do you need to show compliance reports, you are also need to demonstrate support for digital eSignatures and audit trails to prove unequivocally that the people who took the training and assessments to satisfy compliance are in fact, who they say they are.  Crazy?  Yeah, it’s insane.  It’s also a reality that businesses need to accept and address head on.  Wishing it wasn’t so and downplaying the importance of this by suggesting companies lead with social and collaborative systems (which support none of the above) is professionally irresponsible.

LMSs are 10-15 years deep in this functionality and it’s not frivilous depth.  None of us in this space sit up at night thinking about multi-year recertification tracks for compliance plans and the associated reporting because we like it.  We do it because our clients need it and have demanded it for 10+ years, along with hundreds of other nuanced features like ILT waitlisting prioritized by group membership.  Sure, it sounds ridiculous — until you realize that it’s again tied to compliance.  For Group A, the training is optional, for Group B, it’s a mandatory part of the annual compliance plan.  So even though a member of Group A is wait-listed at higher in the queue than the member of Group B, we add the member of Group B to the class when an opening occurs to satisfy the organizational compliance need.  Good luck designing all of those thousands of nooks and crannies into a pure social platform.  I’ll check-in on you in a decade and see how it’s going…

Argument #2: Modern LMS solutions are way more than a pure LMS

But of course, LMS’s do way more than this.  Claiming they don’t is like saying that all Outlook does is email.  Umm, calendaring, to-dos, contact management?  Ditto for LMS.  Current versions of industry-leading LMS solutions can:

  • Manage files – video, audio, PPT, PDF, docs, spreadsheets, including support for learner uploaded materials
  • Manage certifications and CEU’s – a must for multiple industries (healthcare, legal, higher ed etc…)
  • Manage compliance – not just the courses and assessments, but digital eSignatures, renewals, notifications, reporting etc…
  • Manage skills and competencies and link learning to them so that when learners have performance gaps, they can remediate
  • Manage forms and workflows to automate paper processes and streamline approval workflows
  • Manage Performance Appraisal process including 360 and ad hoc assessment models and again, remediate with training assets
  • Manage career planning and succession planning both for the learner pursuing new career options and the company looking to fill gaps
  • Help employees find mentors and tap into shared expertise around content via discussions and ratings and reviews (at a minimum)
  • Manage goals, both individual and organizational, and map informal, social or formal learning to these
  • Organize learning assets by Job Roles so that learners can be automatically assigned job role related learning, including participation in Job role based communities of practice, discussions, wikis etc…
  • Automatically assign training and learning assets to new hires, including video, audio, content categories, discussions, chat etc…
  • Manage ILT events, including classrooms, assets, instructors, waitlists etc…
  • Manage WBT and CBT assets, using multiple tracking protocols
  • *Enable collaboration on all of the above via Virtual Confernecing, Chat Rooms, Discussions, Ratings and Reviews, Blogging, Tag Clouds, and Wikis
  • Enable collaboration outside of all of the above on anything via Chat Rooms, Discussions, Ratings and Reviews, Blogging, Tag Clouds, and Wikis
  • Enable expertise location by making certain parts of learner profiles searchable – user-generated fields, HR fields, and even fields from third party systems
  • Enable creation of sub-portals to support communities of practice, eCommerce, extended enterprise spaces (partners, resellers, clietns, alumni) and much more
  • Support the embedding of widgets, RSS feeds, and iFrames into any page or portal interface to bring outside content in
  • Support the external embedding of LMS features into other systems via deep links, iFrames, and widgets, such as our integration with Taleo TBE
  • Manage users groups and display page regions, whole pages, or even whole sub-portals based on group affiliation
  • Support SSO (Single Sign-on), data feeds, RESTful API’s, SSL, email and calendar integration, and mobile deployments to ensure maximum integration into a workers daily workflow
  • Support the creation of formal WBT courses, assessments, and surveys, including support for learners to create these assets themselves
  • Support the scheduling, creation, and management of virtual conferences, either through integration with external VILT tools or through built-in tools, including support for learners to schedule and record their own virtual conferences
  • Support full UI configuration through WYSIWYG editing to enable even novice users to brand the UI and create custom client interfaces at will
  • Support for “Learner-administered” pages or whole sub-portlas by named users or by group affiliation.
  • Support the use of professionally developed, industry-specific WBT by pre-testing and validating integration; as an example, we have tested and validated over 30,000 titles from leading vendors in every major industry
  • Support for custom data fields and reporting of same from any external feed – TM systems, ERP, CRM, production tools, etc…

Not every vendor can do all of the above.  In fact, many don’t.  But we can.  And there are a few strong competitors who can claim a similar list.  Do all of our clients use all of these features? No, of course not.  But when they are ready, we are ready.  Look at that list again — which of these things would you remove?  Talent?  OK, fine, then buy our Advantage version.  It doesn’t have any talent stuff.  Social?  So you don’t want to rate courses or ILT events or discuss content or company initiatives? (So that means you don’t support ratings and reviews or discussions in Amazon, right?  Same model.)  You don’t want to use tag clouds to search?  You don’t want to find mentors by areas of expertise?  You don’t want communities of practice that support the sharing of formal, informal, and social content in the same shared space?  Pray tell, where else will do that?  Surely not social platforms which do not yet support formal content in any meaningful way?

How about course creation, survey creation, assessment creation, and virtual conferencing?  Sure you can get these elsewhere, but you also need to pay for them and then you need to separately deal with integration (which is still nowhere near as baked as pundits would like to think). Assume minimally, you’d want to buy licenses for Lectora, Question Mark, Survey Monkey, WebEx.  Any idea how much licenses for this stuff would cost if you bought licenses for your whole company so everyone could contribute and create?  Or are you still thinking old school that only ID people and trainers should make this kind of content?  Anyway, don’t bother. It’s not even worth talking about; the costs are off-the-charts.  In our solution, this stuff is baked in.  Any and all learners can be granted permissions to create these types of learning assets.  And further, since they can also be granted rights to create files, it’s a five step process for a user to load a user-generated a video or podcast or to include one in a course.  Buy a $99 Flip camera, record a video, load it (via your Windows file management model or YouTube), drop the video into a page or course, publish it.  Done.  Sure it might be this simple to do the same thing in Jive.  Except there I don’t have the option to track it or make it part of a larger course or curriculum.

Learners can also be granted rights to administer pages or even whole sub-portals.  So this means that they can create content that is department-specific, product-specific, subject matter-specific, or cohort-specific.  A lot like how Best Buy uses wikis.  Imagine learner-granted control over any page in the solution, the ability to create new pages, or the ability to administer whole subportals.  All with the ability to include discussions, ratings and reviews, any file, RSS feeds, and embedded content from outside sources.  This is different from a Jive or SocialText how?  Oh yeah, we also support all of the company’s needs for formal content, like classes, courses, job-role related learning etc…  Am I saying that all LMS’s are equivalent to a Jive or SocialText, no.  I am saying that some are a hell of a lot closer than you think.  And I am most definately saying that LMS’s have a shitload more social features than the formal features that social platforms offer.  Maybe the craziest part is that for many LMS’s like ours, these social features are either free or cost just marginally more than the base offering.  If I’m to believe Jane and others, my only course of action is to buy two systems with duplicate registration, duplicate user management, duplicate reporting, duplicate searching, etc… despite the fact that formal and social learning content are really just different ends of the same content continuum.

Argument #3 — Market maturity and System Maturity
As I noted in my intro bit, I speak about this social stuff a lot — easily 30+ times a year, in addition to engagements with our LMS clients and consulting clients whom I help to guide through the maze of social learning strategies and approaches.  Unfortunately, my overarching conclusion is that L&D folks are not ready yet to jump with both feet into social platforms.  Most don’t even have a toe in the water yet.  I’d suggest that 75% or more would have no clue where to begin.  When I mention stuff like Records Retention and the parallel between email records and discussions or microblogs, their heads usually start spinning.  When we start talking about moderation strategies like “seeding” or community concepts like group identity and trust, heads occassionally start popping off necks like popcorn.  This is new territory.  In addition to the tech like wikis, blogs, discussions, tagging etc…, there is a whole new set of concepts and approaches L&D professionals need to adopt.

This is first and foremost a cultural shift, not a technology one, and most orgs are not “there” yet and, more to the point, most L&D folks have neither the clout nor the expertise to drive this change.  ISPI approaches like HPT and performance consulting are a perfect fit, but again, there are only a couple of dozen folks out of every hundred who are ready for this.  So needless to say, L&D and Performance Consulting folks have a ways to go before we’re ready, as an industy, to move to *predominantly* social models.  I’m not even sure most Corp Communication and IT groups are ready.  Marketing, which is easily five years ahead on this front, is still very much a mix of old school “I’ll talk at you” models and newer more conversational / interactive approaches.  According to a recent survey of over 1300 marketing professionals, 65% have been using social media in their strategies for less than a few months ( In other words, 65% of marketing professionals are literally just starting, despite the fact that as an industry, marketing is the vanguard of this transformation.

So from a market maturity perspective, my take is we’re seeing that the bleeding edge is just starting to do social learning or informal learning (via officially supported process or tools), but not yet as the predominant learning model.  Given the evolution and growth of social strategies in the marketing function (which faces nearly zero regulatory pressure, far fewer privacy and workflow concerns, and has much greater latitude in systems and process) I’d guess that widespread adoption in L&D is minimally five years away, maybe even seven years.  Again, I’m talking here about official platforms, policies, process etc…  Of course social and informal learning is happening all around us all the time and *is* the predominant model of how people learn.  It’s just not the official model.  And as much as I’d like to flick a switch and make it so, the real world doesn’t work that way.  Aside from the change management angle, there are numerous regulatory, reporting and privacy issues at play that most social platforms are only beginning to address at required depth.  Companies are right to be cautious and to think this stuff through.

In addition to market maturity, there is also the issue of systems maturity.  By any measure, leading LMS solutions are way ahead of most social platforms when it comes to Enterprise-readiness.  Nearly every major LMS supports SSO (Single Sign-on), data feeds, RESTful API’s, SSL, email and calendar integration, as well as virtualization, redundancy, langauages, foreign data and time formats, foreign currencies.  LMS solutions also have deep support for privacy, people data, reporting, analytics, groups and sub-groups, tracking, auditing trails, automated provisioning, notifications and alerts, permissions, etc…  As with everything else in this post, this is not a knock on social platforms.  It’s a matter of experience and longevity in the market.  LMSs already have a huge list of required elements that social platforms are currrently rebuilding from scratch.

Which brings me to my next major point — systems and market co-evolution.  As the market matures, do you really think LMS vendors are going to sit still?  Nearly every major LMS vendor already has a legitimate social story that in some cases includes communities of practice, ask an expert, discussions, wikis, blogs, ratings and reviews, tagging, page-level editing, shared spaces, groups and sub-groups, social profiles, chat, virtual conferencing, support for user-generated content like video and audio.  Some LMS’s even support mobile access.  Is all of this as elegant as it might be in Jive or SocialText?  Maybe not.  Is it as open and supportive of first time contributors?  Maybe not. A lot of it could be a lot better.  But many of the core pieces are there.  And nearly all of the back-end pieces are there.

We’re talking mainly about changing the user experiences, changing permissions, and continuing the current migration to a learner centric view of the world.  We’re not starting from scratch, not by a long shot. And if my estimated time horizon is correct, the LMS market has about ten releases (assuming 2 major releases a year) to migrate toward a full-on Web 2.0 / learner-led model.  Any of the leading LMS’s could do it in two, maybe even one really big one.  In other words, when the market begins to make a real push in this direction and it’s not just bleeding edge companies going “full social,” but a larger percentage of the market, every leading LMS vendor will either already be there or be a single release away.  Ask yourself, over that same time horizon, is it reasonable to assume that social platforms will build out all of the formal learning support that organizations need?

So let’s review the calculus of this:

  • LMS are a must-have application for businesses.  Any medium to enterprise level organization needs one.
  • Leading LMS solutions already have 75-80% of the essential “social media” applications and user experiences that can be found in social platforms.
  • Social platforms, by contrast, have less than 5% of the essential “formal” functionality that can be found in LMS solutions.
  • There are multiple years until we reach a point where most organizations regard social interactions and collaboration as either a core part of learning or a core part of their business.

And so, based on above, the advice to companies just starting out with their learning strategy is to start with a collaborative system?  I’m sorry, I must have misheard you cuz that makes no sense.  Shouldn’t the advice be: “Take advantage of all of the social stuff your LMS vendor already has to offer and then request some more.  And while you are doing that, educate yourself on social concepts and tools so you know what the hell you are talking about…”  I realize that message isn’t as exciting or provocative as “minimize your use of LMS and start with social” but it’s a hell of lot more realistic, practical, achievable, and in line with current trends toward system integration and suite approaches, than a strategy that specifically advocates the creation of a brand new silo in a domain area where they will have minimal industry support to draw and virtually no personal or professional experience.

Argument #4 — Integration and Suites
All of the talk about leading with collaborative systems and minimizing LMS completely ignores the other dominant trend in our space which is the trend toward unified systems, in particular TM suites.  Every major TM vendor now provides Recruiting, Compensation, Succession Planning, and Employee Development of which L&D is a piece.  Many leading LMS vendors offer some subset of this functionality as well.  And in at least two major cases, there are integrations between TM and LMS suites: us ( with Taleo and Geo with SuccessFactors.  The reason for the integration and the consolidation of the space is because buyers and vendors both see the same challenges in having multiple systems that share the same people, overlap in their processes, and offer different answers to the same problems.  Unified suites enables better and more integrated use of data, simpler reporting, easier user management etc…  TM vendors clearly want to be the system of record for employees’ talent profile from on-boarding to retirement (and beyond). And clients want it to.

TM Suites seek to source the best candidates, to grow them into roles, to manage them, to reward them, to train and develop them, and to elegantly off-board when the relationship ends.  Do you think TM vendors will site idlly by while Social Platforms begin trying to own user profiles, reputation management and the like?  Will TM sit by when social platforms introduce organizational network analysis, peer recommendations, and ask an expert models?  I don’t think so.  Social stuff and formal stuff should be part of the same unified Talent Profile.  End of story.  I haven’t heard one word lately about TM’s role in all of this, but it seems clear to me that if LMS isn’t the place where social happens, another viable option is TM vendors.  I mean SuccessFactors just acquired CubeTree for crying out loud.  So rather than do my collaboration and social networking through CubeTree functionality that’s included in SuccessFactors, I’m instead going to go to a different system that does that same thing, but requires a separate login, manages my profile separately, reports separately, and has a different UI.  Why in the hell would I do that?  Because social is cool?  It makes no sense.

Social is going to be absorbed into existing enterprise-level systems in the mid to long-term.  Just like eCommerce was eventually absorbed into brick and mortar companies.  Sure, Amazon is doing great and I love them, but Walmart online isn’t exactly a chump competitor, nor is Best Buy online or Target or…  Once it became clear that eCommerce was viable and something consumers used as a decision criteria on where to shop, brick and mortars adpated and enabled eCommerce models with very robust websites.  Some like Best Buy and Walmart also take advantage of their brick and mortar legacy, enabling you to pick up a web purchase or return a web purchase at a local store to avoid shipping fees.  Pretty cool stuff and not something Amazon can offer.  And that’s why none of use the term “brick and mortar” anymore.  It’s just how business is done.  Social is going to be the same.  Once it reaches a certain level of maturity, it will just be how work is done, and it will be part of every system we use, woven throughout the daily work experience.  One or more of these systems will vie to be the system of record to maintain profiles and unified profile and activity data.  In some cases, LMS will win.  For other clients, TM will win.  For still others, ERP and HRIS will win.  In other words, the status quo but with social stuff woven in.

The End Game
As far as the specific question of where learning should happen:  what I want is a system that can support all learning, not just formal, not just social, not just informal.  Not just stuff that happens in the system, but through aggregration and feeds, stuff that happens outside the system.  Not just stuff that learners are assigned, but the stuff that they pursue on their own.  And sorry, but I want to report on all of it.  You know why?  Because reporting matters.  It helps you see trends.  It helps you see impacts.  It helps you see correlations.  More than that, I want analytics on all of the above, not Google Analytics, but actual analytics.  I want to know whether the people who spend more time in collaborative exchanges outperform those who learn formally.  Or vice versa. Because at the end of the day, while it might be nice if employees love to learn and love each other in their networks, what I really care about is whether the company outperforms it’s competitors, mitigates risk to the greatest extent possible, and delivers value to shareholders.  That’s what business systems are for.

You know what else I want?  I want a single system of record for user profiles at any given company.  I want a consolidated view of their skills, certifications, formal learning, informal contributions, user-generated content, peer reputation, performance reviews, job history, self-identified expertise, job title, location, contact information, professional networking affiliations, and formal hierachical relationships – all in one place that’s searchable and browsable based on various levels of permission.  I want to mine that data when and where I need it.  I want users to mine each other’s data when and where they need it.  And through that process, I want to make faster decisions, generate trust and self-efficacy, and tap the full potential in the intellectual crowd and cloud within our company walls and beyond it, in our extended organizational network.  Speaking of organizational networks, I also want to map all of the above through organizational network analysis so I know who my key influencers are, who my rising stars are, who is a high potential, and who lives at the periphery so that I can remediate, integrate, or terminate.  And once I’ve done that, I want to assign formal leadership and SME development plans to my high potentials to keep them motivated and accelerate their growth toward the next stage of their careers.

I want a system where a learner can share what they know on any subject at any time, via a variety of tools including blogs, wikis, ratings and reviews, discussions, microblogs, “courses,” virtual conferencing, games etc…  I also want a system where they can do this ad hoc or in response to some other learning that’s happened, whether formal or informal.  I also want them to be able to attend formal classes, read official files, take professionally developed WBT’s and simulations, watch official videos and read official blogs.  In short, I want the flexibility to do it all.

You know what I don’t want?  I don’t want a future where, on an institutional basis, formal learning happens in one place and social and informal learning happens someplace else.  That’s one of the reasons why LCMS as a stand-alone model failed – it tried to create a separate system for just a few kinds of content that LMS’s manage and deliver.  Social and informal learning will of course happen where they happen.  That’s part of the deal.  We need to be willing to mash-up content and link to content and reference content where ever it is.  But if people start arguing that social learning can *only* happen in Jive or SocialText or related systems, and that somehow social learning in an LMS is less valueable, which seems to be the case lately, then frankly I start losing my cool a bit because it makes no sense. At all.  None.  Zero.  In fact, as I noted above, a very strong case can be made that in the long-term “social software” will be absorbed into other systems, and the three most likely candidates are LMS, TM solutions, or ERP / CRM.

Does this mean that I’m not a fan or Jive, SocialText, WordPress, Yammer, or one of 50 other awesomely cool and innovative technologies?  Of course not.  I’m a huge fan of all of the above.  I am *not* a huge fan of silos.  I’ve been fighting against them my entire career, whether it was the false silo of EPSS vs training or the false silo of knowledge management vs training or the false silo of LCMS vs LMS.  At the end of the day, everything we do is about driving organizational performance through improved individual and team performance.  Creating artificial walls between content types is insane, and managing them via separate tools that have duplicate registration, user management, SSO, data feeds, reporting and on and on is also insane.  Of course, the reality is that some orgs may need to do that for awhile as the formal and social systems blend toward the middle, but it’s sure as hell not a desired end state.  And we shouldn’t be encouraging L&D groups, many of whom lack even the fundamanetal understanding of social stuff, to start there at the expense of their LMS strategy.

I’ve been saying for more than three years now that we have to look at social and formal content on a continuum, not as separate *kinds* of content.  Instead, I’m reading posts that suggest that we create a new set of silos based on social vs. formal.  And by the way, who makes this distinction?  Is an official blog post or video by a known expert formal, informal, or social?  The tech is social media, but the content is official.  What happens when you have courses that include discussions, RSS feeds, YouTube embedding, and ratings like Composica enables?  When I find a known expert via social networking tools in my LMS so that I can ask an opinion, is that formal or social?  The expert and platform are formal, but I found the person through social networking.  Is this a Jive thing or an LMS thing?  What if I only want to find experts based on their officially recognized skills and certifications?  Oh boy, now it’s really formal! I guess it would have to be the LMS because social solutions don’t maintain this.  But wait, it’s still expertise location which is a “social” concept!  Oh, what will I do?  I guess it lives nowhere. I mean, are we really going to go down this road?  Seriously? After all the experience of the last 10 years, we’re going back to meaningless distinctions between kinds of content? Makes me want to smash my head against the wall honestly.

The reality is that we need formal, informal, and social interventions.  The further reality is that for the moment at least, LMS’s provide a lot more “social” functionality than the “formal” functionality that social apps provide. Way more.  Like 70% to almost none.  I don’t think anyone realizes how much harder it will be for social vendors to rebuild key LMS functonality than the reverse.  And how much less likely.  At another company I worked at in this space, it too almost a full year to rebuild the curriculum and certification functionality, which is about 10-15% of what an LMS does, and that was with a team that had industry expertise, an existing database model, and a bunch of other required elements.

What does this mean?  The most likely outcome is that when social platforms reach enough critical mass and we actually see enough demand in the marketplace, major LMS vendors will rebuild this functionality into their solutions over a few releases (as we and Saba are doing), buy and integrate a social platform (as Cornerstone has done), or deeply integrate (like ElementK).  Social vendors have neither the pockets nor the experience to do the same (short of integrating).  End of story.  It will be LCMS all over again.

And if LMS’s don’t do it, TM vendors will, as evidenced by SuccessFactor’s most recent purchase.  In the meantime, mature companies will rightly experiment with Jive and SharePoint and SocialText etc…  and companies with leading LMS solutions will start using some of the social software they already have in these systems.  What won’t happen is a wholesale abandonment of LMS as a viable solution, not even close.  We need to face that reality and then work from with the paradigm to effect change — like Lundy getting hired at Saba, me helping drive strategy at and Tom contributing at ElementK.  Anything else is counter-productive and further muddies what are already pretty muddy waters, even to those of us that “get it.”

I guess that’s all I have to say on this.  I’ll shut up now and let the hate mail flow in.  Please do keep in mind as you rip my arguments that I am a fan of social stuff and have been a major proponent of this model since around 2000 when I helped invent an integrated EPSS, KM, Social, Training platform.  This is not an argument against the idea that we should be embracing informal or social learning models.  It is however, a strong counter-argument against some recent posts and comments I’ve see as to the methods we choose to obtain these results.

41 Comments leave one →
  1. May 12, 2010 6:48 pm

    Thanks David for an outstanding view on the industry. It’s great to see someone taking a stand against all the negative sentiment in the LMS space.

    • dwilkinsnh permalink*
      May 12, 2010 7:54 pm

      Thanks Rich. I completely agree that social is the future, but I don’t see LMSs going anywhere anytime soon. We grew new clients by over 60% last year! Not exactly a dying industry… So the real question in my mind is “how do we figure out how to blend this stuff together so we don’t end up with multiple solutions that would be better served by a single, integrated solution?”

      • May 13, 2010 3:06 pm

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

        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.

      • dwilkinsnh permalink*
        May 13, 2010 5:02 pm


        Can I assume you didn’t read my post? If you had, I think you would have been more inclined to attack some of the points I made rather than erect a straw man argument to knock down. In case you missed it, my explicit point is that LMSs are not just about formal learning, assigning training, and tracking course completion. They have been about a lot more than this for years.

        You seem to like analogies and sarcasm. I do too. Suppose I said to you, “You know what I hate about the internet? How slow it is. AOL takes forever to load.” Would you think that the internet was slow or would you question the person who made that statement? Maybe they live in a rural area, maybe they aren’t tech savvy, maybe they are elderly and are just migrating to the internet for the first time, maybe they have an agenda and are trying to sell me on how great their “speed boost” software is etc… You sure as hell wouldn’t take them at their word when the empirical and objective evidence is all around you that high speed connection speeds are nearly ubiquitous.

        I work in this industry. I’ve been in the space for over 15 years. I know what competitors are doing. I know what we’re doing. Critics who still choose to frame and describe the LMS market as if it’s stuck in a time bubble from 5+ years ago are wrong. End of discussion. The truth is the truth.

        I’m happy to debate their merits of whether we *should* do social and informal learning in an LMS platform, outside of it, or both. I’m not willing to debate with anyone whether LMS solutions *can* do this as it’s an incontrovertible fact and therefore not subject to debate. Frankly, what we should be asking is why learning professionals are not yet taking advantage of what they already have. That seems to me to be a far more interesting subject and worthy of some investigation.

      • May 15, 2010 10:24 am

        Yes, I LOVE analogies and sarcasm. In this case, I was using a metaphor to try (apparently unsuccessfully) to illustrate the idea that the whole idea of “managing” learning through a pricey software product is flawed.

        Let me give it another whack. Suppose you have a group of car salesmen. And you pay them based on whether or not they sell cars.

        You look at your profits, decide that these losers aren’t selling enough cars, and that what you need to fix the problem is sales training. If only they were better salesmen, you’d make more money and be able to buy your wife that island in the Caribbean that she’s been looking at. (You’ve got 75 dealerships in 29 states.)

        So you buy a great LMS, a bunch of sales training software, assign everybody login codes and stand back. Not much happens. Profits don’t zoom up, the wife doesn’t get the island, you’re sleeping with the Shitzu in the pool cabana. Bummer.

        What happened? Why didn’t your plan work? Could be one of three things:

        1. These guys don’t want to make more money. They sell cars to help the world.
        2. Their perception is that they don’t need the sales training, so you can’t “manage” them into learning.
        3. The sales training you bought sucks big time. It couldn’t teach a monkey to throw pooh.

        So let’s go back in time in our Delorean (nice “car” connection, huh?) and try this again.

        You find someone who really knows sales training. You have them match courses (or videos, or forums, or chats, or whatever) to some of your typical performers and verify that they actually DO improve their commissions.

        Then you trumpet this fact to every single car salesman. “Bob Jones in Topeka doubled his monthly income by doing this.” And give them the web address. (Or the book, or a pass to the class, or a connection to the FB page.)

        And then just get the heck out of the way. There’s nothing to “manage”.

        (A critical assumption here is that the learning you are providing is actually EFFECTIVE for your learners. As a professional with far more than 15 years in business, I can confidently say that is pretty unusual. Most sales training is crap.)

        1. Some of the audience will jump on the opportunity, learn, and improve.
        2. Some of the audience will wait, notice others getting ahead, and then join in.
        3. Some of the audience will never, ever participate. And if you “force” them to they won’t learn, anyway.

        All you need is a simple web page with the address for them to go to.

        (Yes, this is a simplistic example. Yes, I’m being a little snarky for effect. No, I don’t hate software vendors — I used to work for the biggest one on the planet.)

        All I’m trying to point out is that “managing” learning is doomed to failure, if your metric is that people ACTUALLY LEARN STUFF. If your metric is that you can prove that people watched videos, or that people posted to blogs, or that people participated in PPT lectures — yeah, you should buy a LMS (Learning, not Lunch) and go for it.

  2. Jim Poisson permalink
    May 12, 2010 7:25 pm

    I can honestly say I was waiting for you to chime in on this subject and you didn’t disappoint. Well done. Reading this reminded me of why I enjoyed working with you.

    • David Wilkins permalink
      May 12, 2010 7:51 pm

      Thanks Jim. Would have responded sooner, but you know how crazy my schedule has been.. I miss you too. Hopefully, fate will throw us together again one of these days.

  3. Jason Willensky permalink
    May 12, 2010 10:09 pm

    Nice job, Dave — passionate, thorough, and lucid.

  4. May 12, 2010 10:48 pm

    The article has been an eye-opener for me. While I knew about the functions of an LMS and the importance of one in an organizational setting, I have never come across an article that captured the breadth and depth of all the functions so holistically. I am going to recommend this to my colleagues in the e-learning industry.

    This has been my most illuminating read on LMS’ in recent times. Thank you!

  5. Shan permalink
    May 13, 2010 1:58 am

    Thanks, very illuminating indeed!

  6. May 13, 2010 6:52 am

    Very thought-provoking, Dave. You’re a great cheerleader for LMS. I agree with many of your points.

    We both want to shake organizations’ cages until people recognize the importance of informal learning and do something to improve it. Some seem to think they have all the bases covered because they have an LMS. Therein is the problem: they are satisfied with what’s at best a partial solution. I want to see more balance, don’t you?

    We don’t have three years to wait for this to happen. That would lead to more silos. Formal learning/LMS will end up in the slow silo. Other parts of the organization will commandeer social networking; the benefits are too great for them not to. The training department will be diminished.

    You say “Because at the end of the day … what I really care about is whether the company outperforms its competitors, mitigates risk to the greatest extent possible, and delivers value to shareholders.” We’re after the same objective.

    I don’t remember your mentioning that most LMS activity is measuring new hires and novices. Is the CEO even registered in the LMS? Executives? Senior managers? The top sales people? By and large, these people aren’t taking courses. In fact, the longer someone is with an organization, the more profit she generates and the less likely she is to engage in formal learning. It makes no sense to abandon one’s top performers while waiting for LMS vendors to include social learning functionality.

    Dave, I don’t think you’ll get much hate mail on this. Quite the contrary, other LMS vendors are probably already at work reassembling your words into new white papers justifying their existence.

    Obviously, we are dealing with a serious issue here. Perhaps we should conduct a special one-day session of LearnTrends to discuss the issues and engage in friendly debate.

    • Tom Stone permalink
      May 13, 2010 2:46 pm

      Jay — surely at most organizations *all employees* are registered in the LMS. At the very least, they would be so that they can take required compliance training courses.

      But once they have them there, L&D departments want to serve them in other ways — and they do, and modern LMS platform facilitate this. That is why there is such a boom in the business skills and leadership areas content space: from e-learning courses, to blended learning programs, to short videos geared towards director-and-above leadership development (Fifty Lessons is one example). Or consider GetAbstract and similar folks, that provide summarized versions of key business books? Or the various providers of full books as e-reference content — long dominated by IT content, and still is, but growing beyond that now. Often all of these content offerings are provided in the org via the modern LMS, and are used by the Sales team, management, leadership, etc.

      Beyond content on the LMS, many organizations use the LMS for a lot more in support of the development of their high potential employees, their current leaders, their sales teams, and so on. These include tracking development paths that include a wide range of content types, training modalities (inc. tracking and scheduling of traditional classroom events on the same LMS platform), and more. And in the past couple years that “more” includes social learning functionality at the most cutting edge of the LMSes out there. This means cohort groups can form for Sales, executives, etc., leadership development groups can be further enabled by forums, blogs, user profiles, and so on. The best LMSes provide this — and one point Dave is making is why expect organizations to want that to be bifurcated between multiple platforms, why have new hires on the LMS but leadership and Sales on some other platform, when a solid, modern LMS can cover all the bases?

      Of course there probably are some organizations where only selected, lower-level employees/roles are in the LMS. But I think in many, many organizations, all employees are — and for more than just compliance programs, as the L&D folks create and facilitate meaningful dev. programs for all job roles and employee levels in the organization.

      I just don’t see anyone with a modern LMS, such as the ones Dave mentioned (, Saba, Cornerstone, Element K’s KnowledgeHub), as “abandoning” their top performers and highest-level employees. In most cases, that just isn’t the reality out there today.

      • dwilkinsnh permalink*
        May 13, 2010 5:54 pm

        I like your thinking here Tom. It’s actually funny that you mentioned Leadership because it’s one of the first areas where our clients are starting to use communities of practice and discussions. I imagine you are seeing the same.

        I also want to echo what you said about “all employees” being in the LMS. At both Mzinga and now, there were a decent subset of clients where the LMS was the *only* system to touch all employees. As such, it was a main communication vehicle for anything to do with compliance or new initiatives. Everyone assumes that an email client would be the “everywhere” system, but in manufacturing, healthcare, retail, and mining industries (to name just a few), it’s pretty common for a significant subset of employees to *not* have email or ERP access or CRM access. The only system that tends to cross all employees in every kind of industry is the learning system, which is yet another argument in giving it a second look as a viable place to start informal or social learning initiatives.

    • dwilkinsnh permalink*
      May 13, 2010 4:32 pm

      Thanks for commenting Jay. I know you are vacationing so I’ll keep my reply brief (as brief as I can be at least) and take you up on your offer to discuss this further in person or virtually.

      While I’m a great “cheerleader” for LMS, I also like to think I’m a pretty good evangelist for social and informal learning too… As you know, at Training 2010, I used my time in the keynote to tell over 500 professionals in the L&D space that they need to start moving toward social or risk being the next newspaper industry… Needless to say, I share your sense of urgency on this.

      In a nutshell, here are my thoughts:

      Unified Platforms vs. Disinteremediated Apps

      In my opinion, we shouldn’t draw lines between what is social and informal and formal. Real learning happens when this stuff is blended. Based on my conversations with you on this front, I’m pretty sure you agree with this. Organizations also benefit when they view this stuff holistically as it enables them to better see patterns, key influencers and the like.

      Social and informal stuff needs to be managed — just ask ESPN how much time they spend on user management and moderation on their social stuff. Whether it will be managed in an LMS is a different question, but I assure you that Jive at al, are moving toward increasing levels of social media “management” and automation and reporting of the same.

      If we’re ever going to do reputation management, recommendation engines, ONA, expertise location, and any of the generation 2 stuff, then we would be better served to have all of the data and people info in one place since it will make all of this a heck of a lot easier.

      All of this leads me to think that while we absolutely *should* be experimenting with everything from social bookmarking tools to microblogs, the end game is a unified platform or at least an aggregation portal, not a collection of one-off, niche apps. And in my opinion, that end game should include formal, social, and informal, and the ability for orgs to define the mix of each as well as the degree of learner control and permissions. Different strokes for different folks and all that…

      Market Maturity – Are We There Yet?
      I agree wholeheartedly that we need to be driving the market forward, but I don’t believe that most orgs are “there” in terms of their understanding of social concepts and technologies. Do you? Enough to begin defining officially sanctioned social learning tools, process etc…? From my experience to date, I’d say no. Most orgs are just now beginning to experiment, even the case studies you and I cite do not typically represent an overarching strategy, but rather successful experiments and one-off solutions. This isn’t a bad thing; in fact, it’s where I expect the market to be right about now.

      On the flip side, most major LMS solutions (, Cornerstone, Saba, Plateau, ElementK) already have a pretty good set of social tools. L&D organizations don’t need to wait years to use this stuff. It’s there now. In fact, I’d suggest to you that LMS providers are *ahead* of market demand right now. In any one of the platforms above, L&D groups could implement various forms of discussion, ask an expert, social profiles, and even in some cases wikis and blogs. The fact that this functionality is not widely adopted yet is less a reflection of LMS providers or technology and more a reflection of market maturity. It took three years after the launch of Firefly, Captivate, and Qarbon for the market to *really* adopt software simulation, and that transition was a pebble in a pond compared to the sea change which is “corporate support and encouragement of social and informal learning.”

      Summary Thoughts
      I guess at the end of the day, I think L&D folks would be better served by experimenting with the tools they already have in the one system they own, than going to battle with IT over control, influence, strategy etc… of Sharepoint or Jive. L&D groups own their LMS strategy and hopefully, their overall learning strategy. With a few changes in thought process and focus, these same learning groups could use their existing platforms to start driving social and informal learning strategies today, not in three years.

      As an example of this, here’s what we’re doing to educate our sales team. We built a learning portal that includes screen shots, value prop, discovery questions, descriptions etc… for all of our modules and services (among other stuff). Within the same portal, reps can watch video recordings of our weekly “Lunch n’ Learn” education sessions, they can listen to an MP3, they can download mobile friendly versions to their mobile devices and they can read related transcripts. They can also join a specific discussion forum for each module or service to ask questions of their peers or share their expertise. These forums also send automatic email alerts when people post or add a thread etc… so internal experts outside of sales sign up to monitor discussion forums related to their area of expertise. We also have formal sales training on a variety of topics. These are also available in the same portal and where applicable, launchable right from the same modules where the social and informal stuff is kept. So when a rep wants to know about a product feature, literally everything they need to know is in one place — from collateral to conversations to courses and curriculum.

      And since we support group permissions, we added some permissioned areas to specific pages to hide and show certain elements so we could use the same exact learning portal to support our partners and channel sales. That way there is never a disconnect between what we tell our reps and what we tell our partners. Not every LMS can do this. It may be that no one can do this but us, I don’t know. What I do know is that this is the future I want — one unified system for all of the collaborative, formal, informal, and communication needs of an org. Luckily, I don’t need to wait for the future, I’m doing it now. And anyone of the L&D professionals who have a current LMS from a leading provider could begin embarking on the same journey. Maybe not as robustly as I described above, but close enough to drive business results as well as some meta-learning about “learning with social and informal approaches in a corporate environment.”

      Anyway, that’s my take. Would love to chat live or via LearnTrends on this anytime. I don’t think we’re at odds over objectives, just methods and platforms to get us from “here” to “there.”

    • May 14, 2010 10:01 pm

      Jay – don’t you think it matters the industry if more experienced workers are in the LMS and actively taking training? In the tech industry, everyone takes training when products refresh. And with the massive amount of convergence going on right now, products are refreshing and completing transforming every quarter.

  7. Deb Reynolds permalink
    May 13, 2010 10:53 am

    I second Sahana: to have a straight-from-the-heart discussion of LMS features vs. social with mention of current training and KM concepts is very helpful. Bless your outburst, hon. (Sorry, my years in Baltimore showing…)

    Two thoughts:
    Could it be that LMS information available is so relentlessly sales-oriented and stuffed with useless marketing verbiage (“value-added” and “SCORM-compliant” are old, but an examples of the sales speak that obscures) that it takes a senior MBA and a senior learning researcher a major effort to untangle the options and figure out the business impact of ONE vendor’s product (even with the benefit of apparently innocent arguments like yours). Three years ago I presented to a lot of people who came because I was simply sharing my own journey in sorting out AICC/SCORM/IEEE/IMS. That only scratches the surface, from your point of view. I can imagine how open-source seems attractive in comparison because it is what your own staff make it. “Value-added” is the consumer’s decision. “Value-added” means nothing to me as a training developer. As for SCORM-compliance, just show me the ADL readout, please…

    And could it be that the proprietary, high-stakes nature of LMSs and even the comparatively exclusive nature of comparative information about them (Brandon Hall, e.g.) works against the LMS? You may be only one or two “upgrades” away from some functionality, but what’s the cost per upgrade? How do I make sense of it? Did you do a “usability” study? If so, what were the assumptions, conditions? If I want to know about teaching techniques, I can (fairly casually, because I have to get a school’s permission) go observe, (almost) unencumbered by the administration’s spin. If I want to know about social media I can (again fairly casually, but less precisely because of varying barriers) go observe, without a sales spin–but that’s a fast-moving, multichannel, herd-driven, published-then-edited (Clay Shirky) target, and therefore as Betty White’s SNL script observed, potentially a “big waste of time,” because there’s only one Mark Oehlert to help all of us tame (collect and filter) all the feeds. How do I the lowly developer, or even C-suite folk who must guard their own proprietary intellectual property and systems, casually observe an LMS in use? (Not rhetorical.)

    If you want grass-roots support on the LMS side in the LMS-versus-the-uninformed-outside-world fight to counteract management tendancies to just buy the best ad spiel and later regret it with all their corporate might, you’ll have to figure out how to inform us “roots” or empower delighted LMS users of all business levels to speak their own impassioned piece on YouTube–in a way that goes viral. And live with the verdict–it may not be in your favor. (I personally, would rather keep my social channels firmly separate from my employer’s control because I can’t trust big brother not to discard me “at will.” That’s the silo-ing I want and need.) Compliance training, certification, onboarding and even communities of practice is not likely to drive emotional, delighted users to YouTube, either. That stuff is imposed on them from above to make them fast and easy to milk.

    I, the random developer, can’t buy you,, as I buy a convertible tablet or an iPad to experiment with. You’ll have to think of another way. Using a blog rant was inspired, but I now need to hear a similar rant from the other vendors, equally sincere, to balance it out. Please. Double-dog dare ya. 🙂

  8. May 15, 2010 8:13 pm

    Thanks Dave, amazing in-depth article (hat tip)

    From the entire conversation this makes the most sense to me…

    “All of this leads me to think that while we absolutely *should* be experimenting with everything from social bookmarking tools to microblogs, the end game is a unified platform or at least an aggregation portal, not a collection of one-off, niche apps. And in my opinion, that end game should include formal, social, and informal, and the ability for orgs to define the mix of each as well as the degree of learner control and permissions. Different strokes for different folks and all that…”

    I especially like the idea of an aggregation portal, this could also be scalable and therefore support SME’s too. Question now is who’s going to build it?

    • dwilkinsnh permalink*
      May 17, 2010 9:19 am

      I think it’s going to come from both sides Paul. In our current LMS for example, we can include RSS feeds and embedded widgets from outside the system on any page. We can also include iFrames that get embedded in out LMS so that we can actually expose external sites and pages anywhere in our portal. What we don’t have yet is a way to easily report or search on these outside assets, but that will come. In the meantime, there are ways to make unified searching and reporting work today provided folks are willing to get a little creative. I believe some of the social apps allow embedded RSS and widgets as well, but admittedly, I’m not as deep on what they do. In other words, we’re already moving toward convergence and portal-like experiences. As further proof of this, you should read Bersin’s latest report on Adaptive Platforms.

      What I think we’re going to see are models closer to what we do, portal first, something else second. We’re portal first, LMS second, social collaboration and TM space tied for third. SuccessFactors might be TM vendor first, social collaboration second (with the acquisition of CubeTree) and portal third. Jive might be social collaboration platform first, social media platform second, and portal third (just guessing here). If I’m right about this, it’s then just becomes a matter of marrying first and second-tier priorities against core and secondary capabilities from vendors. Maybe too simplistic, but that’s the approach I would take today if I was buying.

      • May 17, 2010 11:58 am

        Thanks for the reply Dave, very timely I have to say.

        The Harvard Business Publishing unit have asked me to comment on a post they made and it’s pretty much reflecting the entire conversation here, which I’ve also referred them to. You can read my clipping and comments here > – the original article I was referring to can also be found via the previous link. I’d also suggest taking a look at their YouTube channel – they are in the process of re-developing their platform, the Harvard ManageMentor ( which looks interesting… Finally, I’ve been playing with and this could hold an important key for those working with Google Apps. Going to take a look at Bersin’s report and come back to you (thanks for the tip). Btw – your system sounds really cool – would love to see it action one day – perhaps we could arrange a virtual demo via Skype. All the best, Paul.

      • dwilkinsnh permalink*
        May 17, 2010 1:10 pm

        Hey Paul — I just saw your post. I think you did a great job collecting the debate in one place. You may want to add Dan’s latest blog entry to your list — effectively a rebuttal and supporting argument in one post. It’s very good. I’ll definitely check out the resources you mentioned as they sound pretty cool. There is so much happening in this space, it’s getting to be a part time job to keep up! I’m also happy to do a virtual demo whenever you’d like. Just let me know when.

      • May 19, 2010 4:53 pm

        Hi ho! Know what you mean about part-time job 😉 I updated my post with more relevant links (and tweeted it). I also read Dan’s post and as he rightly suggests semantics play a part his own view but his summary captured the spirit and brought you both back to the same point, his summary…

        “In summary, I don’t believe the learning function should own the LMS. I qualify that by suggesting the standalone LMS is dead, and that a cross-functional shared ownership roadmap of formal, informal and social technologies need to be driven with all stakeholders at the table, including the ‘new and improved’ learning function.”

        This evening I attended a Webinar – “The State of Community Management” hosted by the Rachel Happe (@rhappe). There were some excellent points made and it is much clearer to see now that careful planning and strategy is required when considering how to create the new learning mash-up. For those not following Rachel, I would advise heading over to twitter and begin by following her posts.

        Will ping you about the demo when time permits, thanks in-advance…

  9. May 16, 2010 2:02 pm

    Some very intense reading yet striking some very true points! Social Media is like a native language to people these days. Almost like knowing about different OS’s available.


  10. May 17, 2010 11:55 am

    The employees of the company I work for are predominantly highly education professionals who carry licenses, registrations, and certifications related to their work. Someone may be an engineer licensed in 4 states, carry project management certification from one association, green building certification from a second, and construction management certification from a third. For me, an LMS is an absolutely required tool to manage the range of continuing education options needed by the employees in a way that meets professional requirements and provides a tracking mechanism if the employee is audited. Yes, you can say it’s the employee’s responsibility to find, take, and document their learning activity since it’s the individual who is licensed or certified. But when the choice comes to performing billable work or spending time in administrative activities, which provides more value to the organization? Even if state licensing boards accredit social media and other informal learning activities in the future, there is still the issue of documentation. An LMS even in its basic form as an automation system has high value for us.

    • dwilkinsnh permalink*
      May 17, 2010 1:06 pm

      Great stuff Judy and right on point. That’s exactly the part of the debate that’s missing – the real world value that LMS’s bring today. None of us who have seen the real value of LMS can see a future without it, but many folks won’t even acknowledge that it’s an essential business app for a whole lot of industries. Social is critical too, but why not talk about ways they feed each other and the unique problems each solves, rather than position this as zero sum debate? Perspectives like yours are critical to this discussion and bring some much needed “real world” perspective. Thanks for sharing.

  11. David Glow permalink
    May 19, 2010 9:00 am

    It’s fantastic to see everyone engaged in a REAL discussion on the topic.

    I think the two statements that make the most sense are:
    – Wilkins: This is an “AND” join (a point I tweeted after his presentation with Jay Cross)
    – Cross: “I want to see more balance, don’t you?”

    Both concepts are key here. I’d like to start with Jay’s concept of balance first. The balance of needs between formal and informal learning is highly dependent on company needs and culture.

    Currently, I have one client that is very “rank and file”, prescribe/mandate, track, per very strict regulatory requirements that must be reported on with clarity. We have tried to advocate the need for more informal learning and post-training application support and recently deployed some Sharepoint solutions to compliment – the “AND” join- but the balance is clearly weighted on one side. The integration of the systems/logins, etc… is key to facilitate usage for the user and ensure reporting variables are consistent. Even if you make the argument “Sharepoint isn’t really social learning” (I agree), this is the right solution/balance for this organization at this time.

    Another client is in a much more open, less regulated industry with experienced engineers who really have to have some mechanism to share resources. They might have one or two “level setting” learning elements to set a common stage for a major change initiative, but otherwise, it is a community of support for real-time work problems. And, for them, a general idea of “what’s being used” (akin to Google Analytics) is good enough (I agree with David’s this is not an LMS- but for this clients requirements at this time, it seems the most reasonable fit).

    First, I’d like to thank David for being one of the first to buck the trend and really speak honestly and openly about the current state of LMS systems, and that this should never be an either/or discussion. I think we need to look to our customers/clients, their needs, their culture, their capabilities (IT support plays a HUGE factor here- I’d love to cobble together a bunch of best-of-breed open-source Web2.0 tools, but IT supports core business applications, if your “Frakensystem” comes apart , is IT going to make it priority to restitch?) and then have this exact debate/discussion with our stakeholders to design best solutions, and select best tools and providers.

    I would like to thank everyone in the discussion. It is causing many training organizations to finally re-evaluate their role and offerings for the first time in a while.

    Can’t wait to hear more…
    David Glow

    PS> Also, just wanted to point out that it seems there is also an attack on the concepts of “Learning Management” and “Knowledge Management” with statements of “you can’t manage learning”… can we manage change (you can’t tell it when to happen, how to happen, to go away until you are ready)? I think the same arguments about the shortcomings of “managing” learning apply to many other fields as well (change, people, etc.), so maybe there is a fundamental issue with the understanding of the definition of what it means to manage and levels of influence and control inherently understood when you apply principles of management to a specific area.

  12. May 21, 2010 10:25 am

    I know that for many organizations, an LMS is imperative. For example, medical institutions really need to ensure and track that healthcare workers get proper training, from a legal as well as practical perspective. On the other hand, LMSs are an easy target to bash, because we all get frustrated by them. So thanks for tempering my frustrations with your well thought-out perspective.

  13. May 21, 2010 12:58 pm

    As an employee of a state-owned university-run hospital, informal learning is not relevant for a large chunk of our training. We need to be in compliance with federal, local, and other requirements (such as the Joint Commission). Learning management systems play a very important role in our institution, and no matter how eloquently people speak about social media/social learning/informal learning, it will not change the fact that these avenues do not mesh well with compliance training.

    Similarly, as a teaching hospital, we have very strict rules about privacy and access to patient and student data. The last thing our IT department wants to do is unleash social media tools; it would be way too easy to accidentally publicize data protected by federal privacy laws, exposing us to sanctions or lawsuits.

    Having said that, I completely understand and agree with most people’s frustrations with LMSs. Commercial LMSs tend to be way too expensive, clunky, and lacking a good UI. In my experience, most LMSs suffer from the “jack of all trades, master of none” syndrome where they offer a plethora of features but none of them are best-of-class. In a large organization like ours, we wind up doling out tens of thousands of dollars for upgrades that we often feel should be part of the core product. Even after paying for the upgrades we’re continually underwhelmed with the product’s effectiveness.

    I don’t think the concept of an LMS needs to die, but I do hope it continues to evolve into a platform — or API linking separate platforms — that will serve traditional LMS roles as well as support new approaches to social/informal learning.

  14. May 30, 2010 3:27 pm

    LMS Considerations and Features Wiki
    I posted an attempt to create a comprehensive and detailed list of considerations and desirable features for Learning Management Systems (LMSs). You are invited to help correct omissions or flaws in this list, and/or comment on it at:

    Elements on this list were culled from several sources including this post and SumTotal’s Request For Proposal Template @

  15. Larry Irons permalink
    June 1, 2010 11:22 am

    Interesting dialogue, though I don’t think it really takes us past the findings of the eLearning Guild’s 360˚ Report on Learning Management Systems in 2008. I offered a summary of it a couple of years ago that speaks to many of the issues discussed here. The case study offered by Dr. Nancy Grey’s,” The LMS and Web 2.0: Natural Progression or Natural Disaster,” got directly to the heart of the issues involved. As noted in that earlier post

    The cautionary, risk management approach Grey highlights is especially likely to gain recognition in companies operating in a business environment subject to government regulation, such as pharmaceuticals and financial services.

    Grey suggests that any company facing organizational change driven by layoffs, off-shoring, or implementation of new technologies can benefit from e-Learning 2.0 and benefit sufficiently that company executives need to bring the training and legal departments together to work through any concerns about risk. Nevertheless, the fact that e-Learning 2.0 is an informal process, and learning processes governed by an LMS are formal in nature, lies at the base of Grey’s analysis. Her conclusions ring true to me. “In the end, employing Web 2.0 technology in e-Learning does not have to be an all-or-nothing proposition. If tracking how often someone views a blog, or accesses a particular wiki article, benefits the company’s bottom line, then do so. But who says you have to spend resources tracking everything?”

  16. June 6, 2010 6:58 pm

    Hey, you have a great blog here! I’m definitely going to bookmark you! Thank you for your info.And this is Social bookmark site/blog. It pretty much covers ###Social bookmark## related stuff.

  17. June 25, 2010 4:14 am

    I’ve been here a couple times and it looks like your articles get more informative each time. Keep it up I enjoy reading them.

  18. July 7, 2010 3:20 pm

    I’m looking to build a wp lms plugin, but first I’m defining exactly what is needed and wanted. See if you have any information you can contribute.

  19. July 19, 2010 7:36 pm

    David — great post. It’s good to see vendors taking a clear stand. I replied on my blog with a couple more thoughts:

    Jay Shaw, CEO

  20. November 12, 2010 6:41 am


    Re-reading your comprehensive treatise above something struck me.

    Firstly let me say that I’ve implemented large-scale LMS systems in global companies and have ‘felt the pain’ in the same way anyone involved in this process has (not just for LMS but for any ERP, CRM etc. enterprise system).

    My ‘lightbulb’ moment was this:

    When we talk about ‘learning’ in an organisational context we mean behaviour change. If our behaviour, decisions, actions aren’t modified through undergoing some ‘learning’ process then we can safely assume that no learning has occurred.

    In my experience any viewpoint, system or process that assumes that knowledge retention=learning flies in the face of this fact. If you read Eric Kandal on this (he won his Nobel Prize for work on memory and learning) he defines learning as “the ability to acquire new ideas from experience and retain them as memories”. Kandel is not talking about short-term memory here. He’s talking about those ideas that become embedded in long-term memory and result on us responding differently to the same process to our previous response (long-term memory retention is a totally different chemical process).

    How does all this relate to this LMS debate?

    Actually it’s fundamental. If we rely on systems that reinforce the assumption that presentation of information followed by testing/assessment/certification on the basis of being able to recall that information in some form within a short time following the presentation is ‘learning’ – the model for many formal learning constructs underpinned by LMS – then we are doing a disservice to the entire process of ‘real’ learning. That model is not about learning at all. It’s simply a test of short-term memory recall.

    Then why shoot the messenger?

    The problem is that the positioning of the LMS as an integral tool for organisational learning easily acts as a roadblock and distractor to real learning. The focus on content and assessment over experience, conversations and reflection means that LMS-driven learning often leads to no learning at all.

    If the LMS is being used to help meet compliance requirements this issue doesn’t arise. I absolutely agree with you, an LMS is a powerful and useful tool to support the processes required by many compliance authorities. The prime objective of compliance training is to keep the CEO and Chairman out of court and prison, and to avoid the firm paying heavy fines. Putting employees through a process and accrediting them is the mechanism usually used to achieve this. Don’t confuse it with learning. It’s principally about demonstrating process and short-term memory. It’s an out-dated view of learning but we’re stuck with it as regulating authorities are unlikely to change their modus operandi real soon.

    As far as incorporating all the ‘social and informal’ support pieces into an LMS, my own view is that an LMS is probably not a good place to start. LMS interfaces and flexibility usually lag far behind those of most social tools. Why not just use those tools and aggregate any activity data you need?

    Some large LMS vendors have taken a different approach and opened APIs to do this. That’s a better bet in my view.

    The impressive list in your argument #2 also raises the question for me as to whether I’d want all (or some) of this functionality to be provided by one vendor or whether I’d want to select whatever’s best in the marketplace for my own context. If integration was relatively straightforward, I think I’d go for the latter. More flexibility, more personalisation etc.



  1. Standalone LMS is Still Dead (rebutting & agreeing w/ Dave Wilkins) | trainingwreck
  2. Personal Brand, Professional Brand, and Perceived Bias in Social Media « Social Enterprise Blog
  3. Learnlets » When to LMS
  4. Viral Notebook | Michael M. Grant, Ph.D.
  5. Out of gas or speeding out of sight? | Work, Learn, Play
  6. The LMS is dead ……. oh, no it isn’t etc.. | importersite

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