3 biggest flaws with the LMS and why it doesn’t make your employees better on-the-job performers

Whether you’re a mid-sized organization or a large Fortune 500 and whether you sit in the Human Resources, L&D or Store Operations group, you’re likely familiar with the Learning Management System—“a software application or Web-based technology used to plan, implement, and assess a specific learning process.”

According to Training Industry Report, the vast majority of companies (73%) are using an LMS today for corporate learning. There’s no question that the LMS has become synonymous with corporate learning across small and large companies alike, and organizations are entrenched in it. But the reality is that corporate learning management systems remain slow, hard to use, and fall short when it comes to improving employee capability and on-the-job behaviours that impact business objectives. There’s a lot of “wasted learning” taking place and it’s costing organizations millions of dollars every year.

Regardless of whether you’re in L&D and trying to improve employee engagement, or responsible for running your retail store operations and looking at ways to improve tangibles like Dollars Per Transaction (DPT), conversions, safety incidents, shrinkage or employee turnover, you have the same end goal—to get results. Is the LMS really the right tool to help you move the needle?

Before we help you answer this question, let’s take a step back to look at the audience and problem that the LMS was originally designed to solve.

The first LMS tackles distance learning

If we trace the roots of the Learning Management System back to its earliest days, it is clear that it was born shortly after widespread proliferation of the internet a couple of decades ago. And just like the many industries that saw the opportunity presented by the internet, and have since transformed the way we shop, how we access news, the way we date, and more, the higher education community saw the LMS as a way to transform learning. For this reason, universities and colleges were the first to leverage the LMS, starting with distance learning as the low hanging fruit.

Before the internet, distance learning had gone through a myriad of iterations to best replicate the physical classroom experience for remote students and to help institutions broaden access to learning beyond the confines of an institution’s bricks and mortar geographic reach. This was previously accomplished by leveraging physical mail as the “transport” mechanism for institutions to manage the exchange of learning content between instructor and student: Instructors mailed audio recordings of lectures (phonograph in its early days), assignments and quizzes, and students, in turn, would consume lectures and mail completed assignments and quizzes back to the institution. This method was probably one of the most isolated, lagging, and unengaging learning experiences that the world had ever witnessed.

But the internet provided the vehicle to transform this experience for remote students. The very first LMSs leveraged the internet as a faster way to manage the exchange of content between instructor and student while driving greater learner engagement. The LMS also enabled the academic institution to provide a virtual classroom experience that closely mirrored the physical one and, to its credit, was an effective answer to the isolated distance learning experience of the past.

The LMS was architected for higher education and not corporate learning

So, the first Learning Management Systems were designed to solve a challenge in the academic world—essentially to improve the delivery of learning content in the higher education setting. Making the higher education vs. the corporate use distinction is an important one because the higher education system and the way learning is delivered in this environment is architected upon the “credit hour”. Generally speaking, this means that students receive credit based on the number of hours they spend in class or physically learning. In this model, duration or time is fixed (such as a 4-month semester) with a pre-determined number of learning hours required for a specific course, as part of the standardized formula for a student to successfully achieve a credit.

Why does that matter? Well, quite simply put, the LMS was designed based upon a higher education learning model founded on “time spent” learning.  And that certainly can make sense in situations where a student is solely dedicated to learning and has large chunks of time to consume learning content. But, there’s a huge misalignment when we try to apply this model for learning in the corporate environment. The definitive “start and finish” (i.e. once a student has successfully completed the course, the circuit is complete and they move to the next course) simply doesn’t work in a corporate setting where business requirements change continually and employees must always have critical knowledge top of mind to perform on-the-job.

What does all of this mean? Well, to boil it down, let’s just say that the LMS was built to solve a different problem (distance learning) for a different audience (higher education), and as a consequence, the lukewarm results that we’ve seen from its use for corporate learning shouldn’t be all that surprising.  This fundamental misalignment results in some big flaws when it comes to using an LMS to improve employee knowledge and on-the-job capability in a corporate setting: 

Flaw #1: The LMS incorrectly assumes that learning “ends” after a learner successfully completes a module

We’ve established that the LMS was originally designed to support a system architected on the “credit hour” in higher education. As a result, it operates under the assumption that learners have large chunks of time to dedicate to the consumption of learning material. But we know that modern employees are busy, distracted and struggle to fit learning into their workflow. Take a deskless worker, like a retail sales associate as an example. This type of employee is out on the floor, dealing with customers or stocking inventory and simply doesn’t have the extended periods of time to consume learning like a student enrolled in a first-year college psychology course.

Most organizations are using the LMS to push out massive volumes of information at learners in the same way it’s done in higher education, hoping that they’ll consume it, retain it, and be able to apply newly acquired knowledge on the job to drive bottom-line results. The LMS (in an academic model) assumes that learning “ends” while in real life people forget what they’ve learned and require continued reinforcement and support for a variety of personal knowledge needs. This model of pushing out large volumes of learning content with a conclusive “end” simply doesn’t work in most corporate settings where learning must be reinforced continuously in order to drive the right behaviours on the job. If you want to see a bit more science behind this, I encourage you to read this white paper.

Flaw #2: The LMS doesn’t measure the things that business leaders find valuable

If you’re using an LMS at your organization, you’re likely very familiar with the metrics that it reports:  logins, course completions, time-spent and test scores/grades. Many organizations use these measures as a proxy (some have even come up with very creative formulas) to assess employee engagement. But does a login or a completion really tell a Chief Learning Officer that employees are engaged? Similarly, does a passing test score tell the Vice President of Store Operations that a store associate is able to effectively communicate the features and benefits of a product 6 months after that employee passed a test?

These basic measurements are artifacts of the LMS’ roots in higher education—they provide the data points needed by educational institutions to determine whether a student receives a credit at the end of the semester. But that’s where the measurement and the learning ends. It doesn’t tell us anything about knowledge improvement and retention beyond the completion date; it doesn’t speak to the learner’s confidence in that knowledge; and, ultimately, it doesn’t identify the impact of learning on business performance—and that’s because it wasn’t originally designed to, nor has it evolved in this way. These higher-order measurements are critical in a business setting to ensure that you’re building knowledgeable, capable employees that are demonstrating the right behaviors to impact real business metrics like customer satisfaction, basket size, or safety incidents.

Flaw #3: The LMS isn’t really mobile

Let me start by acknowledging that virtually any LMS is accessible on a mobile device. And sure, your LMS vendor has likely modified the desktop LMS experience for a better experience on a mobile device.  But the problem is that the LMS wasn’t built for mobile first. It is basically re-rendering a learning experience that was designed for an educational setting—long modules, videos, and massive volumes of content. When is the last time you watched a feature-length movie on your smartphone? Now, imagine spending two hours clicking through slides, followed by a long video, and finally a quiz. This is a traditional classroom experience, jammed onto a mobile device. So, hasn’t this just made the classroom experience worse? Sure, learners can access the LMS anywhere and anytime, but why would they want to? And even if this was a “good” learning experience, is it an effective one in retail? What retail associate has the time or the patience for this type of “mobile” learning experience? This mobile experience (if that’s what you can call it) won’t work in a corporate setting where the stakes, restrictions on employees and how they use their time, and the expected bottom-line results are very different than those in higher education.

Modernizing the business starts with modernizing learning: What you need in order to transform your learning ecosystem

To translate learning into better customer service, increased basket size, reduced churn, decreased safety incidents and more capable employees, we need to move beyond the large volumes of learning content and the “start and finish” mindset of delivery that we’ve adopted from the academic world (and the LMS). Here are a few things modern organizations need to consider to transform employees into your biggest competitive advantage:

  1. It’s not a volume game: employees are busy, distracted and are being bombarded with massive volumes of learning. Bite-sized learning nuggets (microlearning) is solving this problem. But beware, the term “microlearning” has been over-used in vendor marketing, so when you’re speaking with a prospective microlearning vendor, make sure to understand functionality.
  2. Learning doesn’t have an “end”: Learning shouldn’t end upon successfully completing a test.  Concepts need to be reinforced continuously for long-term retention and on-the-job behavior change. Adaptive algorithms that incorporate proven brain science concepts, such as Spaced Repetition, Repeated Retrieval and Confidence-Based Assessment are critical to build employee knowledge and capability.
  3. Learners have different needs: No two employees learn in the same way or pace or have the same existing knowledge. Learning technology must be able to recognize the uniqueness of each employee to personalize the experience.
  4. What’s not in their heads needs to be at their fingertips: We can’t remember everything. Employees need a modern way to retrieve critical information immediately like SOPs, product and promotional information with a single-click.
  5. Meet employees on their turf: “Deskless workers,” such as retail associates or distribution center workers, typically don’t have daily access to a computer or even a corporate email address. But, these employees likely carry a mobile device. Tapping into their mobile device with a non-intrusive and fun learning experience drives engagement and, ultimately, long-term employee capability.
  6. Move from basic measurements to metrics that matter: Logins, completions and test scores might check the box for compliance-related training but can’t tell you whether employees are becoming more capable or how learning is translating into the right on-the-job behaviors. The right tools can get you there.

Whether you’re in L&D or another part of the business, employee knowledge has never been more critical to stay ahead of the market and your competitors. Many organizations are questioning the value of their existing LMS, so we hope this post has provided some new perspective on why a different LMS isn’t going to solve the problem. Frankly, the LMS just wasn’t designed to make your employees better on-the-job performers.

For more information about how you can modernize corporate learning within your organization, check out this ebook: Escape the Time Warp: 9 Essential Principles for Modernizing Your Corporate Learning Ecosystem

Shabbir is a savvy product marketer who’s been tied to some of the most innovative technologies impacting our daily lives. When he’s not architecting product and market strategies, you’ll find him at home having an ice cream with his children.

Looking for more information? We’d love to talk.