Learning is on the move. Mobile, social and informal exchanges of information are enhancing or replacing traditional training and course structures. Many new learning modalities depend on content that is not even managed or created by a learning and development organization. On top of all this, economic pressure is rewarding the creative repurposing of content freely available on the Web and from original sources.
If learning events increasingly involve assets individuals don’t own or control, how do learning leaders track and assess the effectiveness of employees’ learning? Simply stated, if it can’t be put it in the LMS, is it still learning? And if it is — in a post-LMS world — how is it assessed?
The phrase “post-LMS world” is not meant to suggest that learning management systems are obsolete. It merely means that assessing learning utilizing an LMS only is becoming obsolete. Like learning itself, learning assessment is also on the move, focusing more on performance than knowledge acquisition.
The original function of the LMS was to simplify how learning was scheduled, deployed and tracked. It was also a tool for managers to validate and report compliance with learning obligations and to prove that specific people in specific roles completed training. Over time, the LMS evolved to support the creation of training plans, curricula development and the management of assets and logistics.
With continued integration with performance management systems, LMSs do more than track and report learning events; they are a component of a comprehensive talent management strategy. Further, many LMSs have become quite complex in their functionality. They provide significant capabilities for users, administrators, learning professionals and managers, but ease of use has plummeted, causing many companies to develop front-end websites or portals to ease the pain.
Why Is the LMS Still Important?
If learning leaders ask employees why their LMS is important, they’re likely to receive many different responses:
• What is an LMS?
• Easy access to class registration.
• Just-in-time learning.
• Proof of completion.
• Integrated curriculum relevant to the job or role.
Front-line performers’ responses reflect their day-to-day work and their interest in advancement. Executives’ responses to the same question typically concern discovery, financial reporting, compliance, validation and efficiency. Midlevel manager responses tend to relate to employee behavior changes and performance improvement. Responses from learning professionals vary depending on culture, environment and charter.
Despite the various ways in which learning occurs, there is still a need to track training events, particularly in regulated industries such as pharmaceuticals, but also for compliance with safety and HR programs. The LMS is also critical to manage certification programs and to provide an overall understanding of the organization’s learning and development. The need to track learning in an organization will persist. It will have varying levels of importance based on the industry, regulatory compliance needs and the organization’s culture. Today it is not so much what gets tracked and managed, but how, when, why and by whom.
Learning leaders may have quite different relationships with their LMSs. One may rely on it heavily as an enterprisewide application serving the centralized learning organization and the diverse global business units. Another, in a company operating in 120 countries with 20 brands and more than 7,000 employees, may have no LMS at all.
In each situation, however, there is still significant tracking, reporting and analysis conducted about learning programs and investments. So, whatever the perspective, assessing learning is important regardless of which LMS — or no LMS — someone has implemented.
Complexity, Diversity and Integration
The complexity of using an LMS to access training may be a blessing in disguise. It forces learning leaders to enhance it. Many organizations are implementing user-friendly learning portals that link to prescribed training, allowing them to establish a learning platform designed specifically for learners’ needs. For example, the portal may integrate wiki pages to support threaded discussions on a critical topic, link to user profiles to create expert networks and provide access to electronic performance support to enable just-in-time learning. The assets these portals make available to the learner can be from any source, such as Microsoft SharePoint or any file server in a network.
The learning platform provides the ability to store and deploy multiple modalities, giving learning departments the flexibility to meet the needs of today’s adult workforce and to provide training in the right context at the right time. Whether it is an e-learning module, a mobile course, a podcast, a job aid or an instructor-led program, the learning platform supported by the LMS affords the ability to manage content to meet users’ need to reuse, repurpose and replay it. In addition to formal learning plans, learners also can access a full library of content on the platform to create individual, self-guided learning plans. Note that the LMS may be at the heart of this platform, but is not necessarily the only component.
If this article had been published five or 10 years ago, there would have been little or no reference to other technologies to enable learning assessment. For example, currently there are technologies to track and report employee transactional proficiency with business software. Organizations invest millions to implement enterprise resource planning (ERP) software, customer relationship management (CRM) systems and others. Along with this investment comes the financial obligation to ensure workforce adoption, proficiency and compliance of use. Value is not recognized by learning activities alone. It would be nice if executives could aggregate data about learning events with transactional performance. Actually, it would be more than nice. It would empower executives to make rapid, targeted changes to improve adoption and performance.
Workforce planning and rationalization require a powerful inventory of information related to employee skills, experience and knowledge. Again, the LMS can easily provide much of this information, but not all. It would be nice if HR managers and business stakeholders could match this data to project resource requirements and workforce transformation plans. No, it would be more than nice. It would empower executives to increase their competitive advantage by rapidly matching resources to needs. By integrating the LMS with the performance management system, they can.
Whether an organization’s markets are expanding or contracting, emerging or converging, its workforce is a key differentiator. Employee competencies directly control an organization’s ability to deliver to customers and stakeholders. When looking over the list of competencies some learning organizations subscribe to, there are often personal traits among them. However, they are often mixed with skills related to producing business results and customer engagement. Competencies that can be learned or acquired are the focus of many learning programs, including leadership and management programs. It would be nice if there were tight integration between the system that manages learning and the system that manages employee competencies. Actually, it would be more than nice. It would empower learning and HR organizations and executives to evolve and transform the workforce to optimize performance in the marketplace.
Assessing Learning’s Effect on Business
All organizations rely on the power of converting data into information. Data represents grains of sand. How we manipulate this sand into castles provides the competitive advantage organizations need to survive and excel. Just as in the scenarios already described, aggregating data related to learning with data related to all other aspects of a business gives leaders an advantage. That advantage enables the capability to plan and rationalize the workforce. It enables us to match employee competencies and skills, skills and opportunities, opportunities and growth. The system that manages learning is a powerful tool, but its power is magnified when integrated with other business applications, including business intelligence software. The right combination allows us to correlate all data into one dashboard, eliminating multiples and making it easier to lead the business.
Tracking learning events is crucial, but ultimately business managers are interested in learning that yields behavior changes that result in business or operational performance improvements that ultimately result in a significant return on investment.
Operational goals vary: sales effectiveness, warehouse efficiency, back-office proficiency, call center value, customer satisfaction. These goals all depend on the market, organization and charter. In most cases, managers have goals related to employee retention, knowledge and proficiency. Those goals often have time constraints. Therefore, speed is of the essence and part of the measurement of success. Measures of that proficiency are found in the aforementioned examples, not just in reports of training completion. The C-suite is concerned with speed to value.
In addition to the standard transactional monitoring and reporting inherent in the LMS, data derived from diverse sources can be correlated for overall business intelligence reporting. Imagine the value of assessing learning by correlating:
• A decrease in plant accidents with an increase in safety training.
• An increase in sales with an increase in sales training and collaboration.
• An increase in customer satisfaction scores with an increase in performance support for the call center.
By integrating the LMS with the performance management system, leaders can assess the overall competency level of individuals and departments and use the data to develop and manage workforce planning. Whether learning is formal or informal, putting a number or value on the benefit may not be as simple as running a report. A learning leader may need to rely on anecdotes and stories to demonstrate business value in diverse ways. Once again, the LMS may play a role in this assessment of learning, but not as the only tool.
What’s Right for Your Business?
Conduct a simple analysis — how robust are the organization’s tracking requirements? Does it have regulatory compliance needs? Company-imposed policy compliance? How will learning leaders manage content? What other learning and performance technologies are being used now? What is the road map to incorporate emerging technologies?
Once business requirements have been determined, mapping the learning architecture will become an exercise in innovation. Maybe a simple LMS can manage and assess learning; maybe other internal technologies can be exploited.
There is no one-size-fits-all solution. The what and how of learning architecture need to support business objectives and be flexible to meet business changes and employees’ learning needs. The post-LMS world is not an environment without the LMS. It is a world supported by diverse technologies enabling the assessment and value of employee learning, whether that learning occurs in a traditional classroom, a virtual classroom or a collaborative forum.
Mal Poulin is enterprise market director and Paul Bejgrowicz is a principal performance consultant for RWD Technologies. They can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.