Learning Management Systems: The integration game

Technology stands still for no man, and learning management systems (LMS) are no exception. Anexample of one major trend is the shift towards consolidation in enterprises where multiple systems exist.

This is borne out by a recent survey of 249 US organisations conducted by training outsourcing provider Expertus, published in December 2006. Of the 25% of responding organisations that currently use more than one LMS within their organisations, three-quarters said they plan to consolidate systems. More than 75% of these plan to perform this consolidation within the next year.

The top factors cited as driving the need to consolidate are the centralisation of learner data (77.8%), improved reporting (68.9%), improved content integration (64.4%), and improved integration with other enterprise applications (62.2%).

Easier integration

It was in response to this last point that LMS provider SumTotal released a software tool called Total Integration earlier this year. According to the company’s vice-president of marketing, Jon Ciampi, this enables easier integration between the LMS and other HR systems.

Ciampi says SumTotal has worked at bringing flexibility to its system, and although companies may be consolidating on one global LMS, its product allows for each regional group to configure its own system so it fits around the way it works.”The data will remain constant and transferable, but workflow, permission settings and policy can be set locally,” he says.

This flexibility is also apparent at the front end of the system, says Ciampi, because the LMS can integrate with internet portals and intranets, and allow users to design reports by dragging and dropping required data fields.

Another trend that Ciampi has noted is the tendency for organisations to integrate their LMS with talent management, succession planning and performance management systems.

This shift led SumTotal to purchase performance management software supplier MindSolve at the end of 2006.

By combining their LMS with these tools, organisations can use it to distinguish employees with high potential, and to identify where talent exists within the enterprise, Ciampi says.

Staff using these systems will also be able to identify a potential next career move within the organisation, and to find out what training and skills are required to get there, he says.

“This is a priority for many companies which, in the past, have seen valuable employees leave because they can’t show them a career path through the organisation,” he adds.

Growing interest

LMS provider Saba is set to release an updated version of its talent management tool later this year, according to European president Alun Cope-Morgan. He says the increasing number of organisations that are linking their LMS with talent management systems demonstrates a growing interest in human capital management practices.

“It is important that the LMS is tied into this as it is the system through which skill improvements and development are recorded,” he says.

Saba is known for providing systems for larger organisations, typically those with more than10,000 employees, but increasingly, says Cope-Morgan, it has been providing systems for the mid-tier of companies with about 5,000 staff. This has been made possible by the growing acceptance of the ‘software as a service’ model, where rather than buy the software outright and have the LMS installed on site, companies pay for the service on a monthly, on-demand basis and access it through the internet.

Saba recently opened a data centre in Amsterdam in anticipation of more customers wanting to receive applications this way. Cope-Morgan says this method of accessing an LMS means it will be less customisable and more standardised.

LMS supplier Cobent has also seen on-demand services become more popular over the past year. Managing director Howard Sears says these allow companies to deploy their LMS more quickly as there are no internal IT issues for the user.”It’s also cheaper as the user is effectively renting space rather than buying it,” says Sears.

Cobent’s LMS has been optimised to help companies manage their compliance obligations. The system has been designed with layers of security built-in. This means training records are stored securely using electronic signatures and version control so they cannot be altered retrospectively.

Compliance audits

This structure allows companies to use the system in compliance audits. For example, if there was an accident on site, a company can look back and prove that all the employees involved have had adequate health and safety training knowing that the training records haven’t been changed after the event.

Cobent’s system meets the compliance terms of the US’s Food and Drug Agency, which has the toughest regulations of this kind of any standards body in the world.

Sears says with rigorous standards increasingly being required by UK organisations, such as the Health and Safety Executive and the Financial Services Authority, there has been a growing interest in the system from UK buyers.

According to the Expertus research on LMS consolidation, the biggest challenges anticipated by respondents eyeing consolidation were data issues (58.7%), technology (56.5%), and user acceptance (43.5%).

It is this last issue that has occupied Justin Skelton, managing director of Apex Training and Development, of late.

Apex is both a training company and LMS provider, and Skelton says LMS suppliers are constantly vying with one another to give their systems more and improved functionality. “But the question isn’t how much functionality a system possesses, it’s whether anyone uses it,” he says.

Skelton says recent conversations with his LMS customers, such as mobile network operator Orange and vehicle repair chain Kwik-Fit, have revolved around how to get employees to go to their LMS voluntarily.

“Organisations using a LMS must formulate an employee engagement strategy or they will simply end up policing employees through it,” he says.

These conversations have led Apex to make improvements that Skelton hopes will lead to more employees using the system.

Version 2 of the system, called Love Learning, contains an enhanced user interface similar to that on a PDA to make it easier to use. Skelton says on the new interface most applications are just one click away.

There is now also the ability to store and archive video on the system -for example, the highlights of a training video or a short presentation on a particular learning issue.

According to Skelton, video is increasingly popular because it is easy to follow and can offera number of learning points in one short clip.”By providing learning material of this kind, you make it accessible and keep people connecting with the system,” he says.

Case study: Media Initiatives Group

The ability to track improvements in employees’ development and to revisit learning points archived on the system was behind the Media Initiatives Group’s decision to adopt the Love Learning learning management system from Apex Training and Development earlier this year.

The group, which purchases advertising for a range of clients including Multimap, NCP and Viacom, employs about 45 people at its London headquarters. Typical training events attended by group employees include negotiation and presentation skills, advanced selling and management training courses.

According to sales manager Olly Horner, use of the LMS starts before a training intervention, when both delegates and managers record what they hope to get from a forthcoming training event and score the delegates’ competence in that particular discipline. “These are sent to the trainers before the event, which helps them tailor the training to the suit the delegates’ needs,” he says.

After attending the course, delegates are required to input details of what they have learned – highlighting any key action points, tips and best practice. “Details of the skills and techniques picked up on a training day are retained for the manager to monitor and for the delegate to revisit from time to time as a reminder,” says Horner.

“From a management point of view, it acts as a great reference tool, so we can retain as much learning as possible from any training intervention,” he adds.

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