A conversation with John Leh about all things LMS
20th March 2015
"We’re entering a whole new phase of actually impacting change versus being a cost centre, and that’s where all the technology and thought innovation will be."
John Leh is an elearning and LMS veteran. For 20 years, he has worked square in the middle of the learning technologies space in a variety of fields including instructional design, extended enterprise solutions and learning management technology. His knowledge and research of Learning Management Systems (LMSs) around the world is authoritative. He has reviewed more than 75 LMSs in the past 12 months and uses his findings to help organisations make sense of the LMS market. He is the co-founder of Talented Learning, and the ideal person to shed light on the state of the learning management industry.
Where do you think LMS innovation is coming from currently?
I think from a geographic standpoint, lots of the innovation is coming from outside the United States. Learning Management Systems have been very common inside of Corporate America for well over a decade and most large organisations already have standardised learning management technology. So as a result, the types of LMSs that you see in the United States look and feel the same to a certain degree.
For the rest of the world and for the UK in particular, my research has found that since LMSs are not ubiquitous, organisations have the opportunity to come at it more creatively. They can find a platform and content specific solution to develop sales or speed up the on-boarding process. So there is a lot of innovation around marketing solutions, gamification, social learning and incorporating informal activities within formal learning management outside the US.
You mentioned gamification, could you expand on what you think it means for the LMS industry?
After spending 20 years in the market, I could give you 20 examples of hot topics that have come through. TinCan, social learning, virtual classrooms are all familiar now but they were once at the cutting edge, and I consider gamification just the next in a long series of these. I think for content, gamification is really strong and a great tactic for learning and knowledge. I think there’s a lot of serious work being done in the industry from the content standpoint.
LMS gamification is less about learning and more about process; it’s the ability to award points or rewards based on activities that you do inside the LMS. These are not necessarily activities that increase your education, knowledge or prowess but just activities that you do cumulatively. It is pretty easy, from an LMS standpoint, to add points or badges and transition into rewards, and as a result, I’ve seen at least 25 LMSs in the last 12 months that have added gamification or gamification elements so it’s becoming more of a common feature.
I think where the rubber really meets the road is the use of gamification from a strategic standpoint. What audiences do you use it for and what business aspect are you trying to change or improve through the use of this? If you can’t answer questions like that then it’s just window dressing on your solution and doesn’t have any impact. So I think there are a lot of people talking about gamification but I haven’t seen a whole lot of examples of it being employed in mission critical ways.
You’ve written about ‘true cloud’ LMS but how do you define that?
Cloud can mean a lot of different things to different people. I’ve found that the industry has generally shifted towards the concept of Cloud but some LMS vendors just use the word without actually adopting what it really means. In my opinion, true cloud means that the LMS vendor has a multi-tenant platform with a core set of code and every single one of their customers is using that version of the LMS at the same time. Each customer has their own secure place, completely separate from any other customer from a security or database standpoint, but they are all sharing that same centralised code.
This is in contrast to what a lot of LMS vendors call Cloud which used to be called ‘hosting’, where vendors take a version of their software and install it for a customer. This version needs to be maintained, have updates and upgrades and maintenance done over time. It is very similar to how you would host it behind your own firewall but it is in someone else’s hosted data centre. This is very different from a true cloud multi-tenant system where all your customers are on the exact same version.
The advantage of true cloud for the LMS vendors is that it’s easier to maintain, it’s easier to support clients and all research and development efforts enhances one piece of code that’s good for everybody. From a client or buyer standpoint, it’s easy to get started, it’s inexpensive, you don’t need your own IT department and you can just turn it on for a few thousand pounds (even free in some cases) and the software is already there. You don’t have to worry about updating or upgrading it and all new advancements done for other clients are automatically available for you. True cloud is where all the growth is happening and the direction the industry is going; if an LMS has been born in the last five years it’s almost exclusively true cloud.
What is the best advice you can give to a business or organisation looking to invest in an LMS?
If I were investing in a LMS the very first thing I’d want it to be is profit-centred not cost-centred. I wouldn’t want to go begging for money to buy an LMS. I would want to be in the situation where I’m making an impact in the business, whether that’s to help employees improve sales, for extended enterprise to get channel partners to sell better or faster or to support customer satisfaction. I’d want to find something that I can measure and know why we are buying this in the first place; what we are trying to change so we can measure how it is now and the impact we’re having inside the organisation.
I think too many buyers entering the LMS market get enamoured with gamification, social learning and all the buzz words. They forget about why they are actually doing this. If you start off measuring a defined set of requirements, you can actually map out what you need before you go out searching. This will allow you to find a better LMS partner that specialises in the same things and the same metrics that you’re trying to change.
What do you think is on the horizon in terms of LMS development?
I think true cloud has opened up a whole realm of possibilities that didn’t exist before. Traditionally, LMSs were only for large organisations wanting to manage training to save money through automation. You had to be a big organisation to afford it because to could cost $50-$150,000 just to install the LMS, so smaller organisations simply could not justify the upfront cost.
What’s happened with true cloud is that there is no longer this implementation barrier of entry. So that means an LMS can be for anybody, even a single person. I use an LMS to push out training to my clients and I can only do that because in a true cloud system I can get started for next to nothing and I only pay for what I use. So suddenly, LMSs and the power to create content, to distribute and sell content, is available to everybody including small and medium size businesses, non-profit organisations, professors, academic institutions and subject matter experts. They all have the ability to create and push out training in a business-like manner.
There is a blending of the lines between what is considered ecommerce and what is considered elearning. Lots of thought has been going on around the area of SEO, marketing automation and customer management systems. Elearning has always been somewhere out on the side but I think the real innovation is bringing it together so that learning technologies becomes a strategic tool to use for competitive differentiation and not just for training or to manage compliance. We’re entering a whole new phase of actually impacting change versus being a cost centre, and that’s where all the technology and thought innovation will be.