An eLearning primer - part III: learning management
November 22, 2017
In the first two parts of this article (here and here) I discussed the different types of eLearning commonly used in the corporate world today, and what works for the trucking industry's unique requirements.
Those articles covered a lot of ground, but I realized afterwards that they were still only talking about one part of the eLearning ecosystem. The content is certainly a critical part of any successful implementation, but just as important is the other piece: the Learning Management System. So, in this article I'll spend some time talking about the ins and outs of an LMS.
A Learning Management System (LMS) is the backend that houses the learning content, manages user accounts and assignments, and tracks activity. It's a hugely important part of the total package, but I'll acknowledge that it's not very sexy. In many ways it's like plumbing or electrical in your house - important, but often hidden away and rarely very exciting. When they're working well you don't notice them. In fact, if you are noticing them, it's probably because something is going wrong.
Similarly, when an LMS is designed and built properly, and when it's operating the way it should, it stays out of your way. You can login, do what you need to do quickly and with minimal headaches, then move on to the rest of your day. Let's take a look inside and see how that happens.
Systems that could be used to track learning have been around for a long time, but dedicated corporate LMSs really only emerged as a distinct product category in the late 90s with the launch of Saba and Docent (both launched in 1997). Shortly after that, the major enterprise software companies - at the time, SAP, Oracle, and PeopleSoft - added learning management modules to their systems, and a host of smaller vendors launched similar offerings in quick succession. Initially, all of these were on-premises systems, meaning that you had to get dedicated server hardware and manage everything on your own. Fortunately, the cloud has taken over and nearly every commercial LMS is now sold as a hosted service.
That's not all that changed in the LMS world over the past 20 years. While they were originally meant primarily to give companies a central place to store content and track basic user activity, they've now developed many more features for creating and organizing content, managing assignments and complex curriculum models, and tracking of all user activities. Today's large enterprises LMSs have expanded to the point where they encompass many things that were traditionally the focus of HR systems, creating a new, broader category of Talent Management Systems.
The Fundamentals Don't Change
However, even though the core functionality and underlying technology has grown substantially in that time, the basics haven't. The primary things that make a great LMS are pretty much the same as what they were in the beginning - flexibility and ease of use.
I mentioned above that an LMS is doing its job when you don't notice it. For that to happen, though, it needs to have the functions you need and they need to behave in a way that makes sense for your organization. You also need to be able to access those functions quickly and easily, without jumping through a lot of hoops to get something done. Since every organization has different needs, and wants to do things its own way, the system needs to be extremely flexible in how it's structured, with a multitude of configuration and customization options so you can get it working in sync with your business.
It also needs to be easy to use, understand, and remember. The reality of the learning management world is that most administrators don't spend their days in the system. In most companies they may login to the LMS a couple of times a week, and smaller companies (particularly in trucking where small fleets may not have dedicated safety or training people) may login even less often. To be successful, an LMS needs to be intuitive enough that you can immediately remember how everything works as soon as you login, and it needs to have a pattern of functions that's consistent so you can figure them out by following the conventions established within the system.
Simple enough in concept, but really difficult to build. A company with 10 employees has vastly different needs and usage patterns from a company with 100 or 1000 employees. Designing a system that's flexible enough to handle that range of requirements takes a lot of planning. Making something intuitive and immediately discoverable is also really difficult.
People sometimes login to our LMS and think that it looks simplistic. It's got a very blunt layout, with big, colorful icons and buttons everywhere. It's not designed that way because we want it to look cartoonish, but because we want the functionality to immediately be obvious, and the system conventions to be clear and consistent. It took many years of watching how people use the system to get to the point where the workflow could be optimized as much as it has been, and it's very specifically designed to reflect the needs of the trucking industry.
What's different about an LMS design for trucking? More than I would have imagined.
While the underlying data structure isn't that different than what we'd use in other industries, the business logic and interface reflect the very specific realities of the industry:
- Text is a problem - Many commercial LMSs are very text-heavy in their interfaces, which is fine for corporate HR and training people who are used to reading instructions and following a lot of steps, but that doesn't work in the trucking industry. Administrators want to get in and out without a lot of reading.
- Clicks are precious - Most of the interface design world is focusing on getting tasks completed with minimal clicks, but it's critical here. If someone only logs in to the system once a week, they don't want to click into a bunch of different forms to add a user or assign a course. Every required click increases the likelihood of incorrect or erroneous clicks, so they need to be kept to a minimum.
- Clicks are risky - Related to the point above, we've found that many people in the industry are reluctant to click on things they're unsure of, so they won't explore the system. As a result, if a function isn't immediately clear and obvious, they may miss it.
- Connections are unreliable - I discussed this in the articles talking about courses, but trucking customers often don't have great Internet connections. They may not be unreliable in the sense that they drop (although that happens occasionally as well) but they may have unpredictable speed, so you have to build for slower networks to ensure a consistent experience.
- Attention is fleeting - Administrators are often doing multiple things at once, and may get called away mid-task by a crisis or other unforeseen circumstance. They need to be able to resume whatever they were doing without losing their work and having to start over.
All of those are things that we didn't really see when serving other industries, but they're commonplace here. If the LMS is truly going to provide useful functionality while staying out of the way, all of those things need to be built into the design so they're a natural part of it. It's a tricky balancing act, but when it all comes together, it's hugely satisfying as a developer.
It may not be as sexy as the courses, but like plumbing and electrical in a house, it's an important part of keeping everything humming along smoothly.