Friday, 8 August 2014

Every LMS has at least three characters...

Okay another quote I've slightly misused but an important one and something to consider when taking on an LMS or when you're looking at a new LMS.  The original quote actually goes something like this:  

“Every man has three characters - that which he exhibits, that which he has, and that which he thinks he has.”
Alphonse Karr

Whilst I leave you to ponder the psychology of that, with an LMS there is something very similar.  An LMS has a similar multi-personality type trait and it will often depend on the way you look at it - yes, similar to a previous blog piece on relativity again!  From the perspective of the vendor the LMS is often 'whatever you want it to be', which is about as helpful as being told nothing at all, but realistically each LMS has its own strengths and weaknesses - again, remember that there's no such thing as the perfect LMS.  Most vendors should be able to at least portray the strength of their LMS; be it 'slickness' or ease of use, reporting or its ability to be configured or customised.  That strong character is the most likely you're going to see presented to you and that's the first character to consider; but if you rest on that alone to make your decision things can go wrong for you unless your needs exactly match the LMS's strengths.

They say that beauty is in the eyes of the beholder but that's a somewhat variable entity when it comes to the users of an LMS.  You could be of the opinion that if you really want to know how good an LMS is, ask someone who is using it.  That helps, but there is so much more to it than that alone.  Many 'users' use the LMS in a very specific way and their LMS may or may not match the way they want to use it.  Some users have unrealistic expectations of any system (and this is not limited to an LMS) such that they expect it to do the decision making for them or automate things without guidance or coordination.  Others require such easy tasks that basically any LMS would do them.  If this means this isn't a simple second 'character' then yes, I guess you're right; but if you found an organisation with somewhat similar needs to you using the LMS in a somewhat similar fashion... well, they'd still have more characters and here's why.

When it comes to looking at an LMS from the perspective of an organisation, there are many traits or characters to it.  Firstly you have the chief exec or board type type view.  As any of us who work with these types know they see things in a slightly different way to the ‘real world’.  I don’t mean that as any form of criticism, it’s often necessary for them to have a certain level of detachment when they analyse things and visionary or idyllic views on how things should be and work.  Obviously I’m generalising a bit here, but your top level stakeholder may have a contrasting opinion; maybe they’re interest level is around the aesthetics of the system, maybe it’s around how it integrates - it may be as simple as how much it costs, but ultimately at the highest level it is always around some form of KPI or key performance indicator.  Your highest level people are ultimately looking at organisational satisfaction with the LMS.  The trick to viewing from this perspective is to understand the high-level motivator (KPI) and view from that angle.  It’s likely if your indicators are humming along nicely that your top level will be 100% happy with the product (unless your CEO is the dreamer, then be prepared for the unexpected - as if that were even possible).  What this means is if you engage at the highest level for an opinion on an LMS that they are using you must be ready to look from that angle or you may not get a response that’s of any use to you.

Your CEO isn’t going to do the majority of the work with your LMS though are they?  Who is really leading the LMS?  Maybe it’s your L&D lead or HR, Training Dept or (shock/horror) IT.  Find the key driver of the system and you’ll see another side of the LMS.  This will probably be more at the organisational effectiveness level than the overall satisfaction.  Yes, there are still KPIs pointing to what success is measured like, but the simple question here is usually does the LMS do everything we need it to do now and in the future.  If you’re at this level, this is the closest you may find to the same perspective, but as always it will be flavoured by the experiences of the individual organisation.

One opinion that frequently gets missed and is often the most important is that of the systems administrator.  I’ve preached the importance of this role in the past, as there is probably no-one in your entire organisation who knows the system like the person who works day in and day out with it and, perhaps more importantly, supporting the end users or learners.  The only issue with an administrator’s opinion of an LMS is that they are likely to know all the things wrong with it!  They problem solve and see the majority of issues that come in and have found out what they really can’t do in the system.  It maybe that they don’t look forward enough to be able to stretch the system, but if you want to know the chinks in it, then they are a very important person to speak to.  Of course I’ve omitted the end-users here, and a great measure of a system is to poll the users - but like all statistics take them with a grain of salt (88% of users say it was… depends on the options usually).

Is that it?  No, I have yet to put in the final and perhaps most relevant of all, that which it has.  In other words, what the actual system itself is like.  No matter who you speak to you will get a flavour, if you could find a way to add all that up and analyse it you’d get a picture of the actual system itself.  There are a few people who probably know this and they are in truly short supply and what’s more they may not be able to give you their view without a bit of bias in there too.  I think I’m probably one of these when it comes to Moodle or Totara LMS.  The issue is, for example, that whilst I think I know the LMS for its true self (and noting all the preamble above, I only think this I don’t know for sure), I’m also a vendor (of sorts, in open source world we’re ‘partners’) of the system and that presents a problem, why should you believe me if I want you to choose this system?  The good news is people like me work in limited market areas (mine is Australasia) and if we’ve got the right blend of experience, knowledge and desire to help people, we can actually identify when the system isn’t right for you too.  You could ask a truly independent consultant; but they often don’t have a fully in-depth knowledge of all the systems or have a bias.

In fact if we really get to the heart of it, we all have a bias - it’s really about balancing those to get the right information and advice.  Lastly, if you need help it always helps (as I said many blogs ago) to choose your partner wisely.