by Sharon Florentine

Looking to upskill IT staff? An LMS may be key

Aug 15, 2018
CareersIT LeadershipIT Skills

Learning management systems (LMS) are moving out of the academic realm and finding a niche within enterprise IT departments to improve skills acquisition and boost engagement.

Certification / Graduate silhouette surrounded by abstract technology symbols and imagery.
Credit: Monsitj / Getty Images

Learning management systems (LMS) have traditionally been used in educational settings to organize curricula, deliver content to students and track progress. But they’ve found new life in enterprise IT departments, as organizations seek to upskill workers to meet ever-evolving workplace needs.

“The definition of LMS has expanded, going well beyond course management,” says Bryna Dash, vice president of government sales at Blackboard. “Yes, course management — the creation and delivery of dynamic courses, course registrations, enterprise content management, the ability to record and analyze learner progress — remains a pillar of an LMS, but today’s best LMS provide a more holistic approach, offering solutions that cover a broad spectrum of learning requirements.”

That spectrum can include technical certifications, continuing professional education, badges and credentials from bootcamps, online courses and even free MOOCs. Continuing IT education can add or supplement critical technical skills within your organization, preserve institutional knowledge and increase employee engagement and retention. But finding the time for staff to attend classes can be challenging.

“In our IT department, our staff pursues professional education, certifications, skills badging — maybe they’re trying to add these new skills, or learning a new technology, or even trying to get a credential to get a raise or a promotion,” says Bill Thirsk, vice president of IT and CIO at Marist College. “But if I’ve got a network engineer — it’s hard to spare a staff member for a week to go somewhere to take courses or a test or do training in person. So, LMS is really critical, because they can be online, maybe for a couple hours a day, taking that same certification course, or going to a discussion forum, virtually attending a conference, and then receive that credential.”

An LMS also enables managers and executives to track progress and identify areas of strength and weakness at multiple touchpoints, instead of the traditional pass/fail approach, says John McGuthry, CIO at Cal Poly Pomona.

“Think about it like a jet engine — there are multiple sensors measuring various aspects of power and performance so you can take all that information, distill it into one centralized view, and then you’ll be able to see quickly how it’s going to operate and better predict when it will fail,” McGuthry says. “It’s the same with LMS. Back in the day, testing was very much pencil-and-paper-based; you had to wait for one single event like a midterm or a final or a certification exam to determine if someone’s going to pass or fail. Now, you can track progress and measure performance, interactions, engagement and add more touchpoints so you can see where and if someone needs intervention.”

LMS comes to enterprise IT

LMS in enterprise IT departments combines traditional learning management with collaboration and social interaction capabilities, enabling learners to use a personalized, intuitive platform that increases engagement, says Dash, adding that staff can also collaborate on team projects that tie learning to job activities and access materials and coursework on the go with mobile and offline learning capabilities. Leveraging an LMS can help managers be more effective, too, by identifying employees’ working styles and habits, McGuthry says.

“When you’re figuring out how to engage your students or your employees along the way, you can use LMS to see, for instance, certain habits and tendencies, and then tailor engagement and motivational strategies for different personalities and people,” he says. “Say you have an assignment that’s due a week out — by 8:00 AM on a Friday. It can be something as easy as, ‘Log in and click this button to acknowledge that you got the assignment,’ but within groups you’re always going to have the people who do it right away; the people who put it off until 7:55 AM on the day it’s due — and there are different ways to engage with those people, and now you have smaller measures to help you figure that out and gauge progress.”

In addition to using an LMS internally, Thirsk says Marist College also hosts LMS capabilities for third-party clients. Within Marist’s LMS are general classroom management features — syllabus, forums, assignments, calendars and grading — but the solution also includes gamification aspects to improve engagement, Thirsk says. Marist’s solution includes third-party plug-ins and open APIs to connect with video and conferencing tools like WebEx and to integrate with microservices, he says. 

“One example: We do plagiarism checking. That’s not a feature that lives in the LMS, but the API connects to an outside service to allow us to do that,” he says. For third-party clients, like Westchester Medical and the Archdiocese of New York, Marist’s LMS allows them to offer and deliver certification, training and continuing education courses to staff as well as perform credential checks, he says.

“Westchester Medical, for example, needed a way to train both current staff and do onboarding for new hires quickly, as well as prove credentials,” Thirsk says. “That’s not their core competency, so we designed and developed a compelling, professional course where people can log in, absorb the material, take quizzes and tests and then they’re provided a credential at the end of the course. For the Archdiocese, anyone who works with children must take a course and do training to make sure they’re up to speed on the latest regulations and the certified teaching methods, too,” he says.

Since these types of credentials must be transferrable, Marist’s hosted solution is open source so they can be accessible across organizations. But not every organization has the skills and capabilities to build and host their own LMS, he says. Sometimes it makes more sense to purchase an off-the-shelf solution.

“In the communities we work within, we had everyone come together to suggest features and capabilities, and then we built those in so they’re shared across the community,” he says. But that requires an experienced educational content designer, development and engineering talent, a good trainer and experienced educators who can take students through the basics all the way up to advanced levels, Thirsk says. “If you don’t have that in-house, then you’ll want to go find an LMS that gives you all the capabilities you need,” he says.

What to look for in an LMS

What else should you look for in an LMS? It should be flexible, accessible and robust; many LMS solutions can be somewhat fragile and tough to integrate with existing legacy enterprise systems, says McGuthry, but those that are cloud-based and delivered via a SaaS model tend to be stronger.

A seamless, integrated learning environment that includes mobile apps, online conferencing and virtual classroom is essential, says Dash, as well as feature-rich analytics capabilities to better measure learning outcomes and align those goals with those of the business.

“These desired outcomes should be measurable at the learner, education program and institution level,” Dash says. “An LMS that includes robust analytics will provide the actionable data needed to ensure your programs and outcomes improve over time, and across all dimensions. This includes leveraging learning outcomes as a subset or driving force for the overall business or mission outcomes of your organization,” Dash says.

Look for a comprehensive solution that includes a core LMS, and [that] can integrate with third-party LMS products to help you build the learning environment that’s right for your employees, Thirsk says.

Thirsk adds that a proven track record with other organizations in your industry is also key. “You want to see others in your field who’ve used the solution and gone on to be successful,” he says.

At the end of the day, the purpose of your LMS is to make learning more desirable, accessible, and meaningful for all learners, and to improve outcomes for them as well as business outcomes, says Dash.