Work, Learn, Play

Our beginnings never know our ends

It is a truism of IT development that the use cases for which developers create solutions almost always end up changing, often before the development project is even finished. Then clients “bend” the software to entirely new uses or implement the software in unimagined ways. I’ve come to appreciate that making software is a lot like sailing — dynamic, which is to say sometimes exhilarating, sometimes frightening and changing all the time.

The one truth about making IT applications you can take to the bank is that what a company needs today will be different from what the company will need a year from now. And if the company is big enough, you can also guarantee that what looks just right in one part of the company will look very different in other parts, especially if those other parts are in other countries.

My company makes, among other things, a well regarded learning management system (LMS). It is a sophisticated system that we and our partners have put into production for some 800 clients around the world. Interestingly, when clients talk to us about how they use the system, words like “learning” and “employee development” are often not the first things we hear.

When we ask our clients what they think their own best uses of these systems are, they do talk about learning but more often they talk about performance support and what they have achieved in terms of improvement in such areas as regulatory compliance, quality assurance, time to market efficiencies, workforce productivity, cost reduction, employee empowerment, corporate social responsibility programs and other very practical achievements.

Many of their answers fall into the Marchand framework for understanding IT value, i.e., in general, companies buy and implement enterprise technology, including learning management systems, in order to accomplish one or more of the following:

  1. Manage risk
  2. Reduce cost
  3. Increase productivity
  4. Foster change

As a software development house, we don’t actually develop LMS applications for learning qua learning, which is not to say we don’t pay attention to learning theory at all, we do. But in addition to the workplace learning issues we wrestle with, we ask (and these are the fundamental questions): How effectively do these systems meet client needs in the four areas above? And the people we ask are not necessarily only the learning and development executives but also:

These are the frontline executives who rely on the systems to deliver, manage, track and report on certification and licensing programs, competency management (the demonstrated and achieved kinds of skills and competencies), standard operating procedure promulgation and adherence, technical documentation distribution, etc.

Sometimes I think we made a terrible mistake as an industry by calling these software applications learning management systems because they’re not really about learning, at least not in the senses academics often mean. LMS is too limiting a term.

For companies it’s about more than that; it’s about making sure the right people get the information they need to do their jobs, when they need the information (both at the point of need and in advance) and in formats that are easy for them to find and use in their daily work.

From a macro perspective, these systems are about helping companies and government agencies assure staff and user competence and do so in ways that can be verified, validated and cost justified.

Here are five ways our clients are putting their learning management systems to use for broader, non-learning purposes (in addition of course to their normal LMS uses):

As Health Management Systems: The  Canadian subsidiaries of one of our global clients have used their LMS to schedule, manage and report on nationwide employee vaccination programs. The concern was flu. Senior management took a decision to offer vaccinations to all staff. Time was tight and it quickly became apparent that the LMS was the company’s best bet for organizing shots for more than 7,000 staff across multiple time zones.  It worked and the health management use case is set to be expanded in future.

As an Investor Relations Portal: When is a course not a course? When it’s an annual investor relations weekend for more than 1,000 fund managers, industry analysts, company executives and press. Flexibly architected LMSs with Web 2.0 extensions that can change terminology easily, i.e., “enroll” becomes “register,” “class” becomes “breakout session” and “learning program” becomes “keynote speakers” (and assume this is happening in multiple languages simultaneously), that can push news and reminders to disparate groups in targeted ways (email, SMS), that can accommodate discussion forums, ratings and reviews, that can organize after-conference follow-ups of various kinds and that can all be packaged together in a dedicated portal site — these LMS functionalities can become very useful to investor relations, the CFO’s office and corporate marketing. (This use case is not live yet but we expect it soon).

As Corporate Social Responsibility Program Organizers: You say tomato. I say volunteer at an orphanage. Many companies let their employees take one or more days per year to volunteer at company approved charities or activities. Using an LMS to register volunteers for a beach clean-up is a straightforward technology choice. Using the LMS to track the attendance (for CSR reporting and for payroll purposes) and its survey engine to garner quotes and get feedback are also good LMS uses. Using the company LMS is an easy win for a CSR officer — no additional application or development expenses (the company already owns the technology) and it comes with full communications, management and reporting capabilities.

As a Travel Agency Website: Well not quite. More like a staff transfer service. One of our clients, Summit Electric, a US-based electrical supplies retailer with some 400 stores, uses its LMS for all the usual staff training and development purposes (mostly product training and a generic courseware catalogue for business skills and personal development) but also for Job Exchange, a “course” that allows people who work in one location to spend a week or a month working in another part of the company. As an employee, you simply sign up, say where you want to go and give your reasons for the temporary transfer, basically a one-line request justifying the move (all done on the same LMS sign-up form). Summit have a two-step approval process for this. The LMS sends the request to your manager. When s/he approves, a notification goes to human resources who also approve and then arrange the transfer and related transportation and housing. Very cool.

As a Mass Communications Channel: Five minutes. A message needs sending to everybody everywhere. Right now. What have you got to work with? How can you do it? I was sitting with senior management of a Fortune Global 500 company when the question was asked. This company has multiple Microsoft Exchange and Sharepoint environments, various corporate portals, 11 separate SAP and Oracle/Peoplesoft HR systems — the list goes on. However, the only technology this company had capable of instant communication with all of its employees (almost 150,000 people in more than 20 countries) was its LMS.

There are many more non-traditional uses of this technology — franchise management, ISO document control and quality audits for example — the list goes on. One of our clients built a beautiful portal to do pre-recruitment employee orientation — a really deep dive into what the company does and what the prospective employee would need to learn (and become) in order to work for the company.

The point is: once you have the application in your hands, there are a lot of things you can do with it, including non-learning uses you cannot imagine until the day someone comes to you with a challenge and you have a sudden eureka moment and get to work.