We had the pleasure of chatting recently with John Leh, CEO and Lead Analyst at Talented Learning. Named a “Top 20 Global Elearning Mover and Shaker” in 2018 and 2017, John is a “fiercely independent” LMS selection consultant, podcaster, and blogger who helps associations and other learning organizations develop and implement learning technology strategies.
Who better to ask about the LMS selection and implementation process than a respected LMS analyst? And, while we had the chance, we also picked his brain about the many opportunities for associations in the professional development marketplace.
LMS selection and implementation advice
WBT: What are the most common mistakes made by associations when putting together their LMS requirements?
John: I often see three kinds of missteps:
First, many associations don’t yet have a learning platform in place, or they’ve been trying to make a substandard solution work. Without a strong point of reference, they lack perspective on modern solutions. As a result, they struggle to identify and articulate their needs.
Also, organizations increasingly are deploying content and certification solutions to drive new revenue streams. However, these systems are complex and multi-dimensional. The learning curve is steep, especially when it involves integration with marketing automation, advanced ecommerce, and other sophisticated systems. That lack of familiarity often is reflected in requirements.
Finally, the association LMS market has evolved into its own thriving segment of the broader learning technology space. Many new specialized solutions are available, and the association feature set is broader and deeper than most association professionals know.
WBT: What’s the best way for associations to learn about LMS vendors/platforms and narrow their selection to a few finalists?
John: More than 1000 learning technology platforms are available today. Some of these vendors serve associations exclusively. Many others claim that their solution works well for member-based organizations, but they don’t yet have an extensive track record in the association market.
If you have the time and budget to research all these options, you can learn by attending tradeshows, studying industry publications and analyst websites, and speaking directly with vendors of interest. But this process can be lengthy and overwhelming. Vetting every vendor is impractical. So, how can you be sure that your shortlist includes the best candidates?
That’s why we exist. As independent LMS selection consultants, we continuously evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of all vendors in the association market. In other words, we’re always ready to respond.
Whenever an association is looking for a learning system, we can quickly and confidently recommend the best options, based on the organization’s specific requirements.
WBT: Associations are told they should find the right vendor fit—the vendor with the right culture—in addition to the platform that best meets their needs. What does “the right culture” mean? What should associations look for in an LMS team?
John: Finding the right solution involves, indeed, a lot more than just finding functionality that works. It’s important to consider factors like a vendor’s experience with associations, industry domain knowledge, professional services capabilities, customer support model, and license structure.
Also, as an LMS buyer, you may be a novice, an expert, or somewhere in between. You’ll want to choose a vendor that understands your current level of expertise and wants to help expand your technology know-how as your learning programs grow and evolve.
In addition, I agree 100% that culture fit is a key factor. Hopefully, you’re forging a long-term relationship, so you need to feel comfortable with the people behind the platform. This is especially important for associations, because your learning solution partner is really an extension of your mission. If you believe in each other, the relationship is likely to be much more successful in the long haul.
WBT: What are some of the surprises that associations encounter during implementation? For example, things associations could prepare for but usually don’t because they don’t know what they don’t know.
John: The more thoroughly you define requirements upfront, the fewer surprises you’ll encounter during implementation and deployment. Conversely, if you rush through the selection process, you should brace yourself for an onslaught of unforeseen issues.
For example, say an association with an existing LMS doesn’t specify precisely how to handle historical training completion data, existing content, and the migration strategy. This opens the door to miscommunication and delayed schedules down the road.
Another common point of failure involves a lack of integration specifics. It’s critical to define which integrations are included, as well as the what, when, how, and why of functionality within each integration. On the other hand, if you define these details in the heat of the implementation process, you’ll likely seen an increase in project scope, cost and time to completion.
Thoughts on association learning from an LMS analyst
WBT: What are some of the best ways an association can understand the type of education their industry or profession needs now or will need in the near future—from both the learner and the employer perspectives?
John: Building solutions in a vacuum is a sure-fire way to miss the mark. I often ask a similar question when interviewing association professionals on our podcast and at our roundtable webinars.
The best leaders talk about how they engage members in dialogue at every stage along the continuing education path. They seek ongoing feedback to understand what works and what doesn’t, including the skills learners need, the content they find relevant, and the kind of support they prefer.
Often, associations attract early-stage professionals who want to develop knowledge and skills through certification. Over time, these practitioners want to refresh or expand their skills. Increasingly associations are extending their continuing education reach through corporations, universities, and other partnerships. Each of these constituents has unique learning interests. It’s worthwhile to seek ongoing feedback from them all.
WBT: How can associations attract the educational loyalty of Generation Z and millennials, considering these younger generations’ limited budgets?
John: Young professionals can buy continuing education content from a variety of sources, but associations are uniquely compelling because community-driven social learning is part of the experience.
Members can interact with like-minded professionals to gain deeper understanding of their industry and career specialty. By offering live and virtual community-driven learning forums, associations can add value in meaningful ways that lower-priced standalone continuing education can’t touch.
In fact, many associations have found that this kind of social learning experience can be an effective “bridge” to membership, when offered on a standalone basis to non-members, either free or for a fee. This outreach strategy is commonly used to expand globally in a cost-effective manner.
WBT: Do you see association credentialing programs becoming a viable alternative to higher education in some industries/professions? Are associations missing an opportunity here?
John: Absolutely. In many industries, credentialing programs help professionals gain the skills and competencies they need for employment without a formal academic degree.
Employers are increasingly concerned that graduates lack critical skills to succeed in today’s world of work. Associations are equipped to solve this skills gap, but they’re somewhat late to the game.
Nevertheless, member-based organizations have several natural advantages. They have a strong history of continuing education leadership, subject matter expertise, deep content reserves, built-in social networking, existing marketing engines, and brand recognition. Together, these assets can be leveraged to create credentialing programs with significant market traction.
WBT: What about partnership opportunities? Do you think associations could offer more to their target audiences if they experiment with partnerships?
John: Partnerships are a smart way to extend your reach and add lasting value. There are many creative ways to partner. I often see associations with complementary programs teaming up to offer a broader selection of content through ecommerce sites.
I also see US-based associations partnering with smaller, similar associations around the globe. In other words, these networks leverage the primary association’s brand, certifications, and content to better serve their local members.
Also, as I mentioned previously, the corporate sector is ripe for partnerships, especially with associations that are willing and able to focus on industry-specific job readiness, reskilling, and upskilling.
WBT: What could associations learn from other education or training providers, whether they’re for-profit online learning providers or corporate training programs? Has anything caught your interest lately that you think associations should explore?
John: Associations need to embrace a for-profit mentality. Commercial content providers are already there. They’re heavily leveraging CRM tools, marketing automation, and ecommerce strategies to target profitable learner segments, drive new revenue streams, and maximize the lifetime value of every relationship.
Although associations exist for altruistic reasons, they no longer operate in a competition-free environment. Fortunately, there are many attractive opportunities for organizations that want to pursue a more sustainable business model.
For anyone who manages professional development at a member-based organization, I encourage you to explore broader possibilities. Reach out to your staff, your members, and existing partners. Actively solicit their creative ideas. Talk with consultants who have helped other organizations retool their learning programs.
Test the most promising ideas on a limited basis. Then evaluate the outcomes and create a roadmap for expansion. But whatever you do, don’t wait to make a move. The cost of inaction is just too high.
Thanks, John, for sharing your wisdom about learning technology and the opportunities for associations in the lifelong learning market. Readers, be sure to subscribe to Talented Learning’s podcast and their blog posts too.