Eric Duffy

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Whats the difference: Learning Platform vs. LMS

L&D

On the Pathgather blog we’re not afraid to tackle the big, complex questions of our day.  Where others may be satisfied to skim the surface, we’ll plumb the deepest depths until we arrive at our answer.

Take today’s topic for example:  Learning Management Systems and Learning Platforms.  Same thing?  Completely different?  Who cares?  Read on to find out.

A Moment of Inspiration

I got inspired to write on this topic after reading a recent post by LMS blogger and commentator Craig Weiss called And in this corner: LMS, and in the other corner — Learning Platform.

The title instantly piqued my interest.  Finally, someone is going to set the record straight!  There are more than 400 enterprise learning systems of some kind out there, most of which call themselves Learning Management Systems, but more and more of which have begun calling themselves “learning platforms.”  Inevitably, this raises the question:  what’s the difference?  Should I care?  Is this just marketing fluff, or is there actually something of substance to pay attention to here?

By the end of Craig’s post I still didn’t feel that I had any more clarity as to whether there is really any meaningful difference between a learning platform from a learning management system.

And this matters because the answer is that, yes, LMSs and learning platforms are in fact two very distinct things.  Hence, the birth of this blog post.

Not just that – I would argue understanding what that difference is actually gives you insight into one of the most fundamental and important transformations at play within enterprise learning.

But before we get to that, let’s take a look at what has been muddling the LMS vs. LP conversation.

How shouldn’t we be thinking about it?

Method One: Old vs New

One litmus test I often see used is a very simple one: LMSs are old, and learning platforms are new.  Or, translated into marketing speak, LMSs are “traditional” and learning platforms are “modern”.

At first blush, it seems like there may well be something to this.

But what does being “modern” really mean?  Essentially, it’s shorthand for saying your product is better-designed and easier to use.

Unfortunately, this definition just doesn’t cut it.  Don’t get me wrong, great design is incredibly important, but our task here is to put our finger directly on what truly separates an LMS from a learning platform.  While learning platforms may tend to be more modern, this need not always be the case.  Our task is to find a definition that captures the essence of what makes a learning platform different

Method two: The Features Method

Another distinguishing tactic I often see used is a side-by-side feature comparison.

Immediately, you’ll start to notice tempting trends.  For example, LMSs are almost always SCORM compliant, while learning platforms often aren’t.  LMSs often must be installed on-premise, while learning platforms tend to be cloud-based and easier to get up and running.

And yet, time after time this features-comparison method suffers from the same flaw as our modern/traditional distinction.  What happens, for example, when an LMS moves to the cloud, or a learning platform becomes SCORM compliant?  Either there’s no actual difference between the two, or our search for a more fundamental truth must go on.  So go on we must

Let’s talk taxonomy

In order to illustrate just what kind of truth we’re looking for, let’s imagine that the LMS is a shark, and the learning platform a dolphin.

What’s a foolproof way to distinguish between these two creatures?  If we compare their features, we might say that sharks have sharper teeth than dolphins, and dolphins are friendlier than sharks.

Such feature comparisons work great…until you come across the toothless megamouth shark, or this scary-looking, flesh-hungry dolphin.  You’re clearly no closer to figuring out what really makes these two guys tick than you were when you started.

However, once you figure out that sharks are in fact fish, and dolphins are mammals, you’ve actually arrived at a useful truth that helps to explain why other aspects of these creatures work and behave the way they do.

But enough with the animal talk

We’re here to talk enterprise learning, so let’s get down to business.

We still need to define perhaps the most mysterious word in this whole discussion: “platform.”

What does “platform” mean?

My dictionary defines it as “a raised level surface on which people or things can stand.”  That’s a good starting point.

From a technology standpoint, you can think of a platform as something on which other useful applications can run and interact with one another.  For example, iOS is a platform.  It connects users with lots of awesome apps, and app-makers with lots of awesome users.

Airbnb is also a platform – it connects a previously untapped and enormous inventory of rentable living space with people who want it.  What if we didn’t have this platform?  In the absence of Airbnb, we could technically call up random people looking to sleep in one of their spare rooms, but that clearly isn’t going to end well.  It’s not that the inventory doesn’t exist – it’s that without the platform there’s simply no good, trustworthy way for these connections to be made, yielding a poorer, lonelier, more hotel-dependent world.

We needed a platform.

Airbnb unleashed the latent potential of millions of square feet of untapped room and board, and we’ve all benefited from it.

And I would like to argue that the kinds of inefficiency and waste that plagued our regrettable pre-Airbnb world still plagues the enterprise learning world today.

A platform-less learning world is a worse learning world

The reason is that incredible amounts of high-quality learning content already exists.  It’s everywhere.  You and your coworkers should be able to find it really easily and benefit from it.

But it’s hidden in hundreds, thousands of places, in the hidden corners of your organization and in third-party content providers that are difficult to deliver to your workforce.

From a macro perspective, this means that on the supply side, content producers aren’t gaining access to as many content consumers as they should be, which has a powerful dampening effect on how much content those producers ultimately are incentivized to make.  On the demand side, this means that content consumers, learners like you and I, are missing out not only on content that already exists but is difficult to find, but also on untold mountains of potential content that is never created.  In the platform-less status quo, we all lose.

The learning world needs a platform.

Conclusion

This became a longer-winded investigation of the term “learning platform” than I originally intended.  But as Mark Twain is supposed to have said, “I didn’t have time to write a short [learning platform blog post], so I wrote a long one instead.”

A more succinct follow-up post may be in order.  In the meantime, hopefully this has piqued your interest – and shed a bit of light on the topic in the process.

Categories: L&D
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