If only everything worked together….

In an age of where my phone knows when I’m leaving the office, checks the traffic home and tells me how long it will take, all without me asking, it doesn’t seem like much to ask that our learning systems work together.

They don’t seem to be the most complex pieces of software in existence, so why is it that sometimes they behave like it?

Legacy Systems, Today’s Problems

There are a range of problems afflicting the learning systems we’ve gathered over the years. From organisations with multiple LMS’s, to those also deploying talent management systems, knowledge bases, social networks, social learning portals, mobile apps and simulations. The list of potential software that the L&D department could use is growing by the day. But, for many people, it’s a real problem just trying to get the existing systems talking to each other. Never mind introducing something new and potentially impactful; the old stuff just doesn’t really work.

Some of this is what we’d call ‘legacy issues’. Many LMS providers are still struggling to come to terms with deploying their systems via the Cloud. Multi-tenancy is still very much a ‘may have’ in the features column. Getting data out of these systems is very difficult, making migrating to a new platform a real burden. Often an expensive burden too.

There are really two core problems in getting systems working together. One is identity. The other is data.

Identity is something we’re getting our collective heads around. Single Sign On (SSO) is no longer the mythical beast it once was. Most medium and large sized organisations now have the ability to use a single sign on to gain access to multiple systems. Not all of the systems in deployment can do it, but the process is often there.

That just leaves data. And on data we are somewhat lost. We are still quick to revert to exporting flat files of CSV style data tables, adding them via FTP servers and clunky overnight scripts. Translating data from one system to another is another real burden; data reconciliation is big, expensive business. And so with no single source of record to feed all of our systems, we find ourselves trapped.

A Problem Shared…

When systems cannot share data it becomes impossible for them to work together. The LMS doesn’t know when the simulation is complete. The App can’t track back to the social learning platform, and the social learning platform doesn’t do SCORM so we can’t track that either. Content from 3rd parties? Forget it.

This is a huge problem for three reasons:

  1. It gives us incomplete data. If we can’t audit the data, we find ourselves with all sorts of expensive compliance issues.
  2. It gives us incorrect data. Potentially even worse than incomplete, is the wrong data. Without a single source of record, how can we be sure what has occurred?
  3. It stops progress. If we can’t deal with the systems we already have, how can we easily migrate or, heaven forbid, add something new?

Identifying & Addressing Your First Concerns

Getting control of learning data should be the top of the ‘to do’ list for every L&D department. Without the control that a single, accessible source of record can give, you have no base from which to start making things work. Just how SSO ties the front-end of the learning experience together, a shared database brings the back-end in to order. We do this with a Learning Record Store or LRS.

Quite separate to a Learning Management System, a Learning Record Store is a scalable, standardised database to collect learning experience data. LRSs that adopt the xAPI (Tin Can) method of storing data are perfectly interoperable with each other, so you’ve no fear of getting locked in. And it is here that you can track everything in one place; a single source for all your learning experience records.

If you have grand ambitions around delivering personalised, adaptive learning systems, your first concern is learning data. Without knowing what someone has previously done you’ve got no hope of advising them what to do next.

Similarly, if you’re at the opposite end of the spectrum and you feel overwhelmed by the state of your existing systems, your first concern is also learning data. If you don’t know what people are doing, when, how can you be seen as a reliable source of record for the wider organisation..?

The first step on the road to getting things working together is to get control of your learning data. Without it systems will never ‘talk’ to each other. And the smallest first step you can take is to standardise the way you talk about data.  

Learning Record Stores and xAPI can help, and in Part 2 of this post, I’ll be looking in more detail at how to achieve harmony across your ecosystem through the use of this unified language. Stay tuned…