One of the most powerful learning technologies on the market today is also one of the least understood. It's the learning content management system, or LCMS. The moniker LCMS closely resembles the acronym for learning management system, of course, and that has confused buyers about the two systems' features and functions.

But the difference between the two systems lies in what each manages. The LMS is largely an administrator's tool for registering learners for e-learning and classroom training and tracking the results. An LCMS, though, deals with the learning content, and that, arguably, makes the LCMS the brawniest player on any employer's line-up of training technologies.

Buyers - who understand what an LCMS is capable of - have increasingly looked to the technology as a first step in developing training initiatives. For example, a recent request for proposals from the nuclear power industry stated that the buyer was looking for an LCMS to maintain a highly skilled workforce to safely operate U.S. nuclear plants, expedite training, enhance knowledge transfer to the next generation of workers, and offer prescriptive learning.

In fact, one of the defining features of an LCMS is its ability to rapidly develop and deliver learning content in a modular form, versus a one-version-fits-all approach. This is the very sort of personalized learning that enables a training department to quickly respond to an employer's business initiatives.

"An LCMS allows us to marshal all of our training resources to be far more agile in terms of where and how we train our personnel," says Canadian Air Force Major Denis Forest of the Directorate Air Force Programs. "We feel [an] LCMS will be a catalyst for enabling our people to do their jobs faster and better, since they'll no longer be tied to any single type of instruction."

LCMS capabilities

Many people who work with learning content focus on how fast, or rapidly, they can author. While rapidly authoring content certainly has value, it's only a portion of the overall value proposition of an LCMS. An LCMS should also give those who own it a way to go beyond rapid authoring and provide the following capabilities for automating the entire learning content life cycle:

  • Development - A built-in capability for authoring content as well as taking in content from any source (for example, Adobe files, Dreamweaver, Flash, media files, Microsoft Word, other forms of legacy content, or PowerPoint); and assembling, reusing, and repurposing existing learning assets
  • Management - A robust environment for managing the development process, supporting Q&A, archiving, versioning, managing workflow, handling access privileges, collaborating, and reporting
  • Maintenance - An automation process that makes it easy to find the right versions of content and facilitates updates to content
  • Delivery - The real-time, on-demand and, if desired, personalized delivery of content via multiple formats (for instance, online, instructor guides, mobile, assessments, or different languages).

The value of an LCMS

But the functions of an LCMS only provide a foundation for the benefits that training professionals derive from these technologies. According to learning and talent management research firm Bersin & Associates, the primary benefits of LCMSs highlight efficiency, content reuse, saving time, meeting compliance, and delivering on-demand training.

1| Increased efficiency: increasing the efficiency of the content development and management process. One example of how a company has benefited from increased efficiency is Challenger Corporation, which runs the world's largest electronic library for clinical training.

" After Merck pulled VIOXX from the market, we had to look at our library to see where references to VIOXX showed up," says David Beard, Challenger's chief financial officer.

"With the editing system in our LCMS, we could link to one piece of content in our library and change every reference to VIOXX in one day. If we didn't have this system, we would have had to go through more than 3,000 hours of courses to find every instance of the word VIOXX. I've no idea how long that would've taken, or if we could've even done it."

2| Reusing content: storing and managing content from a single repository to increase quality and consistency. With its LCMS, XP Systems - a provider of data processing systems for more than 250 credit unions - had a way to turn any existing course into the foundation for a new one.

"The LCMS gave us software for creating or pulling in training content from any source, whether it was a class manual, video, whatever," says Bonnie Abbott, product manager for XP Systems.

"The LCMS also provided us with a central repository for storing our training. Having a storehouse of content that we could edit and reuse for different purposes helped us vastly improve the speed with which we developed training on our products."

3| Reducing training time: dynamically delivering personalized content, such as prescriptive learning programs, to provide customized training and reduce overall training time. After the U.S. Congress put a new competitive bidding program in place for healthcare companies, Apria Healthcare had to train hundreds of its employees on different aspects of the government-mandated plan. Apria faced a training challenge in which it needed to rapidly disseminate a core set of training, yet personalize the training to meet the needs of employees with different jobs.

"We turned to our learning content management system," says Gaylene Galliford, manager for training, design, and development at Apria Healthcare. Apria's LCMS enabled rapid authoring and reuse of content, while supporting personalized training.

4| Meeting compliance: delivering regulatory content online, while strictly controlling versions and accounting for changes over time. "Our regulatory affairs group asked our instructional designers to make last-minute changes to 20 pages of course content; we could've never accomplished that by our deadline without an LCMS," adds Galliford.

5| Delivering learning on demand: organizing content into smaller pieces and enabling search and delivery as needed to meet the demand for just-in-time content. The training team at Kaiser Permanente says that with its LCMS it not only produces courses 50 percent faster, but also gets rave reviews about the convenience and quality of the learning produced.

"Our goal was to give managers the skills they need to be successful in helping our members," remarks Bob Leydorf, eLearning program manager for Kaiser Permanente's Northern California Region. "And the collaborative capabilities of [our] LCMS make it possible for people to both create and take courses more easily."

One of the most powerful features is delivering content via an array of media (such as e-learning, CD-ROM, printed materials, or mobile). But an LCMS has a number of other characteristics worth noting, too:

  • incorporates text, graphics, and movie files into content
  • checks content for consistency and archives old content
  • creates and imbeds online assessments
  • searches content
  • allows collaboration between several content producers
  • links e-learning and other learning strategies used across the organization.

The future of the LCMS

The latest way that some LCMSs have evolved since first being introduced to the training industry almost a decade ago is with regard to social software. OutStart, in particular, is a company that is combining its social software and LCMS technology to offer training professionals a way to connect with subject-matter experts and course developers in the creation of learning content.

With the wikis, blogs, and online communities that complement OutStart's LCMS, some training professionals now have a platform from which a number of geographically dispersed authors can collaborate to write, edit, and review training content. For instance, a U.S.-based restaurant company with locations around the world uses the social software inherent in its OutStart LCMS to keep the development of learning content on track even though editors are spread across multiple time zones.

If a company properly implements an LCMS, some vendors and customers alike say the technology can drive the costs and time for content development down by at least 50 percent. According to Lufthansa, the German airline's LCMS helped generate a 65 percent savings on course development.

LCMSs enable businesses to quickly train their employees to launch new products, outmaneuver competitors, and sell effectively. Simply put, LCMSs have enabled training departments to become a strategic weapon for employers.