Update 7/5/18: This piece has been updated to offer you more complete and recent information about the nuanced differences between corporate and academic learning management software.
The learning management system market is full to bursting with options.
We’ve got free systems, paid systems, installed, cloud, blended classrooms, flipped classrooms, mobile, “BYOD,” social learning … it’s enough to make your head spin. But before you look into any of those choices, you have to address the most basic question: academic LMS or corporate LMS?
If you don’t pick the right LMS for your style of training, you’re going to run into problems. Your employees will be frustrated, your trainers and teachers will be frustrated, and you’re likely to burn money trying to fix problems—that could have been avoided by picking the right LMS the first time.
If you’re looking at this and wondering which one you need (no, it’s not always obvious), what the difference is (well, more like differences), and how you can make the best decision, you’re in the right place.
I’ll break it all down for you below.
What do academic and corporate LMSs have in common?
Where they differ is their focus on specific user’s needs, be they corporate or academic learning needs, as well as support for the integration, monitoring, and administrative features required by those two groups.
Think of learning management software as a generic shirt, and corporate and academic as two completely different ways to tailor that shirt.
The fabric is the same, but they look and feel totally different, because they’re used for different purposes. And sure, sometimes one type of shirt can work in an unexpected setting and look great, but typically you want the fit to match what you’ll use it for.
Employee training vs. general education
There is a difference between training and education. I go more in depth about it in this blog post (also, there are dog pictures), but the distinction can be summed up quickly.
Training is teaching someone how to do something, while education is teaching someone why to do something.
If you’re trying to decide which one you need, check out that blog post I linked; once you know, you need to figure out if your LMS is optimized for one or the other.
Optimization is the first major distinction between different learning management software options.
The educational system is meant to produce well-rounded students that have a deep knowledge and understanding of a particular subject, including its historical and theoretical foundations. Learners are encouraged to be curious, to explore their field, and to come up with new findings themselves. Theoretical knowledge is an end goal in itself—the immediate practical value of this knowledge is not necessarily the highest priority.
In corporate training, on the other hand, learning is all about practical applications. In this sense, corporate training is closer to what those in education call “vocational training,” but with more specificity for particular roles and jobs.
To get more specific about what that looks like in an LMS, let’s break down nine major areas where a corporate LMS and an academic LMS differ.
1. Frequency of updates
The purpose of corporate training is to teach employees very specific business skills, tied to the particular enterprise or organization. And because corporate training programs need to cater to ever-changing business needs, software and materials both have to be updated much more often than academic syllabuses.
Especially when it comes to recertification, corporate users want an LMS that allows for easy, frequent changes.
Because educational courses are based on science and humanities (fields that change much slower than the market does), they are updated less frequently.
Nobody wants their LMS to look like those books from the 1950s some schools still use, so an update at some point is important. But these updates are more likely to be tweaks and adjustments to courses that will repeat by semester or year. Therefore, frequent software updates aren’t as necessary for academic LMS users.
For example, a cooking school teaches general cooking skills, but a fast-food chain’s corporate training course focuses on the narrow set of cooking procedures and skills needed for its specific menu (and material will have to be updated any time a new item is added to the menu).
This also means that corporate courses are typically custom for their business, whereas the same educational courses can be shared across many academic institutions—after all, math is math.
2. Different course timelines
Years, semesters, quarters, and trimesters: these are the typical time frames used by academic institutions the world over.
An educational LMS must work with all the commonly used academic scheduling units, including holidays, periods, and exam times. In the academic world, lightning fast lesson deployment, while a nice perk, isn’t a requirement, because schedules are set well in advance.
Corporate training works in time frames that are far more varied and typically much shorter than those in academia. Business needs, changing market demands, and seasonal hiring sprees can all impact the length and frequency of corporate training courses.
A corporate-focused LMS should allow for greater flexibility in the scope, breadth, and duration of training courses. If your LMS locks your corporate lessons into traditional academic time frames, you won’t be as responsive to your employees’ shifting needs.
Deployment of new material should be quick and seamless, so that new courses are instantly accessible to employees.
3. Certifications vs. grades
Businesses frequently use data from an LMS, about training progress or an employee’s skill set, to determine when to transfer or promote employees.
A corporate LMS platform should offer ability tracking and completion in the form of certifications. A gradebook style of measuring completion can feel demeaning and juvenile to adult employees. It sounds much better for an employee to be able to say, “I have a certification in search engine optimization,” rather than, “I got an A in search engine optimization.”
An academic LMS should carry over between schools or colleges by tracking user progress through its grading system. It should also offer support for prerequisites and enrollment options tied to specific ages or academic years completed.
4. Organizational structure
While educational institutions are based on the classic structure of departments, courses, and lessons, enterprises have widely different organizational structures that need to be reflected in their training programs.
As with gradebooks, there’s a risk that a system that uses terms such as teachers, professors, and students will feel childish to a corporate user. Any system that locks users into those roles is bad news.
It may be preferable to use a “set it and forget it” style of software that allows course designers and instructors to leave the lesson material up, and be reachable through email or an internal messaging system only if there’s an issue.
For academic users, a system that’s designed to keep the admins on the back end of the software and out of the learner’s sight is also problematic. The instructor will need a higher level of interaction with their students.
5. Single sign-on
An enterprise LMS should be able to connect to the same authentication mechanism that the rest of your IT infrastructure uses. This usually means that it has to support Active Directory, LDAP, or SAML identity providers.
Without this ability, known as single sign-on (SSO), logging in to your LMS is not only a hassle (with users having to remember and enter yet another password), but also a possible security issue.
SSO is less crucial in the academic world, where institutions have much simpler IT needs (and may lack qualified IT staff). That said, public-facing eLearning portals that sell online courses could benefit from LMS support for federated authentication options (such as a Facebook login).
A lot of corporate work involves moving data from one system to another (e.g., from the accounting software to PowerPoint, or from a CRM to an ERP). A corporate LMS should offer integration with all common enterprise data formats as well as have good importing and exporting capabilities to make this data movement easier and faster.
These integrations include not only content formats (e.g., the ability to import documents, images, and videos of any kind), but also eLearning-specific formats (such as SCORM/TinCan), and internal LMS data (being able to export user accounts as CSV, test results in Excel format, etc.).
If you’re going to use training to inform performance reviews, training software that exports to or connects directly with your performance tracking tool is also helpful.
Support for business data formats is less crucial in the educational world, with the exception of the ever-present Microsoft Office or Google Drive formats, and Adobe PDF—which are typically treated as standard integrations for most software anyway.
7. Intranet portal vs. social platform
Corporate LMS platforms often serve as a “learning portal,” meant to offer continuous assistance to employees (job tips, a news feed with the latest workplace related updates, just-in-time content, quick access to various kinds of reference material, etc.).
Academic-focused eLearning management systems, on the other hand, tend to have more extended social and peer-to-peer capabilities, as their focus is on encouraging learners to collaborate and discuss subjects relevant to their studies.
8. White and gray labelling
Budgets fluctuate, and the need to showcase who you are to your users does too.
White labelling is when a software vendor’s name and logo is completely absent from their product. Instead, the style is fully that of the user. Large academic institutions and big companies typically look for this option.
Gray labelling is when a vendor’s brand and name is minimal, usually in a “your name (powered by software name)” set up.
If you’re a small business or institution and can’t afford the extra expense to slap your logo on everything, don’t worry! This is pure aesthetics and shouldn’t impact function.
9. Tech support
When you call your software company’s tech support with a specific problem, you want them to know how to help you. Hopefully they’ve even seen issues like you’re having in the past, and can direct you down a known path to fixing whatever went wrong.
If you’re using a certain LMS for a nontraditional purpose, their tech support may not be trained in the best way to help you. Academic LMS support will be better equipped to help academic users, and the same holds true for corporate LMS support helping corporate users.
While you can use one design for the other’s purpose, if you have problems, you may be on your own.
Additionally, the updates that software vendors make to their product are usually tailored to the majority of their users. If most of their users are schools, their LMS may update to be more friendly to students or to have better exam layouts, while an LMS with primarily corporate users is likely to make updates that help train across franchises or to offer more onboarding solutions.
Neither type of update is particularly helpful to the other type of user. If you go against the grain, you can’t expect updates to be designed for you.
Academic or corporate LMS—which one is for you?
There’s no rule saying that an academic institution can’t use a corporate LMS or that an academic LMS will never ever work for a business. It’s all about finding the tool that works the best for you and your learners’ needs.
But knowing the ways the two styles of learning management software differ is what helps you make the most informed choice possible.
Do you think you should stick to something designed for your use? Or is a nontraditional approach just right for you? Tell me about it in the comments below, or tweet me @CapterraHalden and tell me all about it.
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