Corporate LMS vs. Academic LMS: Comparing the Software Options

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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.

corporate lms vs. academic lms

What do academic and corporate LMSs have in common?

At their core, corporate and educational LMS platforms have lots in common:

  • Both systems give learners remote access to courses, at their own time, place, and pace.
  • Both have tools for content creation and management.
  • Both automate most aspects of the learning process.

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).

6. Integrations

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.

No matter which type of LMS you need, Capterra’s directory is always free and will help you find the features you need. Compare your choices right here.

Looking for Training software? Check out Capterra's list of the best Training software solutions.

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About the Author

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Halden Ingwersen

Halden Ingwersen is a former Capterra analyst.

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Actually, education is the how AND the why. There are two types of study: 1. academic study, which serves only to enable someone to pass a test and shortly thereafter is gone from memory and therefore does not qualify as resulting in education; and 2. practical study, which is done for the purpose of being able to apply the information learned. This includes both understanding the theory of why and knowing the practical steps of how things are done. This type of study results in education and the student can successfully apply the material learned.

Study which doesn’t include the theory of the subject is simply incomplete. Yes, you can get a robot or a trained monkey to go through the motions, but they will not understand what they are doing and therefore their products will be inferior in any setting that goes beyond the assembly line. Any course, to result in education, needs to be focused on how the student will apply the information, as well as the relevant theory which supports the application. If both parts are not included, the course will not result in education.

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Hello Don and thanks for your comment.

The business need is different in an Educational and an Enterprise segment. This alone guarantees that the tools require a different focus, although many times the specs, on paper, look similar.

Regarding you second comment about content authoring tools, now that I re-read it indeed seems to be a bit contradictory with the reality. In theory, the core knowledge should and could easily be standardized. As less prone to rapid changes this should have a bigger effect to an Educational environment. You are right though that in reality we see the opposite mainly because the Educational Environment have a different “spending” mentality and time is not as a pressing issue.

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You make several very good points in this article. Although there certainly are differences, I see a trend toward more and more similarity.

Early on, the academic LMS provided no support for classroom instruction mainly because educational organizations already had registration systems in place, whereas most businesses liked to use the LMS for both classroom training and eLearning.

Educational institutions are moving more and more to integration with Student Information Systems (SIS) and Single Sign on.

I disagree with your point, “For these reasons, an LMS platform targeting corporations must offer (at least some) user-friendly course authoring capabilities, and allow for easy content re-use and fast updating, whereas for an educational LMS the ability to access and deploy ready-made courses (e.g. from an eLearning marketplace) is more important.”

Academic institutions rarely rely on ready-made courses – the courses are prepared by the faculty at the institution so they need authoring capability. Businesses rely heavily on generic courses but do need authoring tools for in-house product and proprietary training. Early corporate LMS’s did not offer authoring capability. Although that is changing, authoring tools are often purchased separately.

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