Think You Need an LMS? Without a Training Management Component, Your Agency is Already at a Disadvantage

Think fast — can you name 10 differences between learning management and training management?

Don’t feel badly if the answers you came up with failed to satisfy. The terms have become more-or-less interchangeable in employee-education circles of late, and public safety organizations are hardly immune to the trend. While training is the act of imparting targeted information and learning is essentially the act of absorbing it, that distinction should hardly be a critical issue for responders. This minor usage quibble, however, becomes a real problem when technology is thrown into the mix. There is much more than a few letters involved when evaluating the differences between a learning management system (LMS) and training management system (TMS).

The LMS/TMS matter is particularly important right now for a few reasons. First, public-sector entities have increasingly adopted digital learning tools, a testament to the format’s reach, power, and savings, relative to standard in-classroom learning. Second, the incorrect use of LMS as a catch-all term has become increasingly common, and the misconception has real potential to inflict needless cost and stress on public safety organizations. Although the two are close enough in name to create similar acronyms, their practical applications differ widely in most cases; as a TMS offers a more powerful, capable, flexible solution, it is a safe assumption that many agencies that think they need a traditional LMS are actually in the market for the training-based alternative.

In this regard, problems posed by the confusion largely extend in one direction­. An agency that mistakenly expects an equivalent experience when it purchases a less-expensive learning management product only sets itself up for disappointment when it finally realizes the limitations of its new purchase. The all-too-common need for nontechnical decision-makers to sign off on technical requests [PDF link] made lower in the chain of command may similarly lead smaller organizations and those without high-level IT management to make a purchase without realizing that tools better suited to their unique needs were available. All told, it isn’t just possible for agencies to suffer an inadvertent downgrade when they pay to replace an older, training-based set of procedures with a newer, less-functional LMS — in certain circumstances, it is highly likely.

Agencies planning to implement an LMS with no training component run a real risk of inadvertently hamstringing both training and learning. Just as “generic” software will never match the power and capability of digital tools built specifically for the industry, a solution that only handles learning fails to manage all the complex moving parts of a public sector training regimen. While undeniably critical, learning management tools are in many ways only as powerful as the tools built to integrate them with larger organizational practices, a role the TMS and its broad number of training-related functions are specifically designed to fulfill.

Learning vs. training management: What’s in a name?

Returning to the definition of learning vs. training, consider for a moment the tasks, procedures, and activities encompassed in each definition:

  • Training can require budgeting, scheduling, need forecasting, retaining specialized trainers from outside the agency, scheduling specialists within the system, space reservations, mileage reimbursement, and countless other factors. Its outcomes may directly influence every activity the agency undergoes, from mundane daily shiftwork to once-a-generation emergency response efforts, and its particulars tend to come under narrow regulation from state- or federal-level oversight, with many overseeing governments dictating a given role’s annual peace officer standards and training (POST) curriculum down to the hour.
  • Learning, meanwhile, is mostly up to the individual employee, occurring — again — as a byproduct of training content the agency provides. In very general terms, all an employee must do to learn is show up, pay attention, and engage with the course or module, with little or no need to be involved with the intense planning and coordination their supervisors undertook in ensuring they could get there with no gaps on the schedule.

Following this, it is fair to say learning is just another aspect of a competent training system, or perhaps a stop in a continuum. Unfortunately, it is also the point of the process most prone to catastrophic failure, considering the consequences an agency can face when its training endeavors fail to affect the desired level of learning in their officers, firefighters, or EMTs. In this era of so-called failure-to-train litigation [PDF link], costly settlements are just one undesirable outcome potentially following in the wake of every training failure; nightmarish PR situations, investigation and remediation from overseeing agencies, and increasingly loud criticism from within and outside the affected agency’s jurisdiction are a few more.

Although learning is universal to the training process, the tools a training regimen makes available can vary widely in their topics, presentation formats, and budgetary limitations, among other factors. Providing best-effort training in one course may require stakeholders to inventory, track, and assign materials ranging from foam batons to practice-range firearms, while another may have firefighters in a station view an online video and take a short quiz to test comprehension. Other types of training may require trainers to record range scores, lap times, or the number of sit-ups achieved in a set period. Notably, many such courses have little to do with the traditional definition of “learning,” instead existing to gauge a physical capability, such as scaling walls or hitting targets, but still falling squarely into the training wheelhouse.

Why would the average agency fare better with a TMS?

Just as learning is a natural outcome of effective training, it is hard to consider an LMS inferior or worse than training management alternatives when the discussion ultimately lends itself to an apples-and-oranges comparison. Indeed, TMS solutions designed for modern public safety agencies include LMS functionality as a matter of course, while the inverse, an LMS that includes TMS functionality, would be like receiving a free car with the purchase of power windows.

While a TMS unquestionably has more to offer public safety agencies in terms of raw utility, much of this power comes from the ability to tie modules such as an LMS to existing policies and procedures. Powerful and flexible enough to support a broad number of administrative, clerical, and public-facing needs, the platforms excel at centralizing access and information, a skill that helps industry-leading tools automate complex tasks agencies could previously only entrust to humans. Consider the following use cases, which cover only a fraction of what a competent modern TMS can do:

  • Education: Instructors and supervisors can use the LMS functionality within a TMS to design courses, create and store test scores (with or without automated score reporting), and other essential learning-related capabilities.
  • Automated record-keeping: Once created, records can be centralized under the individual employee’s system profile for as long as the organization desires — the entirety of their career, if needed. These records may include automated test scores, hand-written observations from range events and other instructor-led courses, work performance evaluations, and more. The TMS’s job is not to restrict what content can be stored under each profile, but to allow agencies to organize their data how they see fit.
  • Automated compliance: A TMS can be configured to the individual agency’s training compliance needs, with automated reminder emails going out to noncompliant individuals, their supervisors, and other parties on the chain of command. Better, a worthwhile TMS can apply the same rigorous eye to facilities, inventory, and entire organizations, as needed, with the same automated reporting tools available for use.
  • Smart scheduling: A TMS really starts to pull away from LMS alternatives when one considers the stresses of scheduling. In short, a comprehensive TMS can take organization-defined scheduling and training-compliance rules, check them against a roster of participants needing POST compliance training, and automatically combine the two to create an intricate, viable training schedule, with little human intervention needed. This feature alone can be a significant timesaver for scheduling supervisors, who may otherwise need to build training schedules in month-long (or larger) blocks manually.
  • Training, housing, and inventory management: Unlike most academic LMS customers, the academies and training programs that enroll the next generation of public safety professionals can require serious, expensive inventory management. They also need to consider matters such as trainee housing. A full-featured TMS handles both, plus numerous other responder-specific needs, and integrates them all into the same tool that houses employee records and other vital data.
  • Budgeting: Training budgets are an ever-pressing concern in the public sector, and a TMS can be an invaluable ally in bringing the stress they represent down to a bearable level. Because a TMS platform centralizes numerous types of data related to training, it can make it easy for the appropriate personnel to make smarter predictions and build better requests, with their work backed by verifiable historical data.

Instead of diminishing the role that learning management tools play in modern workplaces, the gap between their offerings and those contained in the list above should illustrate, in worrying detail, the issues that agencies can face when they settle on a software solution that struggles to meet even basic needs. There are very few situations in which an agency can make the most of an LMS’s features without a TMS to bridge and expand them. Choose wisely.

Centralize, modernize, and defend with a TMS

If the examples shared above hold one theme in common, it is the idea of centralization: the common-sense idea that users benefit when their software tools logically connect a broader number of features beneath a central banner. On this front, a good TMS can quite literally replace — and greatly improve upon — dozens of individual tools the agency may have previously relied on. A scheduler accustomed to bouncing between three or four desktop windows to determine who needs training, what courses they need, and when they are available, for instance, would undoubtedly benefit from a system that pulls qualification, compliance, and work-schedule data from the same spot. Even more beneficial, that information is then processed to build an automated schedule, with the TMS checking for any unforeseen conflicts as a matter of course.

A hypothetical use-of-force lawsuit illustrates the relative strength of this approach. In modern failure-to-train lawsuits, the plaintiff’s counsel may well request comprehensive documents dating back to the employee’s first days on the job. A TMS can capture and store every educational record that employees generate over the course of their careers, supplemented with performance reviews, manager observations, civilian complaints, and any other documentation the employing agency feels is worth keeping. If the plaintiff calls into question the content of a specific training course, agencies can prove the precise content of the module, who took it, and what time/date the training transpired. Similarly, if an employee’s past performance or behavior with the organization outside of training is impugned, the agency can rest easy knowing all performance reviews, disciplinary documents, and other assorted files are kept in the same central place for easy retrieval.

While civil litigation is an ever-powerful motivator for change, it is safe to say a TMS will provide an agency more than its money’s worth even if its employees never see the inside of a courtroom. In a field where it is almost impossible to overstate the potential impact of new-hire training and ongoing education, learning is certainly a desired result — but managing, automating, and centralizing tasks key to the training process carry benefits that extend well outside the classroom. As such, agencies planning to make LMS technology a part of their near-future footprints should strongly consider the reasons their considerations stop at learning. In most cases, the high-utility software they envision when they think learning management likely falls under the broader, more powerful domain of training management.

Posted on Sep 24, 2019