In simple terms, no jargon, what is a LMS?

A Learning Management System is a database storing learning items and recording for each learner the learning assigned to them, including if the learning was started, completed, and the score obtained if there was an assessment.

With several LMS platforms on the market, each solution will have additional features, unique selling points.

Final thoughts so you don’t have to skip to the bottom of this page: 

  • Selecting a LMS is a very long term commitment, aligned with the learning culture of your organisation.
  • A complete needs analysis is essential, not only to make the most informed choice, but also to understand the connected implications on resources (people, time, purchase of software), the impact on your audience, the needs of the business at a cost that matches your business plans and funds.
  • Connect with an experience learning consultant (that’s me) that has seen the pitfalls, experienced the difference between the reality and the sales blurb from vendors and can help you plan a S.M.A.R.T. deployment of your new LMS.

Pros and Cons for each area of a typical LMS. On paper or on their web page, each vendor will offer the best services in all areas below. The reality is of course very different. 

So, when choosing a LMS for your organisation (company, school., team, yourself…) I recommend to rate each point below:

  • How important is it to my ideal system (must-have, nice to have, can do without, don’t need)?
  • How much would I spend on it so the overall price is still affordable?


  • Online: most LMS will be working using the internet.
    • This is great because:
      • Someone else is managing the web server, the upgrades, the security…
      • The web server is included in the cost
      • It works from the learners’ web browser without having to install and update any software
      • Single-Sign-On (SSO) allows learners to use the same username/password as the ones to access their computer in work
    • This is could be a problem because
      • Someone else is managing the server, so we are dependent of the vendor’s team
        • Being capable to offer constant availability of the systems 
        • Having a good tech support team to answer and solve queries
        • Pushing updates that we want or don’t want
        • Offer up-to-date training and resources to learn how to use their system
        • Select technologies that are future-proof, compatible with other systems used
        • Every LMS uses a slightly different way to store the list of learners, courses, enrolment and completion… this means it is nearly impossible to change of LMS, without spending an absolute fortune.
    • Employees that do not work with computers have to find time, place, equipment and skills to complete their online learning.
  • Internal, External or both, know your audience.
    • The set of courses offered can be opened to employees/contractors or can also be opened to the ‘public’. Some platforms have an online shop allowing users to browse and buy courses.

The users

There are different types of users, each with different needs. The names listed below vary by vendors and organisation, they are used for illustration purposes.

  • The learners are the simplest, greatest in number, type of account. Each learner has a username/password to be identified on the system. Learners can access the learning assigned to them and maybe browse a catalogue to voluntarily sign up for additional courses. The system will record when a course is started, completed (with or without a grade) and send reminders to complete a course close to a set deadline. 
  • The managers can assign courses to the learners reporting to them and can receive (or generate) reports on completion. The manager is also a learner with courses to complete.
  • The administrator has an even higher level of access. An ‘admin’ can create course structures (see below), works closely with the vendor to ask for and implement new features, generates overall reports by learner types, business units, course types… usually to discuss with business managers/directors. Administrators can receive course developed by a team of specialists to add to the catalogue of courses or update existing ones, they are also users with courses to complete.
  • The Learning and Development (L&D) team creates the course materials. They can be external users without access to the system, an internal team or a mix of both.

The courses

  • Course structure
    • The terminology here will vary by vendors and organisation, feel free to use your own naming convention.
      • Curriculum is a set of learning items (lessons, workshops, readings…) around a larger topic (for example: time management, spreadsheets…) made of multiple Courses. Learners will need a larger amount of time a Curriculum.
      • Course is a set of learning items (self-paced, videos, classroom…) on a more specific topic (for example: time management using MS Outlook, Microsoft Excel for beginners). For example, a learner might need a day to complete a classroom/workshop Course or 45 minutes to finish an self-paced Course (something you might call e-Learning)
      • Lessons are the ‘chapters’ in the Course to organise the Content. The Content is made of any digital content delivered either using what is most engaging/relevant or most convenient to use, more below.
  • Content can be:
    • An image to look at like a map, a diagram, charts…
    • Text to read
    • Audio to listen to (a podcast, or a recording with a Subject Matter Expert, an interview)
    • Video to watch (a demonstration of using the equipment or software, something on YouTube)
    • Slides or web pages (interactive or not)
    • Exercises (for example simulations of software or questions to highlight key points to learn)
    • Quizzes (to mark progress or assess for a grade)
    • Virtual Reality (360 images, Augmented Reality, Mixed Reality, ‘actual reality’ using the equipment while being supervised by a trained colleague)
    • Classroom and workshops
    • Online meetings
    • Anything that can be completed using a computer or with a another trained human that can validate learning happened and was completed
  • Completion can be achieved by:
    • Spending the required amount of time, or reaching the end of the required tasks
    • Obtaining a sufficient grade
    • Demonstrating to a trained person that the required skills were learned and can be applied
    • Note: Completion is a tricky one. Either the assessment is easy enough for all learners to ‘pass’ it successfully, placing a huge question mark on the validity of the Completion (too easy); or, the Completion is obtained only by learners that learned the key learning points, taking a risk of higher rate of failure because it was difficult. See article on Assessment somewhere on this site.
    • Certificate of Completion is delivered automatically to be printed, added to a LinkedIn profile by the system if activated.

Features worth mentioning

  • Calendars allow learners to sign up for Live (classroom) or Virtual Sessions (Zoom, Teams, WebEx…).
  • Virtual Sessions are online calls/meetings, recorded for future use, added to a course. Some LMS will offer the connection with the company account for automatic upload.
  • Online Shops to sell the courses to the public, with integrated payment systems.
    • Newsletter subscription
    • Vouchers and special offers
    • Purchase of tokens to buy access to courses to select later (for example, I buy 50 courses, I will assign them to my employees later)
  • Automatic reporting allows managers to receive monthly (weekly, annually…) set reports in their inbox.
  • Dashboards showing data trends on completion rate, drop-out rates….
  • Mobile access. I am a bit unsure about this one. Looking at the usage statistics (it is a web site after all), there are often a low number of mobile users, unless they are learners with a role that gets them ‘on the road’ a lot.
  • Connection to other systems (other LMS, HR systems like workday,…)
  • Ability to create courses that will be released at a specific date or when prerequisite content is completed
  • Some LMS allow you to develop the Content within the Course inside the LMS, so you not need to purchase, learn and use an external Authoring Tool.
  • White labelling is the ability to customise your version of the LMS, so the url (web address) uses your company name, your logo and branding is used to personalised the interface.
  • Groups are a great way to assign a Curriculum or a Course to a set group of users instead of assigning the learning one account at a time. Similarly, courses can be grouped (like a Curriculum) to be assigned in block.
  • Bulk Upload of users to be added in the system quicker. Be careful, errors can easily creep in, but you should be able to run a report listing all the ‘new accounts’ to double check.
  • Automations can speed things up and avoid errors. For example, a set of courses, like an ‘Onboarding Curriculum, can be automatically assigned to new learners just added in the system.
  • Assessments and Surveys can be an integrated part of the LMS, with optional grading, randomisation. Otherwise, this will need to be created using an Authoring Tool. An external survey (like SurveyMonkey will not send the result to the learners’ account in the LMS.

What else can my LMS do for me/us?

  • Use the LMS to get compliance stuff done, for example, upload a document (new policy, staff handbook, internal memo) as a new course, assigned to some or all users. The LMS will record their ‘digital signature’ as a mark of their approval.
  • Technical manuals, user guides can be added into Courses for future reference.
  • Forms can be filled by an employee, submit (‘complete the course’) to be reviewed by a manager.