Since the term Learning Experience Platform (LXP) burst into the L&D zeitgeist 4 years ago, businesses have been left with some agonizing questions. Should an LXP replace my Learning Management System (LMS)? Are LXPs worth the hype? Can my LMS and LXP coexist? Should I be looking for something else?
Many businesses decided on their learning platform direction in 2018/19 when LXPs first came to prominence. But the context is different now. COVID-19 has accelerated and spotlighted issues that have been building over the past few years. Businesses are now more aware of the enormous reskilling and upskilling tasks ahead of them. Learners are more keen than ever to continuously build their skills. This has shifted the relative values LXPs and LMSs can provide.
The platforms themselves have changed too. All of them have added new features and the markets have shifted as different products specialise for different pain points. This conclusive guide is built to help businesses decide what they need from their LMS or LXP in the volatile context of 2021.
With these definitions, there's always a caveat. There is no hard and fast distinction. LXPs and LMSs differ within their categories and some LMSs will claim to have LXP features and vice versa. This article is based on how these systems are typically used within organisations and the usual distinctions you'll find in practical situations.
Now that’s sorted, here are the key questions you need to think about when deciding the learning platform(s) you need or need to keep.
What’s the difference between a Learning Management System and a Learning Experience Platform?
An LMS is a system through which admins can assign and track highly structured training content. Conversely, an LXP is a consumer-focussed platform in which the user chooses their own learning from a diverse array of personalised content. If an LMS is going to a cinema, an LXP is going on YouTube.
Who is in control?
The fundamental difference between LMSs and LXPs is the power balance. In LMSs, it’s pretty simple. Learning & Development is in control of the content that each user sees, and what they have to learn.
In LXPs, the users choose what they want to consume. Depending on the platform, this is usually via browsing or search. Like most streaming services, LXPs are set up with “trays” of categorised content that the user can browse through. They also have powerful search functions.
While users are in charge of their own learning on LXPs, the platforms usually provide a helping hand. This comes primarily through personalisation. Because there’s so much content out there, LXPs try to pick out stuff that’s relevant to the user or business goals (with varying success).
There is also more democracy in how content makes its way onto an LXP. Content on an LMS is put on there by L&D and is usually very formal and structured (the majority of the time it’s compliance training). On an LXP, learners can take more control of content provisions, curating external content for other users, creating their own content, pulling content together into learning pathways, or running their own digital learning sessions.
This democracy is important for businesses that want to encourage self-driven learning - a prerequisite for agile and flexible skills development. Depending on your industry, this may be something the business is keen on encouraging in 2021.
Tl;DR: in an LMS, admins assign training to users, in an LXP, the user picks their own learning within a structure set by the organisation.
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What do users learn?
The LXP and the LMS are built for different types of learning. A Learning Management System is more prescriptive. Learners will log on and take courses they’ve been assigned - often with assessments at the end. The kind of content will be quite broad - often company or department wide. The LMS’s purpose is more “getting up to scratch” than “expanding your knowledge and prospects”.
Some glamour might be missing, but this is essential for most businesses. And it’s the Learning Management Systems’ happy place. They’re robust, simple, and trackable so learners can efficiently pick up what they need to and get right back to work.
LMSs match users with content, and compliance content in particular. This is essential in most businesses to keep users astride of changing regulations, and something for which an LXP is overkill.
Conversely, the LXP is built for individual growth rather than box ticking. There’s a huge variety of available content that’s designed to make learners better at their jobs, or suited for better ones. Sometimes too much.
For this to work at an organisational scale, LXPs have to have powerful search functions, personalised recommendations, an array of content types, and an easily navigable interface. LMSs can’t handle that level of flexibility (often the types of content LXPs host aren’t even compatible with LMSs).
The content itself is usually less prescriptive in a Learning Experience Platform. It’s often less immediately quantifiable and there’s rarely a ‘finish’ point. It aims to build skills organically. While content playlists and longer courses are available in LXPs, they’re joined by lots of micro-learning and thought-pieces in a more holistic learning ecosystem.
TL;DR: in an LMS, users receive compliance, regulatory, broad theory training. In an LXP, users choose from a huge array of learning to improve themselves or their job performance.
What types of content do the two systems host?
LMSs usually host longer form content in a predetermined format. For example, that might be used in order to assign induction training courses to new employees, so that progress can be tracked and learning retention assessed in a scored test. More often than not, the training is regulatory/mandatory.
The format and type of training is very rigid due to SCORM (Shareable Content Object Reference Model). SCORM basically set out a group of protocols and principles that all LMS content had to follow - just like a key has to be a particular shape to fit into a lock.
The LXP has unlocked its doors. Thanks to xAPI (or equivalents) LXPs can host basically any type of content you throw at them with little effort. So, learners can read articles from sites online, or employee made content, or take quizzes, or watch videos, or webinars. As you’ll see is a theme, the LXP is defined by its flexibility.
TL;DR: LMSs host very specific types of content focussed on compliance. LXPs can host basically anything.
How do they use the data?
An LMS will track some data. Although it’s usually quite rudimentary. Metrics include: whether learners have completed training programs, their assessment scores, and drop off rates. While there is much more data to collect, it’s not something you expect as standard with a normal Learning Management System. As stated earlier, their real data credentials are in matching employees with the compliance/regulatory training they need.
As a rule, LXPs do a lot more with the data - which translates to the learning they provide being more accurate and engaging. This is largely thanks to xAPI and functions like it that allow a wider variety of event parameters. Now, an LXP can get its data from wider sources, integrating them into a fuller picture. Key examples include mobile usage (which accounts for 40% of learning), real world performance (which allows leaders to see if learning is actually working), and HR management (which gives leaders a view of talent).
The data LXPs can potentially use spans from the beginning to the end of the process. They can analyse and integrate internal and external information to help figure out key skills for your organisation; they can analyse the material of your content to better match it to the right skills; they can analyse HR learning data alongside learner provided information to work out which learners needs what content; and they can analyse how well content is performing, both on the LXP itself and externally, to better optimise employee engagement.
It’s not yet the big ticket item, but learning data analysis is one area where LXPs are breaking ground LMSs haven’t yet sighted.
Ultimately, to create a compelling data-driven learning content strategy, you need the data. Nowadays, nearly half of company leaders say they don’t have a prioritised learning plan. Without direction, learning initiatives don’t work. Learning content is the means by which we enact learning plans, but for most companies this is not in the right order. Having access and understanding your learning data goes hand in hand with having a scalable data-driven learning content strategy.
Tl;DR LXPs do a lot more with the data. This enables them to get a better perspective on the reality of learning in an organisation.
How do they approach skills?
In the past couple of years, skills have taken on greater prominence for businesses. 2021 was the first year that upskilling/reskilling has featured in the annual L&D Global Sentiment Survey and it topped the list by a significant margin. So, it’s important to many businesses that skills are at the heart of their learning platforms.
While most LXPs today have upskilling and reskilling baked into their DNA, for LMSs, it is less of an option. Their main purpose is to ensure that the less glamorous side of the job - the admin, the regulations, the organisational protocols - is up to scratch. This is a necessary baseline to set, but the “improvement” factor of skills must come after it.
More and more LXPs are using skills as a common language between learners, organisational goals, and content. Theoretically, this means that LXPs will be able to formalise the process of upskilling/reskilling. With this functionality, L&D leaders could use LXPs to reasonably accurately track upskilling; update skills needs and, simultaneously, provisions in real-time as circumstances change; and pinpoint skills gaps as they open and close.
In practice, few LXPs have the skills taxonomies or content tagging capabilities to achieve this (although not all). Essentially, without the definitions of skills and how they relate to content being spot-on, LXPs can’t be as accurate as they have the potential to be. However, they’re still able to break new ground on centring skills in corporate learning.
TL;DR LMSs are a necessary baseline, but only LXPs are able to connect skills, business goals, learners, and content - even if it’s not perfect yet.
How do they compare on social learning?
This is a feature the LXP has really expanded. Although some of the more advanced LMSs boast social features, the Learning Experience Platform is better formatted for them and far more likely to harness the benefits.
Firstly, the LXP caters for a broader range of learning options than the LMS. It’s usually not difficult to use your LXP to set up an online class or webinar.
LXPs also provide a chance for learners to share their opinions on content: liking, sharing, or commenting on an article or online class. Users can follow and interact with others, above or below them in the organisation.
Users also have a chance to make the LXP their own by setting up a personalised profile page. It might seem low-priority, but a sense of ownership usually corresponds with a boost in engagement.
As well prepared as Learning & Development leaders are, there’ll be things that people doing a job every day will know that you won’t. They can use their learner experience to recommend or create learning content in an LXP. This helps on-the-job learning and gives employees a greater chance of picking up the skills they need to progress in their role.
In fact, some LXPs are bringing their software into mentorship. For example, particular LXPs even provide people curation, matching learners and mentors. By providing an outlet for learners and mentors to easily find each other, share learning resources, and communicate, LXPs are making it far easier for companies to make mentoring a prevailing part of their culture.
TL;DR: LMSs aren’t built for social learning. This is a new functionality that LXPs are bringing to organisations.
We have an opinion, with a lot of caveats. The first, and most important, one is that it really does depend by business. Some businesses need the freedom an LXP gives you and some need the strict and structured compliance you get from an LMS.
Most, however, need both. The two systems provide totally different types of learning, both of which are essential to the majority of companies. With digital transformation and COVID-19 spurring a skills revolution, the LXP is continuing to grow in importance. But, businesses still need to have protocols, rules, and regulations.
Some providers claim that they’ve bridged the gap between the two. At the moment, none have succeeded. It is theoretically possible for an LXP to have the grasp on structured learning and regulatory logic an LMS has, and for an LMS to have the user experience and personalisation of an LXP. But, in practice, getting them up to speed requires far more technical and human effort than justifies the cost - the LMS structure is so entrenched and the LXP so agile.
While businesses need both, the urgency is unequal. In the US, although 70% of businesses have an LMS, far fewer have LXPs. But, the LXP market is growing 50% annually. For good reason. Technological innovation has revealed to businesses how much the continuous next (constant upskilling) will be fundamental to how future organisations run. For now, the LXP is the only way to get there.