Integrating business systems still poses a challenge to CIOs, their technologists and their vendors. However, the technological barriers have decreased in recent years for a host of reasons that I describe below. In the past, ERP technologies (a category in which I would include association management systems) were often deployed on midrange hosts. Getting them to exchange information with learning management systems that were based on client/server architectures required leveraging cumbersome and specialized technologies like EDI. As LMS technology has matured, it has become easier to achieve LMS integration, which benefits not only the learners, but also the business users who provision students and report on their progress.
When choosing an LMS technology, a committee might think an add-on learning management module from their AMS vendor is a safer choice. Or they might think a learning management system with the same technological pedigree (LAMP stack, .NET framework, Java, etc.) is safer. In both cases, the “safe” choice may forego a rich set of capabilities that would be available on a standalone LMS application from a specialized competitor. The seemingly conservative approach may also prove to be the most expensive: not only are add-on modules expensive, but they are notoriously difficult to customize, and paying a vendor to re-build features available in another LMS just because the other LMS is based on the “wrong” technology stack would be expensive and unnecessary. In short, concerns about LMS integration should not lead an association to choose an LMS that is a poor match with business requirements.
One of the most crucial points of LMS integration from the perspective of learners is having single sign-on (SSO) implemented. SSO simplifies the user experience and minimizes irritating support requests for lost passwords. Implementing SSO on mixed platforms has become straightforward over the last few years, leveraging the capabilities of ActiveDirectory and LDAP. Even with cloud vendors, achieving a seamless login experience can be made straightforward through the use of authentication portals that use web service APIs or OpenID.
Designating systems of record in an LMS integration
When integrating an LMS with existing business systems, a key consideration is maintaining systems of record rather than having similar data residing as multiple instances. Learner information can be accessed directly from the AMS, and transcript data (who took what course, when, and for how many credits) should have a single final resting place. When data is copied to multiple systems, asynchronies will develop that reduce the business value of the data, and also can cause support issues. Data formatting standards such as XML and JSON have simplified this flow of information, and services such as SOAP and REST have standardized the mechanism. Developing a plan to identify systems of record and then leverage APIs to use them will lead to a solid, low-maintenance LMS integration.
Third party web applications
Not surprisingly, there are numerous opportunities to make use of cloud-based services, such as eCommerce platforms to charge learners, or webinar packages that provide opportunities for live training and collaboration between instructors and students. Cloud vendors drive their business development by making integration portals available and easy to implement, so these ancillary features are easily incorporated into an LMS integration, whether they are hosted in your data center or with a software-as-a-service (SaaS) provider.
Business requirements first
LMS implementations are important. They can educate association members and staff (which can reduce costs and liabilities), and, just as importantly, they can drive revenue in association business models. When selecting a new LMS platform, be sure to understand your business requirements first. The technological requirements, especially those that require LMS integration to your existing application portfolio, can come later, knowing that data exchange has become far easier to accomplish.