What is a learning management system?

Susan Hurrell
Woman smiling slightly with brown, chin-length hair and glasses.
min read
min watch

Recently, we added someone to the Neovation team who had previously worked in the finance services industry. He didn’t really know what an LMS was, beyond what it stood for - a learning management system. Not surprising, since he was switching careers to work in the corporate training world. He knew he had a lot to learn about our products and services, including:

  1. All the components of a learning management system, absorbing its features and benefits.
  2. Understanding how valuable those features and benefits are to almost any organization.

He realized that he had used an LMS as a learner in his previous company, but didn’t really understand the software he was using to take his compliance courses. He understood it simply as “online learning,” and maybe that’s how you or your team think about this as well.

In the financial services company that he worked for, there was an assortment of training that needed to be completed. They had compliance training, general accounting principal refreshers, documentation reviews, and yes, even health and safety training – though you’d think a bank is less dangerous than a manufacturing plant, right? 

All this training was done online and remained consistent throughout the entire company nationwide or globally. After all, when it comes to your money, it’s reassuring knowing your cash is handled the same way, regardless of the employee. His HR rep in Toronto could track and deliver training to the entire Calgary team, without needing to pick up an old manual or attend an expensive training session across the country. All of their training was through their LMS, in the comfort of their office.

What is an LMS?

So let’s start with the definition of LMS, because if you are anything like my new hire, that is the first thing you look up when you are unfamiliar with something. A learning management system (LMS) is a software application for the administration, documentation, tracking, reporting, automation, and delivery of educational courses, training programs, materials, or learning development programs. 

A fabricated UI of an LMS screen, with lines coming off it, stating the components of what an LMS is: Training administration, knowledge documentation, metric tracking, analytical reporting, learning automation, delivery platform.

In short, an LMS is used to house, build, deliver and track online training. Now, to dig into what those terms actually mean.

An LMS is a place for all your training stuff

A good LMS combines the features of a library or database that holds all your content – your courses, videos, and curated content. It can work as a search engine and an online learning space. It allows you to hold or “house” all your training material in one space.

Build - entering the training content construction zone

Within your LMS, you’ll likely be able to create and import eLearning content in a variety of formats. It may be a simple eLearning course creation tool where you essentially build a slide-show presentation of text, images, and videos. Or you might be using SCORM courses – courses that are built to be shared with any SCORM-compliant learning management system. You may use third-party tools and upload simulations, animations, or even augmented or virtual reality! Every platform has its own capabilities. 

Class is always in session with an LMS

Organizations need to be able to deliver the training they need to all their learners, no matter where they are or when they are – this is called asynchronous training. More and more organizations have remote workers now, and larger organizations can be spread out across the world. Your LMS allows your learners to take their training when it is most convenient for them – as part of their assigned work, regardless of time zones. No more herding people into a classroom and juggling schedules – unless you choose to use a blended training model with some real-time or hands-on instruction where it makes sense. Your LMS should be able to track that too! Now you know that your team in Vancouver will be getting the onboarding training as your team in New York. 

You can’t improve what you don’t measure

Bar chart showing Corrective Situations and Cource Completions. The bars showing Corrective Situations start tall, and gradually get shorter as they go to the right. Course Completions are shown as a line, which starts at the (0,0) area of the x- and y-axis and trends up to the top-right of the graph.

One of the best features of an LMS, from a management perspective, is the ability to monitor training progress – by each individual learner, by job title, by training cohort – however, your LMS allows you to slice and dice your data. Learners can get rewarded with certificates and badges when a learner completes a course or curriculum – some companies even use a points and rewards system for company swag or other perks and prizes to help motivate and engage their learners. Above all, monitoring and improving your training KPIs has a ripple effect on all aspects of your business – fewer safety incidents, happier staff, better sales and customer service – all this and more.

Why do you need an LMS?

At one point, my colleague made the comment that, “there are as many reasons to use an LMS as there are types of sports to watch on cable on a Sunday afternoon!” He’s a real sports guy.  

Reduce your learning and development costs

Remember what you used to spend, putting trainers on the road, booking hotels, paying for meals, airline tickets, ground transportation, classroom rental, and all the other related costs? Not to mention the cost of taking workers away from their work. There is a positive ROI to online training that offsets your investment in new LMS technology.

Two fake receipts depicting Training the Old Way versus Training the New Way. The "Old Way" receipt reads: Learners: 10; Course fees: $500; Travel expenses: $1,000; Misc. expenses: $??; Missed work during travel days: $??; Total: $15,000*. The "New Way" reciept reads: Learners: 10; Course fees: $500; Travel expenses: $0; Misc. expenses: $0; Missed work during travel days: $0; Annual platform fee: $5,000; Total: $1,000*. (*Based on figurative/speculative costs to illustrate an LMS ROI calculation.) Below the receipts is a sentence which reads, "Now, imagine the ROI equation with 100 learners... or 1,000 learners?"

Other reasons why your organization might want an LMS?

Don’t these all sound like great reasons to use an LMS? 

Who should use an LMS?

Who are the biggest users of an LMS once you add it to your training plan? Sure, your CEO may have just told you that the company needs a “corporate learning hub,” but the main users of LMS users are the administrators and learners, not the C-Suite. You want to provide a great experience for online training for both groups – especially your learners, as getting their buy-in (called engagement) is your key to success. 


LMS administrators are like the coaches who may appear to be on the sidelines, but they encourage the team to have a great eLearning experience. They are responsible for managing and maybe even creating courses, tracking training progress and completions, and guiding learners towards their next learning activity with enthusiasm.

When looking back at his role with the bank, it is easy to see now how vital an LMS administrator is, especially given that banking is a regulated industry with compliance requirements. His LMS Admin was able to monitor his engagement and results to ensure that he was always in compliance with any laws or regulation changes the government may have put into place. They would assign new courses as needed, while making it easy to deliver the training to him through an LMS.

Your admins will appreciate an LMS with an intuitive, easy-to-use interface – they will be spending a lot of time there, so make sure that the dashboards, overviews, and reporting are easy to use and have strong support documentation and help prompts so they can learn on the job as they become more sophisticated in their work.

Learners (employees, clients, and customers) 

Learners are your high-volume LMS users. This could be a new employee assigned to onboarding in their first week or a veteran employee staying up to date on truck maintenance before taking a company vehicle on the road with everboarding. It might be a client that bought your branded training package for something like Health and Safety or Cyber-Security. You may offer free training to your clients to help them understand your business products and services more deeply. More on these other use cases later in this article.

My new colleague tends to put everything in sports terms, and said this. “Your LMS users are the team on the field, your LMS platform. They have access to all their “training equipment” – their courses, resources, tests, quizzes, etc. The goal is to win the game – with every player being “most improved” – which makes them the MVP. Every player that improves helps improve the team – this is true on the sports field or within a company.” Great analogy, right?

Key LMS features: more than a sophisticated slideshow

While the most basic LMS might support only conventional eLearning “courses” – collections of slides or pages with text, images, and perhaps embedded video and quizzes, many LMS are more robust and support additional features to make training administration easier and help with learner engagement. Let’s look at some of those.

eLearning course builder

Your LMS may come with authoring tools giving you the ability to create or import eLearning content in a variety of “rich media” formats, like videos and podcasts, gifs, simulations, animations, or maybe even virtual or augmented reality.

Knowledge checks

There are lots of ways to confirm that learners are actually retaining their training – many LMS have knowledge check tools like flashcards, learning games, quizzes, tests, and even the dreaded final exam. The quizzes can be in all kinds of formats – from simple true/false questions to multiple-choice, fill-in-the-blank, short-answer, or even long-answer essays, which can be graded externally by the instructor. 

Knowledge bases

Imagine your own training Wikis – a resource section where instructors and learners alike can post curated content and link relevant reference materials. This can be permissions-based in terms of who can post or read certain topics – to ensure that the right materials are accessed by the appropriate level of the learner. 

Track, measure and report

Most contemporary LMS have a great reporting structure, allowing you to generate, sort, and format reports on all the data that your LMS collects. While course completions are an easy metric to monitor, a more sophisticated platform will help you measure how well your team’s knowledge gaps are being closed or flag learners who are in need of additional assistance. 

Automated processes

An LMS powered by an artificial intelligence engine can take care of re-enrollments, monitor performance to prompt learners to re-engage with their training, make recommendations of “next courses” to learners on a personalized training path, and deliver data without tears in real-time. 

Speaking of repetitive tasks, an LMS should be able to automate a lot of the tedious tasks your admin team would love to hand off to someone else – like user grouping and group enrollments, learner deactivation, and managing new user data uploads and data migration. 

Gamification elements

While we’re not suggesting “playing games” when it comes to the learning and development of your employees, you can make an effort to make it enjoyable. Gamification can be as simple as a leaderboard that learners see as they progress to the top – to much more elaborate features like a points and rewards system, quiz-based challenges between employees, or anything else you can dream up.

eLearning accessibility

Training needs to be available to everyone, and any good LMS will have abundant accessibility features built right in to help every learner maximize their potential. You should be looking for features and functionality that exceed the minimum web content accessibility guidelines (WCAG)2.1 – you want to find an LMS that is actively engaged in providing accessible training

Data visualization dashboards

What good is data if you can’t make sense of it? Not everyone loves a spreadsheet as much as I do. So look for visually appealing dashboards to help you visualize the data your system is collecting for you 

Most advanced LMS are able to fully integrate with other business software you may be using, like your HRIS system, PowerBI, third-party content libraries, and more.

There are many more features we could get into, but I think that covers the main ones.

Train your team, clients, partners, and members

Of course, your LMS is used to deliver training to your team – DUH! There are so many different kinds of training you can offer to your employees, and we’ll be writing articles on a bunch of them. Here’s a laundry list:

Did you know that you can use an LMS for many other use-cases in a corporate setting?

Training for associations or membership-driven organizations

If you are a membership organization, you can add revenue to your bottom line and add value to your membership by offering some free and paid training that would benefit your members. That can include some courses on governance for your board members, procedure training for your event staff, vendor training for trade show participants, and more. Keep in mind that online training doesn’t have to be heavy and ponderous – a brief course for your trade show exhibitors on how to navigate the forms, the floor plan, and their resources can be an engaging way to inform them on how to have the best experience at your event ever. A training course doesn’t have to “look like” an academic credit program!

Organizations within your extended enterprise

Do you have channel partners, resellers, or an influencer network? Get more of their mind-share by providing them with their own orientation, product information, or partnership guidelines by using your LMS. It’s just another form of onboarding – and ongoing education for those who represent you in the world who are not your direct employees. It also provides a way to level the playing field by ensuring all your partners have the same information – up-to-date and accurate.

Your end users or customers

If you sell something where your customers need training to get the most from their investment (that would be us here at Neovation), why not provide them with consistent online training using your LMS? For example, and not to toot our own horn, we offer free certificate training for all our clients’ administrators who use our training platform products – all part of our commitment to being a great training partner. If you sell something where your customers could benefit from some training, use your LMS. It makes you a better vendor!

There’s more than one type of LMS pricing model

Just when you thought it was going to be easy to hit an online training home run, now I’m throwing you a curveball! There are different types of LMS to choose from. I’ve learned that an LMS is like a car – you can get a Lada, a Lincoln, or a Lamborghini – depending on your budget and what you are comfortable driving – but they are all cars. You can go fast, you can go far, and you can go in style – when you pick the type of LMS that fits your needs and your budget. Here’s some insight.

Five different types of pricing models, represented with simple icons. Top row, Block 1: 25 user icons in 4 rows of 5, with the last 3 user icons drawn with dotted lines (Active users/seats). Block 2: A box full of user and play button icons, labelled with "One Fee." Below that is a block with a dotted outline containing a few more user and play button icons, lablled with "Additional" (Flat rate). Block 3: Two stacked boxes with user and play button icons. The top box is labelled, "You pay" and the one below is "You profit" (For-profit). Bottom row, Block 1: Three rows of 5 icons, two of which are users and one of play buttons, with a dotted line right down the center. On the left side of the line is the title, "Your revenue" and to the right of the line is "Your LMS vendor's revenue"  (Shared revenue). Block 2: Three stacked boxes with various amounts of user and play button icons. Tier 1 is the first (bottom) box, and has the fewest amount of icons. Tier 3 is the third (top box) and has the most icons. Tier 2 is the middle box, and has more icons that Tier 1, but fewer than tier 3 (Tiered/no limits).

Pay per active user/seats

Find out how your LMS provider calculates an active user – is it “they are in the system, taking courses or not,” OR do they count towards your monthly billing only if they engage with a course during that billing period? The first is an example of “Seats,” – which may or may not be transferable between learners if someone drops out of training. The second is the “Active User” model – where the learner is demonstrating activity during the month. This model has the most flexibility based on your usage, and most vendors have a minimum number of users as a base requirement. You might still be billed annually versus monthly, with adjustments made along the way.

Flat-rate registration

When you are making your purchasing decision, you are asked how many users you will be training during the year. Let’s say you’ll be training 4,622 people in multiple courses over the year. Your vendor will have a formula that will calculate the variables of your individual use case and give you a price. Something like “X learners over Y Time taking Z Courses plus Q add-on features = $.” And if you train fewer people, have fewer courses – or don’t use the features, your price is still your price. 

For-profit model

If you are, say, in business as learning consultant and you are offering your courses to your own clientele, your LMS may need to have a cost structure based on your end-user counts, usually by cohort-based pricing groups. You pay for the learners as you acquire them for as long as the course lasts. Your cost is directly related to your revenue potential, where your learners pay for their courses via e-commerce, and you pay your vendor based on signups, not completions.

Shared revenue

This is a variation of the for-profit model – where your LMS provider or vendor is paid a percentage (vs. flat fee) of the training revenue that you generate. 

No limits/tiered

An unlimited LMS doesn’t take either usage or user counts into consideration. You are paying a flat fee. Sometimes this model will kick in at the highest tier of a seats-based or active user plan – when you hit a certain user count. You can have unlimited courses, as well. 

Installed LMS systems

Most LMS on the market are SaaS platforms – software as a service. We use these kinds of SaaS tools all the time, and they have become the norm for how we get stuff done on the internet. The software itself is stored in the cloud and accessed through a login/password system to the client’s customized private portal. However, some organizations may need the additional security of a system that lives on their own servers – where the organization's IT department does any required maintenance and makes any needed upgrades – sometimes with the vendor's assistance. Think of big government agencies or multinationals in healthcare where if an issue occurs and they aren’t in control, it could be catastrophic, not just inconvenient. 

So those are the main types of LMS – so make sure you select the type of system that meets your needs.

What else might be included with your LMS?

Then there are the things that most companies either bundle into their LMS pricing or have as an a la carte menu of services that you can add to your LMS purchase. Make sure you are always comparing apples to apples when making your LMS purchasing decisions. “Free support” sounds great until you realize you have to wait 72 hours for the first response to your trouble ticket. Paying a small premium for a 3-business-hour support team response might seem like a better deal in the long run.

Add-ons may include:

  • Premium levels of support/client care
  • Onboarding assistance and coaching
  • Implementations/project management to get you launched
  • Managed administrative services – where a member of the LMS company acts as your chief LMS administrator
  • Historical data imports to add all your existing training records into your new platform
  • Software integrations to ensure your LMS is playing well with your HRIS, or other online tools and platforms.
  • And there are likely many more.

Your LMS should provide a great experience for learners, administrators, managers, and the L&D team who oversee the creation and use of learning content. Consistent learning, reduced costs, and training time are just some of the benefits you will be able to achieve with the implementation of an LMS.

Sorry for the mixed metaphors

I know this article has covered sports, cars, and finance - and none of these things are related. However, these metaphors all helped my new colleague understand the world of LMS training, and perhaps they’ve helped you as well.

Let’s sum it up:

  • There are many different brands and kinds of LMS’ (almost nearly as many as there are cars!) so do your research before you buy
  • With so many options available, there is a wide variety in price, functionality and additional features you can get
  • And, just like in sports, there are guidelines and rules for how an LMS can function, which your organization will need to be aware of to get the most from your LMS

Now that you know what an LMS is, you might realize it’s not right for your training needs. No worries – we’ve covered many different online training platforms on our website that could work better for your specific training requirements. But, if you think an LMS will satisfy your needs, you’ll need to find an LMS that is right for you, which, coincidentally, we have an article about, too. 

And, if you’re not entirely sure what you need in an online training platform to begin with – take a tour through our introduction to online training guide to find many more learning and development articles.

Woman smiling slightly with brown, chin-length hair and glasses.
Susan Hurrell

With 15+ years of online marketing and online learning experience, Susan loves to share insights about where these two ROI-building practices can intersect and complement each other for your business or organization.

Become part of our L&D community

We publish a new learning hub article — full of useful, practical topics —  weekly.

Not sure where where you want to start? Jump into one of our recently published articles and see where it takes you!