Leveraging The Power Of Your LMS: An Interview With CommPartners

Education has been a hot topic recently with our association clients, and questions about utilizing a Learning Management System (LMS) have been right at the top. 

In this in-depth interview with Aubrey Mellos (Marketing Manager) and Rich Finstein (President and Founder) of CommPartners, we learned a lot about how to fit your LMS into your overall strategy and get into the right mindset to activate your education community. 

Read the transcript below to learn more about how to leverage the power of an LMS for your own association:

Matt Braun (MB):  First, can you describe what an LMS is and what it isn’t? 

Rich Finstein (RF):  A learning management system (LMS) is application that supports the process of registration, access and completion of online education programs. In its simplest form, an LMS is a container for various types of learning content.  At a higher level, it provides learning pathways that allow an organization to step into a formal process of offering education through certificates, credentialing, or a more formal progression in their careers.

MB:  What are some of the questions that you’re asking to make sure an LMS is the right fit for an organization?

Aubrey Mellos (AM):  I get the sense that more of our conversations are not convincing of the need for an LMS.  That dialogue has already taken place by the time they’re calling us.   Whereas maybe 5 years ago, there was more of the conversation around the “why” of an LMS.  Would you agree with that?

RF:  Yes, I would.  I think the LMS market in the association community is more mature now.  A lot of our clients now have had their initial LMS and are looking for a better option.  Things have changed quite a bit for associations in the last 5-7 years.  They’re finding that they have to compete because it’s not an automatic decision to join an organization especially with younger members.  So, we try to understand their mission, and then where education fits into that mission, strategically.  How can education further their objectives?

Then more concretely, how would an LMS enable you to pursue your goals?  Who are your members?  Will they engage with you online?  Do you fulfill a certain type of structural gap?  Are you the primary way that your community can learn, that they can advance in their careers?  Are you trying to step into that role?  Where does education fit into your priorities, and what type of platform fulfills those needs?

From there, what do you want to do with that LMS?  How should it be presented, designed, configured?  What applications will it be integrated with as you create your ecosystem. Get your strategy down, and then think about the more concrete elements of a platform and what it can do for you.

MB:  One of the common challenges that we hear in investing in an LMS is, “We never get the level of activity that we expected.”  Are there things that associations can be doing that encourages more activity?

RF:   To begin it’s important to have both an LMS platform strategy and an education content strategy.  Looking first at your platform, it’s important that your LMS is well designed and configured to provide a simple process for navigating to where you want to go.  Part of this is to ensure there is a seamless process in how you integrate your LMS with your other applications including your AMS or online community. For content, you will want to have the right mix of programs that grab participants’ attention and keeps them returning. Content typically falls into 4 key areas including formal or curriculum based education, informal learning such as videos or news, social learning and live events. The combination ensures your platform is engaging and there is always something new.    

One thing we noticed is that a private online community and LMS are typically offered as separate resources. We have worked for the past year to bring these two together as a single engaging platform leveraging expert content and peer sharing of ideas.

A traditional example of this is an onsite conference.  For example, we just hosted our first conference, PEAK 2018, which brought our community together to learn and engage.  One of the expectations of Peak, was that attendees were going to connect with their peers around a common purpose.  Learning is a more concrete aspect that draws people in.  If you can leverage learning on top of engagement that is happening in the community, it will attract people in a more concrete way.  The same applies to an online environment.

MB:  Is there a metric that you share with your clients or prospective clients to say this is an average engagement level for our association clients?  X percent of members engaging on the site over Y period of time?

RF:  I find that for our clients it ranges quite a bit.  A lot of it is situational.  Let me give you an example.  We have one client that gets a very high engagement rate.  But they spend a lot of time merchandising their platform.  They’re always promoting it, drawing people to it, and they’ve grown their platform tenfold in the last two years.  I just facilitated  a session with their education manager highlighting their work because they’ve been such a success story. 

It’s the approach the association’s taking, to a great extent, and the resources that are available to them to constantly promote and evolve their site.  At the end of the day, they have to take ownership.  Nothing happens in a vacuum.  It’s important to understand how you will be measuring and assessing engagement and because it’s so situational, I’m not sure I have an average for you.  Typically, we measure engagement by the percent of your total community (members, non-members, etc.) that participate in the LMS. When I check, it’s usually in the teens.  If you have 30% or 40% active engagement in your community in a month, you are doing really well. 

AM:  The importance, like Rich said, is constantly bringing them back to your LMS.  Whether that’s new resources or new material or new live events.  It can’t be one thing a month.  You’ve got to constantly be bringing them back in a meaningful way.

MB:  Based on what you just described, it sounds like one of the underappreciated, undervalued, or under-resourced elements of this is the ongoing maintenance or investment of time.  Are there any caveats that you share with your clients before they make that investment to ensure they really understand the level and amount of upkeep that it’s going to take to keep that engagement high?

RF:  When we invest ourselves into a project, it’s not only time in putting together the pieces, the mechanical parts of it, but also having creative time.  Think about education as a business and get into an entrepreneurial mindset.  “This is what we want to do, these are our goals, here is what it’s going to take to get there.”  Be realistic on what it’s going to take from a staffing perspective and plan accordingly.  An LMS allows you to do all these wonderful things, but without the appropriate attention and overall buy-in, you will quickly realize you won’t achieve your goals. 

You can just tell the better platforms where a client is engaged, invested, and they have their team rallying around them to make sure the site stays fresh and well-designed versus the ones where somebody hasn’t touched it or doesn’t really work on it for months and it lays stagnant. Ensuring the necessary dedication in placed on the success of the LMS will surely translate to an engaged and active community.

AM:  One of the benefits of the LMS, though, is it gives you the ability to get things up and running quickly.  It takes the manual admin labor out of getting your content out to your community and helps to facilitate that process.  A lot of times it’s just one person at an organization that is the admin for the LMS, so much of what is configured is to help expedite the process because it does take ongoing commitment.

MB:  What one piece of advice would you give to an association that is trying to figure out if they have outgrown their current platform? 

RF:  Usually the way they’ve outgrown it is in the design.  Other times, they’re looking for specific features like a built-in certification or digital credentials, items that they feel would allow them to take their platform to the next level.  Each case is different.  But I think a lot of it does come down to the user experience.  Being able to visually present their platform in a compelling way and picking a provider that can support and fully integrate your LMS into their overall Web presence.

AM:  The conversations at our conference, were around making sure that you’re continually evolving as the leaners’ expectations and preferences change.  I think the LMS needs to stay ahead of the trends and make sure that they’re providing the flexibility for associations to constantly address evolving learning needs.

CommPartners’ Elevate LMS is an award-winning learning platform for nonprofits and associations that provides a central knowledge community that drives engagement and collaboration. 

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