Recently I’ve received e-mails from two consulting colleagues with questions and comments about integration between learning management systems (LMSes) and two other key systems: association management systems (AMSes) and Webinar platforms. The e-mails made me realize that it might be useful to say more about these two types of integration here on ReviewMyLMS since they are highly relevant for anyone in the process of selecting or implementing an LM.

So I thought I do a basic overview of LMS-AMS integration in this post and address LMS-Webinar platform integration in a later post.

Why Integrate the LMS and AMS?

Before jumping into common integration points, it's worth asking why you might consider integrating an LMS and an AMS in the first place.

The fundamental reason is that the AMS is typically the database of record for a membership organization. It's where key contact information for members is stored along with essential information about members’ interactions with the organization—e.g., join date, renewal date, purchases made, and interest areas.

Rather than having users create separate accounts for each software system an organization uses, it’s simpler if those other systems can make use of relevant information (e.g., name and e-mail address) already stored in the AMS. Otherwise, you wind up with multiple records for the same member, often with somewhat different data in each record. Many organizations know first-hand the headaches this can cause.

Often there are already other software applications—for example, a content management system (CMS) or an e-mail marketing system—integrated with the AMS, and the AMS serves as a hub for member activity. An LMS represents a new spoke into this hub. When integrated, the LMS can find out from the AMS whether a prospective learner is a member and then act accordingly. It might, for example, automatically assign the member to particular courses or, if e-commerce is being run through the LMS (see below), apply a discount. It can also send information about the learner—for example, the fact that continuing education units have been earned—back to the AMS, enabling the AMS to add this to the set of essential information it tracks.

The big upsides to all of this are that the experience for the end user is as seamless as possible—no logging in multiple times, no e-mailing the education or certification staff to make sure credit has been reported, etc. And, for the organization, it typically means fewer support issues and the ability to report on essential member data from a single place (the AMS).

Even with these upsides, there are reasons an organization may not want to integrate the AMS and LMS. If education is run as a standalone business—as was the case with one of our recent clients—then there may be no reason to go through the effort to link the AMS and LMS. In other cases, internal silos, politics, or other cultural issues may drive the education department to go rogue and secure a freestanding system that can handle all aspects of the education business, including e-commerce. While not an approach we necessarily advocate, we’ve seen it happen.

Key Points of AMS-LMS Integration

If you decide integration is right for you—and we believe it is in the great majority of instances—there are typically three essential points of integration: single sign-on, e-commerce, and learner data. What follows is a brief, high-level description of each type of integration. Be aware that there can be numerous variations on what is described here. With integration, the devil is always in the details.

AMS-LMS Single Sign-On

Single sign-on (SSO) makes it possible for a user who has already been verified by the AMS—usually in the process of logging into the organization’s main Web site—to navigate to the LMS and access her courses or other content without having to log in again.

The way SSO is typically set up, it doesn't matter whether the user attempts to log in on the main Web site or on the LMS site. In either case, whatever log-in information the user is required to submit is authenticated against the information that exists for that user in the AMS database. If the AMS recognizes the user as someone with permission to access the LMS, this information is passed back to the LMS, and the user is taken to the page in the LMS she was attempting to reach. In the event that the user doesn’t have permission or the AMS doesn’t recognize the user, she’s typically redirected to a page indicating what steps should be taken to gain access. This entire process is typically completed in seconds, or parts of second, and is invisible to the average user.

Single sign-on is the most fundamental level integration and is generally a prerequisite for other types of integration to occur.

AMS-LMS E-commerce Integration

Most associations that implement an LMS plan to sell access to the courses managed in the system. In many cases, an organization already has some sort of e-commerce system (catalog, shopping cart, payment gateway) in place to sell membership, event registrations, publications, and other association offerings. The question then arises, “Should course purchases go through the existing e-commerce, or should they go through the e-commerce native to the LMS?” (assuming, of course, that the LMS offers e-commerce functionality—not all do).

Whether course purchases are handled by the LMS or another e-commerce system, integration is likely to be desirable. If purchases take place in the existing e-commerce system, the LMS needs to know about them in order to grant users access to the courses they’ve purchased. Ideally—particularly in the case of on-demand e-learning courses—access is available immediately after purchase. Fortunately, the emergence of XML-based Web services has made this type of real-time communication between different software systems significantly easier than in the past. (For non-techies, Web services are basically a way for software programs to talk to each other across the Web.) When e-commerce integration is in place, the e-commerce system can automatically send a message to the LMS—typically the next time a user accesses the LMS—with information about the new courses that should be made available to the user. An alternative to this sort of real-time integration would be to run a batch process at specified time (e.g., every night) to update the LMS database with information about new course purchases.

If e-commerce is provided through the LMS, there is still often a need for the AMS to know about purchases. Organizations often want to record the courses a member purchases as part of the core member record. And, as indicated in the next section, they often want to track whether and how much credit has been earned for the courses. This data is captured by the LMS, but, for reporting purposes, it can be desirable to make sure the AMS knows about it as well. Again, Web services or a batch approach would be two common ways to get this information from the LMS to the AMS.

One final note: If e-commerce is managed through the LMS, this doesn’t mean the LMS provider has to collect the money. Nearly all LMS e-commerce systems allow organizations to designate the payment gateway (e.g., PayPal or Authorize.Net) that the system connects to. Hooking the LMS e-commerce system up to your organization’s existing payment gateway means the funds flow directly into your own merchant account, not the LMS vendor’s.

AMS-LMS Learner Data Integration

Finally, as a learner accesses courses and other materials in the LMS, the system accumulates a variety of data about the learner’s activities—for example, time she spends in a course, her scores on assessments, and whether she has completed a course. It’s often useful for the AMS to know about some or all of this data—particularly data related to course completion and issuance of continuing education credit or certificates. Again, this type of communication between systems can happen in real time or as part of a regular batch process.

It Takes Three to Tango

Back in days of yore when we ran a company that developed and sold an LMS to associations, the types of integration described above were no easy matter. I won’t claim they are a cakewalk now, but they’ve gotten dramatically easier.

Most LMS companies active in the association market have at least some experience integrating with the most popular AMS systems. Some even have relatively sophisticated what-you-see-is-what-you-get (WYSIWYG) interfaces for managing key aspects of the integration. Also, most AMS companies are familiar with the idea that an LMS may need to be integrated with their system, and many have partner programs aimed at providing support for third-party integrators. Both sides are likely to have Web services or other application programming interfaces (APIs) that facilitate communication between their platform and other platforms.

So, on paper, life is good.

It’s important to recognize, however, that there are at least three key parties involved in any LMS-AMS integration: your organization, the LMS vendor, and the AMS vendor. As you are selecting an LMS (or, for that matter, a new AMS), it’s important to ask the following:

  • Do the vendors seem well prepared for integration? Even if you’re not a techie, you can verify that both sides have thorough documentation describing methods for integrating with their software. If you do have the right technical background—or have access to someone with the right technical background—the documentation will give you the ability to assess the completeness and the quality of the integration methods.
  • Have the two systems or companies integrated before? The more experience both sides have in dealing with the devil in the details, the better. Ideally, you want to know the LMS has integrated with your specific brand and version of AMS. (Or, vice versa, if choosing a new AMS.) At a minimum, you want to know that the LMS company has successfully integrated with other AMSes. (And be sure to get reference at the organizations where these integrations were done.)
  • Are there internal issues that will interfere with integration? This is an area where we have seen both politics and a lack of strategic clarity rear their ugly heads many times. Education wants one thing; marketing wants another. The technology team refuses to allow the LMS to write data to the AMS database. You get the idea. Be clear about what integration is intended to achieve, what the technical requirements are for achieving your goal, and get buy-in and commitment from leadership and all key stakeholders. Do this before you embark on an integration project.

All of the above, it’s worth noting, has more to do with communication than technology. It involves engaging vendors in candid, detailed dialogue about integration goals, checking references, really probing for challenges and issues, and, last but not least, getting the right people in your organization talking—and listening—to each other. Not always easy, but worth it.

Yes, You Can

We’ve seen a lot of concern, and sometimes outright fear, when it comes to the topic of integration. Many organizations feel they’ve been burned in past attempts to integrate an LMS or other type of software with their AMS. Others have heard the war stories.

While there are certainly many instances of integrations gone wrong, our experience is that many more of them go right. There are plenty of successful integrations out there quietly doing their work and helping organizations and their members get much more value out of their LMSes. If you take the time to understand what you are getting into and plan accordingly, yours can be one of them.

Jeff Cobb