Top 10 Learning Systems for 2021

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Top 10 Learning Systems for 2021

Well, here we are.  A new year, and well, new rankings for 2021.  For those new, each year, I publish what I see will be the top 10 systems for the coming year, based on a set of criteria (which will be listed shortly).  Roadmaps play a role here, and ties into track records of previous roadmaps.  For example, if a vendor says we will do this in X year, but in the previous years, their roadmap completion rate is 35%, then the probability they will do everything on their roadmap for the upcoming year, is remote. 

When a system says they are forward-thinking, a roadmap really comes into play.  Especially with what they have listed on said roadmap.  Too many people focus on features now, and on top of that, what the vendor says is coming.  

As anyone who has ever worked in tech (including myself), I would often hear the tech sales team, and IT tell customers, “yeah it is on our roadmap”, but never specified when.  Sure, 10 yrs from now, but hey it is on our roadmap. 

Is there a possibility that some vendor implodes and doesn’t live up to what I see in the year, sure, but so far, in previous years, they have delivered.  If your vendor isn’t on this list and you are unhappy, well, some times, being disappointed, is a learning experience. Any Eagles fan will know this (ZING! – Bad American Football team).  

Takeaways 

As in the past, I use a specific approach to identifying the criteria for vendors to be considered.  I did some things new this year, which will be presented. 

Before going into the criteria, a couple of items – because I get questions each year around these. 

  1. It is a totally independent analysis.  It is 100% fair, independent and honest. 
  2. For vendors who made the final cut of 50, each was send a packet, which requested a series of responses, including around NexGen feature sets, other features that are essential (beyond the standards which they all have), technology related, security related, remote workforce related (new), training and support.  A demo was requested, if I had not seen the system recently, but due to COVID if this was an issue, I had a one on one talk with the vendor, to extract additional information which provided enough, on top of what I already knew, to make an informed decision.  
  3. I never charge a fee for award submission, because a)vendors do not automatically submit on their own, they have to be selected by me, and b) I find it disingenuous when having someone pay for consideration of rankings or any awards.  
  4. I do not factor in, whether they are brand new or been around for two decades.  
  5. I do not factor in, on how many total clients they have;  I do look though at their percentage increases, in other words if they went from 55 to 45, that isn’t a good sign, if they went from 20 to 100 that is, but even a vendor who goes 25 to 35 and you know their business model and approach, can still be a plus.  There are vendors who focus on quality of a specific client segment, rather than mass.  
  6. It is not relevant to me, on where they are located in the world.  It does not factor one way or another. 
  7. Not relevant on how capital they raised or if they didn’t.  Nor if they are a public company or not. 
  8. Financials while again, shows some trends, had to be tossed out, due to the COVID impact with many vendors, plus what a vendor tells you, is what the vendor tells you, unless you can audit their books, you never truly know (unless they are public).  
  9. Finally, any vendor who tells you they are not in the content business, should jump on a rocket and blast themselves into the sun.  Without content, you are not a learning system, you are an internet page from 1993. 

Learning Systems is an umbrella term.  Because of so many segments these days, calling everyone an LMS is no longer accurate.  The biggest segment is LMS.  Then there are LXPs, again some bolting from the name, and most adding more and more LMS functionality, Learning Platform is another. A Learning Platform is often an LMS streamlined down, but they won’t refer to themselves as an LMS.  Digital Learning Platform (see LP above), People Development Platform (very close to an LMS, but again, we are now into marketing spin),  Talent Development Platform, which is heavy on learning – it is a big chunk of it, and includes some performance mgt/talent mgt feature sets – not enough to be a full-blown PM or TM system.  

Learning Ecosystem or Learning Suite falls under the “Learning System” umbrella. I personally see these as hot in 2021.  The new spin is that under an ecosystem, you get an LXP, an LMS, a content marketplace (3rd party – which to be honest can appear as part of any learning system including LXPs – that is where they play big time, and of course LMSs have had them for nearly two decades – not across the board mind you, but more than enough).  Some will add other items as that fourth wheel.  Some only have three.  The point is they are trying to split out, err provide additional segmentation to show the benefits of an all-in one system. 

EdCast for example, for my #1 listing is the entire platform (which includes the LXP, LMS Lite and Service Management, and the content marketplace).  I did not include vendor management which is an add-on that they often toss in depending on the client needs.   Nor did I include the advanced analytics which again is included in the platform for very large enterprise clients.  It used to be add-on, it no longer is. 

Criteria 

Different analyst firms have different criteria and each of us have a different methodology. So, trying to compare one versus another, isn’t really a recommendation, because of the variance.  I have always been transparent on what I look at, and consider.  I do use weighting for my calculations and a formula that includes extracting some features into numbers and tapping into a multi-variable ANOVA.  It outputs a number, and that is included as part of the equation.  It is just one piece of the methodology.  And not the end of everything. 

The Criteria is made of up 15 points. 

  1. Learner UI and UX – Extremely important. I never understood why so many vendors think old school is fine.  Everyone says that learners can get to content or what they need quickly, I can tell you that isn’t always the case.  Personalization is somewhat misleading too.  Unless each end user can personalize their page, including language, what they want to appear and not appear, and has a drag and drop functionality (i.e. not set by the admin), then it isn’t fully personalized.  
  2. Admin UI and UX  – Often when vendors do an update or revamp, they focus on the learner side first, which makes sense, but then they will either ignore the admin side and keep it where it is, or make such minor tweaks that at first glance you are like – huh?  Then, there are those who do a nice revamp for one part, and the UX on the other hand is poor.  Or they do a wonderful job with some, and not all  (ahem Degreed – that other reports and metrics?).  SumTotal for example did a nice revamp, but their reporting is super outdated.  Jasper has to go. 
  3. NexGen Functionality – Plays a big role here.  I based it first on Tier 4, then down to Tier 3.  I have posts covering these, so anyone who says we are “NexGen” send them to the Tier 4 page and ask them, how many of these do you have?  Those that were minimal on Tier 4, had to be over 90% on Tier 3.  
  4. Reporting and Metrics – Plays an important role here, the days of only canned reports just won’t fly anymore. And more and more L&D and Training people want more segmented metrics.  This doesn’t mean you have to have a built-in BI tool.  In fact, the vast majority of vendors don’t.  UX plays a role here too.  If I can only download the reports, then I surmise you own a copy of Access 1998. 
  5. Support – This is overlooked in such a big way, and yet, it is the number one reason, people – i.e. clients leave systems.  Never buy into everyone loves us, or our support NPS is high or are support is 98%.  If someone said, “Hey are support stinks. And last year, we were 72% up from 71%,” would you buy them?  I look at a lot of data when it comes to support, including ratios – # of tickets to customers (on avg), follow-up time (during business hours) for initial call, then on-going follow-ups, number of support staff, and so forth.  Any vendor who says they can’t provide any metrics, is either lying or seriously shouldn’t be selling a system.  Regardless of size, if they offer support, they keep metrics.  Most have someone overseeing support, which uh, has those metrics. 
  6. Training – Another overlooked area.  I find that some issues can be resolved, had training been conducted.  A client is responsible for training their employees, customers etc – not the vendor.  The Admin(s), whoever else oversees the department, etc. should get training. Thus if a vendor offers only two hrs of Admin training, and charges extra for more, or for the head of the department or division, that is a bad thing.  Any additional items, such as a community forum (with a moderator who responds), knowledge base, mini videos on how to do this or that are big wins.  Especially the first and third item.  Chatbots stink. 
  7.  Feature Progression – They were here last year, where are they now?  What did they tweak? What did they remove?  What did they add – it may not be NexGen, but it might be something they were missing.
  8. Do they do configuration or not?  Plenty are off the shelf with minimal configuration, which is fine for most folks, but for very large customers do they offer a high level of configuration – that is where I was focused on here.  Large would be anything higher than 25,000 end users. 
  9. Remote Workforce –  Min browser version and what browsers, bandwidth speed for video and high data content, mobile app (with on/off synch) – many lack this by the way, in general. 
  10. Front-Line workers, retail, blue-collar workers(if applicable) – What features did they offer these folks, where having to be on-site is not an option.  Systems that targeted verticals where there is a high blue collar workforce, should have features that serve these folks, just as well, as they do for white-collar workers (which is where most systems skew towards, of course vendors like BlueVolt are an exception). 
  11. Small Enterprise vs Enterprise vs Large Enterprise vs Customer Training/Education (aka as Extended Enterprise).  Depending on the system, and their target audiences and horizontals, you need to compare SE for example to only SE vendors, what features, functionality, capabilities, pricing did they offer/provide.  If Large Enterprise could their infrastructure handle say a client with 500,000 users? Ignore if they are on AWS, I’m also talking about internal staff and resources.  A lot of vendors want in to the Customer Training market, but their system is skewed significantly to employees.  As a result, if they play in CT, then they need to get those features that make a huge difference.  For example, manager areas is not something of interest to B2B/B2C, I mean if I am a customer of product X, why would I need a manager area?
  12.  Communication – Doesn’t seem like a big deal, but who are you talking to? The salesperson and their response time is relevant. Plus, can they answer basic sales questions related to the product – do they actually know the product and if not, can they get you the answer in a reasonable time?  Again, I do not know of any analyst firm that looks at this.  As a someone who has been in the trenches buying systems, I can tell you, it is extremely important. 
  13.  Content Marketplace – This is 3rd party off-the shelf content by 3rd party content providers that is available to the client to purchase (then you give it to your user base for free).  Typically includes some free content too. 
  14.  Implementation Time – Off-the-shelf with a logo and color adds, shouldn’t take six months. In fact, if we are talking more than a month, that’s an issue.  Unless you are dealing with mass configuration (and many vendors a)won’t do this and b) if they do, you are have to be large enterprise), then the time frames will go way up.  

15. Industry/Verticals and capabilities/features/integrations/track record/etc. –  Again comparing one to another who are in different industries isn’t fair.  If I play heavily in FS for example (say 75% or higher) then my social features usually will not be the same as someone who plays in retail.  Granted, this needs to change in 2021, because more folks work from home, so social does play a bigger role than ever before.

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The Top 10 Learning Systems for 2021 – The Rankings 

I always debate whether to go 1-to 10 or 10 to 1.  Which is better? Who knows. This year, 1 to 10.  Feel free to leave your comments. I promise I won’t read them.  Just kidding. 

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#1 EdCast –  This is not for Spark, rather the EdCast platform itself (they are branding it with a new name with EdCast in the title).  With the EdCast platform you are getting the content marketplace (which comes with Spark) and LMS Lite and Service Management.  It does not include Domo, the advanced analytics component, which they now include, but at the time this was put together, it was separate, nor vendor management, which is too cumbersome to explain, but it involves you wanting to sell your content to every other client on the EdCast marketplace and having training suppliers too.  Most folks won’t need this.  So, if you are a client of EdCast and want to sell only to your clients/customers, then you are fine, and do not need vendor management.  

This is an LXP with LMS functionality – hence you wanting the entire platform, and not Spark.  Because honestly, the two parts work the best together, especially with the functionality.  MS Teams capabilities is also an additional cost, but they just toss it into the platform price point, so no need for concern.  

This system has something for everyone, and is perfect regardless of your size to be honest.  I mean, you can tell them to ditch the advanced analytics if you want (and save some $$$), but the rest you want (exc. vendor mgt).   

Big Wins

  • Great Layout, this system sings.  Easy to use, figure out and lots of content out there – including plenty of free content and assets.  
  • The bookmarklet extension is fantastic.  Once you add it to your browser, content that is associated to what you are searching for in the browser will appear in boxes at the top of your browser.  I love that. 
  • Metrics on the back-end is good. I found Domo which is the BI tool and now part of advanced analytics, UI and UX wise, needing overhaul designers ASAP.  Anyway, the EdCast side is nice. 
  • Mobile app and its capabilities are fantastic, mimics what you see in the EdCast platform
  • MS Teams mimics the EdCast platform as well, so you never have to leave it.  The API  pushes the data back into EdCast
  • Lots of content for folks to choose from, with plenty of free and of course, 3rd party content providers.  
  • Feature-rich system.  #1 NexGen Learning System for 2020.  #1 LXP for 2020, for those seeking only an LXP, but again, please note that the LMS Lite functionality (which is more stronger than lite) is essential.   
  • Plays solid in B2B/B2C,  Offers a multi-tenant. 
  • Highest score on my feature template of any vendor in these rankings. And we are talking over 240 items on that feature template. 
  • Strong of course for Enterprise and Large Enterprise.  If you are under 999 users then Spark is where they push towards, but if you want the platform I’m describing, they will take you, so don’t think it is Spark or the highway, if you have like 500 employees. 
  • Not a fan of the charge for a custom domain.  I am not talking about $25 here, I am talking the most expensive I have ever seen, in 20 yrs, and if I toss in buying a custom domain in 1993, higher than that. In other words, just go with what they do, which is your name, followed by their name.  (I should add that plenty of systems follow this approach, uh, not the cost of domain nonsense, but the yourname.vendorname URL)

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#2 Thought Industries –  If you want the best learning system for B2B/B2C i.e. customer training/education, partner training, etc. – this is it.  The Leader IMO.  Feature rich that matches what you exactly need for this market, and they only focus on this market, one reason why they know it inside and out and the system is designed around it. 

Multi-Tenant which includes Panorama, which I absolutely love and think is the best one out there for the multi-tenant (.e. parent-child, i.e. extended enterprise) capabilities.  So much you can do with it, especially the level of branding of your customer sites, extensive options here. 

UI/UX is at rocket level. Implementation timeframes are rather short, again for something extensive custom config level different story.  They need a mobile app, right now you go through the web browser, but hopefully in 2021 that will change.  Roadmap track record has been very good. A content marketplace is not something you usually find with systems that only go after the B2B/B2C market, and this follows true with TI.  But I surmise that will change in 2021.  Incorporates the video assessment with digital coaching and speech indices, including transcript in the system, another huge win.  

If I was to buy a system that was solely about B2B/B2C for customer training/education, this is it.  Next!

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#3 Learn Amp –  Part LXP, Part LMS – in other words the feature sets of the LXP combined with the right feature sets for an LMS.  Has a bookmarklet extension, can mimic within MS Teams (no charge), has e-commerce, has an improved level of analytics and reporting, continues to take charge and ooomph the UI for learners and administrators, and UX is strong to boot.  Content marketplace has more than enough for folks, implementation time is fast.  Best for 500 to 10,000 employee level, but can handle clients up to around 100,000.  Enterprise strong.  Lacks a mobile app – and yes, they know my feelings on that.  #2 LXP for 2020.  

I just really like this system.  There is something wonderful about it.  I love when when a vendor sees where learning and training is heading and jumps into it, head first.  Skills development feature sets are there, and playlist angle too.   This is for Learn plus Connect (they sell them separately or as a bundle). You want both.  Perform is a 3rd option, but it aligns more with performance management including having a meeting solution in it. 

If you are debating between Learn Amp and Docebo, Learn Amp is the better option. 

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#4 CrossKnowledge Learning Suite –  This is an ecosystem, which includes the learning piece, the content marketplace, and CK Connect – an awesome solution, click to ready my product review on it.   The LMS is another feature rich system, with lots of functionality and capability. CK for whatever reason, isn’t as strong in the states, compared to Europe, which is a shame, because it really is quite good.  UI and UX, which are so crucial for learners and admins is tight.  Mobile continues to rock, skills management features and good too. 

The back-end analytics and metrics is the second best I have seen in the industry (Fuse is #1).  This is what metrics are all about, and are relevant to your learning and training.  KPIs, strong data visualization and segmentation levels you only dreamed about, exists in this system. 

In the Leader Grid for NexGen features/functionality.  Support is good, implementation times overall are good. And yes, they can do extensive config – which of course, longer implementation time frame. 

Plays really well with employees and could go B2B/B2C with its capabilities.  

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#5 Cornerstone Learning –  Yes I already know.  You are saying – them?  They are traditional. They are this or they are that.  And I say, you know Google has been around since 1996, so what’s your point? 

Cornerstone Learning is a full ecosystem, and with Cornerstone Development, new features coming this summer that should definitely make it a solution to watch, is their LXP.  You get the LMS, LXP, Content Anytime – I always mess up the name, change – please, but it is their content marketplace.  #2 NexGen Learning System for 2020, tells you all you need to know regarding features/functionality.  The UI/UX  on the front end is good, continues to get better. A weakness? That admin sides needs a revamp, and is way too cumbersome, IMO.  Feature wise, it is extensive.  Skills management is elite.  They need some improvement with video, and they lack the video assessment/digital coaching solution which is a bummer. 

Mobile is good, implementation times, well this is where it gets a bit weird, because it will depend on the Cornerstone Service Partner, but generally speaking under three months, even two is doable. Extensive conf. another story.  If you go with Cornerstone in the U.S., you will want Bluewater for your service partner, ask for them by name.

Support is the past hasn’t been great, but in 2020, it vastly improved, and everything points toward this path in 2021.  The system is geared for employees, although Cornerstone wants B2B/B2C and has some clients there.  They play in Small Enterprise (500 to 999) and even small business (less than 500), so the days of only wanting large enterprises solely is gone.   

You can buy just the LMS, and nothing else, but this ranking is based on the ecosystem of Cornerstone Learning, Cornerstone Development and Content Anytime, uh, did I mention they need a name change on that?

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#6 SAP Litmos –  Okay, once again just to re-state this, they can handle very large enterprise, i.e. 500,000 or more end users. And no, I do not know why SAP always pushes SuccessFactors over them, when it comes to large enterprise clients and learning.  

Secondly, SAP Litmos and SuccessFactors are two different products, and two different systems.  As I said to one reader, it is like comparing a luxury sports car to a model T, and SF is the latter.  If you want agile, high performance, with feature sets including video assessment/digital coaching, AI, playlists, skills management, slick UI/UX for Learners and Admins, this is it.  If you want, uh, a pop-up book with stick things you can move around, then the latter SF should suffice or probably a pop-up book.   On a side note, I can’t understand why SF is still mad at me, regarding my Turkey awards in 2019, was it something I said?

Okay back to SAP Litmos, the metrics work, although if you want advanced to the level of strong segmentation, this isn’t it. And they are still a work in progress with e-commerce, which is why I see the system for now as better suited towards employees, until they can hit the high tier needed for e-commerce, which really wasn’t a strong suit for them in the past.  Could they go B2B/B2C with what they have now? The answer is yes, but for all e-commerce features that many systems who have e-comm have, they lack some.  

Their built-in authoring tool, is uh, well, there are plenty of 3rd party SaaS ones that will fit the build.  Assessment tool, learning paths, learning environment feature sets are all there. AI, skills management are good too. 

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#7 Absorb LMS – Another ecosystem with more than enough for all. You do not need to have an “LXP” to be an ecosystem BTW, because LXP is just a term to be honest, and if the vendor has skills management feature sets, content marketplace with 3rd party and free content, and playlists, whalla – LXP.  That said, Absorb Infuse, their LXP, does come with the Absorb LMS. As does Absorb Create, a top tier authoring tool.  For this ranking it refers to the whole system – Absorb LMS with Create, Engage, Inform and Infuse. Although to be quite honest, you can hold off on Infuse, and will have more than enough.   Inform is their top tier BI analytics, and it is what I would use with their LMS.  

UI/UX for Learner and Admin has always been awesome. Offers electronic signature on a mobile device, which is not common in the industry, in fact, many systems lack digital signatures period.  Compliance is quite good, multi-tenant, this system plays nicely in B2B/B2C and equally employees.  Absorb does very well against Docebo, and similar competitors. 

Mobile strong, a true ecosystem and one folks need to start paying more attention to. Fast implementation times. 

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#8 Docebo – As you can see there are a lot of vendors who compete head on with Docebo. Docebo is an LMS. Do they advertise themselves as an SEP, LXP, Learning Platform, LMS and whatever else? Absolutely. But they are not an SEP, nor an LXP or whatever else, they are an LMS that offers a lot of features, capabilities and options. 

UI/UX for Learners has always been a big win for Docebo and it continues. The admin side is nice, but very dated, it needs a major update, and can be a bit confusing, as a result of the lack of revamp.  Capabilities on the admin side are there for the most part. 

The content marketplace is quite good, tied around G01, but you can purchase any 3rd party content, and yes, GO1 is 3rd party and yes, you have to pay for it.  Docebo includes free content.  The Discover/Coach/Share module which is part of the system, well it in the quote, unless you state you do not want it – trust me, you want it, is fantastic.  Again, needs an update, but what it has today is good, I am just greedy – I want elite.  Their skills management is okay, they are planning on rolling out a more robust skills management/development module (again part of the platform, unless you say you do not want it) some time in 2021.  Roadmap track record has been mixed, which is a shame.  They can go employees or B2B/B2C.

Recently acquired a vendor which is strong in analytics, and that makes sense, because one of the biggest weaknesses with Docebo is their level of analytics and metrics.  For the individual end user in their profile it is fine, and has enough, but for the back-end, metrics, different story. 

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#9 Fuse –  Another ecosystem in the mix here. LMS with LXP functionality (see how I spun that?) places them into this elite company (top 10).  Skills management has always been a weak point, but happy to report, that coming in 2021, it will go up a couple of notches, that are needed.  They have a lot of features in the works, two that will be huge, which sadly I can’t announce, until they are close to rolling them out (I promised).  

#1 for metrics and data on the back-end.  Everything you ever wanted and more.  Data visualization is fantastic.  UI/UX Learner side is good, Admin side is very good.  The whole communities aspect that is wrapped around the learner side, is a bit getting use to, which I can see, if someone doesn’t buy into it, then they will not be happy campers.  Fuse provided data that shows a higher level of engagement with the community thing, so there’s that.  

System skews heavily towards employees, but they do offer e-commerce, do play well in B2B/B2C and will work for many folks wanting a customer education/training system with a different take, than many others.  Digital coaching exists and a lot of integrations including Slack.  Teams is on its way. 

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A Tie at #10 (D2L and Schoox)

D2L  – A very robust LMS (the ranking is for Corporate, not EdTech, although they are #1 for the EdTech market).  Video assessment piece? Check. Digital coaching? Check.  Skills management feature set? Check. Strong Admin side? Check.  Feature strong? Check.  Content marketplace? Check, solid.   #1 for Association market in 2020, so you can see they play quite well with B2B/B2C too.  Employees of course.  One area that needs a major update is the Learner side UI and some UX.  I mean there are parts that are strong, and parts that need some tweaks. Metrics is average.  

Schoox – One of my systems to watch in 2021, this system is all about employees.  Metrics are good, UI/UX for Learner and Admin are good too. Has plenty for everyone. Schoox is a Talent Development Platform which is made up of a big chunk of learning with key performance management/talent management features.  The problem with a TDS is that you can easily target solely HR, and thus you start sliding more towards HR needs and reqs, then say L&D for learning.  

That’s the Top 10 for 2021. You might be wondering, what about 11-20? Or if not, well, as an added bonus, and without calling a toll free number and paying extra shipping and handling,  here are #11 to #20. 

Uh, no details, just list. 

#11.  Degreed – Close to becoming a talent development platform. Right now sitting on the border. It is an LXP with LMS feature sets.  If you want mass configuration, this isn’t the system.  Add-on opportunities is nice.  Metrics could be a lot better.  

#12 SkillJar  – B2B/B2C only.  Another leader in the B2B/B2C.  

#13 Eurekos – System to watch in 2021! 

#14 Instilled LXP – You can buy it separately or as part of PeopleFluent Learning – which uh, you buy Instilled as an add-on.  Video focused LXP, although you can go with SCORM content too. 

#15 Brainer LMS – Employees and Customers, feature strong, nice UI/UX – under the radar 

#16 SumTotal Learning Management  – Heavily skewed towards employees, can go B2B/B2C, but I wouldn’t buy them for customer education.  

#17 GyrusAim – Employee focused, feature-rich

#18 CourseStage – Plays heavily in association market, and non-profit too.  In the Top 3 for Association Learning Systems

#19 IMC Learning Suite – Another ecosystem.  Lots of offer. Employees definitely, customers doable. 

#20 LearnUpon – Very nice system. UI/UX tight. 

Bottom Line

Where is Moodle? 

The same place where Waldo is. 

E-Learning 24/7