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What Kind of System? An AMS vs LMS vs CMS…

by | Accreditation, Certification, Continuing Education, Product Features and Releases

Let’s assert a principle that software performs best when it performs the tasks it was designed to do.

That’s not a stretch, is it? You don’t want to do calculations in PowerPoint and you don’t want to keep track of invoices in Word. So how does that principle apply to the world of credentialing management software? On the surface, it seems like there are a lot of different platforms that can meet the needs of a credentialing organization.

Let’s take a tour through the options and then apply this principle to them.

First of all let’s eliminate custom software right off the bat. Why? That’s easy: why do you want to reinvent the wheel? There is software out there specifically designed to support your requirements. You wouldn’t pay someone to build you a word processor. . .why would you pay someone to build you a credentialing management system?

And if that is not a clear enough illustration, ask yourself “would I hire someone to build me a word processor?” Chances are you can’t afford to build a fully featured word processor, you probably don’t have the expertise to define the functionality you want, and you definitely don’t want to pay to maintain it over time.

So let’s put some scope around what a typical credentialing organization needs to do:

  • Accept applications for certification
  • Coordinate an examination process
  • Track educational activity leading to recertification

Add to that functionality you would want in any system:

  • The ability to generate reports about system data
  • A mechanism for automated communications
  • A way to handle documents
  • A way to manage financial transactions

A credentialing management system will have all of those capabilities, but so will some other prospects.

Let’s consider the following alternatives:

  • Association Management System – designed to support a membership organization and to understand the relationships and transactions associated with each member;
  • Learning Management System – designed to deliver learning experiences and track activity.
  • Credentialing Management System – designed specifically to manage complex workflows, evaluation processes, and extensive rules sets;

With the core needs in mind, it is easy to see how one could conclude that an AMS or an LMS could do the job of a credentialing management system:

  • They have a mechanism for collecting information from a person;
  • They have mechanisms to integrate external data sources like exam administration; and
  • They have ways of tracking activity

Only when we go a bit deeper that the differences emerge. While they all CAN perform a credentialing function, the more important question is HOW they perform the function.

Let’s look specifically at the process of collecting applications for initial certification. Any AMS or LMS will have a way to collect information about a person. It doesn’t take too much digging to discern some profound differences:

  • The AMS has no internal sense of process – you apply for membership and you are granted membership.
  • An LMS may have a sense of process, though of internal activity – an LMS is designed to track coursework completed within the system. It isn’t designed to collect educational transcripts or employment references that might demonstrate eligibility.
  • The CMS has extensive sense of process – you need to evaluate against minimum requirements. Those requirements may be complex and may have options. The process of reviewing applications may require extensive coordination among staff, subject matter experts, and exception management.

The same principle applies to how platforms support recertification. An AMS, an LMS, and a CMS can all be set up to support recertification, but they approach the task differently:

  • Some AMSs have certification modules. These modules are typically designed to track continuing education activity that a member uses to demonstrate to an external board that they have met requirements. There is no concept of a certification cycle, distribution requirements, or limits. Similar to the issue with initial applications, there is no concept of review or audit.
  • An LMS will track continuing education, and may even have a way to define distribution requirements in the form of curricula. As with initial applications, however, they are not designed to track activity that is completed outside the system. They are also not typically designed to support extensive reviews and audits.
  • A credentialing management system will have a set of tools to illustrate program rules, track activity, and support complex review and audit processes.

A picture emerges from these examples highlighting the functional areas a credentialing management system will have relative to other systems. While they all share some characteristics, such as storing member records, handling automated communications, and tracking education activity, only the credentialing management system starts with the most important aspect of a credentialing program: its evaluation processes.

LearningBuilder is designed to support credentialing processes, as well as the essential functions of AMSs and LMSs like automated communications and content delivery.

So how is it that AMSs and LMSs can represent that they can do all the things a credentialing management system can do?

Let’s use the example of an AMS “certification module.” How do we go from a system that tracks continuing education for use by an external board to using the system to track a board’s requirements?

The answer is customization. The so-called “configurable” AMS requires a layer of custom code on top of a system whose concepts are radically different from a credentialing function.

The AMS software vendor will construct custom add-ons to the core code that reflect a program’s needs. An AMS implementor can program all of the rules governing how many units, the credential cycle length, and distribution requirements to reflect program design. Customizations occur in one of two layers: within the core database, in which implementors create special tables and application code to enforce rules; and as an external portal that serves as an intermediary between the AMS and the end user. Either way, you end up with a body of code implemented specifically for you.

So what is wrong with customizing? Well, it is pretty much the same reason you don’t want to hire a group to build you a word processor. . .

Consider these examples:

When you customize an AMS or LMS, you are not really buying the AMS or LMS. You are really buying the software and the customizations. Even if the underlying functionality is great, the customizations may not be.

If you need custom programming, you need to be exceptionally precise in your definition of requirements. Programming is hard and brittle. If you make a mistake in your definition or a coder misunderstands, you may need extensive re-work to reflect your needs.

If your rules change, expect that those changes will need to be re-programmed, initiating a whole new cycle of precise definition, accurate interpretation, and faithful implementation.

Finally, the customizations you paid for will need to be revisited when you want to upgrade to the next version of the software. Because you bought an entire layer of custom code, those customizations may need to be altered to reflect the new way the software works.


You want to avoid customizing the AMS or LMS, because:

  • Their core concept is different from a credentialing concept
  • Any gaps need to be closed through customization
  • Customizations are brittle, expensive, and perishable

When considering what kind of system to purchase, consider the following line of reasoning:

What is your core mission? If your core mission is to manage a credentialing process, you want a credentialing management system, not an association management system or a learning management system.

What do I get by choosing a credentialing management system instead of an AMS? A system designed to support my mission without customization, and a team that has repeated success supporting credentialing functions.

What do I lose if I don’t choose an AMS? You may need to look harder for functionality that is not core to your mission, such as meeting management, publications, and subscriptions, but there may be other ways to close those gaps.

So let’s make a commitment to one another: let’s stop purchasing software designed to support someone else’s job. Let’s stop buying membership management software when we need a system to qualify people. Let’s stop twisting learning software when what we need is a way to manage credentials. Let’s find a group that knows certification and has built a system specifically to address my organization’s mission.

Imagine the possibilities!

– Christopher Butcher, CIO Heuristic Solutions

Interested in learning more about how LearningBuilder integrates with AMS platforms? Check out the LearningBuilder Integration Hub.

Heuristic Solutions is a leader in software and technology for certification, licensure, and accreditation. Partner with us today, and we’ll modernize your system to better serve your organization.


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