If you lead a learning management system (LMS) project, you need a powerful naming convention to track training activities across your organization. But selecting course names involves a great deal more than calling it as you see it.

Way back in the early 1970s, I started my first real job as a waitress for a successful colonial restaurant in Flemington , New Jersey . These were ancient times, and you might recall that theme eateries were quite the rage. The wait staff wore their best imitation Betsy Ross or Paul Revere garb and handled a thriving business. The food was unexpectedly good. Who knew the colonials had served such great prime rib?

The first time I entered the restaurant’s kitchen, I couldn’t believe the chaos! Wait staff darted in and out of tiny spaces, sounds of sizzling food mixed with swear words from behind the grill, and someone was busy berating a hapless dishwasher. A heavy knife thumped angrily against a cutting board, staff shouted orders to a cook, and shredded lettuce seemed to fly everywhere.

“Is it always this crazy?” I asked.

“Are you kidding? You are young,” the manager exclaimed.

“Follow me around and I’ll explain it to you. We have a great little system here.”

Oh brother!

It took me several months of work before I realized what he meant. In the restaurant, a great little system meant the cooks got the information they needed to make the meals. A great little system meant there was a constant supply of ingredients for the salad bar and clean dishes to set tables. A great little system meant customers received the food they ordered, on time, got steaks cooked just the way they wanted, and left happy with their dining experience.

A great little system did not mean a slow pace or quiet in the kitchen. It did not mean running out of ingredients or serving cold meals. A great little system did not mean the customer received roast chicken and rice, when the order was for steak and baked potato.

This great little system was something you had to experience, test, and learn.

To an outsider, it was impossible to walk in and know that the reason the food orders were given in verbal shorthand was because the cook didn’t read a word of English … or any other language. A newbie wouldn’t know that when a customer ordered his meat “well done” and his wife corrected this to “medium well,” the steak had better arrive moist with no pink center. An outsider might obsess over the cluttered, noisy kitchen. But the veteran waitress could not care less about this environment. As long as the customers got their favorites, hot from the kitchen, with a little conversation on the side, the customers would leave feeling very satisfied and happy. Wait staff know this as giving the customer a “Wow!” experience.

After several months at the restaurant, a new kid could “see” the flow of information. You could figure out the important stuff and learn from your mistakes. And when you got it right, your customers left big tips as the sign of your success.

A naming convention on a learning management system (LMS) is the same way.

When you’re new to your learning management system (LMS), everything looks like magic out there in the dining room. The vendor shows you a well-designed Web site. You click and launch online courses. Everyone should like what you’re serving, and happiness will reign.

Go behind the front end into the kitchen, and it’s suddenly tough to make sense of it all. Why doesn’t the system handle Web-based training the same way it deals with traditional classroom courses?

Your training activity names have worked well for years. But now administrators are gnashing their teeth over the lack of funding information on reports. Supervisors are fussing about how to tell the difference between online courses and classroom sessions when they look at the class name. Departments insist they want to keep the numbering sequences they’ve used for years, but no one is using the same sequence.

At this crossroad, you typically say, “Online or off, we’ve got to get a naming convention that works for everyone around here!”

A single learning management system brings many changes. There will be new training delivery methods and a clear need to have a consistent course naming convention across your organization. And, like a new kid working in a restaurant, you’ll have to live with it a bit, test the waters, and learn what works.

Where to start a great naming convention

Where do you start to understand and use the flow of information through this new system? Must you really understand the process that controls all the data flowing through the LMS? No, not really.

Most learning management systems drive a query process that searches a central database. The LMS retrieves information from data-heavy tables behind the scenes.

Knowing this doesn’t do you a lot of good when it comes to naming your training events. Your provider or vendor will tell you to use any name you like. But the challenge is still before you.

Since your objective is to meet your organization's needs at the same time you further its business goals, don’t tread this path alone. Involve as many stakeholders as possible in building a course naming convention. If your LMS will have a number of administrators, these folks should be included.

Tackling course naming with a project team is not an easy process. At times you may feel your group is moving backward. But this is not regression, it’s transformation. As you assemble your team, communicate about the information outcomes a naming convention will deliver, rather than the methodologies you will use to get there.

Keep your audience in mind and simplify the message so that you clearly communicate the change concepts. Building your new naming convention will require more than ideas and opinions. It will require everyone’s hard work.

Use this five step guide:

  1. Collect information that is important to your organization and to your changing situation.
  2. Use the information to build a model naming convention.
  3. Test the model by running your LMS through its paces and collecting feedback.
  4. Revise the model based on the test results.
  5. Put planning strategies in place that makes it easy to consistently follow the new naming convention.

In the end, the naming convention will take on a slightly different meaning than what you originally understood. And you will know your LMS better as a result.

(If you're still not sure how to get started, see Sidebar 1 for some ideas.)


Sidebar 1 Need inspiration? Try this.
  • Review the naming convention used by a local university or technical college that offers both traditional classroom sessions and distance education options. See how well they blend these different delivery methods in their catalog. Do they distinguish these choices in the naming convention or just list the courses on different catalog pages?
  • Ask your LMS provider or vendor project manager (or your sales contact) to connect you with other clients willing to discuss their naming convention. What did the other clients learn about what worked or didn’t?
  • Take some tips from the folks who create and sell pre-packaged e-Learning courses, such as SkillSoft. Ask them how they create categories for their courseware, and how they track activity via naming conventions.
  • Find a user group and get other opinions and experiences. STC, ISPI, ASTD or other professional training organizations may have chapters in your area. If local meetings aren’t possible, the national membership office of each organization should be able to give you access to listservs and you can post questions there.


What you must know before you plan

Change is on the immediate horizon. And many in your organization are still wedded to what works in their neck of the woods. If you have not detailed your goals with the LMS, you will need to do so now. Describe those outcomes so your team can see the bigger picture. Understand exactly what you want your course naming convention to accomplish.

  • What types of distance education will you add to existing instructor-led sessions?
  • What are your performance standards for the LMS?
  • What are the plans for providing information to employees or customers in an efficient manner, and for gaining their participation?
  • What is your knowledge management strategy? Do learners need to meet mandatory training requirements regardless of the delivery type?
  • Will all online training be tracked using SCORM or AICC standards? Are there other types of synchronous learning that will take place?

Collect-ahead information checklist

This checklist gives you the details of what to collect before building your first draft of a naming convention.

  • Find descriptions of current naming conventions.
  • Find logic behind current naming conventions and use of any abbreviations.
  • Identify new forms of learning activities and reasons for distinguishing these from traditional classroom training.
  • List needs to distinguish funding sources, course ownership, course location, fiscal year, etc.
  • Detail the reports necessary for tracking training activities.
  • Identify stakeholders in current and future training activities – these should include departments that create courses, administrators that handle enrollments, and individuals responsible for reporting.
  • Find out LMS limits and parameters such as the number of characters allowed in a course name field and the architecture for courses – event, track, session, etc.
  • If the enrollment and registration process will change, detail the changes.
  • List the identifiers critical to your organization – dates, locations, account numbers, course categories, fiscal or calendar year, instructor names, department ownership, etc.

Build the naming convention model

If you haven’t done so already, you must now involve your project team. If you've used the checklist in the previous section, you have most of the information you will require. But here are a couple of ideas for how to select the pieces that go into the naming string.

By now, you should have established the total number of characters your LMS name field will allow. (See Figure 1.) One option is to give each different kind of course a prefix that allows you to distinguish it for the purposes of ownership or reporting. This prefix should be limited to three or four characters at most because it may not mean anything to a learner viewing the course name in a catalog.


Figure 1 Constructing a course naming string


For example, those first few characters could represent a division, department, or bureau within your organization. Or these characters could represent a fiscal year or funding account number. Remember that this prefix is a critical course identifier that no course name can be without. The prefix should contain distinguishing information that you can use for sorting in reports you compile from the LMS.

Another option is to make sure the first or second prefix of your naming string identifies all the courses that belong on a single catalog page or library, with a series of letters. These letters can represent the topic area of the class or a class category. For example, use LD for Leadership Development or CS for customer Service. This sort of prefix is especially handy if you may need to report course completions by category.

Once you have selected one or two prefixes, do the necessary math. Subtract the number of prefix characters from the total number of name field characters allowed by your LMS. The remainder is what you can use for the true course name, less suffixes.

The true course name, the one all learners should recognize, must be made of short descriptive words. There’s no need to be lengthy or elaborate. The actual course name is crucial because it is where learners are likely to stop reading if you don’t provide them with sufficient reason to say, “Aha! That’s exactly the course I’m looking for.”

If you have space for any suffixes, use it wisely. Maybe your old system used numbers that some of your stakeholders can’t live without, so add these here. If you need to distinguish traditional classroom training from online courses, a suffix could also be a classroom session start date.

This linear approach, putting key prefixes before the true course name, is only one way of building the model. These ideas aren’t necessary for the naming convention to work, of course – they’re just to help you to the starting line.

As final reminders, watch your use of capitalization and avoid use of spaces in your naming string. LMS software may be case sensitive when it employs search features. Spaces are bad medicine when combined with certain software. Some programs may not be able to locate the correct file if you’ve used spaces in the name. Find out what your LMS permits rather than risking failed transactions.

You get what you test

Calling it as you see it may not always work. There are several ways to approach testing your naming convention. But most importantly, do test.

Your organization and culture are unique. When you test, you will learn nasty little secrets about your LMS that no one ever explained to you previously. Most of these revelations will not be show-stoppers – they won't keep your implementation from going forward. But what you learn will help you plan workarounds and reframe disadvantages into pluses.

There are many good reasons to rush to your “go live” date. But do take all possible time to test. Many organizations, after they have gone live with their LMS and naming convention, express regret that they didn’t have time for more testing.

Track and test your course name results continually. Modify key elements and eliminate, as quickly as possible, what’s not working. When the naming convention is right, the testing phase will draw to a close.

If you are lucky enough to have a test environment, such as a mirror image of your production LMS, by all means use this for testing. On a test or sub-learning center site you should be able to create test user accounts. Use these accounts to try all possible transactions on the system and to view new course content.

But if you have no test area for your LMS, you can still identify willing test users. Graduate your rollout and have your testers access and use the LMS be fore the real go-live date. Use feedback from your administrators and testers to further modify your naming convention.

If you create test user accounts, recovery from name string modifications is easier. Because the key is flexibility, no naming convention stays static until it meets your business goals.

Your test is only as accurate as you make it. To find out what’s in a name and how your LMS handles that name, include the following test procedures.

  • Try the entire course enrollment process. Start with the learner selecting a course and registering.
  • Review the course name as it appears on a Web site or in an e-mail message to confirm enrollment status for the learner.
  • Have an administrator test changes to a class loaded on your LMS, and have that person generate a class roster. The administrator should find the course on the system using the course naming convention.
  • If you have the ability to push out courses and to assign mandatory learning events, test this process as well. See how the course assignment name displays.
  • Review how the course name appears in any automated communication concerning class enrollments.
  • Run reports off the LMS using the course naming convention in the report parameters. Check enrollment reports, completion reports, grade books, and reports by user or category.

Don’t be tempted to skip this last step. Everyone seems to struggle with agreeing to a naming convention on the front end. But it’s not just what you put into the system, it’s what you get out as well that counts.

How can you make it easy moving forward?

Try these plan-ahead strategies.

  • Plot several months of traditional courses as well as distance education classes using the new naming convention.
  • Trim or modify existing courses to see how the new naming convention fits.
  • Write out the naming convention, or use a visual to include in style guides or procedural manuals. If it helps administrators, use a table, chart, or graphic to compare the old and new versions of the course names.(See Sidebar 2.)
  • If you lack the time for upfront testing, graduate the rollout of your LMS to include only some employee populations or only some courses. This way you can tweak your naming convention to make it usable in the long haul.
  • For large organizations with multiple administrators, control the point where you add to the course names, or publish them in the LMS catalog.
  • Reward administrators who consistently follow the course naming convention. If you have built a solid foundation with quality training and effective enrollment processes, your course naming convention should be icing on the cake. You have many issues yet to tackle such as getting the word out and the visitors in. Let your course names lead the way so your users can access great content on your LMS.


Sidebar 2 WI Department of Corrections naming convention

Course name = Category prefix + course title + any suffix (e.g. classroom start date if it’s an instructor-led training)

Categories are:
AT = Agent Training
DT = Desktop Technology
HW = Health & Wellness
LD = Leadership Development
OT = Officer Training
PS = Professional Skills

Course name examples:
AT Agent Basic Training – Arrest, Custody & Transport (082307)
OT Weapons – Initial Use (110407)
DT Microsoft Excel 2003 – Proficient User
PS Ledger Auditing (091707)
HW American Red Cross CPR (100807)
PS Career Development: Form a Career Strategy