Your Ultimate Guide to Understanding a Course Management System

If you’ve never heard of a course management system or course management software, you might have guessed that it’s some kind of software system for managing training courses. And, you’re right!

However, dozens of software similarly fit this description. These include the Content Management System, Learning Management System, and Talent Management System. Which does what? And for whom? It’s getting harder and harder to decipher exactly what you’re looking at and what will best fit your training needs. So, here are some elements to help you decode the specificity and characteristics of course management software in our ultimate guide below.

Our detailed guide includes:

What is a Course Management System?

Definition: A course management system (CMS) is an enterprise software system dedicated to automating and optimizing Instructor-Led Training (ILT) and virtual Instructor-Led Training (vILT) management. Essentially, its core purpose is to help administrators at training organizations. The course management system is also known as training course administration software. Below we’ll break it down further.

What is course management?

Course management is the process of streamlining and optimizing all of your back-office processes for your ILT/vILT training courses. This includes automating your logistics and resource management, scheduling, administration, financials, reporting, and more. This can also include sales for commercial training companies. Course management software is specifically designed for training organizations, whether corporate training departments, for-profit training companies, or associations. The system is an all-in-one software that unifies many key training management processes into one single system. These processes would otherwise be handled through multiple tools, such as a mix of spreadsheets, calendars, course booking systems, or a CRM.

Let’s also clarify the naming convention. You may hear the training course management system called many different names: course management software, training course administration system, and training management system. These are all referring to the same type of system.

What is the purpose of a Course Management System?

Recall that, a course management system is a specialized software that streamlines administrative tasks for running instructor-led training courses. The purpose of the CMS is to automate the key functions involved in back-office tasks related to the scheduling of courses, and the assignment of instructors, as well as managing the registration, invoicing, and reporting involved with the entire training operation.

Whether used at a training company or as a part of internal L&D, the training team uses a course management system as it serves as the command center for directing and processing the learning operations of one or several training programs.

Key training course management software features

The main features to look for in training course management software are those focused on course scheduling, resource management, operations and logistics, financial planning, performance, reporting, and sales cycle management. For example, below are some of the common features that can help you effectively and efficiently manage your ILT / vILT training activity.

  • Logistics & resource management – How do I organize sessions and assign resources most cost-effectively?
  • Course scheduling – How do I create and quickly modify the optimal training schedule to fit everyone’s agenda?
  • Registration administration – How do I keep track of registration confirmations, reminder emails, and important data for thousands of trainees, avoiding mistakes or delays?
  • Instructor-Led Training Financials – How do I track costs, forecast budgets, and monitor profitability details for each session?
  • Reporting & business intelligence – How do I extract meaningful information to assess the success of my training activity and make the right decisions in real-time?
  • Sales (for commercial Training Companies & Extended Enterprises) – How do I streamline the whole order-to-invoice process to serve my clients in a timely and reliable manner?

For a more in-depth look at the key features of course management software, explore our series of articles highlighting the Top Training Management System Features you’ll need to ease the complexity and optimize core training administration processes.

While some systems might also include front-end portals, course management software is at heart, back-office software.

What’s the difference between a TMS and a LMS?

Course Management System (CMS) vs Learning Management System (LMS) & Talent Management System (TMS)?

Within the learning technologies ecosystem, training course management software has to be differentiated from two related software:


The learning management system is designed to help you manage and deliver eLearning courses. This is centered on the front-end interaction with the learners. You can see how it differs from the course management system, which helps organizations streamline and optimize the back-office training activities for instructor-led training (ILT) and virtual instructor-led training (vILT).


A talent management system is a more general tool to help you strategically manage talent in an HR capacity related to candidates in the recruiting, screening, and onboarding stages. There can be some training elements involved here but regardless of the software used shouldn’t be the primary training software.

To summarize, if we want to manage back-office administrative processes for instructor-led training, that is, managing course materials and updating instructor schedules, we’ll want to rely on using a course management system since it will allow us to deliver training to the user in the easiest way possible.

This isn’t to say talent management and learning management systems have no place in your training delivery environment. They certainly provide a role in giving your back-office administration better visibility on certain areas of employee development but should only play a supplemental role in delivering courses with your CMS.

eBook: Top 20 Training Management System Features: The Complete Checklist

A comprehensive list of all training management features that every training organization needs to effectively manage ILT and vILT.

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Who uses a CMS?

Course management software is used by a variety of training organizations that can be within or separate from a business. Training will usually fall under the responsibility of a learning and development department (L&D), a training company, or an extended enterprise. How do these three differ?

Learning & Development (L&D)

Learning & Development (L&D) departments usually serve as the internal training division of a company and are normally an extension of the human resources department. Instructors in these departments are responsible for ensuring employees at all levels in the corporation are current with the responsibilities of their roles in the organization.

Training Company

A Training Company is a third-party entity that specializes in taking over the training responsibilities of an L&D department. Training companies can be responsible for managing general training courses for their client’s employees, such as onboarding or skills review, or could be specialized towards a specific industry that has particular regulation and compliance requirements (i.e. FAA requirements for airline employees).

Extended Enterprise

An Extended Enterprise is responsible for training external partners that are a part of the business’s larger network. Usually, these partners are smaller entities that will utilize the main business’ product or service for their own. (i.e. freight forwarders learning how to use  the software for a parent logistics network)

Regardless of who is executing the training program for your organization, it’s certain that with lots of moving parts in your company, they’ll need to utilize course management software that caters to the complexity of managing learning resources, schedules, and instructor availability to ensure it is a success.

What is the best CMS?

The short answer is: that it depends on your needs. The best course management system is one that fits your organization’s needs and goals and can integrate with the other learning technologies you’re using. With so many systems available in the corporate learning ecosystem today, you’ll want to be sure to do your research and find one that has implemented industry best practices and is dedicated to the success of your organization.

So what’s next…?

So we’ve seen what course management software does. But the more important question is: is it really that necessary?

The basic answer is: that instructor-led training is the most widespread type of training today. According to Brandon Hall Group, 66% of companies use the classroom to a very high extent. Far more than any other method. The number reaches 76% for high-performing companies. ILT is irreplaceable for many domains. These include technical and leadership training, where the social and hands-on aspects of learning are invaluable. Despite these known benefits, it suffers from a bad reputation in terms of cost-effectiveness. This is because the back-office processes that it entails are often not optimally managed.

This is where the Training Management System comes in. Streamlining all these back-office processes is the core system that enables organizations to deliver efficient instructor-led training. It also optimizes the overall training activity.

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