How to Choose an LMS

How to Choose an LMS

Had a great conversation with a fellow Learning and Development consultant about Learning Management Systems. It’s so refreshing to look beyond the cubicle and hear the successes and challenges of others in the field. We’re not so different no matter where we are in the world.

Petra, you inspired me to pen a post on Learning Management Systems. No, not exciting, but the wrong choice can make the gap between technology and what we just want to get done so painful to bridge.

So a few thoughts on the subject based on my experience with a range of clients: Fenergo, Hibernia College, and ThinkRite, the most recent. As well as 20 years of experience with eLearning and software implementation projects.

So the basic question is: “How do you choose an LMS?”

I began to write , but realised I was getting a bit wordy. So I decided it needs to be more than one post. I’ll split it into two.

In this, I’ll focus on two areas:

  • Due Diligence
  • Requirements Gathering

Due Diligence

As I told Petra, I have about 120 bookmarks to LMS vendors. In the past year, I’d guess 30%-50% of those have gone bust. It’s been a hot, hot market for a few years and the boil hasn’t gone off yet.

You don’t want to invest in a solution only to have it disappear in a year or two. How disruptive to your business would that be? Imagine having to recreate/reupload all the content and learning pathways. Painful. Costly.

Check out the financial stability of the LMS provider. Many of the recent startups are running off investor money. That’ll dry up. So find out how many fee-paying clients they have and try to get some idea of their burn rate. Will they be around in 12 months? 2 years?

You might have to get creative here. Don’t rely on the vendor for this. Go to LinkedIn, #eLearningIndustry or your own favoured sources and ask the group questions. Treat the answers like a Wikipedia entry – not the final word, but a good place to start your research.

Having said that, maybe your company is willing to take a few risks for long-term gain. If you’re one of the few clients at their top tier of service, you can probably influence their roadmap. In other words, you can use your strength to get exactly what you want from the vendor. Most of my clients wouldn’t choose that path, but it would well for some.

I put this section first, not because it is the first step in the process, but because it is so important. Your first step is to gather requirements.

Gather Requirements

There are a range of methods to gather requirements for a software selection project. You might use User Stories, Persona Stories, Use Cases, or some other approach I’m not familiar with. Use whatever approach you’re familiar with and works for your organisation. I won’t go down these rabbit holes. Rather, I’ll mention the general approaches you might take and what to look out for.

Integration

Get your IT department involved right from the start and keep them involved. You want to make sure that the solution you select integrates seamlessly into your infrastructure. For example, one client had selected an LMS without checking integration. Every time a staff member joined or left, L&D had to update the LMS manually. If someone got a promotion, they had to update the system manually so the new manager could assign training to their direct reports – and be assigned management-level training. How much change does your organisation have? Think about the administrative pain that would cause.

Integration also relates to sign-in. Do you want your learner to sign into their machine and then sign in again to access their training? You want to remove barriers, not add them.

Integration also relates to HRIS as well as a range of other systems such as your internal social media platform, your collaboration software, or the support/helpdesk software. Many HRISs now incorporate LMSs. On a basic level, that means things like career progression and succession planning are integrated.

Management Requirements

As you start the process to select an LMS, start with a few brainstorming sessions. Begin with the HR and the managers who’ll use the system most. If that’s a lot of people, separate the sessions.

They’ll probably be concerned about reporting and analytics. They’ll want a dashboard view for a summary, but they’ll also want to drill down to the learner level and to the course or module level.

What about learning pathways and certification? For some, an internal certification programme is a powerful incentive. Will the system support what you need? What about badges or other external displays of certification?

Some of their staff – such as salespeople – may be travelling most of the time. Does the system support learning on their smartphones or will the salespeople feel like second-class citizens?

Many up and coming LMSs use a flat Excel file or table for reporting. Or they come with canned reports you can’t change. That data is essentially unusable and few managers have the inclination to work with Excel pivot tables to gain the insights they need.

Make sure your managers and HR have the tools they need to support the needs of all employees.

L&D Requirements

I’d run a brainstorming session with L&D next. What are their requirements? Most every LMS supports SCORM and uploading of video and PowerPoint. But what about PowerPoint with audio? What about indexed video? What about podcasts a learner can listen to on the way in to work? Is L&D considering the use of microLearning? It’s a great solution for the salespeople who are road warriors. Ask about the current and future state of learning – there is a lot of change afoot and you want to be ready for it.

Many LMS providers focus on creating a slick and appealing front end. That’s where the C-Suite decision makers look, so it makes sense. More times than not, though, the administrative interface is not nearly as impressive.

Ask L&D what they need to administer the system. For example, how do they port existing content into the LMS? Many LMSs I’ve seen embrace a manual process. By manual, I mean someone in L&D has to upload every single course separately; has to create course titles, descriptions, and codes using multiple screens; and even enrol learners individually on each course.

Be clear on what the L&D team require and pay close attention to process they will have to follow in the administrative back-end.

End User Requirements

In a perfect world, you’ll also run a brainstorming session with end users, the learners. You shouldn’t skip this step, but most companies do. You’ll want to find out what is wrong with the current system, if you have one, and what is good about it.

Do you have different groups of learners – staff, clients, partners – each with their own requirements? Will the LMS support these different groups? Can you ensure your clients can’t access internal-only training or see staff on the system? Does you need an LMS that supports white-branding?

How do your end-users learn? Ask them how they go about solving the problems they face on a daily basis. For example, your developers probably rely heavily on stackoverflow. It lets them find the best answers to specific questions or to ask questions of experts in the field and get an almost immediate response. Should your system support just-in-time learning like that, or would it just be duplicated effort?

Is there a lot of deskside learning that gets lost because it’s just a quick chat? Do you need a tool to capture that knowledge and share it widely? What about community-created content? If you use Skype or similar tools, perhaps you want an end-user to record a info-dump session and post it for others – saves the expert repeating themselves when someone else has the same question.

Do your learners prefer videos and podcasts like many articles tell use millennials prefer? Do you run classroom training session you need to track? What about external training providers? Do you use them? Will the LMS track those courses for learners?

Summary

As you run the brainstorming sessions, come out of them with a clear set of requirements and ensure those requirements are graded in some way. Some of them will be deal breakers while others are just nice to haves. It is never a simple process, but clearly defined and graded requirements will make the job significantly easier.

Again, the IT department can help you understand the software selection process they use. Add to that some facilitation tools – approaches that help a large group make decisions but avoid group-think – and the requirements gathering process will be easier – not easy, it’s never easy – and more fruitful.

A second post in the series will appear shortly.

Michael McGovern