Learning Management Systems

How to buy an LMS: First steps

My tried and tested tips

here are tons and tons of LMS-providers on the market. How can you make sure to select the right one for your organisation? I’ve been approached several times to help contacts source an LMS and want to share my tips and lessons learned with a wider audience. This will be a three-part article where I’ll help you through the corresponding stages in buying an LMS:

  1. Defining and understanding your needs
  2. Compiling requirements
  3. Comparing and selecting vendors

While the tips in these articles are useful for anyone buying an LMS, I’m keeping a corporate perspective for an organisation with a few thousand learners or fewer. The process I describe here is one way of doing it, there are plenty of more both easier and more official ones (e.g. a full-blown RFx-process) which you may be required to do based on your organisation’s demands.

Is it an LMS you’re getting?

First off we’ll make sure you know where it is you want to end in this jungle of systems. This will be followed by gathering the needs you and your organisation have on the LMS.

What are you really looking for?

Besides LMSs there is a plethora of various tools available for managing learning, and I’ll cover some of the types you might encounter below. Keep in mind that many tools will mix elements of several of these types; you’ll have to consider if you’d rather go for a best-of-breed approach or rather all-encompassing suite for your needs. I’ve tried to order these categories by how specialised they are ranging from least to most.

LMS (Learning Management System)

The main jobs of an LMS is to make trainings available to learners, track who has done what and manage learners & resources. Content will typically be interactive e-learning or videos but could also be offline activities such as classroom trainings. You’ll want an LMS because your organisation’s needs have outgrown what you can handle with a wiki/intra-page and/or spreadsheet.

LMSs will often be geared toward a specific market segment, such as

  • Corporate LMS: Will usually be able to integrate with HR-systems, focus on self-paced learning or classroom trainings and be able to maintain compliance/certification-tracking.
  • Educational LMS: Here you’ll find more functionality towards following a schedule, interacting with other learners/teachers and being able to handle grades.
  • Industry/role-specific LMS: For example an LMS for hairdressers could have more functionality built around 3D-modelling and simulations. An LMS for salespeople would include integrations to the company CRM to be able to track the training needs & effectiveness.
  • Country/regional LMS: Made to be able to cater to local needs, such as reporting of certain data or compliance with local regulations.

LXP (Learning eXperience Platform)

An LXP focuses on content and personalising what is presented to the learner. Instead of the learner searching for learning or having a fixed path to follow, he/she should be guided to content based on algorithms and curation. There will likely be functions for interacting not only with the content but also with the system itself and other learners. Learner needs and skills are the cornerstone here, less so the administration of learning from a company perspective.

LCMS (Learning Content Management System)

The LCMS audience is the professionals creating trainings. This system can often be used together with an LMS. It is meant for authoring trainings, with professionals and/or subject-matter experts in the organisation as its target group. Typical features include authoring tools, workflow management and publishing capabilities.

Off-the-shelf provider

This is basically a library of ready-made trainings that is instantly available to your organisation. The purpose is to save your organisation from having to develop trainings on general topics such as leadership development, workplace safety, sales techniques, etc. These trainings will either be delivered as a stand-alone LMS-like portal or be integrated with your LMS.

Virtual classroom

Instead of just connecting via the normal video-conferencing tools, a virtual classroom enable learners to share a learning session together. These systems include functionality such as interactivity, multiple presentation options, Q&A and easy, controlled presenter switching.

LRS (Learning Record Store)

This is a system that can be used when you are working with xAPI. Its function is to collect reports about learners using xAPI and then deliver this to other systems (such as LMSs). A connection would be needed to a TDS (Training Delivery System). You’ll find that this is already possible within many LMSs so unless there is a specific need you can usually disregard this category.

Training creation systems

These authoring tools are used to create e-learnings and can range from professional tools for interactive e-learning to creating videos from slideshows to simulation builders. They are used by the creative team to create the training that is later published to the LMS.

SIS (Student Information System)

Whereas the corporate world will use HR-systems to keep track of and collect reporting on its employees, the educational sector uses SISs for similar purposes. A SIS will collect data around enrolments, student meta-info and essentially work as a CRM internally.

To summarise what tool you are looking for

Unless you have a specific need or narrow use-case then it is likely an LMS that you are looking for. A good LMS will allow for you to expand later on. Bigger organisations may have several LMSs in use, depending on the target audience — something that may be a product of legacy rather than rationale.

Defining and understanding your needs

There are plenty of needs you’ll need to consider for your upcoming system. Your job as the one buying an LMS is to collect the needs, understand which ones are a requirement and which ones are more of a want.

I’d recommend a process that goes something like below to collect the needs you have.

1. Why are you getting an LMS

If not done already, identify from where the underlying need for an LMS comes. Is it because your organisation has outgrown its current tools? Is it because the previous one is no longer working? Is it because you need a complementary tool to the ones already being used?
Once identified, make this into an understandable narrative that stakeholders can understand when you speak to them. In my experience, just saying that you’re getting an LMS won’t get you far with people not experienced with it. Thus, you need to be able to explain what an LMS is, why you are getting the LMS, potential benefits of it but also what changes it may bring. Only after this is done do I recommend you to continue to the next steps.

2. What say others?

Interview stakeholders and get their wishes, needs and expectations on an LMS. Stakeholders would be for example leadership, managers using the system, training creators, HR-department, IT-department, legal, end-users and so on. Basically anyone (but not everyone!) who will use or have use of the LMS.
I’ve found that interviewing stakeholders 1–1 works best, as then we can have more of a dialogue where I can explain my vision and get their input. I’ve done focus groups and meetings as well but have had less success with those as people’s perception and experience of what an LMS is can be so very diverse. Of course, you can also use or complement with quantitative methods.

3. What do _you_ want?

List your own wishes and requirements of a great LMS. I’m purposefully writing great LMS here as you shouldn’t be aiming for what will work well but for what would be incredible. What is possible is something you can restrict yourself to in the last step. Use your own experience as a user or admin of LMSs while also checking with your network to learn from them what worked well. I also like to spend some time looking at what some modern LMSs are capable of to get some inspiration.

4. How should it work?

Create user stories for how interacting with the LMS will work. A user story is a simple tool that will help you when you make the final selection of an LMS. It is as easy as establishing how you envision the flow goes for various types of users with the system. For example, a user story might be: “As a learner, I want to be able to see a points leaderboard for my own department” or “As a training creator, I can see the course I just created from the learner’s point of view”. Create a handful of the most important user stories based on the biggest requirements you have on an LMS, making sure that you add user stories based on many types of roles: Learners, Trainers, Admins, Managers, etc. Try to explain the user stories in detail and not to make them to short (a too short story may fall short later on when you want to test it): For example, the end user story might be to log in, search for a course and take the first part of it.

5. What will hinder you?

List your organisation’s limitations that will impact what is possible. While you hopefully have a vision of how an LMS could work in your organisation, there are plenty of resource limitations that will curb your vision. Some examples of limitations are these:

  • External budget: How much money can be spent on the LMS? How much is justified based on the projected ROI? How much can be spent on the implementation versus a yearly cost?
  • Internal budget: How much time can you and other departments spend on making the LMS work? Are looking for a solution allowing you to do more work yourself or do you prefer one where the LMS-provider will be required for any changes you wish to make?
  • Internal competence: Do you or someone in your organisation have the skills needed to administer an LMS? This affects how easy the system should be to use from an admin point of view. It could also affect the implementation phase: do you have the technical know-how in the organisation to set up the integrations or will you be needing help with this?
  • Integrations: What are must-haves in terms of integrations with other systems? Likely you’ll want an integration to your HR-system which then limits the LMSs to those that integrate with yours. Do you want to use single sign-on? If so, you’ll need to make sure the LMS supports your system there as well.
  • Privacy & security: Your IT and legal departments may have demands in terms of where the data is hosted, if it is compliant with privacy regulations in applicable regions, who can access what and so on. If your data needs to be hosted in a specific region for example, then there may be several LMSs that you can exclude straight away.

6. What do you really need?

List whether each requirement is Required or just an Advantage. Required meaning that LMSs not meeting this requirement likely can’t be used. It can be difficult to know what should be Required and what should be Advantage. For example, you might think that a mobile version is an absolute requirement when in fact your learners will be accessing the LMS using desktop computers only. So evaluate what is really needed for your organisation.

7. Compile the big list!

Once you’ve done all these steps you should be able to outline a requirements list that you can use to compare LMS-vendors. This is essentially a checklist to make sure you’re getting all that you need. An item on the list might be for example “Possible to add company logo anywhere in user interface”. My recommendation here is to keep the list simple (which doesn’t have to mean that it is short). Simple means that you don’t rate on a big scale if the requirement is met or not, but rather have it as simple as:

  • Yes: The requirement is kept and is included in the proposed price
  • Partly: The requirement is met to some extent (in case of the logo example, this could be that the logo could be added to the login-page but not anywhere else) or is being developed
  • T&M: The requirement is possible but will incur an extra cost based on time & material or a fixed fee
  • No: The requirement can’t be met

Now that the groundwork is done I’ll share with you my own bumper list of requirements, that you can use as a starting point for your own search. I’m listing those requirements in part 2 or 3 here: How to buy an LMS: The big, big list of LMS requirements

Images from https://ls.graphics/illustrations, thank you!

Loving leading learning. Find me on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/gustavgnosspelius/

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