Selecting an LMS
While sitting in an ASTD local chapter meeting this past week, a very common question was asked of the panel, how do you select a learning management system (LMS)? This is a relatively complex question. Vendors of learning management systems began to merge in the late 90s and it seemed like the selection was going to be easier. Now it seems like there has been another explosion of companies offering smaller solutions, many of which can be used for a monthly fee. Large organizations, larger then 25,000 employees, face challenges that smaller and mid-size organizations do not face. However the functionality of the systems are essentially the same.
The categories of functionality that you need to evaluate include:
- Course management: how do you manage courses and catalogs?
- Session management: how do you manage live training events?
- User administration: how do you manage users in the system?
- Registration management: how do users get registered for courses or sessions?
- System navigation: how do users locate courses or sessions?
- Data tracking and reporting: how are user activities tracked and reporting?
- System integration: how do you integrate the LMS with other systems?
- Collaboration: how do users collaborate with one another around the learning content and events?
- Security: how is data secured, especially in a regulated industry?
There may be other categories, but these are the core categories of a learning management system.
Phase I: Select 5-7 vendors to evaluate
You are going to want to evaluate at least 5 systems. Consider evaluating a few of the big players such as Saba, SumTotal and Plateau. If you have an ERP system such as PeopleSoft or SAP, you should evaluate the learning management systems that come with those systems. However, do not jump to the ERP vendor’s solution based on their claim of “easy plug-n-play integration.” Don’t drink that kool-aid. Remember how difficult it was to implement your ERP system? It’s not going to be any easy to add a module to that system. Also consider reviewing one or two SAAS (Software as a Solution) vendors. SAAS refers to vendors that host their application at their company and you rent space. You can get these systems up and running faster then other solutions.
Phase II: Build Use Cases
This term may be new to some. Use cases are common to an IT business analyst. A use case is essentially a high level scenario. These are based on desired business work flow processes. Some vendors will suggest that their system represents, industry best practices and as a result you should adopt new business processes to support the system. I wouldn’t be too quick to drink this kool-aid either. In some cases it might be true. However, you are going to own the system. You have to manage it, unless you are planning to outsource the management. However, a complex work flow will cost you more either way, if there are too many steps to complete simple tasks. An example of use case would be:
Create a New Course in the System
- Create a new course
- Define the attributes of the course
- Associate the course with content
- Associate the course with users based on their profile
As you can see, a use case does not tell the vendor what buttons to push or what screen to navigate to. That will vary from one system to another. These are very high level process steps. Once you have your use cases written, take the time as a team to prioritize them. If all of the use cases are absolute “must haves”, simply order them by importance.
Phase III: Putting the System to the Test
This is the part the LMS vendor will hate. You are going to invite the vendor for a full day evaluation of their system. You are NOT going to send them the use cases ahead a time. This is very important. Just tell them that they should have a fully functioning demo version. Don’t worry that they might not be prepared. That’s the idea. You are going to learn, through experiential learning, how difficult it is to run your use cases with an out of the box system. Every time you hear the phrase, “we will have to customize the system to do that”, add a month to the project time line, which of course adds to the cost.
Selecting a learning management system is daunting for anyone. You don’t want to take the process lightly and you want to make decisions based on the right information. Taking the system on a real life test driving with “use cases” is the best way to experience the system and discover for yourself if the system is going to work in the end and how painful and costly the process is going to be to get there. I recently heard a CLO from a very large organization, explain how painful it was to install their LMS, however when it was over it was worth it. You are going to have to weight out the pros and cons of all aspects of your LMS project. For this particular CLO, accurate reporting of training costs was a very critical success factor for the project. As a result, they wanted a system that would integrate well with their enterprise systems. For other mid-size to smaller organization, you may have other priorities and not be willing or able to endure a long term painful project