Choosing an LMS: What to do?

The Quandry of Selecting Learning Management Systems 

After many years as an analyst in this market, learning management systems continue to amaze me.  They are like chameleons – continuously changing and morphing to survive as corporate learning and software markets evolve.  We have seen four big phases over the last 10 years:  first as back-office training administration systems, then as e-learning platforms, then as enterprise-wide corporate learning applications, and now they are re-emerging as talent management platforms.

Ultimately we believe it is impossible to run an efficient, effective training organization without one — and if you have more than 500 employees, you need a training function.  And if you are in the business of training customers, partners, or resellers, you need one even more.

That said, this $580M market (growing at over 20% per year) continues to be confusing, baffling, and difficult.  In addition to the 25+ major vendors in the market, buyers now have to evaluate solid offerings from Oracle, Peoplesoft, SAP, and a variety of traditional talent management software vendors.  Even Webex is working on one.

If you agree that these applications are necessary, how do you go about buying one? 

It’s all about Business Processes 

First, let’s make an important point.  You should not be buying “features” and “checklists.”  Every single LMS has 3-times more functionality than you will ever be able to use.  The key question is whether the software (and the vendor) has the 10-15% which you REALLY NEED.

To understand this, you must develop real “use cases.”  A “use-case” is a specific example of how a given training program will be published, launched, and deployed in your company.  The LMS must be able to handle every step in this process, including delivery of blended learning, tracking each element to your needs, generating easy-to-use reports, and handling various types of content.   Do you want to use competency-based learning programs?  What are the business rules for your certifications?  How will you establish groups and security and how will you manage access to the course catalog across your employees?  Do you need blogs and communities of practice?  The questions go on and on… (and now we can add “performance management” functionality to the list).

We recently assisted a very impressive company in making a decision on how to proceed with an LMS acquisition.  It was a fascinating process as they had very specific training needs that would not be addressed by many of the more well known suppliers.  As a result, we needed to be very specific about the solution we were seeking and methodical about the process to pick the right solution.

Their training automation challenges were quite simple: 95% of their training was conducted on-the-job with help from local managers and mentors.   The problem was that they didn’t have a centralized system for capturing data on exactly who was trained and to what degree.   As a result, managers (in the field and corporate offices) had no visibility into the success of various training efforts.    So they key requirements for the system and the suppliers were:

Simplicity

The system needed to be very easy for employees to use. Many of the in-store employees did not have experience with business applications and would be very confused by anything but the simplest interface.   Similar to employees, various management levels needed access to simple reports that would give them a birds-eye view into training compliance for their stores

Certifications

The training process in a retail store is often more focused on the ability to satisfactorily complete a task rather than take a course.  So the system needed to be able to bundle learning tasks into a group which we called a certification. Completion of learning tasks may require manager approval or in other cases the learner needed to take a simple test to demonstrate their knowledge.

Domain Knowledge

The company wanted to leverage the experience of a supplier that understood their business problem. This was best demonstrated by vendors that had similar customers in the retail sector.

We documented these requirements in considerably more detail, obviously, but stayed focused on these key themes throughout the process.

Process

We went through a process very similar to the 7-step methodology recommended by Bersin & Associates (see article) including documenting our requirements and submitting them to vendors for feedback on their capabilities.  We were selective about the vendors we chose to involve in the RFP (Request for Proposal) process.  The criteria we used were:

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    • Experience with medium sized businesses.   We did not want to be a small fish in big pond by working with a supplier that would not value our business.  We frequently find that mid-market buyers need vendors focused on mid-market problems.  (By the way, this affects large companies too – do you want to be your vendor’s “largest customer?” or do you want to be competing with another “large company” in your industry for support?)

    • Demonstrated experience in retail. We asked for a list of retail clients up front to be sure that we could get customer references that were relevant to our business.  Retailers have particular challenges in ease-of-use, deployment at low bandwidth, and reporting functionality.

    • Existing relationship and culture fit.   We also chose to approach suppliers that had an existing relationship with the company, and had a culture that felt similar and workable to the client company.  This particular company wanted a vendor which was very “solution oriented” and could flex to meet their needs without bringing in a third party.

Some vendors clearly did not meet the requirements or otherwise did not demonstrate a level of enthusiasm for working with us.  This narrowed the list from 7 to 5 vendors.  We then brought the five vendors in for a more detailed look at the products.  During these meetings we were very methodical about seeing only the capabilities that met our requirements.  This process narrowed the list to 3 vendors – all of whom could be a good fit for the project.  They ranged in size from some of the largest technology suppliers in the world to the smallest!  So how could we narrow the choices?

Choosing

We stuck to our requirements and realized that we needed more information on how the vendors could simplify their user interface and how they had solved similar problems for other customers.   The buyers actually mocked up screen designs and asking each vendor to recreate them.  This gives them a sense of how simple the vendor can make the interface and what’s involved in making these changes.   We also asked to speak to their customer references – a key “must-do” for an LMS purchase.  For reference checks, we developed a set of probing questions that would allow us to get through any superficial (and exclusively positive) feedback that may be provided by the references.

This process continued, along with a series of additional demonstrations.  And as the demonstrations took place, our client realized that their requirements were a bit more deep and complex than they had originally realized.   Often you think you understand your “use cases” in advance, but only after seeing how these systems work will you see what options you have to consider.

In this particular case the client chose a well-known vendor and moved ahead quickly into implementation – and today is happily deploying training to their stores throughout their territory.  But is selecting an LMS easy?  No.   As the market continues to grow and vendors get bigger and more stable, it is getting far easier – but as we discuss in much of our research, there are many factors to consider.

 

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