How to choose the best LMS | Learning management system
Working out where you want to get to
The world of learning is changing rapidly and the technologies to support learning in workplaces haven't always kept up. First-generation learning management systems were mostly just places to store, host and track self-paced modules. The focus of these systems has always been tracking and reporting module completion, so they look and feel like databases. They are completely focused on content (i.e. information) - not a trainer or a group or a discussion (or a tweet) in sight.
Self-paced learning is easy for everyone in the organisation to understand. You buy, develop or commission an eLearning "module", upload it to the LMS, enrol participants in the course and track completions. Good-quality self-paced programs still have a valuable place in a learning and development strategy, but if this is the default view of eLearning at your place - it's what eLearning "is" in its entirety - you've got some serious work to do.
For an avalanche of reasons, organisations are now looking to add facilitated and social learning to their repertoire of learning and development programs. To keep up with the technology and reap the business benefits that blended learning offers, you will need an LMS that provides a virtual learning environment for trainers and facilitators, not just a database of modules. They need an interactive online space to support a program, not just a click-and-complete catalogue. These have the look and feel of social websites - interactions with people, graphics and video.
Their key features are:
- self-paced module delivery and tracking face-to-face event management performance management.
- On the other hand, LMSs used in the education sector are about instructors delivering facilitated courses to groups of learners.
The key features of these are:
- course and group management easy access to course materials
- social and collaborative activities e.g. forums and wikis.
- To implement blended learning in a corporate setting you need the functions of both types of LMS.
Moving to blended learning and 70:20:10
Once upon a time “blended learning” meant providing self-paced courses with accompanying face-to-face delivery. You’d suspect that this was often an each-way bet in case the online bit “didn’t work” because “you can’t really learn without a trainer”.
Blended learning has now become a powerful and complex mixture of technologies and delivery modes including full online delivery, mobile learning, social learning and collaborative learning. The popular 70:20:10 learning model is a useful means of focusing on workplace learning and learning from others rather than just on formal or structured programs.
The traditional content-focused learning management system doesn’t support these types of learning, so many organisations are shopping for a new learning management system. Usually the Learning and Development area starts the push for a new learning management system because the current one just doesn’t cut the mustard for their needs. Before starting to look for a new learning management system you need to have some important internal conversations.
Because of the transformation of learning away from being content focused to being performance focused, choosing an learning management system has become a whole new ball game. It’s not just about picking a platform with new capabilities. It’s also about working out new ways of delivering, and then building the new skills and processes required to design and deliver learning. A new learning management system can often be a driver for organisational change.
For an organisation these changes can be hard – it’s like starting from scratch on the whole eLearning thing. Before you can sensibly choose a new learning management system solution, you need to know what you want to do with it. Before you can get down to your IT shopping list of features and requirements, you first need an agreed L&D blueprint for change.
Use your vision of learning and development to drive selection
The most important factor for an organisation in selecting a successful LMS and implementation process is having a clear vision for the future learning programs. This is a high-level statement of where you want to get to, and why. It outlines your business goals for the investment. It describes your main mix of delivery modes. You need it to be as clear as possible before you commence your platform research and before you begin preparing your Request documents (Request for Proposal or Request for Quote) by building “use cases” and detailing your requirements.
In the Request, use a strong opening vision statement as an explicit prompt for the provider to respond to your big agenda and explain how they can get you there. For your L&D people involved, the relationship with the LMS provider will need to be a long-term service partnership. Putting your vision statement up front gives you a chance to gauge what they might be like as an ongoing partner to help you implement your vision.
How to choose the best learning management system - Working out what you'll need
At this stage you will have some form of strategy or blueprint in place, so that you know where you’re heading. You will also have done enough homework to know that there is a new breed of LMS out there – LMSs that are able to integrate with social media and have more user-friendlier interfaces compared to the tools of the past. So which is the right one for you?
The approach we are suggesting is to begin with exploring the different types of eLearning your organisation wants and how they will be used, rather than investigating the different LMSs first.
At the starting point you should ask these questions:
- What do you want to deliver?
- Wha do you need self-paced learning for, and when would you use online facilitated learning? What’s the best fit?
- What is the business case for each mode?
Get everyone on board
It is vitally important to have one or more workshops early in the process that include everyone involved in the LMS selection project. This seems obvious but doesn’t always happen.
At the workshops, your L&D team should take the time to explain the vision. Representatives from management should have input regarding business goals and budget (and politics). IT should explain system compatibility, integration and security issues. And together you should devise an ongoing communications program to sing the praises of the new platform and programs.
"It is vitally important to ... include everyone involved in the learning management system selection process."
We have often seen non-negotiable and critical technical requirements introduced very late in a request-for-quotation process, when minimum requirements should already have been addressed in the very early stages.
Developing a shared language
Agreeing on what you’re talking about in the area of learning technologies is the first big hurdle. It is not easy. These early workshops will help to develop a shared language. It is important to include:
- an overview of the main types of eLearning, with working labels for each
- some practical examples of successful eLearning programs which have delivered performance improvements and business results
- a quick guide to the different types of LMS in the market (self-paced platforms, corporate LMSs, education LMSs, virtual learning environments), their key function sets and typical add-ons
- a quick overview of the capabilities required to support eLearning effectively.
Although it is often challenging, sharing this kind of information early in the process with everyone involved in LMS selection will save a lot of time and prevent misunderstandings from arising.
Plan for the future, not just the present
Wouldn’t it be wonderful to wave a magic wand and immediately have the LMS of your choice there and ready to use?
It doesn’t work like that. Implementing an LMS takes time and it is important not only to focus on what you need now but what you might need in the near future. What are you going to be doing next year? Or in the next three years? What are your priorities? What does your program look like and what kinds of eLearning are you going to provide?
This is often an uncomfortable discussion for an organisation because everyone is expecting to talk mostly about the sexy new features they want from an LMS. Your organisation might be ready to pounce and know exactly what you want to use it for. That’s great – but most organisations are not ready.
To get clarity, Focus on some real, specific projects or courses
One approach we’ve found that works well is to choose the most important three to five learning programs that you want your new LMS to support and use them as your trial products or “exemplars” for the LMS you are looking at.
For the exemplars, try to pick learning challenges which address pressing business needs (your big impact items) and require a range of solutions, such as:
a procedural skill (which suits self-paced delivery)
something requiring cultural change (has to be collaborative and social) a more complex skill area (needs a facilitated online approach).
Develop short descriptions for each (business outcomes, content, scope, target learners) and spell out the preferred delivery solution or mix of solutions for each, such as self-paced, online, mobile, network or webinars.
You could use a simple planning grid like this:
|Program||Goals, rationale||Delivery mix||Strategic fit|
|Why it is a priority, business outcomes, content, scope, target learners||Self-paced, facilitated online, mobile, community of practice, coaching, webinars||How this fits the culture and the organisation’s priorities, supports the L&D vision, and will maximise uptake and impact|
Often the implementation of new learning technologies can be used as a subtle way to introduce reforms and changes to learning approaches in your organisations. You can begin to show people that an LMS has a powerful role in enabling new learning possibilities and isn’t just a mysterious piece of software that lives somewhere in L&D or IT. Planning these exemplars means you are making the new opportunities visible, setting up early wins, and preparing the ground to measure and celebrate success.
This approach also means that staff and the whole organisation gain early ownership of the innovation. The process of exploring the repertoire of learning brings out new possibilities and puts them on the agenda. It gets an organisation thinking about learning in new ways, even before the LMS has been chosen, so the platform is the means and not the end. If the first three programs you come up with are all self-paced eLearning modules, your learning culture might need some serious rethinking.
Once you get your delivery repertoire clearer through the exemplars, the acquisition project can be broken down into the system requirements you need to provide the necessary functions and features to put them into practice. On the other hand, if you begin with the dreaded “shopping list” manifesto of all the desired LMS features, with appendices, the temptation and danger is to write down everything you think you need or want with no thought as to what you can actually use or achieve. Committees are exceptionally good (or bad) at this: there is the fear of missing something out. They are also prone to another technology ailment we call “feature fetish”.
Request documents for LMS purchases are becoming simpler, shorter and less technical. They are more about the delivery solutions that the LMS enables than about guessing the precise system features needed to underpin them. Most LMSs will have some strengths and weakness, some gaps, and will need some workarounds for your organisational context. You can never fully prescribe requirements for such a complex system in one hit. A good provider will present their service as an iterative customisation process over time that systematically shapes the platform to your organisation's needs.
Sort out your blended learning-design, development and delivery capability needs early
One issue that needs to be resolved early is who is going to design and develop the learning materials, or “courseware”. The traditional discussion was about whether to do the content (meaning self-paced modules) in-house, or outsource or buy it. If you were planning internal development capability, the focus should turn to which content development tool is best because the authoring tools built into LMSs are typically very limited.
This was a necessary set of discussions and decisions, and a very big deal when eLearning meant only self-paced learning modules. However, it is a much more complex question if you are also offering facilitated online courses in a virtual learning environment such as Totara. Your online trainers then have a role in developing and maintaining the content (their course site) and managing the communication tools, so they will need training and support in these aspects of community management. The classic front-end “sign-off” approaches to design and development of “modules” won’t work because “content” is also being generated by the facilitator – and the learners – throughout the course. Content may include small modules (or SCORM-compliant content the LMS can manage), but it is more likely to be video clips, PDFs or any other digital resources added to the site at any time.
The move to blended learning often means there is a serious capability- building challenge. As well as building their new platform, organisations also find themselves needing to work on:
- new roles and capabilities for their learning and development team online facilitation and collaboration skills for trainers
- a new or improved system for developing and managing learning content new processes and policies.
This all requires sorting out, clarifying what your organisation can reasonably achieve in the short and medium term.
It's about more than buying a piece of software
The complexities of blended learning mean you are not just comparing a software “product” out of the box – you are comparing the service add-ons that a particular provider can give you over time to grow your capacity.
Such services will include:
Training will involve basic sessions on how to use the LMS, but might also offer support in designing, developing and delivering blended learning, which are complex skills.
Enabling the new LMS to talk to your current systems, for example exchanging data with your HR system.
Adding major system functions and components, such as high-end authoring or learning content management, which may require additional specialised modules or third-party applications as part of the suite the LMS offers.
The clearer you are about your processes, your capability gaps and your strategies to fill them, the better you can choose the provider and LMS solution to fit your needs.
Be prepared for integration: it often ain’t easy
In most LMS selection processes, organisations will begin with a requirement “
that, “The learning management system needs to integrate with current systems (HR/payroll etc.)”
Integrations are never simple, which is why integration work is one of the more profitable parts of an LMS provider’s business. Most HR systems are complex pieces of legacy enterprise software that have been highly customised; just because it’s SAP doesn’t mean it works in the same way as other SAP systems. LMSs are increasingly flexible at connecting to a variety of data formats and systems, but there may be a lot of housekeeping to do on the system before it can do business with the LMS.
Reducing the unknowns and complexity will reduce your costs. A couple of ways to do that are:
- Do an early scoping project with an LMS consultant on what needs to be integrated, and what modifications to current applications may be required.
- Plan for a staged implementation process for your LMS based on the scoping findings.
Don't reinvent the lms
The core functions of most LMSs are the same – so think more about what you’ll need to support your future L&D strategies.
LMSs are now mature platforms. The core functionalities are provided by almost all of them. Specifically listing every functional element, such as “a learner should be able to open a SCORM object and their progress tracked”, is a waste of time. Many of these core functions can be taken for granted. We have seen some learning requirements that are just brief, simple statements such as “all the standard functions of an LMS”. Both over-specifying and under-specifying can make it hard to discriminate and choose.
These strategies can help to keep your specifications relevant:
- Focus the specification around your vision for learning and development.
- Think about what your needs are going to be in the future.
- Think about how you want to work with an LMS vendor. It is going to be a long-term relationship and you need to make sure that your organisation can work with the vendor.
Base your requirements on what the market can offer
In the past, IT departments tended to build their specifications from the ground up – as if they were inventing the LMS – and then it was up to the market to prove they could deliver what was required. In reality, you can only buy what's out there.
Have a look at the market first. Begin w”ith the capabilities offered by one LMS as a working benchmark and it will save you from defining the requirements from scratch. Maybe pick one that is fully featured and do a trial. Don’t talk in abstract requirements – pick one and explore it. We usually use Totara because they have done a good job of clarifying features and the groupings, including core functions required in corporate settings, and they are clear about how content authoring fits into the mix. The advantage of this approach is that you begin to use the market language and not internal language. If the language comes from the business you might have your own unique terminology that doesn't line up with the vendor’s lingo, so your tender documents are confusing and inefficient for everyone involved. Also, it makes sense to choose to explore a benchmark product that is in your price range. It’s easy to identify who is expensive - some vendors will not work with organisations with fewer than 1000 people. Some of the open source LMSs are harder to cost because of the variations in the ways vendors host and implement the platform.
Get some external help
Understanding what the market has to offer is not easy. This is where some external help from a consultant can be useful. When you are looking for a consultant keep an eye out for someone who can help you make the linkages between your learning vision and the technologies needed to support it.
Sort out how you'll be authoring content
Some LMSs enable you to build courses inside of them. In most cases we suggest that you avoid this type of built-in authoring tool, because:
- they typically lack engaging interactive activities and are often really only content management systems and not interactive authoring systems
- most of the time you cannot export the courses created inside an LMS, so it is harder to move to another LMS in the long term
- one authoring system might not be suitable for all courses; separating your authoring from the LMS means you can choose the right authoring tool for a project.
Think of your lms as a suite of products
Almost every LMS solution is a suite of products, not just an LMS, which can be confusing, especially if you have a non-specialist representative group involved in the process (which you should). What you are really asking is: who has an LMS solution which provides virtual-learning-environment capability, integrates well with the self-paced core, and includes the other functions we require (e.g. learning content management, course management, virtual classroom)? We find that it is useful to develop an overview diagram of how you think the functions fit together and see if this aligns with the LMS process diagrams. This also gives a concrete focus for the “talking to the existing system” discussions.
Many HR systems have some LMS functionality. But mostly these are just SCORM players that lack any support for integrated blended learning.
Talk with vendors and look at different lmss
Before you begin the formal Request stage, ask some venders to do a demo. Get the group of people who will be choosing the LMS into the room and watch the presentation. This will enable you to get a feel for the product and the “personality” of the vender. The group is able to share their unknowns and scope out what they don’t know, and pick up some of the industry language. Afterwards you can chat about what does and what does not appeal. This is a critical step – if you see vendors only after the Request you are asking for trouble. We find that these demos spark extremely useful conversations about an actual LMS that are far more constructive than the otherwise abstract discussions that usually take place.
It's all about implementation
The whole process should be planned and include what happens before and after the LMS has been installed. An LMS is just the technology to help you achieve your vision. For example, if you are planning a performance management approach, you will need to establish a competency framework (roles and skills) before you can set up the LMS to support it. In some instances the LMS software has a greater capability than the human systems feeding it. For this reason, finding a vendor to support your organisation through the whole process is a must. Don’t wait for the LMS to be installed before you start planning how to use it – these two processes should be concurrent and inform one another.
No LMS is going be perfect. Choosing a new LMS is more than just choosing a piece a software. It can be an opportunity to rethink how learning happens in your organisation.