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Blog Post

Picking the Right LMS: Part 1

Published: Friday, November 20, 2020

Are you happy with your Learning Management System (LMS)? If you are like many talent development (TD) professionals, your passion for your LMS is lukewarm at best. When talking with instructional designers, trainers, and other TD pros, I often hear statements like this:

  • “Our LMS is okay but it is a bit outdated.”
  • “Our LMS is good but it could be better.”
  • “Our LMS is great for learners but a nightmare for admins.”
  • “Our LMS is great for facilitators but our learners hate it.”

So, why do so many organizations continue using an LMS that does not really fit their needs? There are a number of reasons why organizations remain in unhappy relationships with their LMS:

  • They are stuck in a contract
  • They fear the time, cost, and effort needed to implement a new system
  • Concerns about transferring learner records
  • Concerns about data loss
  • Concerns about learner adoption
  • The fear that it could be worse than their current LMS

Change is seldom easy, but it is often necessary for continued growth. Making the decision to change Learning Management Systems is never easy but if your organization’s needs have outgrown your LMS provider’s capabilities, it might be time for a change. Additionally, if you are working in an organization that does not currently have a Learning Management System in place, I highly recommend starting your search today.
Selecting the perfect LMS for your organization can be a daunting challenge. There are seemingly endless choices available and it can be very hard to differentiate the nuances between each vendor’s software. Additionally, it takes a ton of time to research vendors, meet with sales reps, and demo multiple software applications. It is not a simple or easy process, but it is a necessary process to ensure you make the best decision for your organization.

Seek Answers Within

Before you start Googling LMS vendors, downloading buying guides or meeting with sales reps, start with some important pre-work within your organization. Conduct a thorough needs analysis to better understand the needs of your learners, admins, and stakeholders. You can do this through surveys, focus groups or a variety of other methods. Understanding how your learners will use the LMS and what their current pain points are will streamline your search drastically.

Next, you will want to uncover constraints. Determining your budget, technical limitations, implementation timelines and other critical information will help with your search. Additionally, identifying key decision makers and approvers will help ensure you don’t waste energy moving the project in the wrong direction. I also encourage TD professionals to think about including a focus group of learners and leaders from across the organization in the evaluation process. This will help uncover potential challenges and increase buy in during implementation.

Prioritize

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As you collect information, it is helpful to organize and prioritize the data. This will streamline the decision-making process. One helpful method for prioritizing all of the inputs you have received is by categorizing them into four groups:

  • Must Haves: the critical features that all Learning Management Systems must include to be considered a viable option.
  • Nice to Haves: these are elements that will factor into the decision-making process but are not requirements for selection; this helps with comparative analysis.
  • Deal Breakers: even if a vendor has all of your “Must Have” features, it does not mean they are the best choice. If the price is too high or they can not meet your deadlines, they are not a fit. Generally, “Deal Breakers” do not surface within the first few vendor interactions but will be uncovered through final negotiations.
  • Bonus Features: these are items that you may not have considered in your original need’s analysis but surface during the course of your vendor exploration. These are features that add meaningful and unexpected value.

By grouping information in this way, you will be starting your search with a narrower focus, which eliminates wasted time. This list will also help as you begin comparing and contrasting different vendors.
Recommendations and Referrals

Once you have gathered a trove of data from your organization and prioritized your “must haves,” you might be tempted to jump right into a frenzy of searches and free trial sign ups. I recommend slowing down and considering your network first. Specifically, taking time to reach out to TD professionals in your local ATD Chapter or through LinkedIn. This is an important step to take because you will be able to start with a list of top choices based on real world feedback. Your connection might even refer you to their account manager and bypass some of the tedious sales and client discovery steps. Additionally, you might also uncover LMS vendors to avoid. This will save you time and ensure you are focusing your efforts in the right direction.

Pausing to solicit recommendations may seem like a slowdown but it can save you from tremendous heartache. It is very easy to sit through a well-produced product demo and suddenly fall in love with a new Learning Management System. However, all too often you find out 2-3 months after the contract is signed that the timely support you were promised does not exist and the reporting is not nearly as robust as you were led to believe. Now you are out of love with your LMS again with 3 years left in your contract. Recommendations from your network can shine light on the good, bad, and the ugly before you commit. 

Learner Experience

When researching Learning Management Systems, it is important to place the learner experience at the forefront of your analysis. It is equally important to consider the different types of learners that will be utilizing the LMS (entry-level employees, managers, senior leaders, etc.). A good Learning Management System should appeal to all employees at all levels within your organization.

In our modern era, learners expect modern design and a simplified user interface to be present in any software application. Many world class developers focus on the “3 Click Rule” when designing software experiences. This means you should be able to get to anything you need with only three mouse clicks (or finger taps). This is worth considering when evaluating potential LMS solutions. During a product demonstration, carefully observe how many clicks of the mouse it takes to move from the learner’s home page to their required learning. How many steps are involved in registering for a course? Additionally, is it simple and straightforward to determine which courses need to be completed and by when? If you are confused during a demo, image how confused a new employee will be when they enter your organization!

Simply stated, the more aesthetically pleasing and simple the LMS is, the more likely it is to get used. A great LMS might have built in authoring tools, powerful reporting widgets, and industry leading gamification elements, but none of that matters if your learners find the LMS to be ugly, clunky, and confusing. Extra clicks and murky menus waste time and increase frustration, both of which increase learner resistance. To avoid this, look for an LMS that can be quickly accessed within the flow of work with minimal complexity. This will increase the perceived value of the LMS and subsequently the Talent Development Team.

Once you’re narrowed down your list of top LMS solutions, it is time to think about the other users for the LMS: your administrators, trainers and instructional designers. In part two on this topic where we will dive deeper into helpful criteria for selecting the Learning Management System that is just right for your organization. 

About the Author

I solve people and performance challenges! I'm a Certified Professional in Talent Development with 10+ years of facilitation experience and 9+ years of instructional design experience. I thrive on analyzing organizational challenges, designing solutions, developing curriculum, and coaching. I help people and organizations improve performance through systematic performance improvement processes and collaborative initiatives. 

Specialties: Training Delivery, Instructional Design, Performance Improvement, Knowledge Management, Coaching, Learning Technologies, and Knowledge Management.

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