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Picking the Right LMS: Part 2

Published: Friday, November 20, 2020

Selecting a Learning Management System (LMS) that meets the needs of your organization can be daunting! Balancing the needs of the various users of the LMS requires careful consideration and planning. Specifically, selecting a Learning Management System that your learners will love is important for overall adoption and ongoing utilization. We explored learner needs in “Picking the Right LMS: Part 1,” if you have not already read that post, I recommend starting there before reading on. 

Once you have collected, organized, and assessed the feedback from your LMS Users (Step 1: Prioritize) it is time embark on your quest for the perfect Learning Management System! Remember to seek guidance along the way (Step 2: Recommendations and Referrals). Finally, stay focused on the destination (Step 3: Learner Experience). As with all great quests, there will be challenges and pitfalls to confront. The points below can help you avoid unnecessary setbacks and keep you moving in the right direction on your quest for the perfect LMS. 

Content Management

You have likely heard the popular maxim “content is king!” This is certainly true when exploring Learning Managements Systems. If an LMS is incompatible with the content you want to provide to your users, it is a “non-starter.” For example, if your organization has a library of 75 SCORM files pre-built that need to be uploaded to the new LMS provider but then vendor you are talking to does not allow external SCORM files, keep looking. There is also a growing trend by LMS providers to offer built in course authoring software with their LMS solution. On the surface, this sounds great! Ideally, this should empower more users to create courses (not just instructional designers). However, this can also be trap. If all of your content is created inside of their Learning Management System and you are unable to export an editable file, you are now a hostage. Ideally, the LMS you select will allow admins to utilize a wide array of file types (videos, PDFs, audio clips, weblinks and more) as they build courses.

It is also important to consider how training content is evolving. Technological advances like xAPI are changing the way Talent Development (TD) professionals think about content. Part of the Learning Management System evaluation process should include careful consideration of emerging trends in learning to ensure the LMS that you select is future ready. You might even encounter some other acronyms in your search:

  • CMS: Content Management System
  • LRS: Learning Record Store
  • LXP: Learning Experience Platform
  • SIS: Student Information System

If you are unfamiliar with these terms, I recommend researching the differences between them. Ultimately, you want to ensure the solution that you select allows you to deliver the information your learners need with the greatest flexibility possible.
Course Management

Managing content is just one aspect to consider when evaluating the delivery of information to your learners. You also want to be mindful of the various modalities for content delivery (web-based training, instructor lead training, virtual instructor lead training, etc.). For example, if your organization conducts hundreds of facilitator lead training sessions per month, it will be very important to explore session management during the LMS vendor’s demo. Some LMS solutions are simply not built to conveniently manage tens of thousands of sessions per year. You might also want consider session enrollment and attendance tracking. Platforms that allow learners to self-enroll in sessions can be huge time saver for facilitators. Additionally, built in messaging features (enrollment confirmations, reminders and more) can reduce the facilitators workload. I recommend looking for platforms that allow instructors to manage attendance quickly and easily.

The organization of courses and content is important to consider too. Learning Management Systems that empower admins to combine multiple files into a course can be very useful. Additionally, the ability to group multiple courses into a “course bundle” or “curriculum set” is essential. This is important for reporting and for the learner experience. 

Course assignments are another critical factor. I recommend LMS solutions that allow admins to create rules for the automated assignment of courses. Automated assignments by title, role, department, or other user characteristic will create additional time savings and minimize instances of learners not receiving the correct curriculum. Think about elective courses and resources too. Creating libraries of optional content, microlearning videos, job aids, and more can add tremendous value to your LMS solution.  

Another tremendously valuable option that more and more LMS providers are offering is a “Course Marketplace.” These marketplaces allow organizations and individuals to buy and sell courses. If you’re working within a small organization that does not have plentiful resources for content development, this may be a great option. 

User Management

Adding users to a Learning Management System sounds easy but can actually be really complex. LMS vendors usually offer a variety of methods for user management, including:

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  • Single Sign On (SSO)
  • Bulk Upload
  • Individual User Creation
  • Self-Registration (with or without approval)
  • Registration Codes

The best process for user management varies by organization but often requires more work than most TD professionals assume it will. This also does not include the migration of learner data from one LMS to another, which might require hundreds of hours. It is also worth noting that getting learners into the LMS is only one aspect of user management. Consider how often employees are transferred, promoted, demoted, and terminated in your organization. Every one of those changes requires user data to be updated. How will those changes be managed? Who will be responsible for managing it? These are important questions that need to be addressed during your LMS selection process. 
Reporting

Reporting capabilities are another important aspect to consider when shopping for a Learning Management System. Depending on the LMS provider, reporting capabilities might range from a few “canned” reports to fully customizable reporting with data visualization dashboards. Depending on what your organization’s needs are, you might not need all the bells and whistles; however, you will likely want to ensure your LMS solution covers these basic reporting functions:

  • User List: as the name suggests, this type of report provides a list of active/inactive users and relevant user data.
  • Course Completion Summary: course completion data grouped by user type, department, etc.
  • Course Completion by Learner: course completion data listed by individual user.
  • Learner Progress Report: a summary of course completions by user. 
  • Learner Transcript: a detailed view or course completion by user.

If your LMS provider does not offer these reports at a minimum, you might want to keep looking. Ideally, your LMS provider will offer customizable reports with the ability to schedule reports so that they are sent at pre-determined intervals, so you do not have to login and pull reporting. Also, assess the formatting and structure of the data. Look for reports that are easy to read and require minimal adjusting prior to distributing it throughout your organization.
Another important consideration is reporting access. Look for LMS providers that offer reporting access to admins of various levels. For example, can supervisors view completions for everyone that reports to them? Empowering users at various levels to access reporting minimizes the demand on training admins.   

Implementation

Most Learning Management System providers will charge a pretty penny for implementation. I recommend looking for providers that offer tiered implementation options. This will give you the greatest flexibility to accommodate your timeline and budget. If it is your organizations first time utilizing a Learning Management System, you will likely want all of the support you can get! Top tier implementation should include user migration, department setup, branding, training and more. I refer to this as “elite implementation” and it will generally come with an “elite” price tag. 

On the other end of the spectrum, you will find that lower implementation tiers are budget friendly but require a do-it-yourself approach. This is perfect for well-staffed talent development teams with experience launching Learning Management Systems. While this approach saves money, it will not save your organization time. Ultimately the economics of this increased time commitment may not outweigh the upfront savings. Consider all aspects of implementation before deciding.  

Implementation can get messy. Regardless of the tier you select, you should insist that the LMS vendor provide your organization with a single point of contact (Implementation Manager, Project Manager, etc.) who will oversee the implementation process. Additionally, your organization should select one person to serve as your internal Implementation Lead. This approach will lead to fewer delays and missed deliverables. 

If your organization is jumping from one LMS to another, I also recommend creating an “LMS Overlap” of at least one month. During this time, you should keep your current Learning Management System up and running while you finalize the implementation and testing of the new LMS. This will help ensure that your learners are never without a Learning Management System. It also prevents launch hiccups that can severely impact adoption of the new LMS. 

Sales & Support

All Learning Management System providers have a sales process in place that is geared toward client conversion. Usually, the process starts with a Business Development Specialist (or similar title) conducting a 15-30 minute discovery session to understand your needs. Next, they will schedule a call with an Account Manager (or similar title) who will conduct a 60-minute demonstration of the platform. After that, they will likely refer you to Product Specialist (or similar title) who will create a test/sandbox environment for you to trial their platform. After 1-2 weeks, the Account Manager will schedule a follow-up to conduct a final review of pricing and draft an agreement for your review and acceptance. At this point it is up to you and the key decision makers in your organization to make the final decision.

Once the decision is made, you will want to take a deep breath and celebrate the completion of your quest for the perfect LMS! However, this is where the work really begins. Your LMS provider will often direct you to an Implementation Specialist who will assist your organization with setting up your LMS for 1-3 months depending on the Service Agreement you’ve signed. At the end of that 1-3 month time frame, your “implementation window” will be closed. This is the point at which things get really interesting.

Post-implementation support varies significantly from provider to provider. In many cases, the Account Manager, Product Specialist, and Implementation Manager disappear, and you’re left with an email address or 1-800 number for support. To avoid this, you should make this a point of conversation during your negotiations with the LMS provider. Post-implementation support should be clearly outlined in the service agreement. Ideally, your organization should have a dedicated Account Manager for the duration of your agreement. Additionally, the Account Manager (and other support avenues) should be available during your business hours. Having an Account Manager that is six time zones away during a crisis is not very helpful. 

Finally, I recommend selecting an LMS provider that offers a full training library of how-to videos and articles. This will help before, during and after implementation. This simplifies the onboarding of new admins and users. After all, if your Learning Management System provider does not have a Learning Management System for their clients, that should be a red flag.

Pricing

You have likely noticed a theme throughout the last few sections: specifics vary widely between LMS providers, but all providers share common characteristics. The same holds true for pricing. When searching for an LMS provider, you will most commonly encounter two pricing models:

  • Per User Pricing: this is a flat rate per active user and is often billed
  • Tiered User Pricing: this is a monthly, quarterly, or annually rate based on the average number of active users.

Both models generally offer a lower cost per user as you increase the number of users on the platform. It is also important to note that pricing should be based on “Active Users.” Pricing that is based on “Total Users” should be a red flag. Why does it matter? Many organizations want to maintain learner records after an employee is terminated but they do not want to be billed for former employees that will no longer be accessing the Learning Management System. In an “Active” user model, the organization can simply mark the user inactive, retain all records and avoid being billed. In a “Total Users” model, the organization would need to export the learner records and delete the learner’s profile to avoid being billed. This leads to lost data, headaches and billing surprises.
When considering a Tiered User Pricing model, it is important to understand how tiering is determined (average monthly, average annually, peak total active, etc.). This calculation can drastically impact pricing. For example, your organization might start your agreement with a tiered price based on 1,000 active users. What happens if halfway through your agreement, your company grows to 1,200 active users? You might be charged at an incrementally higher rate for those 200 extra employees. Alternatively, you might be billed for the next tier up: 2,000 active users! Each LMS provider handles this differently and it is important understand the implications of future growth.   

It is also important to be mindful of one-time fees, re-occurring fees and renewal fees. These are often buried in the fine print of an agreement and might include:

  • Hosting Fees
  • Support Fees
  • Annual Renewal Fees
  • Extra Features
  • Customization Fees
  • Design Fees

These little fees can add up and push you over budget. I recommend collaborating with several trusted advisors within your organization to review the agreement prior to signing. Take time to anticipate “what if” scenarios and then discuss your concerns with the LMS provider. In my experience, there is always room for negotiation. Do not sign anything that you do not fully understand and are not completely comfortable with. 
Selecting the right LMS can be difficult but it is not impossible. I hope this guidance helps you in your search for a Learning Management System! If you have questions, please add them to the comments below. I would be honored to help guide you on your quest to find the best LMS! 

 this guidance helps you in your search for a Learning Management System! If you have questions, please add them to the comments below. I would be honored to help guide you on your quest to find the best LMS!

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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