I often see questions on learning discussion forums and LinkedIn groups about selecting the right learning management system for an organization.  In order to narrow your selection, consider these criteria:

1) Do you you want a hosted or internal solution?

Creating an internal solution enables you to contain sensitive information, and may result in less issues dealing with firewalls and security. This also makes it your responsibility to manage updates and issues internally.

A hosted solution is maintained by the provider, and may be less costly. Involving your IT team will also help you identify the best solution for your organization.

2) Why do you need an LMS?

Consider the following questions:

  • Are you simply looking for a way to track training and learning activities?  Or will you need the ability to automate and simplify other organizational development functions?
  • Is your company growing? 
  • How distributed is your workforce? 
  • What additional needs might you have in the next 2 to 3 years?

You should decide which features and functionality are most important to your organization.  For example, some systems now are capable of supporting

  • recruiting
  • onboarding
  • competency mapping
  • succession planning
  • social learning forums
  • deep-linking to internal websites
  • performance management
  • career development plans and progress.

3) Which suppliers have a strong customer base in your industry?

Some suppliers may be more likely to know about issues challenging other organizations in your field. They can offer best practices from peers, and may have user groups that enable you to network with others in your industry.

Reach out to current clients of the suppliers you are considering. Suppliers typically will provide contact information for references that include their happiest customers. Another best practice is to reach out to companies that are not on this list, and ask them about with the supplier. Consider asking their current clients these questions:

  • What lessons did you learn during the implementation process?
    • What worked well?
    • What would you do differently?
    • Were there any unanticipated issues that you have had to deal with?
    • If you could change one thing about your system, what would it be?
    • Were there benefits of the system that you didn’t anticipate?
    • How long did you allow for implementation, and was that time sufficient?
    • What tasks during implementation did you underestimate?
    • Why did you select this vendor?

4) What factors should you include in your request for proposal (RFP)?

When you have identified potential suppliers, you will want to customize a system requirements checklist with your RFP (see the job aid LMS Requirements Checklist at the back of the July 2012 Infoline "Selecting and Implementing a Learning Management System").  This checklist allows you to include features that are important to you, and to determine at a glance whether these features are part of a standard implementation or are offered at additional cost.

Your RFP should be simple and straightforward. You will want to include a description of what you are interested in purchasing, as well as a timeframe in which suppliers must respond to the request in order to be considered.

Make note of each supplier’s responsiveness. A delayed response may be an early indicator that the vendor doesn’t have the capacity to manage additional customers. Also make note of the supplier’s approach to your request. Are they simply responding to it, or are they reaching out to you in order to better understand the needs of your organization?

In addition, remember to discuss with the supplier which functionalities are configurable (tailored in the interface to meet your needs) versus customizable (often more expensive and requiring changes in coding).

4) How you should you arrange supplier demonstrations?

Following the RFP, your next step will be to set up demos with stakeholders. Schedule a time for supplier demonstrations and allow stakeholders to discuss feedback and first impressions. Although this may not be possible for a global company, in-person demos typically offer the chance to capture greater feedback and allow stakeholders to collaborate in identifying the preferred solution.

Suppliers may have a “canned” demo that they use, but let the supplier know ahead of time the specific features you would like included in the demo.

Whether the demo is offered via webinar or in person, you can allow time before the demo to remind everyone of the critical features you identified in the assessment phase, and make time after for discussion. It is helpful if a member of your department takes detailed notes throughout in order to capture all feedback.

If you currently have another LMS solution, it can be helpful to show the group the current LMS, and remind the group of any system limitations that you are hoping to address with a new solution. Your stakeholder group may not be a daily (or even monthly) user of your LMS. They should be made aware of the issues you face with your current provider.

You can also meet with key stakeholders ahead of time to determine any questions you’d like to pose to the supplier. And if you already have an LMS and are looking to switch providers, what are your pain points that impact the organization? Are there tasks or processes with the current system that are cumbersome for the end user? Make sure you have an opportunity to see how these processes work with the other suppliers.

Following the demos, the suppliers should provide you with access to a “sandbox” site, where you can experiment with system functionality and test out the look, feel, and overall usability of the system. It may be useful to include a sample of end users in this process, also.

After the demos are complete, plan to communicate back to the stakeholder group with next steps and to acknowledge their part in the process. Frequent communication during each step in the selection process will help to engage senior leaders.

5) What are the costs and pricing?

When considering costs of an LMS, be aware of the “true cost” of ownership. Elements to consider include:

  • implementation
  • maintenance
  • configuration
  • customization
  • Service Level Agreements (SLAs)
  • user licenses
  • data storage
  • staff training and support
  • integration with web conferencing, CRM, and other software
  • mobile applications
  • various assessments and measurement tools
  • additional upfront costs. 

At this point you should prepare a business case for your preferred supplier solution. See the sidebar Making a Business Case for an LMS from the July 2012 Infoline "Selecting and Implementing a Learning Management System" for more information on drafting this document. An executive summary, which provides an at-a-glance summary of your business case, is also a helpful hand-out for stakeholders and other decision makers involved in the process.