In May 2012, Trimeritus eLearning Solutions compiled a list of 379 learning management system (LMS) suppliers. With so many systems available, buyers should find any number of suppliers to meet their business needs. But it’s not always the case.
Cushing Anderson, program vice president for IDC, says, “When selecting a solution, one key criterion is, ‘Does it do what I need it to do, or can I make it do what I need for a price – in time and money – that I can accept?’”
Is it unreasonable for buyers to expect an LMS to fit the way they do business? Should buyers bend their business processes (e.g., the way they reimburse for training or confirm the certification of employees) to fit the way a newly acquired LMS works? Perhaps, buying an LMS can be a catalyst for retooling internal processes.
Another choice facing LMS buyers, experts say, is whether a new LMS should be hosted by the vendor, often called software-as-a-service or SaaS, or installed behind the purchaser’s firewall.
Anderson says, if your LMS doesn’t meet your organization’s goals, the fault isn’t always with your system or the delivery model. In some case, he says, it’s the result of a poor selection by the buyer.
Suppliers can develop SaaS learning management systems to meet an organization’s business challenges, Anderson says. These same SaaS suppliers, he notes, can easily scale their systems to support organizations with less set-up time. But, SaaS LMS suppliers haven’t developed all the industry solutions that the market needs. And this is one area where buyers must be discriminating.
Two Delivery Models to Suit You
The SaaS LMS model offers employers a speedy way to start delivering and tracking training, which is job one for most learning management systems. According to IDC, approximately 20 percent, possibly more, of today’s North American LMS implementations are SaaS models. Eighty percent of the remaining LMS implementations reside on-premises, or behind a firewall.
“SaaS implementations are rapidly on the rise, though,” adds Lisa Rowan, program director for HR, Talent, and Learning Strategies at IDC. “Eighty percent of the new LMS business we see is coming in as SaaS.”
According to LMS providers, the SaaS model helps suppliers bring in many new customers. By eschewing the overhead of a services organization supporting sometimes complicated, time-consuming customizations, the SaaS vendor can increase profits. As long as a SaaS LMS provider accurately predicts its need for new hosting capacity, clients enjoy a relatively trouble-free experience. If the vendor doesn’t manage that capacity, then clients may experience service outages.
“Whether a customer is deploying on SaaS or behind the firewall, it’s critical that they get the appropriate amount of consulting to align their newly acquired technology with their business processes,” says John Leh, vice president of Sales and Marketing for Meridian.
Leh advises LMS buyers to find a vendor that will provide the consulting, configuration and training needed to ensure a successful implementation regardless of the type of deployment.
“Most companies selling SaaS aim to spend less time with each client,” remarks Leh. “The SaaS model is designed to maximize profits for some suppliers.”
To Tailor or Not To Tailor
“Our company is part of an industry that has unique requirements related to federal regulations,” says Shawn Shanahan, manager of Training & Development Systems for the Railroad Education & Development division of CSX. “Any LMS we use has to be flexible enough to meet our distinctive needs, and I don’t believe that could be accomplished without customization. For us, one size does not necessarily fit all.”
If an organization resists changing its processes to fit the way a software package operates, then it is usually a matter of necessity not inflexibility.
“The railroad industry has been around for almost 200 years,” notes Shanahan. “It is difficult to change processes that are interdependent and to communicate those changes to a widely dispersed workforce.”
The lattice of interdependencies from department to department inside a large, complex organization isn’t easy to change. And, often, there isn’t a solid reason to change. The processes work. “The key is integrating technology to make the processes work more efficiently,” remarks Leh.
An LMS manager for one of the federal government’s law enforcement agencies echoes Shanahan’s comments. He has wrestled with either modifying business practices to fit an LMS or customizing a learning management system to mirror his organization’s needs. “There are many times when a business should modify its business practices to fit a SaaS system,” adds the LMS manager. “However, there are times when the unique nature of an organization requires the software to adapt to the organization’s business processes.
“One of the most valuable attributes an LMS vendor can provide in its software is out-of-the-box configurability,” the LMS manager opines. “That allows the organization to customize the system to meet its specific business requirements without touching the code.”
In regulated industries such as transportation and pharmaceuticals, companies may find it difficult to bend long-standing processes or unique requirements to work with an LMS without customizations.
According to the federal government LMS manager interviewed for this story, he resists the desire to customize his agency’s LMS. He sees it as creating “huge issues down the road for maintainability and adaptability.” Requests to modify an LMS to fit some unique business requirement often come without an understanding of the complications, says the manager.
“I once sat in a meeting where an individual hotly stated, ‘Software should do what I need it to do; I shouldn’t have to change for the software,’” recalls the LMS manager. “Ideally a system would have a broad enough range in capabilities and configurability to avoid customization; however, in practice, I have yet to see a major LMS that would meet the needs of my agency out of the box.”
Establishing Guidelines for a Well-Fitting LMS
Anderson believes resistance to change is common, but it’s neither smart nor unreasonable in general.
“Organizations that spend money and effort installing an LMS but not changing poor business practices are wasting resources,” says Anderson. “But a stakeholder may have established constraints in terms of cost and time that restrict the options.”
An organization’s leaders and even the LMS users must decide the scope of the project when selecting a new LMS. Employers of all sizes are best served when they determine four things prior to compiling a short list of LMS suppliers.
- First, what is the scope of the project? Is it simply to find an LMS that provides, say, better reporting or social learning? Or is the project something broader such as delivering training to an external audience of learners?
- Second, if the organization will have to change its business processes, then is it prepared to research, direct and manage that change?
- Third, has the organization’s leadership given its input and support to the project?
- And, fourth, do the capabilities of the LMS meet the organization’s business needs? For example, does the LMS integrate with an HRIS or business-intelligence application?
Training industry experts say an organization with complex processes and learning requirements should choose an LMS to solve its learning needs first and then choose a delivery option (SaaS or on-premises). Selecting a delivery option first is probably putting a secondary condition ahead of the business need, IDC’s Anderson says. Choose an LMS that meets your needs or an LMS vendor who can tailor its system to fit you.