Published On: July 16, 2019By
How to choose the right LMS - Read the FAQ with independent learning systems analyst John Leh

When modern archaeologists excavated the ancient city of Pompeii from the ashes of Mt. Vesuvius, they found a shop sign that said, “Caveat emptor” (or as we say in English, “Buyer beware”). Although 2000 years have passed since that sign was created, the advice is still relevant – especially if you’re trying to choose the right LMS.

How exactly can you avoid missteps when selecting a learning system? As an independent learning tech consultant, I hear questions like that all the time.

That’s why I’m launching an “Ask Me Anything” column. Today we’re tackling LMS selection. And over time, I’ll explore a variety of other popular topics.



Ask Me Anything:
How to Choose the Right LMS

1) When does it make sense to hire a software selection consultant?

The learning systems market has become remarkably broad and diverse. In fact, nearly 1000 vendors are on our radar! For five years, we’ve been evaluating these solutions one-by-one. And to-date, we’ve completed about 225 in-depth reviews.

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Many organizations attempt to do the same thing when selecting an LMS. But they soon discover just how unrealistic a DIY approach can be.

The clock runs out before they can determine which vendors are truly relevant. So they pick from a batch of mismatched solutions or take their chances with only a few options they had time to research.

A good consultant can make the whole process faster, easier and more successful by:

  • Clarifying your needs
  • Selecting a small group of appropriate solutions, and
  • Helping you pick the best fit from that shortlist of vendors.

2) With so many learning systems, how do you keep track of them all?

It’s an art and a science.

We study the market and document our findings in a thorough, systematic way. Also, because the extended enterprise space is so diverse, we research a broader spectrum of technologies than other LMS analysts.

For each solution, we conduct executive briefings, product demonstrations and customer interviews. In addition, vendors submit a comprehensive capabilities survey and anecdotal success stories.

We use all of this information to create a complete vendor profile. Plus, because things are always changing, we update each profile on a regular basis.

3) What’s your process for finding the perfect match?

We start by defining your unique requirements in detail. This includes business and use cases, functional and technical specifications, professional services requirements and expected usage levels.

Next, we recommend qualified vendors that match your precise needs. This ensures that your requirements will be met, no matter which solution you choose.

The key to success is a process that compares qualified vendors on an apples-to-apples basis. That’s why we communicate requirements in a structured request for proposal (RFP).

If qualified vendors want to be considered, they must reply to the RFP in full.

After scoring and ranking the responses, we invite the best-of-the-best to present their solutions within the context of the specified requirements and use cases.

4) Isn’t that a lot of work?

It’s important to sweat these details because so much is at stake.

Buyers should feel confident that they’ve considered the right solutions, conducted a complete and rigorous comparative analysis and selected a solution that will work best for them. This approach minimizes risk while dramatically improving outcomes.

5) How much time does it take to choose the right LMS?

Typically, it takes 90-120 days to define requirements and use cases, develop an RFP and gather responses, organize product presentations with finalists, select a solution and negotiate a contract.

Many buyers underestimate the time needed to complete a successful selection process. Often they spend too much time meeting vendors and getting caught up in the sales process, rather than driving selection forward.

Good consultants help you avoid distractions, so you can focus your time on what matters most.

6) Can we choose the right LMS without issuing a formal RFP?

Yes. But I don’t recommend this unless your company, needs and budget are very small.

If you intend to invest $25,000, $50,000 or even millions, choosing a learning system without an RFP is a recipe for disaster. There are just too many moving parts and potential points of failure.

Chances are, you’ll inevitably pay way too much.

7) We’re not even sure what our requirements are. How can we get started on the right foot?

If you don’t know where you want to go and why, it really doesn’t matter which foot you put forward first. That’s why we recommend you begin by answering some strategic questions:

  • What you are doing now?
  • What’s working?
  • What isn’t working?
  • Where do you want to go?
  • How does success look different?
  • Why is this important to your audience?
  • What are the implications for your organization?

8) For example…?

Well, let’s say you want to replace your existing learning system because users don’t like your interface. That makes sense. But you should dig deeper:

  • Precisely what is lacking in your interface?
  • What learning experience issues does this create?
  • How does this substandard design affect your business?
  • What kind of improvements are essential?
  • Which criteria will you use to gauge your success?

9) We’ve had bad experiences with systems in the past. Will vendors guarantee satisfaction?

Truth is, when a deployment goes sideways or fails outright, it usually ties back to LMS selection mistakes or shortcuts.

Certainly, sellers hold some responsibility and often get blamed. But there are no guarantees, and success is primarily on the buyer’s shoulders.

The best way to protect yourself is to be sure you make a fully informed decision based on a strong foundation of use cases, requirements and apples-to-apples vendor comparison.

10) We’re building an online learning business, so we can’t afford a bad fit. How can we be sure our choice will work?

No one can afford a bad enterprise software deployment. The costs are just too high – not just in terms of financial investment, but also in the time, effort, political capital and career aspirations of everyone involved.

The stakes are even higher when those systems are core to your business. It’s imperative not to jeopardize the future of your organization or your brand.

When you don’t have room for error, a proven LMS selection partner can give you a strategic advantage. It’s as simple as that.

The value of getting it right at the outset far outweighs the costs of a consultant or getting it wrong.

11) How expensive are extended enterprise learning systems?

Among true extended enterprise systems, pricing is typically based on some kind of consumption license model. In other words, you pay only for what you actually use.

With these systems, vendors expect that the volume of learners, records, content and usage will grow over time. However, different vendors define “usage” differently.

For example, some base their pricing on log-ons, course registrations, completions or purchases.

Bottom line: For an accurate price estimate and an aligned license model, you’ll want to clearly define your usage scenarios, determine the best approach for your business and compare all vendor solutions through that lens.

12) How should I budget for growth?

This is tricky. To avoid paying more than you should, it’s important to define usage carefully, in a language that parallels a vendor’s logic. Here’s my strategy:

I identify the buyer’s optimum license approach. Then I calculate the current baseline, as well as a realistic 3-year growth plan based on real business expectations.

In the RFP, I require all vendors to submit pricing built on that scenario. This is the only way to:

  • Compare prices on an apples-to-apples basis
  • Determine the long-term total cost of ownership and
  • Avoid future surprises.

13) Vendor salespeople can be so aggressive. What do you recommend?

I get it. During the LMS selection process, communication with vendors is essential. But too often, that’s accompanied by shameless selling, requests for extra meetings, unauthorized outreach to other team members and the like.

It’s not just an eye-rolling pain. It’s also a colossal waste of your precious time.

Fortunately, I speak “LMS vendor sales” fluently. In fact, I’m a recovering LMS sales guy. In 14 years, I sold more than $50-million worth of high-end extended enterprise learning solutions for two leading vendors. I know all too well what salespeople want, ask and do.

That’s why I manage all communication and scheduling with shortlisted sales teams. This keeps them on-track with our selection process, gives them the best chance for success and eliminates rogue sales efforts.

14) What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned from LMS buyers over the years?

This one is easy to answer. Hands-down, the best buyers are always the most prepared.

If you aren’t up on today’s learning systems market, modern functionality and technology ecosystems capabilities, you need to get ahead of the curve.

Similarly, if you can’t articulate your precise needs, budget parameters or available resources, vendors will eat you alive.

There’s no need to put yourself in a vulnerable, reactive position. As I’ve often seen with our clients, it pays to do your homework and buy proactively. (And if you want an advocate in your corner, let’s talk.)


Need Proven LMS Selection Guidance?

Looking for a learning platform that truly fits your organization’s needs?  We’re here to help!  Submit the form below to schedule a free preliminary consultation at your convenience.

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About the Author: John Leh

John Leh is CEO and Lead Analyst at Talented Learning and the Talented Learning Center. John is a fiercely independent consultant, blogger, podcaster, speaker and educator who helps organizations select and implement learning technology strategies, primarily for extended enterprise applications. His advice is based upon more than 25+years of learning-tech industry experience, serving as a trusted LMS selection and sales adviser to hundreds of learning organizations with a total technology spend of more than $100+ million and growing. John would love to connect with you on Twitter or on LinkedIn.

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