What’s in that “black box” sitting between your purchase decision and deployment?
Choosing an LMS isn’t the end. It’s actually the start of a whole new adventure. And implementation is the connective tissue that can move you in the right direction. (Or if you’re not careful, it can derail you even before you get out of the gate!)
I think that’s why so many people are uneasy about software implementation. It’s fraught with uncertainty and risk. But it’s not magic. With realistic expectations and the right approach, implementation can make your new learning system the success it deserves to be. Here’s how…
However, it’s not the instant slam-dunk that some vendors may want you to believe – especially for extended enterprise learning.
These solutions involve many moving pieces, some of which operate outside of your LMS and your organization’s control.
2) Does the level of implementation difficulty depend on the system you choose?
Absolutely. But frankly, if you pick the wrong tool for the job, you’ll probably never be 100% satisfied.
Fortunately, there’s something for everyone. That’s because the LMS landscape has mushroomed to more than 1000 systems in recent years (also thanks to the rise of cloud computing). Many of these solutions specialize in some form of extended enterprise learning. But you have to sort through all the options to find the right needle somewhere in that massive haystack.
And there’s the rub. Choosing the best learning system for your needs is much more challenging these days. A decade ago, the LMS space was defined by a handful of well-known employee learning platforms. No more.
That’s why independent advisors like us exist. Every day, we’re in the trenches helping organizations choose new systems, so we know what realistic LMS selection and implementation requirements look like.
3) What level of LMS customization is reasonable to expect?
Well, I think “customization” is a dangerous word. To learning systems vendors, it suggests that you want to change the underlying software code. Configuration is what you are looking for.
It’s best to avoid customization unless it’s absolutely necessary. Because once you alter the code, you’ll likely face ongoing complications with maintenance and system upgrades.
4) How can we tailor an LMS to fit our particular needs?
Extended enterprise learning systems offer varying degrees of configuration. This is what you should look for. Configurable systems include predefined settings that let you chose how a specific feature behaves in your deployment.
For example, many learning systems include configurable settings for various user interface elements. This makes it easy to create a look and feel for your learning environment that aligns with audience interests and your brand standards.
Low-configuration systems are often very good at precisely what they are designed to do. But because their breadth of functionality is limited, they don’t adapt well to changing needs.
These systems tend to appeal to first-time buyers, who see them as an easy way to get started. But keep in mind that it’s easy to outgrow these systems as your business requirements become more sophisticated.
That’s why highly configurable systems are more appealing when organizations are trading up to a second or third LMS, or are operating in a dynamic business environment.
5) What if we want to connect other applications with our LMS?
Regardless, a learning system must fit into your unique technology infrastructure. That means you should expect strong integration support in whatever solution you choose.
Fortunately, most extended enterprise learning systems include excellent API integration capabilities, along with strong out-of-the-box application connectors, webhooks and notification engines. This approach ensures that your LMS is ready to snap into your tech environment today and will continue to evolve along with you.
6) As an LMS selection consultant, do you ensure that vendors deliver what they promise?
Sadly, vendor amnesia happens. But a good LMS selection consultant can restore foggy memories with thorough documentation.
That’s one reason why we clarify buyer requirements in a formal RFP. Plus, we record product demonstrations and capture notes from every session in the selection process. It’s a buying blueprint that you can also use as an implementation reference tool whenever questions arise.
In addition, for clients who want our guidance beyond the primary selection process, we offer “Implementation Liaison” services. This is when we operate as a virtual member of the project team to help move LMS implementation forward. In this role, we advocate on our client’s behalf throughout the process to ensure strong results.
7) What do you do when a vendor drops the ball?
It’s important to remember that LMS providers have a vested interest in delivering on their promises. Success leads to new sales opportunities – especially when working with consultants like us, who recommend vendors on a continuous basis.
We often remind vendors not to misrepresent their capabilities in a proposal or demo, or overlook their implementation responsibilities. Otherwise, they’ll get a one-way ticket to our doghouse. (And no one wants to be in our doghouse!)
8) How long does it take to implement and deploy an LMS?
I hate fuzzy “it depends” answers. But truly, it depends on a variety of factors:
Is this your first LMS? Or are you replacing an existing system(s)?
How much content will be loaded or migrated into the system?
How many users and historical records will be included?
How homogenous are the various learner audiences and business workflows?
What kind of tech integrations must be completed prior to launch?
How much experience does your team have with similar implementations?
Are resources available internally to drive this process?
How will holidays, vacations and seasonal workloads affect team availability?
Any combination of these factors can directly influence your implementation schedule. That said, here are some general guidelines to keep in mind:
First-time solutions with relatively simple requirements can be deployed in only a few weeks. On the other end of the spectrum, highly complex, large-scale scenarios can easily take a year or more to complete.
However, most implementations require a 3-5 month timeline.
9) How much does LMS implementation, testing and deployment cost?
The level of necessary professional services and their cost is a differentiator among learning systems providers. You can find a wide range of possibilities, from free to ridiculously expensive.
Some vendors rely on professional services as a moneymaker. Others provide solid implementation services, but they don’t charge much because the value of long-term license revenue is more important to them.
Here’s one point of reference: We find that extended enterprise deployments with moderate complexity tend to fit in the $50,000-$100,000 cost range.
By the way, we know the implementation strategy and pricing approach of more than 200 learning systems we’ve analyzed. In fact, this is one of the criteria we use when developing LMS shortlist recommendations.
10) Should we test systems with a proof-of-concept or pilot program before jumping into implementation and deployment?
It’s important to understand the difference between proof-of-concept and pilot:
1) PROOF OF CONCEPT (POC) Vendors often provide a sandbox that buyers can use to test and verify critical use scenarios. Great vendors use this as an opportunity to shine. They pre-populate the sandbox with relevant branding, content and learner profiles, so a buyer can readily evaluate the system’s capabilities in action.
Some vendors insist on orientation or training sessions to be sure buyers are successfully introduced to their system. Others simply hand over the keys. When buyers hire us to help with vendor selection, we include targeted use case demonstrations as a key evaluation step. This ensures that a POC environment is available to you much earlier than normal in the selection and implementation process.
2) PILOT A pilot project occurs after a contract is signed. Typically, it involves a limited rollout with a small, representative user group, so you can identify and resolve key issues before a full-scale rollout.
This is usually a wise practice because it minimizes risks and surprises. Unfortunately, it is often omitted because rollout schedules are too tight.
In extreme cases where failure could bring monumental consequences, buyers may pay one or more “finalist” vendors to provide pre-contract pilots.
11) Who should review and sign-off on an LMS pilot?
Who should be involved is usually easy to determine. The operative question is how much should they be involved? Too many cooks in the kitchen are exactly that!
Generally, throughout the entire LMS selection and implementation process, it’s useful to include stakeholders from the business unit, the executive team, IT, project management and possibly HR.
We often coach buyers to create a 2-Tier pilot review structure:
This is the core team. It includes day-to-day stakeholders and often the ultimate administrative owners of the application.
TIER 2 This is the “extended” team that will use the application in practice. It often includes training teams, customer service, sales and/or compliance groups.
Typically, we recommend that Tier 1 members attend all meetings throughout the selection and implementation process. The Tier 2 team is included only at key milestones such as RFP evaluation, demonstrations and proof of concept review.
12) We’ll need someone to manage implementation for us. Who should we trust?
Some LMS companies depend on third-party experts to implement their solutions. For instance:
Vendors involved in large, complex deployments for large, complex organizations
Vendors that offer purely custom solutions – also for large, complex buyers
There are pros and cons associated with third-party development partners. For example:
You’re working with dedicated resources who are experienced at deploying the LMS you selected. However, those resources can come at a significant premium.
With open-source systems, the cost of professional developers is often offset by no/low system licensing costs. However, for other scenarios, the cost premium can be significant.
An independent developer may help clarify questions and streamline the implementation process. However, it adds a layer of communication complexity and potential conflict when troubles arise between vendor, customer and development provider.
Some LMS vendors offer their own professional services group. These organizations often are willing to forego a business opportunity if their team can’t manage deployment.
13) Hiring a dedicated systems implementation firm is overkill for us. Should we consider a temporary independent adviser?
This can be a wise move. Reputable vendors usually assign their own system roll-out resources, but buyers are expected to shoulder many action items along the way.
Most organizations benefit from an extra set of experienced hands to help guide them through LMS implementation and deployment. Often, the timeline is driven by competing priorities and immovable events, or staff resources are stretched too thin.
Under these circumstances, expert temporary resources can keep a project on track and provide a sober, independent checkpoint for ongoing advice. If you want more information about why it pays to have an implementation advocate in your corner, or if you have additional LMS implementation questions, let’s talk.
Thanks for reading!
EDITOR’S NOTE: Got more questions you want John to answer in his “Ask Me Anything” column? Submit your question here. You might just be featured in a future post!
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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