Is the LMS RFP a Necessary Evil? A Nice-to-Have? Or Something More?
A Request for Proposal (RFP) is one of the most widely used yet controversial tools for learning management systems buyers. Some people hate them. Others love them. Either way, it’s usually foolish to buy an LMS without one.
The LMS RFP has developed a bad reputation because it is easily misunderstood. It may be viewed as irrelevant, too complex or overkill. But there’s another side to the story.
RFPs help buyers get organized, formalize requirements, evaluate vendors logically, create a historical record and show vendors you are serious. Shopping without an RFP may seem faster, easier and less complex, but your selection process will be subjective and loaded with assumptions that increase risk.
I’ve been involved in both buying and selling learning technology for more than two decades, and I know RFPs are incredibly valuable. Over the past two years as an independent LMS selection consultant, I’ve helped dozens of buyers use RFPs to buy the best solution for their organization.
Previously, as a software sales professional for 13 years, I reviewed over a thousand RFPs, answered hundreds, won 100+ and generated $50+ million in revenue.
In college, I even took a course on how to respond to learning technology RFPs. In other words, I’ve had plenty of time and experience to rejoice, reflect and lament over what works and what doesn’t.
Clients expect me to help them avoid RFP missteps. I could probably write an entire book on this subject, but below are answers to 11 of the most popular questions I receive, starting with the basics:
Think of an RFP (Request for Proposal) as an invitation to participate in the purchasing process for any type of software, goods or services. It is a document that buyers send to relevant suppliers, outlining the business need, buying parameters and requirements.
It also includes instructions on how and when vendors should submit a response. An LMS RFP focuses specifically on learning management system (LMS) software selection.
2. Why should we take time to create an RFP?
There are now about 1000 vendors specializing in learning solutions for corporate, academic, association and continuing education needs. These systems range in price from free to astronomical.
An RFP makes it possible for you to structure the evaluation process, so you can compare vendors “apples-to-apples” and determine how well they fit your business needs, functional requirements and budget.
This is especially important for LMS selection, because there is no universally accepted definition of the term “LMS.” Likewise, there is no standard LMS licensing model or approach to calculating system usage.
Therefore, it is important to establish a metric that is relevant to your organization so you can compare vendors on your terms and ensure that you obtain the best solution at the most competitive price. Your LMS RFP should be that metric.
3. What happens if we don’t use an LMS RFP?
Without an RFP, you’ll need to search vendor by vendor on an ad hoc basis — reviewing each LMS, discussing your needs, asking for a proposal and then accepting whatever response you receive.
The contents of that response — needs analysis, solution description and requirements, as well as proposal structure, format, level of detail and submission date — are typically at the vendor’s discretion.
This purchasing approach is much less consistent or precise. It often leads to missed requirements and unforeseen potholes and roadblocks as you move forward with LMS selection, implementation and deployment.
4. When is an LMS RFP most helpful?
If your organization is going to invest a substantial sum of money in an LMS and the downside consequences of failure are significant, go with an RFP. What is a “substantial” investment?
I’m frugal. I believe that if you anticipate a variance in vendor pricing of thousands of dollars (or more), organizing your process upfront with an RFP can only help.
5. Is it ever smart to move forward without an LMS RFP?
At a low LMS price point, there may be no practical reason to issue a formal RFP. With low-cost scenarios that are not mission critical, it can be overkill.
In that case, you can conduct your own research and leverage free online trials available from entry-level cloud LMS vendors.
However, it’s important to understand that the backbone of every RFP is a formal definition of the buyer’s requirements. I believe that any learning technology purchase should begin by articulating a clear business need and rationale.
Regardless of whether you issue an RFP, it’s always worthwhile to define your requirements and compare solutions with the same metric and methodology.
6. What’s the best format for an LMS RFP?
There is no standard RFP tool or format. It’s common to use Microsoft Word, Excel or both. Some organizations create online RFPs, but this is much less common.
When selling LMS software in the past, I literally saw hundreds and hundreds of different formats. I prefer Word-based RFPs because it encourages more thoughtful responses, including graphics, diagrams and deeper answers than Excel allows.
Excel is good at capturing binary answers, and it makes vendor comparison easy. However, it leaves lots of room for vendor interpretation of requirements and typically doesn’t help illustrate how features work together in use-case fashion. This incomplete picture makes vendor qualification more challenging.
7. Where can I get an RFP template as a baseline?
The internet is full of LMS RFP templates from consultants and analysts, as well as vendors themselves. Unfortunately, this is the typical scenario for template users:
Download a free RFP template with 1000+ possible requirements
Check 997 of the items as critical “must-haves”
Distribute this massive checklist to too many vendors of various types
Obtain an assortment of apples-to-oranges responses
Become overwhelmed by the chaos
This often leads to choosing nothing at all or opting for one of the well-known generic learning management systems. These systems are more expensive, can do it all, but unfortunately, don’t do anything remarkably well.
You’ll get a much better result by developing your own use cases and requirements, while using freely available templates only as a reference when documenting scenarios and specifications that map to your unique learning audiences.
Also note: You can make the assumption that if a vendor is providing an LMS RFP template, they have the capability listed in their template and not a smidgen more.
Although a template may help reveal that vendor’s particular functionality footprint, it’s unwise to rely upon it as an objective tool to evaluate other vendors’ ability to meet your needs.
8. What should we include in our LMS RFP?
By definition, every RFP should be unique. However, when developing RFPs, I typically include these sections:
Background and Logistics This section explains relevant context, business drivers and logistics. It is better to give vendors more context than you think they may need, because you want them to fully understand your current situation, your primary challenges and what you want to achieve. For example, include these elements:
About the Buyer Organization
Current State of Learning
Purpose and Scope of RFP
RFP Assumptions, Terms and Conditions
Time Frame and Critical RFP Dates
RFP Response Items
This section outlines all elements you expect vendors to include in their RFP response:
Executive Summary – Highlights of the solution and proposal response
Vendor Profile – Questions about the vendor, contact info, history, business structure, locations, size, clients, experience and key differentiation
Critical Use Case Functionality Requirements – Who are the main types of users and what do you want them to accomplish? What do those users do now? How do they find the LMS, log in, access content, interact socially or run reports? In the future, what do you want users to do differently or additionally?
Professional Service Requirements – What type and scope of implementation services do you require? Integration support, historical data migration, content creation, business strategy or no services at all?
Technical Requirements – Scalability, uptime, bandwidth, security, certifications, disaster recovery, globalization and deployment model questions
Business Requirements – Accurate past usage statistics and future usage predictions, license model preference and pricing parameters
References – Request three client references that use the vendor for a project of similar type and size
Appendix – Any additional information vendors choose that illustrates qualifications and value of their solution
9. How many vendors should we involve in the LMS RFP process?
No less than 2, and no more than 4 or 5. The RFP should not be the first step in the qualifying process, but rather one of the last. Your goal is to send the RFP to a target group of “qualified” vendors who appear to meet your needs by offering the right functional and technical capabilities, professional services, licensing model and cost structure.
By conducting preliminary research, screening vendors verbally/informally, or investing in an LMS consultant to manage this process, you can effectively narrow your options to a short list of qualified specialists.
Sending the RFP to a dozen or more vendors only leads to thousands of pages to read and information overload obliterating your ability to distinguish between solutions.
10. How much time should we give vendors to respond?
A minimum lead time of 3-4 weeks is reasonable. A proper RFP response can require an investment of 40-60 hours by multiple people in the vendor organization. This team must develop your proposal while continuing to participate in existing client meetings, conferences and other pre-scheduled trips and business activities. If you choose a shorter timeline, you should be prepared to deal with multiple requests for extensions, or you’ll need to accept shorter, more generic responses.
11. How should we handle vendor questions during the RFP process?
If you ask only 4 qualified vendors for proposals, answering their questions shouldn’t be too time consuming. Actually, follow-up questions are a good sign. Many vendors ask too few questions.
Smart learning technology providers ask penetrating questions that make buyers think more deeply. This builds credibility and trust, even before proposals are submitted.
It’s common to identify a 1-2 week window when you’ll accept questions to clarify the RFP scope and your intentions behind various elements. With public sector RFPs, it’s essential to share information in a fair and open manner, so every question and answer is typically shared with all participants. However, in the private sector, buyers typically distribute an edited Q&A document.
I recommend transparency whenever possible, to set the stage for better, more accurate proposals from all. It’s logistically efficient, levels the playing field and strengthens your relationship with vendors right from the start.
RFPs may sound tedious and even a bit scary, but they are not. Defining your requirements, finding qualified vendors and then comparing them against relevant criteria saves you time, money, effort and frustration throughout the buying process. In the long run, it will save your organization the aggravation and expense of living with or replacing a solution that doesn’t fit your needs.
RFPs show vendors (as well as your stakeholders) that you are serious, you are organized and you have budget. It also ensures that you’ll identify an appropriate licensing model and pricing.
And perhaps most importantly, it is a lasting reminder of your learning technology mission, objectives and requirements. It can be a valuable reference tool after a vendor is selected, implementation begins and memories may begin to fade.
If you want to talk about how an LMS RFP can work for your organization, let me know.
Thanks for reading!
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John Leh is Founder, 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.