Many organizations are migrating to online learning management systems (LMSs) as a way to contain employee training costs. Because employees can access online training from virtually any location with an Internet connection, an LMS can significantly reduce expenses associated with classroom-style training. And because the LMS is a centralized system, updates and revisions to course content are efficient and inexpensive.
Currently, there are dozens — some industry analysts cite more than 100 — learning management systems available. LMS, in fact, is an umbrella term that includes a broad range of e-learning solutions. Some LMSs allow administrators to create courses by using embedded authoring tools. Some systems employ sophisticated interface metaphors and navigation. Still other systems offer a rich selection of delivery media, including real-time streaming audio and video.
Selecting the right LMS requires:
- A careful assessment of your organization's training and business objectives.
- Accurate documentation of your system's capabilities and requirements.
- A thorough evaluation of potential vendors.
Armed with these analyses, you'll be equipped to select the LMS that best meets your organization's needs.
Assess learning and business objectives
Because there are so many LMS products to choose from, some training managers make the mistake of beginning their search with vendor inquiries, product research, or both. Instead, it's important to begin with a careful assessment of what you hope to accomplish through LMS training. Some possibilities include:
- Improving employee skills.
- Standardizing the knowledge base required for each role in your organization.
- Tracking and evaluating professional development.
- Creating and managing timely course content.
- Centralizing organizational knowledge and resources.
Learning objectives should stem directly from your organization's business goals. Do you want to increase sales? Then your learning objective may be to provide intensive role-play training for the members of your sales force so that they can win more sales. Is your goal to merge two divisions into one operating unit? Then you may need to train the appropriate executives on operational protocols for the hybrid unit.
As you identify and prioritize your learning objectives, include the following steps in your analysis:
- Identify the training medium Make note of the delivery medium that your instructional specialists recommend for each goal. If the organization needs to train employees on equipment operation, for example, video instruction may be an important resource for capturing the hands-on experience. As you begin evaluating various LMS options, you'll find that you need to winnow the choices to the vendors that offer products with video capacity.
- Assess budget and cost constraints Make a sober assessment of budget constraints, ROI demands, and costs. For example, don't overlook the expense of content development, particularly if you envision media-rich courses. Even if your curriculum comprises off-the-shelf courses, your organization's IT specialists should be consulted for an estimate of the total costs of an LMS from a technical standpoint. Hardware expenses, infrastructure alterations, application customization, maintenance, and support should all be taken into account for this estimate.
- Estimate potential savings Calculate a realistic estimate for the potential savings to be realized by the LMS. Will the LMS allow you to significantly reduce or eliminate employee travel and time off for training? Will you be able to convert instructional facilities to other uses? Can trainers be reassigned to other roles? Although these are typical savings opportunities associated with online training, there may be other factors that are more difficult to quantify, such as higher employee retention.
After you've thoroughly analyzed how the LMS will reinforce your business objectives and conducted a realistic cost-benefit analysis, you'll be able to determine whether there is a strong business case for moving to online training in your organization.
Document system capabilities and requirements
After establishing a strong business case for LMS training, the next step is documenting system requirements with your IT and instructional specialists.
Hosting the LMS
Should the LMS be available through your own computer network? If so, what is the bandwidth capacity of your network? And what requirements must the LMS meet? Is your IT staff prepared to support and manage the LMS?
If you choose to host the LMS yourself, on the one hand, the system will need to integrate with existing applications such as those that manage employee records and logon information. If your organization has limited IT resources, on the other hand, you may want to consider a hosted solution, in which an application service provider (ASP) makes the LMS available to your employees. Although this approach has many advantages, it also tends to the limit the extent to which you can customize the LMS.
After you identify the technical requirements for the system framework, you must also consider content requirements. Does your organization have the in-house expertise to develop effective online training content? Are affordable, off-the-shelf courses available in your industry? You may decide upon a blended solution, mixing custom-designed courses with industry-standard ones.
As you document and prioritize the content requirements for a successful LMS, answer the following questions:
- Do you need authoring tools so that you can develop courses in-house?
- Do you want robust administrative functionality so that you can assign courses, track employee progress, or evaluate learning?
- Do you plan to integrate existing e-learning resources into the LMS?
- How important is cost — is it the most critical factor or simply an important consideration?
- Is it important that the vendor maintain the system?
- What delivery media do you require: audio, video, chat rooms, or bulletin boards?
After you've established the objectives of your LMS initiative and have documented the requirements for success, you're ready to research vendors. Online resources, business journals, conferences, and trade shows are all excellent ways to investigate potential vendors. As you consult these sources, be sure to look for documented case studies that describe how a vendor has served an organization similar to your own.
- Create a list of vendors, and contact them for information You can formally contact vendors by means of either a request for information (RFI) or a request for qualifications (RFQ), as required by your business procedures. In your request, share a general description of your objectives and high-level requirements so that the responses you receive can be compared easily.
- Submit a request for proposal (RFP) Based on your comparison of vendors, you'll probably choose to submit an RFP to at least two vendors.
- Request product demonstrations After you receive the vendor proposals, request product demonstrations for all key decision-makers in your LMS initiative. It is essential to experience the product firsthand to accurately evaluate how easy it is to use.
- Request references Don't overlook reference checks for all vendors in your short list. For vendors that are new to the market or not widely known, it may also make sense to request financial references.
Find the right LMS for your organization
The good news is that today there are LMSs that meet nearly every organization's e-learning needs. Selecting the right system requires a methodical plan that assesses objectives, documents the requirements for success, and thoroughly screens potential vendors.
About the author Michele Shauf, Ph.D., is a business consultant specializing in organizational change, strategic communications, and training.