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The Questions You Should Be Asking Before Talking to LMS Vendors

The Questions You Should Be Asking Before Talking to LMS Vendors

When identifying solution criteria for a learning management system within your organisation and speaking to LMS vendors, it’s important to ask key questions.

But what makes them key questions, you ask? Well, there are certain features, functionality and price points you’ll want to draw out of vendors, at a minimum. What makes them crucial for your organisation depends on the solution criteria you’ve determined before engaging LMS vendors.

Ergo, what defines the key in key questions is context.

When it comes time to talking to LMS vendors, you’ll want to make sure you’re asking questions that a) meet your clearly defined criteria and b) leave no room for misinterpretation of your needs. This is a critical step in the selection process, one we implore you not to miss. In this guide, we’ll walk you through some of the information that will set you up for selection success before going through the questions you need to be asking for your organisation.

What is a learning management system?

Let’s go back to basics. The learning management system (colloquially: LMS) is a software application that supports and automates all aspects of the learning process (even learning, in some cases). It’s the HQ for all content housing, delivery and tracking, designed to help you better understand and report on learning outcomes, make the learning experience more engaging, link learning to organisational or business goals, and to simply make your life easier.

An LMS can, amongst other things:

And the LMS can be used for:

Not to mention, a learning management system can be maintained by:

Neat, huh? That’s the micro view. Now let’s look bigger.

The global LMS industry

Education has always been influenced by technological innovations. IT cranked things up a few notches, but it didn’t distort the driving ethos. Instead, the “classroom” changed and so did the creation, development and delivery of learning materials.

Basically, we went from teacher-led, face-to-face education using pens and papers to a learning experience that is not defined by location, device or even institution, but learning itself. Cheesy, we know, but at its heart, the LMS has always been about enabling instructors to create more engaging and thought-provoking activities for learners.

In the corporate landscape, a shift towards a personalised, self-paced and digital L&D environment was already gaining traction before a global pandemic really threw things into high gear. Face-to-face and on-the-job training is increasingly supplemented with online training, either to save time, space, money, or all three.

It’s perhaps a little clearer why the global LMS industry alone is expected to be worth US$38 billion by 2027. It currently stands at $15.72 billion. The eLearning ecosystem is constantly evolving. The market grows by 14% annually. The corporate LMS market is expected to grow at an annual rate of 23%. And that first valuation? A jump of $30 billion from 2019. There are more eLearning solutions, LMS vendors and prospective clients than ever. That’s only going to continue climbing as workforces become more distributed, more business heads online, and artificial intelligence and machine learning become more embedded in technology.

Why you need to know this

Is it actually necessary to think about the LMS industry at large when you only want the smallest piece of the pie? Yes, if you consider the interests of LMS vendors in relation to the interests of buyers. The former are part of a thriving, growing, expanding market—which means more competition for said LMS vendors. It also means more choice, innovation and quality for you; essentially, you’re wielding stronger buyer power than ever.

This makes it incredibly important to question what your organisation and learners truly need from that sheer volume of choices all around the world. There are many features, for example, that will seem novel, but it’s up to you to determine if you can afford them, if they’ll contribute to or hinder engagement, and if they’re sustainable for both the learning management system and your organisation in the long run. Then there’s also the different types of learning management systems available; can you define the difference between open source, proprietary and cloud-based LMSs and how each might meet your needs?

This is why refining your selection criteria is one of the most, if not the most, crucial steps when procuring the best learning management system for your needs. That criterion should be as personal to your organisation as your middle school diary was to you (minus the teen angst). The power is with you, and we want you to remember that going forward.

What type of buyer are you?

Again, before we start talking key questions to ask LMS vendors, we need to talk questions to ask yourself. The first one to ponder is what type of LMS buyer you are. The good news here is that you’ll likely fall into one of two categories, no matter your industry: a first-timer or a switcher.

First-time buyer

Don’t worry, first-timers, the complex world of learning management systems is nuanced even to experts. The difference between a first-time LMS buyer and a returning customer comes down to understanding a few things, such as:

The objectives and criteria first-time buyers have are often not as clearly defined as those who have had experience with LMSs before (though this isn’t always the case, and there are many free resources for first-time buyers out there). It’s not a bad thing to be a first time LMS buyer; it just pays to do your research thoroughly and be a little sceptical.

Bullet list identifying considerations for first time buyers such as cost vs value, support and training, and development vs timelines.

Switcher

Ah, the switcher. They’re at the end of one contract and shopping around for another, for any number of reasons:

The switcher is a little more educated in the field. They’ve had the benefit of listening to their learners’ feedback, they’ve had a play in the system, so they know what features work for them and which don’t, they know the level of support they need, and they know the price they’re willing to pay for it all. But hindsight is 20/20, which is how they know their current LMS is not right for their needs. We’ve often seen switchers, with all their world-weariness, discover that it was their initial research that lead to such a lacklustre LMS.

 Bullet list identifying considerations for buyers switching LMS vendors, such as reputation vs recognition, stakeholders vs decision-makers, and vendor support vs relationship.

Why do I need think about what type of buyer I am?

You’re ultimately looking for a platform that meets all your needs, yes. But leading on from understanding where LMS vendors stand, you need to understand the position you’re in. We’ve had many switchers come to us because they didn’t do due diligence as first-time buyers and ended up with a clunky learning management system and lacking support. In that time, they might have:

So, yes, knowing your position and your power in this transaction gives you a more even footing. This doesn’t mean demanding an unattainable list of features from LMS vendors. But it does remind you that in most cases, the vendor is offering you a service and that gives you the power to decide if said service meets your needs.

Even if you are a first-time buyer, this gives you the chance to take your time to better educate yourself on the buying process, different LMS vendors and the nuances of an LMS. Given that time, you can engage stakeholders and approach vendors for testimonies/use cases that will help you fine tune your selection criteria. Switchers may have the advantage of knowing exactly what they don’t want—but knowing what’s on the cutting floor still leaves plenty of room for criteria you do need. So, again, this allows you to go back to that research stage and distinguish the must-haves from the cherries on top.

Key questions to ask in the buying process

You know the industry, you know your position, and now it’s time to talk leveraging that knowledge to ask the right questions for your organisation in the buying process. Of course, since we started this article by talking about context, we’re gonna provide some guidance on how to frame each question in the context of your organisation.

Why do we need an LMS?

What are we trying to achieve with an LMS? What does success mean for our organisation? What are we missing in our current training strategy?

Seems simple to ask, but it’s more complex to answer when you consider the problem or gap an LMS is meant to be fixing or filling. You’ll need to be able to define what exactly is wrong with your current corporate learning and development, employee training and/or professional development methods that denotes the need for an LMS. And how can you be sure something is wrong? What metrics do you currently have to support this basis? If you can’t determine what’s lacking with your current L&D (unless you’re lacking it entirely, in which case, you can skip straight to Go ), then an LMS might just be a very expensive and ill-fitting band aid fix.

You might not even need an LMS in its simplest form. There are LMSs that diverge into different specialisations beyond the facilitation of learning: learning content authoring, talent management, learning experience, B2C, performance management… and then there’s the industries and applications each is best designed for. LMSs with talent management functionalities are often used in corporate enterprises to empower workforce planning. Learning content authoring is often integral to educational institutions and B2C companies, considering the brand equity that is tied to custom content. Can you also define what exactly you need an LMS for?

Key considerations

An LMS is not a magic solution to your learning conundrums. You need to clearly outline:

What is our budget?

What can we afford to spend now and what do we expect to spend in future on an eLearning solution? What value do we want for the money we spend?

One of the first things to understand about learning management systems is how widely prices can vary between the wide array of LMS vendors. They can start at “free” (you’ll understand the quotation marks soon enough) and can end up costing tens—if not hundreds—of thousands of dollars. That’s a big jump if you’ve got a set budget with minimal wiggle room. You need to consider two things when designing a budget: what value you expect for your investment and how much you can afford now and in future.

Consideration 1: Assigning value

At some point, it will become important to prove an LMS is a good investment for your organisation. When optimally used, LMSs have a great ROI. But the size of investment can turn some people off and lead to unrealistic budget planning.

Most of the value you are gaining from that investment is, at first glance, intangible. This is because many benefits are experienced over time and for an LMS to be most effective, continuous learning needs to be embedded within your organisation—which is why it’s important to define what will be a marker of successful implementation (think turnover, attrition, administrative overhead, as a starting point).

Consideration 2: Future budget & needs

We’re often told the more expensive purchase now will be cheaper in the long run. Take the fast fashion vs investment pieces debate. Two similar sweaters might cost $40 and $140. The $40 one is made of cheaper, synthetic materials that wear down quickly when washed. The sweater then doesn’t hold its shape, becomes thin and needs to be replaced within a year. The $140 one is made from 100% wool and requires more careful attention when cleaning but lasts for 10 years even with frequent wear. The choice is obvious, right? Not if $140 isn’t in your budget when you need the sweater.

When it comes to your learning management software, you need to consider your future needs as the “wear” in the sweater scenario. Can you afford to pay for new upgrades, features and functionalities in future if you can’t afford them now? Maybe you’re looking to scale in the next few years. If user numbers are tapped, for example, you’ll find that options that are affordable in the present may still charge you for that overdraft in future. If you foresee running over a pricing plan each month, then it’ll make sense to upgrade to the next one at day dot.

There may also be plans where they don’t charge you that much for overages, so it instead makes sense to just pay for those—particularly if you don’t need the new features a higher plan is charging you for on top of more users.

Key considerations

Keep checking your bill. It’s important to continuously re-evaluate your budget even once you’ve implemented an LMS because what’s affordable now may be expensive in the long run. Keep asking questions like:

Who are our learners?

Who are we facilitating learning for with an LMS? What are their current capabilities? What content do they need to upskill? How do they like to learn?

Whether it’s employees, partners or customers who are using the LMS, understanding their needs is crucial to choosing the right learning management system and having that choice be successful. Failing this step, it can be easy to unwittingly insult the intelligence of your learners by:

  1. Providing dry and/or irrelevant content; or
  2. Supplying content that is far beyond their understanding.

Any of these above scenarios will impede the learning you are trying to facilitate, making an LMS redundant before you’ve even really got anywhere. This is why it’s important to remember the most important stakeholder in this decision: the end user.

If the aim is to implement an LMS through which you can create or source a wide array of learning materials that cover a wide array of capabilities, job roles and methods of delivery, you need to ask yourself how your learners, well, learn. Is on-the-job training possible? Do they have time to read long papers? Would they prefer short daily doses or day-long training sessions? Do your employees have easy access to technology, or do their day-to-day activities barely require technology? Gather information through surveys or feedback before you approach LMS vendors so you can filter out those who can’t fulfil your learners’ needs.

This is particularly crucial if you must prove to users the effort of learning a new technology will greatly improve their work lives. Learning pathways, as an example, is a fairly standard LMS feature that allows the system to tailor learning programs and content around an individual’s current capabilities and their future goals.

Key considerations

For learning to become ubiquitous (and your LMS to provide a good ROI), you need to shape it around learners’ day-to-day lives. Understanding the different users in the LMS will help you implement a learning management system that is best suited for them. Consider:

Who will be responsible for admin?

Who will own user management? Who will ensure content is up to date? Who will facilitate assessments and grading?

We’ve said it once, and we’ll say it again: your vendor is responsible for maintenance, not management. While they can and should provide technical support, LMS vendors cannot understand the nuances of your organisation. An LMS administrator is responsible for behind-the-scenes tasks including:

This is nothing short of a full-time job, which is why it’s usually owned by an L&D or HR professional within your organisation. This is because they need to already have a hand in employee training, an understanding of any business activities that online training contributes to and the time to manage potentially hundreds of users. It’s particularly important that they understand the job roles employees already fill and those you are forecasted to need, in order to design learning pathways and programs that bridge the skills gap and address business goals.

Key considerations

Having someone or multiple people within your organisation who ensure learning materials and system functionality are supporting your goals is core to the success of implementation. Only someone on the inside can really tell you that a system is working for your needs and course correct if it’s not. A good LMS administrator:

What kind of access do we need?

Where do we want our learners to consume content? How do we want learners to be able to access the system?

Anytime, anywhere access is usually the answer here. But there’s another consideration that you may not immediately think of; quite literally how users get into the system.

Location

A particularly useful feature of the cloud-based learning management system is the ability for users to access the system on any device and from any location. The workforce is increasingly geographically diverse, meaning a desktop app or software tied to your organisation’s server may not be the most viable option.

Personal devices

If you’ve decided anytime, anywhere access is a must-have, then you’ll need to consider what devices an LMS can be accessed on. Many will come with apps, but it’s important to research responsive design and the kinds of devices your learners will be using, from desktops to tablets.

Logins

Will users need to create a new username and password for the LMS? Or would it be easier to implement a system with Single Sign On (SSO) capabilities? The latter means users can employ an existing account/password combination in your internal systems. SSO is an integration most LMSs will offer as a standard, but it always pays to ask if it’s offered.

Key considerations

Limited or limiting access to the LMS will directly impact engagement rates. An LMS must be easy to use, so how easy it is to log into the learning management system is another point you’ll need to consider, particularly if you’re asking employees to adopt an LMS for the first time.

Is our user base going to grow?

Will an LMS support us if we scale? What infrastructure will we need to support that?

Functionality aside, one of the key benefits and most attractive traits of the LMS is its ability to scale. The direction the eLearning industry is headed is largely untethered. Cloud-based learning management systems for one are free of the shackles of physical space, since they are hosted via secure internet connections. Their infrastructure (read: code) is built to support vertical growth; meaning you don’t need to worry about finding more storage space. Many even autonomously scale to meet the demand of user base and content—which sounds mildly impressive until you consider that means support (on your side or the vendor’s) doesn’t have to handle this. This makes it pretty impressive, because that’s not a strain on your IT team, budget or even capacity to administer learning. However, we list it as a point to consider as not all LMSs will allow you to a) scale or b) scale for free.

Key considerations

An LMS that can’t scale is going to cost you time, money and resources in future attempts to extricate yourself from it. That’s why you need to do the math now.

Which LMS features are essential for our training needs?

What features will support our learning strategy goals? What will distract from or hinder the learning process?

This is the big one to consider. It will both impact and be impacted by your budget and what your learners need, so we recommend spending a good amount of time on this topic of research. You’ll find plenty of articles out there that tell you the best LMS features on the market. But if we’ve said it once, we’ve said it a million times: there is no one-size-fits-all eLearning solution. Understanding how features contribute to the effectiveness of your eLearning solution will be essential to your success, what will be helpful and what will hinder progress depends on a few factors.

Tracking & reporting

The fastest way to determine the success of an LMS is through astute tracking and reporting. This ensures you (or more accurately, your system admin; see above) know if learners are engaging with content, progressing at an appropriate rate or falling through the cracks. It’s entirely rare for reporting not to be high on a buyer’s list of essential features, least of all because without it, admin must manually view every individual’s profile to understand their development. (And forget trying to view learning at a cohort level.)

Still, tracking and reporting tools can vary across learning management systems. Consider what you might need to track:

Then there’s the ways in which you can track this data through the LMS. Do you have the resources for manual tracking or would an automated set up be beneficial considering restrictions to both time and manpower? You might also need to track training from other systems, which brings us to our next point.

Integrations

You might hear LMS vendors say their learning management system plays well with others. This is a fun way of saying the software can interact with other systems by pushing and pulling data between them. Might sound overly technical, but it’s actually a sign of the long-term viability of your LMS. You see, how content and data is managed and from where is reflective of an LMS’s sustainability.

Customisation & branding

Creating a familiar environment for your learners is important for learner buy-in as much as it is representing your organisation’s brand. For some, corporate colours and a logo are enough to represent the organisation—which white-labelled LMS software can offer. Others prefer a system that is overhauled to remove any remnants of the vendor. What you may not consider under the customisation umbrella are other materials such as online training certificates, the ability to change languages based on region, user roles and dashboards for different roles, and reports.

For example, you might want to create user, facilitator and admin roles that have different system privileges. Would you expect a user, who’s role is simply to engage with online training, to be able to access the same functionality as an admin who is overseeing dozens of learning pathways across different departments? It’ll help to evaluate any learning materials and methods of delivery you currently have. Would they look better with professional branding? Would certain processes be streamlined if you could change the language of a program with one click? Would your team benefit from having specific roles assigned in the eLearning pathway?

Key considerations

Literally, all of the above and then some. These are only some of the possible features you might need of an LMS, which is part of the problem we are trying to help you navigate. No matter the feature offered, ask yourself:

The takeaway

The key to making the right choice of LMS lies in asking the right questions of LMS vendors. But what makes those questions the right ones to ask for your organisation? Context.

Defining solution criteria comes down to understanding:

Knowing the parameters of these factors will make talking to LMS vendors a much easier process, because you’ll be asking questions that won’t leave room for miscommunication. We won’t lie, this is a step of the selection process that requires a good amount of your time. But it’s the one that will ensure you know what you need, what would be nice to have and what you don’t want before you’re paying for it.

Book a call with the team at Acorn today and let’s build the best LMS for you, together. We’ve maintained a 100% retention rate since launching thanks to our incredible platform, great customer service and people-focused approach. So get in touch with one of our eLearning experts for a free discussion about how we can help you truly unlock the potential of your employees.

Experience Acorn for yourself

At Acorn, we’ve designed a system that supports organisations looking to invest in their most valuable asset – their employees. We take the time to learn about our one million (and counting) users to ensure our intuitive LMS is the right fit for them. Get in touch with one of our eLearning experts to chat about how Acorn can help achieve your goals.