Know What You Need Before LMS Shopping

By Dave Zielinski Jun 17, 2014
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When Larry Wecsler was in the market for a new learning management system (LMS), at the top of his shopping list were flexible and robust reporting tools. Wecsler, vice president of organizational learning for the Texas-based wireless communications company MetroPCS, sought a cloud-based LMS to deliver and track training for thousands of dealer employees in 5,000 locations.

But Wecsler also needed an LMS that could generate monthly reports for company executives that would enable them to easily view by market how many employees had completed sales training and how that training was affecting store revenues.

“The key is the ease of use in a reporting tool, because no one here is an information technology expert,” Wecsler, who eventually chose an LMS from vendor Cornerstone OnDemand, told SHRM Online. “The custom analytics help build support from top management because we can show things like a high correlation between people completing training programs about a new sales promotion and being able to sell it to our customers.”

Choices Grow, Differences Shrink

Learning professionals shopping for an LMS today face tough choices. Not only are there more systems to choose from, it can be hard to distinguish the increasingly similar features in the latest platforms, which now include social, mobile and gaming functions. Bersin by Deloitte, a HR research and advisory firm, recently identified 500 different learning management systems serving the corporate market.

Here are some key factors to consider when evaluating and selecting a new LMS.

Clarify present and future learning objectives. Experts say finding a good LMS match requires a crystal-clear understanding of such requirements as:

  • The types of learning the system needs to support.
  • How compliance training needs to be tracked.
  • What devices employees will use to access their training.
  • Whether social learning is a good fit for your company culture.

“LMS contracts are multiyear, so you need to think not only about your present needs, but to project your system requirements out into the future,” said Michael Rochelle, chief strategy officer for the Brandon Hall Group, a research and consulting firm in Delray Beach, Fla.

Software-as-a-Service (SAAS) or on-premise? While industry momentum clearly favors the “cloud” or SAAS, the choice of installed or on-premise software can still be the right one for organizations. The benefits of a cloud LMS typically include more feature-rich software that’s frequently updated, lower capital costs and less dependence on internal information technology for support. 

“But if you’re in a heavily regulated industry with a high need for data security, or require a system that can be highly customized or tightly integrated with others, on-premise software can still be the right choice for you,” Rochelle said in a phone interview.

Will the LMS play well with others? If you are planning to integrate a cloud-based LMS with another talent system, experts say to test integration strength by employing specific-use cases in a vendor’s product demonstration. Involve the IT group to help determine configuration requirements and identify any hidden costs.

Todd Tauber, vice president of learning and development research for Bersin by Deloitte, said to be clear on your integration objectives before shopping. “If you want to hook your applicant tracking system into your LMS to smooth the onboarding process, or have the LMS talk to your performance management system, those are the use cases you’ll want to test in the demo process,” he explained.

Probing Product Demos

The product demonstration process is no time for passivity. “It’s important to ask the vendor if what you’re seeing in an LMS is a standard, out-of-the-box setup or whether it’s been customized for the demo process,” said Cathi Leon, a learning systems analyst with St. Luke’s Health System in Boise, Idaho. “You want to know if you’re seeing any add-ons that don’t come with the purchase. For example, is the social learning platform of the LMS standard or an add-on?”

Asking tough-but-fair questions helps you see how vendors walk their marketing talk, Rochelle said. “You can ask things like, ‘Under these specific circumstances, let’s take a look at how your system’s mobile capabilities meet our needs.’ ”

Cultural Support for Social Learning

Companies showing the strongest return on investment from use of social learning platforms in an LMS tend to be large, globally dispersed organizations, Tauber said. “They’re the ones that have the most to gain in connecting people to internal experts across geographic distances.” Benny Ramos counts his company, telecommunications firm Telus Corp. of Vancouver, British Columbia, among those reaping benefits from a social learning platform in an LMS.

“Instead of an LMS that only connects people to training courses, ours is designed to connect people to people and people to ideas,” said Ramos, a senior career development consultant with Telus. The company delivers a mix of structured and informal learning to employees in eight countries using an LMS from vendor Skillsoft.Flexible, User-Friendly Analytics

More learning executives are following the lead of Wecsler at MetroPCS and using the quality of systems analytics tools to separate vendors.

“More and more people are looking at ways to turn their LMS into a business intelligence tool,” said Rochelle. “That’s because [the] learning [function] is increasingly being asked by other parts of the organization for evidence of how it’s affecting performance or productivity.”

Dave Zielinski is a freelance business journalist in Minneapolis.

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