Choosing an LMS: How to Get it Right the First Time

Choosing a Learning Management System Image

Wondering what  to consider when choosing a learning management system, or LMS?  If so, you’re in good company.

Many companies realize that an LMS can help their workforce training program, but they have no solid ideas of what to look for, how to evaluate the LMS itself, or how to evaluate the LMS provider.

Adopting an LMS is a big decision, and not one to rush into. Even with time and caution, it’s a tough process to choose the right one. And choosing a poor one can really set you back, wasting time, money, and momentum.

To make the process easier, and help steer you in better directions, we’ve created a free downloadable guide to lead you through the LMS decision process. It’s at the bottom of this article.

Here are the topics we’ll cover in this article and that we’ll cover in more detail in the free guide at the bottom:

  1. Identify and consult with LMS stakeholders
  2. Determine business needs for LMS
  3. Where to get your LMS: Open source, build-your-own, or buy?
  4. Evaluate the LMS
  5. General functionality of the LMS
  6. Important features of the LMS

Six Tips for Choosing an LMS for Your Workplace

The article below will give you an overview of our six tips for starting and conducting your LMS search, and the free LMS evaluation guide at the bottom will go into more detail on each and give you a checklist to use.

1. Identify and Consult With LMS Stakeholders at Work

LMS Stakeholders Image

Before you rush out and evaluate and purchase an LMS all by yourself, be sure to identify all of the stakeholders at your company and try to get their needs, opinions, buy-ins, contributions, and support early.

Who are the stakeholders, and why are they important when choosing an LMS?

Stakeholders are a critical component of any significant project, program, or activity. Within your organization, the individuals or groups that are stakeholders in the LMS evaluation decision include anyone who can affect, be affected by, or feel affected by, the implementation of a new learning management system.

Consider the employees first

Start by thinking of the employees who will take their training from the LMS.

What are their learning needs? How will they view and complete training? What types of training are they familiar with? How comfortable are they with technology and online systems? How difficult is it to use the LMS?

Would they prefer a system that manages only online workforce training courses, or would they prefer a system that manages all different types of training (including instructor-led, field-based, video, eLearning, etc.) in a blended learning solution?

Would they like an LMS that simply manages formal, assigned training, or would they like one that also allows them to access optional training on a voluntary, self-guided basis?

Would they like a learning management system that makes it easy for employees to actively share knowledge without all training and knowledge share being controlled by the trainers?

Would they like an LMS that’s got integrated mobile learning apps so they can view and complete training on their tablets and smart phones?

These are some of the questions you should be thinking about.

Don’t forget contractors, visitors, vendors, and customers

In addition to training employees, you may also choose to use your LMS to train or provide orientation to contractors, visitors, vendors, and possible even customers.

Give this some thought BEFORE you get an LMS that won’t allow you to do this. For example, having a cloud-based LMS instead of one on your network will allow contractors to access orientations online without VPN’ing into your work network.

Read more about LMSs for online contractor/visitor/vendor orientations and more about an LMS for training your customers.

Next, the LMS administrators

Next, think about your future LMS administrators.

Who are the future LMS administrators? What will they need to do with the LMS? What are their ultimate goals for the learning/training effort?

Will all administrators have the same needs, or will needs vary from admin to admin? Does the LMS allow you to easily configure or assign different admin security roles to account for differing levels of admin needs and/or permissions?

What are their training content import, creation, assignment, crediting, and reporting needs?

Do they have specific needs for training record access and storage?

How will the LMS help them be more efficient and effective at administering your training program?

And finally, the other LMS stakeholders

Finally, get together with other departments that will want a say in the LMS decision. This may include people from any of the following departments or organizational roles:

  • Training/Learning & Development
  • HR
  • IT
  • Operations
  • Safety
  • Quality
  • Leadership

Each of these departments will have unique needs and valuable insight.

Create an LMS evaluation team

From this collective group of stakeholders, create a team that includes representatives from each type of stakeholder mentioned above, and have them actively participate in the LMS evaluation process.

You have a better chance of selecting the best LMS for your company if you get their help, and you’ll also get more buy-in than you would if you go it alone.


2. Determine Your Company’s Training Needs

Determine Your Organization's Training Needs Image

Once you’ve identified your stakeholders, you might be tempted to start evaluating LMSs. But that, my friend, would be a classic case of putting the proverbial cart in front of the proverbial horse.

Instead, take some time to figure out your company’s training, learning and development, and business needs. Once you’ve got those in hand, it will be much easier to choose an LMS that meet those needs.

To do this, start by asking (and answering) the following questions:

What are your company’s training needs?

What kind of training materials do you want to deliver? These could include:

  • Instructor-led training (ILT)
  • Field-based training
  • OJT job shadowing
  • PowerPoints
  • PDFs
  • Videos
  • eLearning/online courses
  • Virtual reality/augmented reality/other new training methods

Next, consider if your company has specific assignment needs, such as materials that are assigned every year, or every three years? This is common in safety training, for example. Or maybe you want an LMS that helps assigned refresher training after short intervals in a spaced learning effort to combat the forgetting curve?

Another thing to consider is the kind of data your company needs to capture when the training is completed. How detailed does a completion record have to be? What information has to be recorded and saved? Is that information also visible on reports?

What are your current training problems and challenges?

Consider your current training solution. What are the biggest headaches, frustrations, and challenges you’d like to solve?

Knowing this will help you select the best LMS for that particular problem. For example, if your primary issue is compliance, tracking, and record-keeping for safety training, you may have one set of needs that are different than the needs of a company that’s trying to implement effective training for the Sales department or a call center.

(Quick tip: Check out out guide for evaluating online safety training solutions, our article on LMSs for Safety Training, and/or download our free online safety training buyer’s guide checklist for more information specific to online safety training). 

Or maybe your problem is delivering training training to workers on multiple shifts, or at multiple locations, or who work on the road, or who work at remote locations?

Knowing your problems will help you select the right solution.

What are your current training and learning limitations?

Are there things you’d like to do with your training program that you currently can’t? What are they?

Create a list of these and evaluate different LMSs against that list.

How will your choice of an LMS be affected by future company growth?

Think about your company’s potential for growth over the next five to twenty years. How will that factor into your current and future learning management needs? For example, will you expand to multiple locations, creating a need for distance learning capabilities?

When you complete this process, you should have a substantial list of all your current and future business and learning needs.

(Related tip: Check out our Signs You May Outgrow Your LMS article for more on this.) 

3. Where to Get Your LMS: Open Source, Build You Own, or Buy?

Where to Get Your LMS Image

There are two more things to think about before you go shopping for an LMS.

First, do you need one? It’s possible that the research you’ve done so far has shown that you don’t, at least not at the present time. If that’s the case, you can stop reading this guide now, and maybe pick it up again in a year or two.

Second, assuming you DO need an LMS, you might consider alternatives to buying one from an LMS provider. There are at least three alternatives to buying an LMS:

Using an open-source LMS

An open-source LMS is a free, openly licensed software application, where the copyright holder provides the right to study, change, and/or distribute the software to anyone at anytime, for any reason. This software is typically developed publicly, with many collaborators.

Open-source software applications are common and they can be great solutions. For example, if you’ve ever used the Mozilla Firefox web browser, you’ve used an effective piece of open-source software. And by the way, that link I just gave you for Mozilla goes to Wikipedia, which isn’t software but IS an example of an effective open-source solution.

But back to open-source LMSs in particular. The best-known open source LMS is probably Moodle, but there are more, too—here’s a list of ten open source LMSs.

Initially, setting up an open-source LMS is free and painless. What’s not to like–it’s already been created for you. But that can change once you begin using it. Is your IT department willing and prepared to begin customizing it and supporting it? Is there a budget for this? Will you ever get it into a shape that works perfectly or “good enough” for you?

These important questions balance the “gee wow” factor of getting something for free. That’s not to say a free, open-source LMS isn’t the way to go. But it is worth remembering some potential downsides as well.

Build your own learning management system

Another option is to build your own LMS. Or have your IT team build your own LMS 🙂

There are companies out there that have done this, and it’s probably true that at least some of them have created a workable system they’re pleased and satisfied with.

As with open source LMSs, building your own LMS may not be as easy or inexpensive as it seems. An LMS may appear to be somewhat simple, but the good ones use intuitive interfaces and clever programming to mask some very complex operations. If an LMS provider has been in the business for ten or fifteen years, you can be sure they have struggled with challenges that you’d face, have brainstormed and identified solutions, and have incorporated those into their LMS already.

Do you want to go through that same process, even if building an LMS isn’t what your company does for revenue? You may be better off leaving this to people who are in the business already.

Additionally, even if you are able to create a working (or great!) LMS using in-house developers, you’ve got to think of the opportunity cost. What could those same developers have done instead of building an LMS for you? Where is the greater value?

Using SharePoint or Something Like WordPress as an LMS

Another option is to use Microsoft Sharepoint or a blogging engine like WordPress as a pre-formatted platform that you can use to  build your own LMS or create an LMS-like environment.

There are companies that have done each and, in each case, there are probably companies that are satisfied with each.

But keep in mind both the work involved in set-up and the almost guaranteed inherent limitations in using a platform like this that was never designed with the explicit intention of performing as a learning management system.

Buy or License an LMS from an LMS Provider

Finally, you may just decide to pay a professional to do this. There are lots of advantages to this, including their years of specialized experience, their IT staff, their customer support staff, and so on.

4. Evaluate the LMS

Evaluate the LMS Image

Evaluating the LMS provider

Finally, you’re ready to begin evaluating LMS providers and their LMSs. Here’s a list to consider when choosing a provider.

Experience

Did they just start doing business, and are they offering a barely tested LMS? Or have they been around for a long time, and are they offering an LMS that’s worked with many clients for many years?

There are clear advantages to experience.

Choose an LMS provider with a proven track record

Ask the provider if they have customers like you, and ask which features of the LMS work well for those customers.

LMS training materials and training staff

Even with the most intuitive LMS, you may need help learning how to use and implement it at your workplace.

Make sure the LMS provider offers a range of training materials—instructor-led sessions, webinars, e-learning videos, manuals, and job aids. Look for online self-guided help databases, as well.

And check to see how the LMS provider informs you of new LMS features and how to use them, too.

Dedicated support staff

At some point, you may have support needs. Does the company have a dedicated support staff? What does “support” mean in this context–can you talk to a person, or do you have to fill out a form or send an email and await a written reply?

What does support cost? Is the support staff responsive and friendly? How do you reach them? How long does it generally take for support inquiries to receive a reply?

Ongoing updates

You’ll want a system that’s uniformly consistent, but that also has a steady stream of new features and updates.

Ask your LMS provider if they update their system, how often they do, how you’ll receive those updates and how often, and how those updates to the LMS are chosen.

Diverse staff and professional experience

Does the staff of your LMS provider include learning professionals, software programmers, user interface experts, and support personnel?

How about people with subject matter expertise relevant to your industry?

A diverse staff with multiple expertise sets is more likely to create a better system for your organization’s learning and development needs.

Implementation and learning & development support

You don’t want to choose an LMS provider who’ll take your check and run.

Does the LMS provider offer LMS implementation guidance? What about guidance on learning & development basics, such as how to perform training needs analysis or how to create your own training materials?

Do they have a blog or online forum where they offer help?

Do you like the people?

Let’s face it—you’re going to be partners with this company, and that means you’ll be partners with the people who work there too.

Are the people a good fit for you? Do they talk your language (metaphorically, that is)? Are they responsive? Friendly? Knowledgeable?

In general, from the first moment of your contacts with this company, have you liked them?

First steps of the LMS evaluation process

If you’re comfortable with the LMS provider, look closely at the LMS itself before you begin vetting the system.

View an LMS demo

Before viewing a demonstration, gather your list of necessary LMS functions, so you’ll be well prepared during the actual demo.

Try to absorb as much information as you can during the demonstration. You can do this by asking questions, having the provider demonstrate functionality, and having them explain how the LMS would work with your company’s needs.

If it’s an online demo, consider recording your screen during the demonstration so you can watch the demo more than once.

Having the opportunity and the time to properly kick the tires will go a long way towards choosing an LMS that meets your needs. Don’t rush yourself at this stage.

Talk with other companies currently using the same LMS

No matter how thorough the demonstration, there will be things you won’t know or can’t anticipate until you begin using the system and hitting it hard.

See if the LMS provider can get you in touch with someone from a company who is currently using their LMS. Arrange to have a private discussion in which you can get that person’s honest feedback.

Don’t just settle for an “I like/don’t like it” answer—instead, prepare a list of questions in advance for this discussion, and remember to ask if the customer thought the LMS provider was helpful when issues did arise.

5. General LMS Functionality

You’re probably already familiar with the basic features of an LMS. People usually seek out an LMS because they’re looking for a way create, import, assign, deliver, track, and report on the training being done at their facility or throughout their organization. Each LMS does those things a little differently and each has its own subset of features that make it unique (read our list of must-have LMS features here).

Do your research and make sure the system you choose is fit for your learning and training needs, but also consider the following general tips that can often get overshadowed by flashy features:

Ease of use

This is the first point in this section because it can’t be stressed enough.

Your work is hard enough, and training is hard enough. There’s no reason for you and your employees to struggle to learn to use an LMS on top of that. Choosing an LMS that is intuitive and easy to use can really help to get administrators and learners excited about a new system.

This point is especially important  if your workforce includes people who weren’t born with a mouse and keyboard in their hands and therefore aren’t always comfortable with computers.

Hosting options: cloud-based or installed on your own server

Your LMS provider shouldn’t handcuff you into one solution. Want your LMS installed on your own network and behind your own firewall? That should be an option. Want a hosted, web-based solution that makes use of the cloud instead? Again, that should be up to you.

Remember, there are many, many solutions out there, and with a little due-diligence you should be able to find a good fit for your organization.

Reliable with 24/7 uptime

You’re going to want your LMS to be accessible to all workers (and administrators) at all times. Day shift, swing shift, night shift, weekday, and weekend. Ask the provider for documentation about their reliability and “up-time.”

Security

Is your training data secure? Ask for an explanation of the system’s security measures.

Scalability

Want to use the LMS at just one site? Or do you want to use it at 40 sites spread over the globe? Have it your way-the LMS should meet your needs now and in the future.

Single sign-on

If you use single sign-on (SSO) at work already, see if LMS login can be included in this.

Possibility of customizations

One size doesn’t fit all. Ask if the LMS can be customized, and if so, ask which features can be customized. And remember to find out which customizations would be free, and which would come at a cost.

Branding your LMS (“My Company University”)

You’ll want your LMS to include your company’s branding. Check to see if your company name, logo, and/or other branding can be included in the LMS (for example, the in the URL and/or Home page).

Mobile compatibility

Is the LMS compatible with mobile devices? Wouldn’t it be nice to take training onto the floor, into the conference room, or even on the road? Wouldn’t it be great to perform administrative features away from your desk?

(Quick tip: Read more on mobile learning apps).

Integrate the LMS with your other software systems at work

You may want your LMS to be integrated with other software systems at work, including your human resources information system (HRIS), ERP, CRM, incident investigation system for safety incidents, or more.

Check to see if this is possible and, if so, exactly what that means and how it works.

6. Specific LMS Features

With those general items considered, now it’s time to look in more detail at the specifics. Consult your list of needs and cross-reference them against the following general areas.

Managing your company personnel

Consider the ease of creating, editing, and deleting user records. Find out if the provider can automate some of this for you, and learn the different ways you can group employees for assignment and reporting purposes.

Training materials

Does the LMS facilitate all the types of training you do know and will do in the future? Can you import your own training materials? Does it include tools to help you create your own training materials? Are the import and creation tools easy to understand and use? Can you update training materials to create new versions?

Assignments

What are your assignment needs? Does the LMS support them? Is the assignment process simple yet powerful and flexible? Can you create mandatory assignments and optional elective-based training?

Training delivery options

What are your training delivery needs? Does the LMS facilitate training that’s delivered online PLUS training that takes place in the real world? Can it deliver pre-training materials? Can you preview training without first assigning it? Can employees refer back to previously completed training for reference?

Optional, on-demand training

Does the LMS allow you to not just assign training, but to also allow employees to enroll in training on an on-demand basis?

Credit for completed training

What can the system credit automatically, and what must (or can) you do manually? What kind of completion data does the system capture?

Automation

What does the system do automatically so that you won’t have to? Change training assignments based on your employee’s new job role? Send notifications to employees at key training moments? Send reports to department heads on a recurrent basis?

Reporting

Does the system’s reporting functionality fit your needs? Are the reports logical and easy to read? Is it easy to run reports on the information you’ll need most often? Can you set up reports to be generated and delivered on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis?

Security roles

What will your LMS administrators need to do? Does the LMS come with a security role system that can support your needs?

Language capabilities

Can the interface of the LMS support multiple languages? How does the LMS work with multi-language training materials?

More Information on Choosing an LMS–Free LMS Evaluation Guide and Checklist

Use the information above as a starting point and go out and explore different options. And print off our LMS evaluation guide and checklist at the bottom of this article to help you evaluate systems on a feature-by-feature basis.

For even more information on LMSs, you can check out any of the following articles:

Let us know if you have any LMS questions! Have a great day.

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Learning Management System (LMS) Buyer’s Guide

Learn what you need to know BEFORE you begin your search and get a free checklist to guide you, too.

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Jeffrey Dalto

Jeffrey Dalto

Jeffrey Dalto is an Instructional Designer and the Senior Learning & Development Specialist at Convergence Training. He's worked in training/learning & development for 20 years, in safety and safety training for more than 10, is an OSHA Authorized Outreach Trainer for General Industry OSHA 10 and 30, and is a member of the committee creating the upcoming ANSI Z490.2 national standard on online environmental, health, and safety training.

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