Steps for a Successful LMS Selection

Updated on April 2, 2024

LMS Selection

Understanding the nuances of choosing an LMS is crucial for any organization looking to enhance its learning and development programs. Learning platform selection and purchase decisions are high-stakes because choosing the wrong vendor will haunt your organization for years to come.

A successful LMS selection process requires a selection team with a shared vision of the business requirements and is wary of product marketing material. Unsuccessful teams take vendor demos and marketing materials at face value, failing to perform rigorous testing and validation against their organization’s business requirements. This guide aims to provide a comprehensive approach to choosing an LMS that serves your specific needs and ensures a robust learning environment.

1. Understand your needs

Before delving into vendor selection, it’s imperative to understand the ‘why’ behind choosing an LMS for your organization. Define what success looks like for your team and learners. Consider conducting a needs analysis to determine the features most critical to your organization’s learning objectives. This initial step ensures that your selection criteria directly align with your organizational goals and the specific needs of your learners.

2. Verify vendor marketing materials and demos 

Rolled up and stacked magazines

Let’s face it. LMS vendors have a strong incentive to inflate product features in marketing materials and demonstrations. They’ll throw buzzwords at you, like “cross-listing,” “gamification,” and “eCommerce,” that make choosing an LMS difficult, but you can’t assume that features listed in marketing are designed and implemented to meet your specific business needs.

For example, does “eCommerce” mean the LMS supports your approved payment processor? Will your existing online learning course content display correctly in the LMS’s “Mobile Learning” app? There is no way to know unless you see the feature demoed and tested with your content and business case.

Keep in mind that software capabilities are not always black and white. The current version of the LMS system may not include a feature demonstrated during a marketing presentation. LMS vendors may add features in their marketing that are either “on the roadmap,” “in beta testing,” or created for the narrow requirements of one client that are unlikely to overlap with your own.

The bottom line is that vendors write feature lists so that they check every box in buyer RFIs or RFPs. It’s rare that an LMS vendor will blatantly misrepresent capabilities. They will, however, take advantage of gray areas to present the most favorable picture of their product.

3. Build an LMS selection team with the necessary experience


A group of figures with symbols above their heads

Learning Management System vendors have a natural advantage over LMS buyers because they sell every day. LMS buyers, on the other hand, typically evaluate and choose an LMS system once or twice in a career. The danger is that the selection team will not have the experience to ask the hard questions that will lead to the best decision. Moreover, an inexperienced selection team may be tempted to use the vendor salesperson as a consultant or advisor.

To address this potential imbalance, you must staff your team with as much experience as possible. The Learning Department or HR leaders should lead the team. The current LMS Administrator should support these leaders. In larger organizations, this role may be shared, so choose the person with the most hands-on experience.

Consider including a representative from Procurement. Procurement often has the most experience dealing with vendors, and they understand the organization’s procurement process.

Finally, include a representative from IT. Ultimately, the IT organization will support the Learning Management System after implementation. They will provide critical knowledge to assess technical requirements related to the API, single sign-on, and many other LMS integration points with other enterprise systems.

If you don’t have the necessary internal expertise, you may need to look outside your organization for a consultant. Outside consultants often bring a level of experience and objectivity that helps keep the decision focused on requirements.

A common pitfall for selection committees when choosing an LMS is getting too focused on the “cool” features at the expense of fundamentals. Gamification and virtual reality have exciting potential, but they shouldn’t distract from ensuring that the vendor has fully developed more mundane features.

Choose an LMS with proven features like reporting and user management that support the business model. An outside consultant can help cut through the hype, identify the core features needed to meet your business goals, and set up a process that validates essential capabilities.

4. Market research

Once you’ve built a knowledgeable selection team, it’s time to conduct thorough market research. Understanding the landscape of LMS options is crucial in choosing an LMS that fits your requirements. Look into industry reports, user reviews, and case studies. This research will give you a clearer picture of what different platforms offer and how they have performed for similar organizations.

5. Set clear objectives

Clarify your learning objectives and how you expect the LMS to support them. Are you focusing on compliance training, skill development, or perhaps a blend of both? Setting clear objectives will guide your discussions with IT and LMS vendors, ensuring that you’re choosing an LMS system that can truly deliver on your expectations.

6. Partner with IT, but clarify roles


handshake with digital hand

In larger organizations, the selection committee includes an IT representative. IT is a valuable partner in learning management systems’ budgetary, selection, and implementation process. However, a common mistake is leaning too heavily on the IT department to develop detailed business requirements. The learning organization should take the lead on requirements and generate a comprehensive list of issues with the current system that the new system will correct.

To be sure, there are areas where IT needs to take the lead. For example, it is best practice to defer to your IT partner for vetting the LMS API documentation, choosing between different Single Sign-On methods, and LMS integration with existing systems.

IT’s role will expand after choosing an LMS and implementation begins. Ensure you have a well-developed agreement with IT about implementation roles and responsibilities. A common understanding will be necessary to establish budgets and schedules for the implementation phase.

During the selection process, discussing and planning who will take the lead in project management is also wise. Vendor communication, implementation meetings, and trouble ticket follow-up will likely require a full-time commitment for many months.

No matter which LMS platform you choose, implementation will have hurdles, so spend time during the selection process building relationships with IT to ensure a smooth implementation and successful rollout.

7. Create and document detailed business requirements


Signing contract in office

A detailed business requirements document will go a long way towards ensuring your new or LMS systems will support your business needs. Failure to adequately document requirements or writing requirements that are not sufficiently detailed will increase the risk of overlooking important gaps in system capabilities and features.

Be specific. A high-level requirement such as “eCommerce” is so broad that the selection team may interpret underdeveloped capabilities as meeting the requirement. Instead, lay out exactly what needs to happen in words used by the business. For example, “User must be able to purchase course access with a credit card via PayPal and Authorize.NET.” Adding this additional detail allows you to test actual functionality instead of just checking to see if the feature is listed.

Be thorough. Describing use cases for each requirement will help you identify the needed capabilities. For example, “A new hire is added to the LMS system via API. They are assigned the onboarding curriculum automatically, based on the placement of the new hire in an organizational unit during onboarding.” Analyzing this use case allows you to extract specific needs you might otherwise overlook. For example, it suggests the need for API integration, curriculum support, organizational units, and automatic assignments. As you flesh out each use case, you will uncover additional business requirements that are critical to your decision-making process.

Without specific, detailed requirements, you won’t be able to vet the LMS during testing adequately. A little extra documentation effort will speed up the testing process and ensure that it reveals important issues before a contract is signed.

8. Understand integration capabilities

An essential factor in choosing an LMS is understanding its integration capabilities with your existing systems. Ensure the LMS can seamlessly integrate with your HRIS, CRM, and other critical tools. This LMS integration is key to providing a cohesive learning experience and simplifying administrative processes. Here’s how to ensure your chosen LMS has robust integration capabilities:

Compatibility with Existing Systems: The LMS should easily integrate with your current HRIS, CRM, and other essential tools. This integration is vital for automating data transfers, maintaining accurate records, and providing a unified user experience. Check if the LMS supports standard integration protocols like API, xAPI, or LTI, which facilitate smooth communication between different systems.

Single Sign-On (SSO): Look for LMS platforms that support SSO capabilities. SSO allows users to access multiple applications with one set of login credentials, simplifying the user experience and enhancing security. It’s a critical feature for organizations looking to provide a seamless transition between different systems.

Data Synchronization: The LMS should offer real-time or scheduled data synchronization to ensure that user data, course completions, and other critical information are consistently updated across all systems. This feature reduces administrative burden and enhances reporting accuracy.

Customization and Flexibility: Every organization has unique needs. The LMS you choose should not only integrate with your current systems but also be flexible enough to adapt to future changes. It should allow for custom integrations and be adaptable to new technologies or systems you may adopt.

Vendor Support and Documentation: Strong vendor support is crucial for successful integration. Choose a vendor that provides comprehensive documentation, responsive customer service, and support for the integration process. They should be willing to work closely with your IT team to address any challenges and ensure a smooth implementation.

Scalability: As your organization grows, your LMS should grow with you. Ensure that the integration capabilities of the LMS can handle increased loads and more complex data structures without compromising performance.

By focusing on these integration aspects, you’ll choose an LMS that not only fits seamlessly into your current technological landscape but also enhances the overall functionality and efficiency of your learning and development initiatives.

9. Consider the user experience

When choosing an LMS, prioritizing user experience (UX) is vital for engagement and learning outcomes. User Interface (UI) should be intuitive and customizable to match your organization’s branding. Ensure Accessibility for all users, including those with disabilities, by adhering to standards like the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG).

Personalization is key; the LMS should offer adaptive learning paths and content recommendations based on user roles or history. A robust Mobile Learning experience is crucial, with native apps or responsive design for convenient access on any device.

Incorporate Interactive Elements like quizzes and discussions to keep learners engaged. The platform should have mechanisms for Feedback and Support, including tutorials and customer service, to enhance the learning journey. Testing and Analytics are essential for understanding user interactions and making informed improvements. Lastly, ensure the LMS is scalable and performs well under increased loads to maintain a consistent experience as your organization grows.

By focusing on these aspects, you’ll choose an LMS that not only meets your learning objectives but also provides an enjoyable and effective experience for users.

10. Get your hands dirty


dirty hands

We started this list with the need to “Verify vendor marketing materials.” We’ll assume you have experienced the vendor demo and verified that the features important to your organization are in the current version of the product. Now, it’s time to use your detailed requirements and use cases to perform hands-on testing.

You will start by establishing an internal testing and validation protocol that ensures that the product you buy has features that are fully implemented and designed to support your specific needs. First, prioritize your business requirements so that you test the most critical capabilities first. If you are choosing with time pressure, you may not have time to check all requirements. Next, create a test script based on the use cases identified earlier. (If you are unfamiliar with creating test scripts, check out our earlier post on designing test scripts for eLearning QA. Many of the concepts will be similar.)

Structure test items to express results with a standardized scale (Yes or No, 1-10, etc.). Subjective responses can lead to confusion when comparing results between systems. Finally, test each requirement from the user experience perspective, learning management system administrative functions, and instructor functions. Evaluate workflow and usability for each role based on how the experience impacts time and, ultimately, the total cost of ownership.

When it comes time to conduct testing, do your best to carry it out under real-world circumstances or as close to it as possible. Realism may mean populating the LMS with dummy user data, using actual courses, and asking testers to use a variety of browsers, mobile devices, and network configurations.

11. Resolve issues before you buy


signing contract in office

Your negotiation power and influence with the vendor is at its peak during the selection process. Try to resolve outstanding issues before you sign on the dotted line.

The testing process should narrow your list to 2 vendors. Use the issues identified during testing to help you make your final LMS selection. Press hard to resolve the critical problems to your satisfaction before the purchase. Don’t trust that the vendor will release a future version or patch that fixes a critical flaw.

You may choose to let low-priority features slide if they aren’t quite “there” yet, but never assume that a patch will correct features that are not currently working after you complete the purchase. If the vendor promises to add a capability after the date of purchase, consider adding a clause to the contract that obligates the vendor to deliver and permits your organization to exit the contract or receive a discount on license fees if promises are unmet.

12. Long-term considerations

Choosing an LMS is a long-term investment. Consider the platform’s scalability and ability to adapt to your evolving learning needs. Look for vendors who are committed to continuous improvement and offer regular updates and support. This consideration ensures that the LMS platform you choose today will continue to serve your needs in the future.

Choosing an LMS is a significant decision that impacts the effectiveness of your learning initiatives. Hopefully, this article will help you avoid some of the pitfalls of choosing the right LMS. By following these enhanced steps and focusing on your specific organizational needs, you’ll be better equipped to select an LMS that meets your current requirements and supports your future growth.

There is no perfect Learning Management System. Every learning platform has shortcomings and deficiencies. The trick is to identify these issues before you make a purchase decision and take action to ensure you get the most value for your investment. There are no shortcuts. Only a rigorous selection process based on business requirements and validated through testing will avoid unpleasant surprises discovered after the purchase contract is signed.

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