What’s an LMS? Part 1

Lessons learned in implementing a Learning Management System.

By Glenn Drysdale, Training & Organizational Development Manager, Multi-Chem

Recently, I embarked upon an adventure: implementing the first Learning Management System (LMS) in our company. It has been a rewarding venture, providing functionality we have needed for some time. The experience yielded many lessons that might be helpful for others. Here are some of the lessons we learned along the way.

Is your company ready to embark on the journey of acquiring your first LMS? The answer to this question might be “Yes,” even if employees don’t yet know what one is.

In our Learning & Development group, manual processes and procedures, and especially tracking and reporting of course offerings, had become difficult. It was no one’s fault; we simply had outgrown our systems. I felt it was time to share a new vision for a better way to support the training function in our company. Here are some practical ways to proceed.

Do Your Homework

Begin by learning all you can about the LMS world; there is much to know! A Learning Management System (commonly abbreviated as LMS) is a software application for support of the training function including the administration, documentation, tracking, and reporting of training programs. This can include support for classroom and online events, as well as e-learning programs. The LMS also can be a learning content site where your learning content can be hosted and accessed by learners (LMCS—Learning Management Content System). A robust LMS should be able to do virtually anything that a company needs in order to support the training function, and there are many possibilities—including some excellent options for social networking. A quick Web search will reveal the possibilities.

Many business or enterprise-level LMSs support talent management add-ons to manage the performance side of human capital, though this functionality can be expensive. Again, you will need to do your homework. We wanted to formalize job roles with core competencies that we could use to map performance reviews and training options, and then move into succession planning and talent management. We also wanted to host CBTs, or Computer-Based Training. I developed a specific shopping list; I knew what I wanted.

You will need to make a decision about what type of system will be best. Will you purchase software and ask your IT group to install, update, and run it? Or will you opt for a Software-as-a-Service (Saas) model, with a monthly subscription based on your number of users—and where, typically, the hosting can be done by the vendor, allowing your IT group to be largely free to work on other projects?

Doing your homework is a process; allow plenty of time for research, discussion, and networking. If you shortcut this process, you won’t have a clear and compelling vision to share with your company.

Focus on Solving Business Problems or Meeting Needs

One of our needs centered on processes that needed better support in our company. For example, we needed a delivery vehicle for our performance review process. I was asked to assist with a redesign of this process, and the need for such a delivery vehicle became apparent. How would we push out the performance review process to supervisors and their direct reports? How would we track and report on it? This was a challenge. I focused our team on the issue: We needed a delivery vehicle, and an LMS could provide it, along with the tracking and reporting desired.

Create a Clear Vision, and Sell It

Often, selling a vision is about timing. If frustrations are mounting over inefficiencies and the inability to see clearly what is happening in the organization, it is prime time for selling the LMS vision. If there is no felt need, create one by sharing about what the future could be, with better systems—yet without being critical of the present reality.

Sell your vision to key stakeholders—those with the influence and ability to make the vision a reality. Remember: Without executive support and sponsorship, you are not ready to move forward. Also remember: A key IT stakeholder can be your best friend. Create talking points to share what an LMS can do for the company and what problems it can solve. Tell the stakeholders how it can benefit the company and why it is worth doing. An old commercial once asked: “Where do you want to go today?” That’s the spirit to capture. Once key stakeholders begin to share your vision, they will want to kick the tires a bit, so have models to share with them and arrange for demos hosted by LMS vendors.

Choose Your Vendors

Research is important in determining what vendors you will want to consider. Much of this research is available on the Internet and at learning conferences. I attended the Training Conference & Expo and found all I needed—classes, networking opportunities, and vendors. I also found excellent information from Gartner’s Magic Quadrant.

Bersin & Associates has reported that LMSs represent an $860 million market of more than 60 different providers. The six largest LMS companies constitute approximately 50 percent of the market. Approximately 40 percent of U.S. training organizations reported that they have an LMS installed, a figure that has not changed significantly over the last two years. Only 36 percent of small businesses are using an LMS (Bersin et al. 2009).

I prepared an RFP spreadsheet (Request for Proposal), which I sent to my selected vendors. On that sheet, I placed all of the specifics of my shopping list, the items I knew we wanted and needed in an LMS. This included information about features, functions, IT specs, hosting options, tracking and reporting, and other items. When I received the RFPs back, I was in a better position to determine what vendors I wanted to talk with further. Be sure to include items related to the training and support offered by the vendor as this is an area of great importance.

Present Your Plan

After I interviewed the vendors, I had knowledge of them, as well as their pricing. I decided on my first-choice vendor. With stakeholder support, clear knowledge, and vision, I was ready to present the plan to senior leadership for approval.

If you have created and shared a compelling vision based upon company needs, and have a clear first choice of vendor, it is the right time to move forward. Don’t mire them in all of the details of what you know; share with senior leadership the reasons for your choice of vendor and secure the green light for the next step.

Negotiate with Your Vendor of Choice

I believe everything is negotiable—whether buying a car or obtaining a service. Once software is built, if no one uses it, it sits on a shelf (or a server). I went into the discussion with my vendor with this mindset. I found there are levels of pricing, and plenty of choices. The end result of my discussion with my vendor of choice: a bid significantly lower than what other comparable vendors had offered, with more of my desired features than any of the others.

If you don’t ask, you will never know. I obtained an extra administrator’s seat, in case we needed it, because I asked for it. I secured some performance functions that saved us significant dollars. My chosen vendor offered a free CBT package for the first year, a major plus for us.

Finalize the bid, secure it, and then move forward.

Create a Presentation for Senior Leadership

I prepared a PowerPoint presentation about my vendor of choice, which shared information about them, what they offer, and why I chose them. I answered two questions in my presentation that had not yet been asked: Why and why now? That is, why do we need this LMS, and why do we need it now? Then I shared the pricing, and since the vision was clear regarding what the LMS would do for us, and who our vendor would be, the price was seen as reasonable. We moved forward, involved our legal counsel in vetting the vendor, and everyone was on board with the decision. We were on the way.

Part 2: Beginning the LMS Journey

NOTE: Posting February 17, the second article will discuss the implementation phase, software training, and phasing in LMS functionality over time. It also will discuss internal marketing and user adoption rates, etc.

Glenn Drysdale is the Training & Organizational Development manager at Multi-Chem. He has a broad background in learning organizations in corporate, educational, and nonprofit sectors. Currently, his responsibilities include curriculum design and development of both technical and professional skills courses related to the oil and gas Industry, as well as special projects in organizational development. Drysdale has four college degrees, including a Master of Arts in Teaching. He is a certified dispute resolution mediator and an adjunct professor. Married for 35 years, Glenn has two married sons and his wife, Karen, is a Training administrator; his older son, Jarrod, is an interactive Web/Flash designer; and his younger son. Jason. is a college coordinator of Instructional Learning Technology. Both of his sons’ wives are educators. Lifelong learning is all in the family.

Lorri Freifeld is the editor/publisher of Training magazine. She writes on a number of topics, including talent management, training technology, and leadership development. She spearheads two awards programs: the Training APEX Awards and Emerging Training Leaders. A writer/editor for the last 30 years, she has held editing positions at a variety of publications and holds a Master’s degree in journalism from New York University.