Friday, May 4, 2012

Selecting a Learning Management System

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Selecting a Learning Management System

A Learning Management System (LMS) is the backbone tool or application that automates the administration and tracking of online, self-study, traditional classroom-based and other learning events. It should be designed to manage material from multiple publishers and content providers. At a minimum an LMS should facilitate learning registration and enrollment, contain course catalogs, track associate training histories, provide reports for managers and training administrators, and integrate with HR systems and other resources. (Nawn, J., 2000). Other ‘nice to have’ functions include online assessments, personalized curriculum to each job or position, dissemination of course materials, and the capability to import and assemble course content for reuse in other courses. There are a myriad of LMS vendors on the market touting their system as the best available and urging companies to make quick decisions without going through a full evaluation and selection criteria. It is not only critical, but imperative that any organization looking to acquire or switch to a new LMS, take the necessary steps to ensure that requirements are met, and that expectations of system reliability is verified. This paper will attempt to walk the reader through the high level process of selecting and implementing an LMS. This process includes gathering requirements, reviewing key steps to follow throughout the process, and finally defining a high level implementation plan.

Systems Analysts have the tough job of interpreting the users’ true business requirements compared to a wish list in the sky. The analyst must ensure that all user groups or departments are represented during the requirements gathering interview to be certain that all requirements are expressed and the ‘voice of the customer’ is heard (Niles, K. 2000). The business requirement document should be a comprehensive list that details very clearly in layman terms the functionality that is needed in the system. Where possible, examples of how the requirement will be used should be listed to ensure clarity for both the analyst and the vendor. Listed below are sample requirements that are common among organizations seeking to invest in an LMS.



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Requirement Importance

1. Ability to track a course offering and store data elements such as
• Objectives, audience, Course Title, and automatic generated course number
• Course delivery method (Instructor Led, Web Based, etc.)
• Prerequisite requirement, length, credit hours

2. Ability to schedule classes based on the course offering and in different cities or locations. The class schedule should facilitate
• Wait and interest lists
• Cancellation policies and automatic charges
• Class enrollment limit
• Resource allocations to ensure that instructors or classrooms are not overbooked
• Enforce prerequisites are met
• Have the option to require manager approval, and automatic routing to the manager for approval
• Notification to the enrollment coordinator of classes that should be cancelled due to low enrollment

3. Ability for students to register via the WEB as well as providing the ability for enrollment coordinators to access the application from the desktop. The registration process should include
• Batch registrations for groups of departments
• Seamless student cancellation
• Automatic registration or cancellation notification via email to both student and manager
• Priority placement in a class based on department
• View training history of upcoming and past classes


4. Ability for instructors to print rosters and manage classes. Also instructors should be able to view their current schedule and past activity.

5. Support for blended learning that offers a mixed curriculum that combines classroom and virtual courses easily.

6. Integration with HR systems (PeopleSoft) to synchronize employees personal work information.

7. Administration - Enable administrators to manage user registrations and profiles, define roles, set curricula, chart certification paths, assign tutors, author courses, manage content, and administer internal budgets, user payments, etc.

8. Content creation/integration - An LMS may come bundled with an authoring system or integrate with an existing (external) one. Regardless, a good LMS should provide native support to a wide range of third-party courseware.

9. Adherence to standards - Support for standards like SCORM and AICC means that the LMS can import and manage content and courseware that complies with standards regardless of the authoring system that produced it.

10. Assessment, evaluation, and testing engines help to build a program that becomes more valuable over time.

11. Skills management - Enable organizations to measure training needs and identify improvement areas based on workers’ competencies.

12. Scalability/Configurability - If an organization needs to completely re-engineer its internal processes to install an LMS or program extensively to modify one, then it’s probably not a good fit.


One of the greatest challenges to selecting a good LMS is that there are a myriad of LMS vendors in the marketplace and only a handful of them are expected to survive in the next year. Most of the vendors currently target corporate clients with at least 1000 employees; while still many are starting to focus on solutions for small to mid-size companies. The best advice Kelleher could offer in such a climate is to know what you’re looking for. (Nawn, J., 2000). Specifically, he outlined few steps that should save you a lot of time and money and make sure you ultimately make the best choice. The steps are:

• Conduct a through needs analysis - the analyst responsible for conducting the needs analysis should consult various training divisions within the organization. Some large corporations may have multiple LMS systems for good reasons, but all should be considered to gather detail requirements. While disparate LMS’ may have made sense before truly enterprise-wide systems came on the scene, the power of new systems is their ability to function as a central repository that can be tailored for separate training functions. Buying one system to serve multiple departments also helps distribute costs among them.

• Write-up a requirements document - It is very important that the Analyst captures all the ‘desires’ from the users and translate those into actual requirements back to the vendor. If requirement needs are not clearly enumerated from the first conversations with your LMS vendor, and the technical environment and cultural issues are not clearly stated, youre likely to end up with a product that doesn’t do what your users need it to do (Barron, T, 2000).

• Calculate projected ROI upfront - Spend the required time to really calculate how much this investment will save your company over a period of time. Keep in mind that because an LMS is very costly, you may not see immediate savings, but over time, the return on investment will be realized in high cost savings. You need to consider things like the FTE cost of managing your training manually, maintaining separate disparate databases, providing support for these databases, and most importantly is the negative impact on the employees having to use different systems to request or take training. With a large amount of pressure riding on the decision to purchase an LMS and with the average LMS priced at a staggering $550,000 for 8,000 users over a five-year period, according to a recent report by e-learning analyst Brandon Hall its no wonder those who have been through the selection process say its difficult, complex and stressful. I dont envy people who have to make LMS decisions, says Clark Aldrich, a former Gartner Group analyst who helps companies evaluate such systems. Its a miserable process (Sitze, A.)

• Secure buy-in from management, IT/IS department, and finance. Be prepared to have to prove to every business manager, IT executive, and you finance partners of why this is a good move. Finance partners are usually not interested in what makes it easier for you or your employees to manage, they are interested in the bottom line. You have to get to the point by focusing on your finance partner’s interest the bottom line. Even with excellent people skills and a savvy management style, it is difficult to get cooperation from people whose main concerns are not e-learning, CBT development, or LMS rollouts. Stand-up instructors, in particular, tend to be averse to e-learning. Many still feel that e-learning will take their jobs away. This difficulty is multiplied if you are not perceived as having the proper authority or support from management (Islam, K., 2000).

• Based on your requirements - select a short list of vendors this will be very hard to do. You would have seen short demos, talk to different vendors, and may have read all the trade magazines. All of this knowledge just makes it harder for you to select a few that you can really do a good analysis. Stick to the ones that most closely meet your requirements without customizations (Niles, K.). Gartner categorizes LMS vendors into three Leaders, Challengers, and Visionaries.

- Leaders - A leading vendor demonstrates good scalable product capabilities and features, a strong install base, acceptable financial performance and good distribution. They list a few of the leading LMS in the market
- Docent - has a good product offering that extends beyond its core LMS and has leveraged partnerships for distribution and implementation
- Saba - extended its product family beyond the LMS space with products for content management, collaboration and performance management.
- Pathlore - has a large install base and is often willing to customize its offering for large enterprises in a hosted or non-hosted environment
- Plateau- has grown its install base partly due to its openness and extensive use of application programming interfaces (APIs) in its product
- ThinQ - has been a leading supporter of Scalable Content Object Reference Model (SCORM) standards, has good APIs into legacy enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems.
- Challengers - Challengers have good execution and distribution capabilities, but often lack vision.
- Visionaries - major vendors (IBM, Sun MicroSystems) are attracted to this space because of the sheer growth e-learning is experiencing (Gartner Research).

• Conduct a pilot project(s)
Work with each vendor to set up a timeframe for about one or two weeks to allow your project team and key user group to ‘play in the sandbox’. This will give you the confidence that the system will do what the vendor said it could. It also gives your users the buy-in that they are involved in the selection of the product and makes them feel that their ‘voice’ has been heard. Brandon Hall provides a good tool to get you started in evaluating potential vendors. Visit this unique site and review this free access to the tools questionnaire at http//www.brandonhall.com/public/publications/LMS2000/

Make your final selection
Don’t take this step lightly and by all means, do not rush to make a decision. Once the contract is signed, there is no easy way out. Take the time to analyze all of your documentation (scores, weighted gaps, company reports, other clients interview) gathered from the vendors, talk to your users, ask the tough questions that will make the users and the technical support have to think about why they want to select one system over the other. You should now be ready to select the appropriate system for your company and begin implementation. This stage comes with its own set of headaches, including installation, integration, security issues, and testing methods. Just as in the selection process, you should work closely with your IT department.

Finally, you need to have an evaluation process for diagnosing the LMS’s performance throughout its lifecycle. By this point, you’ve put in much time, effort, and money so it’s in your best interest to protect your investment until the end.

The standard implementation process begins with development of an Interface Requirements Document (IRD) that specifies all of the LMS touch points, such as where software interfaces exist or will need to be constructed. There are three primary sections of the IRD. The first component describes content requirements and, more specifically, content that will be loaded onto the LMS platform. The second segment addresses one-time data migration, which includes existing databases that need to be loaded. Examples are employee databases, learner training records, course catalogs, and so forth. The third component defines databases that must integrate with the LMS. In this case, data flows in a continuous stream between a database and the LMS. Examples might include integration with an existing accounting application, inventory system, or HR systems such as PeopleSoft (Schafter, A.).

Finally, you need to prepare an Implementation Design Document (IDD) that outlines the process and procedural steps necessary to load the LMS and implement its interface requirements. The IDD will contain actual screen shots, database tables, and integration methodology for each of the LMSs touch points. It will also serve as the roadmap for testing all connections, databases, and the functionality of each page; simulating full-load conditions (referred to as a stress test); and listing procedures for signing off on final acceptance of the application (Moran J.). Developing a good blueprint and documenting each process of the implementation will help assure the success of your LMS initiative. In addition to the items listed above, you need to include training your users as a critical path in your plan. You would want to make sure that your primary users are properly trained to utilize the system. If they don’t know how to use the system or understand the process, they will assume that the system does not work. The first impression will always be remembered (Niles, K., 2000)

As stated earlier, there are a lot of LMS vendors in the market place that will sell you a very robust system with all the bells and whistles for a hefty price. However, they are also the challengers that are bringing up the rear which are less pricey, but may require your IT staff to do major customization to achieve the results you want (Gartner Research). This is a very large investment that your company will undertake. Take the time to do it the right way and be around to vast in the glory when your users are elated. Don’t rush, we can agree it is hard work, lots of documentation, and you may even make some enemies along the way, but that’s ok. In the end, if you don’t do it right, more than likely you will implement a system, but it will not be what your users want to use on a daily basis or what your management will likely be comfortable paying for over time.

References

Barron, T. Tips on Selecting an LMS. 2000. Retrieved on December , 2000 http//www.learningcircuits.org/apr000/barron_tips.html

Gartner Research. Which vendors and service providers will provide e-learning support? May, 2000. Retrieved on December 7, 00 at http//training.bankofamerica.com/gartner

Islam, K. The Good the Bad and the Ugly. March 1, 00. Retrieved on December 1, 2000 http//www.elearningmag.com/elearning/article/articleDetail.jsp?id=1160

Moran, J. Mission Buy an LMS. January, 00. Retrieved December 1, 2000
http//www.learningcircuits.org/00/jan00/moran.html

Nawn, J. Learning Management Systems. April , 00. Retrieved on October 1, 2000 http//technologyexecutivesclub.com/artlearningmgmt.ht


Niles, K. Partnering with Bank of America. November 0, 001. Retrieved on November 1, 2000 http//training.bankofamerica.com

Schafter, A. LMS Shopping. March, 2000. Retrieved on November 15, 2000


Sitze, A. Land of confusion. Six pieces of advice on how to evaluate a learning management system. Retrieved on December , 2000
http//www.onlinelearningmag.com/onlinelearning/magazine/article_display.jsp?vnu_content_id=1458



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