Wondering how to choose a learning management system (LMS) for your learning business and actually get it right?

We have done a lot of technology selection work over the years and have delivered many Webinars and workshops related to our 7-step selection methodology (which, while often aimed at learning management system (LMS) selection, really applies to selection of pretty much any type of learning technology platform). My aim in this post is to look at LMS selection from a somewhat broader perspective and provide organizational leaders with a framework that will support long-term success. There are seven parts to this framework.

1. Take time to really understand your current situation

Decisions about learning technologies should be driven by strategy, and as Richard Rumelt has argued persuasively in his (highly recommended) book Good Strategy, Bad Strategy, a “great deal of strategy work is trying to figure out what is going on. Not just deciding what to do, but the more fundamental problem of comprehending the situation.” [79, Kindle Edition]

In our experience, organizations often leap to decisions about learning technologies based on assumptions and a general desire simply to do something to make it feel like they are keeping up with the times. Opinions – usually untested – about what millennials will do, or boomers won’t do tend to fly around the room. Someone on the board has seen platform or product “X” and it is really cool. You know the drill.

There’s no way around the fact the really understanding your situation requires work. Ideally, it is work that takes place consistently, over time, using tools and approaches like those captured in the Market Insight Matrix. Regardless, a good situational analysis should be driven by asking the most relevant questions, doing the work required to get valid answers, and perhaps most importantly, being willing to face up to the answers. In the case of learning technologies, key questions typically include:

  • What are the types of learning experiences our members (and/or other target audiences) most value? Why? What outcomes and value do these experiences create?
  • Are they currently making use of technology to access, support, or augment these learning experiences? How? Why?
  • What are their sources of technology for learning? If not our organization, would they be compelled to switch? Why?
  • Are some segments of our audience better candidates for using technology than others? Why? How would the use of technology create more value for/improve the condition of these learners?
  • What are the obstacles/challenges that could interfere or prevent us serving these learners?
  • What particular advantage do we/could we have in overcoming the obstacles?
  • What might change in the coming three to five years that could significantly impact any of the above? What are the most compelling opportunities for capitalizing on that change?

This list is far from exhaustive. Many more questions could be asked, and indeed, a major part of the work at this stage of technology selection is ensuring the right questions are asked. Which leads to the next point…

2. Gather diverse input

When it comes to understanding your current situation, and then deciding where you want to go, getting input from all key stakeholders is more important than ever.

This means, at a minimum, that there should be a cross-functional group sitting at the table (both figuratively and literally) when you ask and answer the questions above. This same group should work collaboratively to shape the objectives and measures that learning technologies must ultimately support.

For market-facing organizations, this group generally needs to include, in addition to the education department, people with responsibility for marketing, technology, finance, and – if relevant – credentialing and certification and/or publishing. For membership organizations, the people in charge of membership and meetings should also be there. And, finally, if none of the people covered so far include someone from the executive level of the organization, get someone from that level to the table as well.

If you represent a small staff organization that does not have employees in all of the roles indicated above it is important to keep the perspectives of these roles in your own mind as you work with your board, volunteers, contractors, or others who may be involved.

To choose a learning management system you will, of course, also need to get input from learners. This should typically include a combination of surveying and brief interviews to get at answers to questions like those posed above with any modifications or additions proposed by the cross-functional group. It should also include ongoing observation of actual behavior, including any data collected through tools like Google Analytics, learning platforms that you may already use, and other approaches indicated in the Market Insight Matrix.

3. Understand the terms and the possibilities

In working with each of the groups above, you will almost certainly have to provide some education – and possibly educate yourself – on what learning technologies are available and what they make possible. Selecting learning technologies is similar to planning a planning a trip: you can’t really weigh the trade offs among different options for reaching a destination if you don’t have a reasonable understanding of how traveling on a state road might differ from traveling by interstate, or if you don’t have a sense of why riding the subway could be better than taking a bus.

It is often valuable to start at a higher, more generic level, before moving into specific technologies. For example, the following list, from Michelle Miller’s Minds Online (another highly recommended book) may be helpful for highlighting how technology can be useful in supporting learning experiences:

  • Technology enables frequent, low-stakes testing, an activity that powerfully promotes memory for material.
  • Technology encourages better spacing of study over the time course of the class and helps prevent cramming.
  • Technology facilitates presentation of material in ways that take advantage of learners’ existing knowledge about a topic.
  • Technology facilitates presentation of material via multiple sensory modalities, which, if done in the right ways, can promote comprehension and memory.
  • Technology offers new methods for capturing and holding students’ attention, which is a necessary precursor for memory.
  • Technology supports frequent, varied practice that is a necessary precursor to the development of expertise.
  • Technology offers new avenues to connect students socially and fire them up emotionally.
  • Technology allows us to borrow from the techniques of gaming to promote practice, engagement, and motivation.

Next, be sure that the group involved in selection is thinking comprehensively about the types of technology that can support learning. Too often, discussions focus in quickly on Webinars, course development tools, and learning management systems. While these may have a role to play, a partial list of other major possibilities might include:

  • Social networking platforms (both private and public)
  • Streamed video (again, both private and public)
  • Podcasts
  • Learning content management systems (LCMS)
  • Wikis
  • Real-time collaboration tools (Padlet, Slack)
  • Virtual reality environments
  • Mobile Apps

For other ideas, you may want to have a look at Jane Hart’s ongoing list of learning technology tools. And, be sure to check out the various additional resources on ReviewMyLMS.)

Be sure, too, that those involved are familiar with traditional technology-based approaches to learning as well as emerging approaches, and what their major strengths and weaknesses are. For additional information on some of the emerging formats, you may want to see:

I’m not suggesting that you need to impose a long reading list on your section team, but the above resources may provide you with excerpts and examples that can help make sure everyone is on the same page in your efforts to choose a learning management system.

I’ll stress, too, in wrapping up this section that none of the above is to imply that the people involved in selecting technologies need to be experts in the technologies and approaches covered here. They really should, however, have a reasonable level of familiarity with the options. That inevitably means that the people involved will have to commit to putting in the time and effort necessary for getting up to speed, no matter what kind of help you bring in from outside. You simply can’t offload this to a consultant or to a single person in your organization if you expect to have real success in the end.

4. Clarify how success will be measured

The whole reason for putting a learning platform in place is to help support the goals your organization has for serving learners successfully. So, how will you know when that happens? And, to the point of this post, how will the platform itself help?

At this point in the process, you don’t need to determine every piece of data you want to be able to track and report on, but you do need to have a solid idea of the types of data that you feel will be critical to measuring success and informing the future development of your education business. And then you need to determine whether and how the platform is going to provide you with those data types. If there is one issue we see again and again, it is that an organization was expecting an platform to give them insight into “X,” only to find that the platform doesn’t really track “X,” or that reporting on it is going to require a significant investment in custom programming

So, for example, be clear about the role assessment and evaluation will play. Do you need to be able to analyze responses at the individual question level? Compare responses across all learners?

Or, how tightly do you need to be able to draw connections between disparate activities (online, offline; formal, informal). What data would you want to be able to use in marketing? In showing success to your board?

You can set more specific measures once you know the specific technologies you will be using, but you need to have an idea of the general measure before you select technologies. How else, after all, will you know if a technology is capable of supporting your needs?

To tackle these questions, as well as the others I have raised above, I suggest:

  1.  Assigning a single person, or possibly a small team of two to three people to review this post, and make some initial decisions about the questions that seem most relevant for your organization and some of the key resources you feel other key stakeholders in the organization should review
  2. Pull these together into a simple “Learning Technology Selection Brief” that documents the questions and links to the resources. (You may want to link to this post as part of that brief.)
  3. Determine who will be on the cross-functional team and distribute the brief to them
  4. Set a date and time a few weeks out into the future at which point you will come together to discuss all of the above. This will be a first meeting – there will be others. I suggest keeping it to no more than 90 minutes and focusing entirely on #1 above, i.e., really understanding your situation. Tackle the questions most relevant to your organization, and start figuring out your potential answers as well as where you have significant knowledge gaps.

5. Realistically assess resources, capabilities, and organizational “will”

By the time you have worked through the areas above, you probably have a general idea of the types of technology that would be desirable for supporting your learning initiatives. At this point, the question of costs – which has no doubt been present since the beginning – needs to be considered more concretely.

The direct costs the organization can justify (e.g., for licensing fees, implementation fees), based on available funds and a conservative estimate of potential return on investment, are a key factor, but they are only part of the equation. You have to consider the available time and capabilities of the people who will be involved in making the implementation of new learning technologies a success. In our experience, organizations often don’t fully appreciate the size or nature of this stumbling block.

While it is often clear that someone’s time will be needed to manage any learning platform the organization implements, the capabilities that person (or people) will need aren’t fully analyzed or articulated. Additionally, beyond the platform, there is the issue of developing effective technology based learning experiences. Subject matter experts and board committees can’t be relied upon to have the needed instructional design and development experience, and most organizations do not have skilled instructional designers and developers on staff. These capabilities need to be hired in, contracted for, or developed, depending on what makes the most economic and strategic sense for the organization.

And then there is the matter of effectively marketing technology-based learning experiences. Entrance into the market for online education – which can be very competitive – often highlights how weak an organization’s marketing capabilities are. Effectively selling online requires a strong understanding of concepts like content marketing, search marketing, social proof, and landing pages. It requires strong copywriting and consistent testing of ideas and learning from the results.

Now, all of the above does not need to be in place on day one – that’s just not realistic for most organizations – but there does need to be a shared understanding that the organization will develop the necessary capacity and capabilities over time. There has to be broad organizational “will” toward supporting the effective implementation and growth of learning technologies, and organizational leaders have to be committed to translating that will into reality. (To the extent that will or leadership seem to be lacking, there is probably a need to return to #1 above and make a much clearer case for the adoption of learning technologies.)

6. Evaluate and Decide Among the Alternatives

At this point, you are ready for the “mechanics” of selection – leveraging all of the above to inform the gathering of detailed requirements that you can use to vet a range of potential solutions. I am, in fact, cheating a bit here in characterizing this as a single step because this is really where our entire 7-step selection process for choosing an LMS kicks in fully.

  1. Identify and Clarify Objectives (based, in particular, on #1 and #2 above)
  2. Identify Needs and Requirements
  3. Pre-Vet and Shortlist Vendors
  4. Develop and Issue RFP
  5. Review and Score Responses
  6. Conduct Demos
  7. Select and Negotiate

I won’t go into the process in detail here, since it is already outlined in a very nice infographic, and we have discussed it numerous times in Webinars. (If you have not made it to one of those Webinars and want to be notified of the next one, sign up for our newsletter.)  I’ll note, however, that a major aim of this article is to provide some important additional context for the process to help make it more effective.

7. Stay clear about the difference between the ends and the means

Finally, never lose site of the fact that the reason to use technology is to help achieve strategic objectives for your organization and its learners. Be clear about what those objectives are at the organizational level, at the level of your education business, and at the level of the specific learning outcomes you are aiming to facilitate. These are the ends you seek, and technology is merely a means to reach them.

Again, think of it like like planning out a trip.

When you plan a trip, you usually have a destination in mind, and there will be various options for reaching the destination, each with its pros and cons, there inevitably will be multiple technology options that can get you where you want to go. They will vary in terms of cost, completeness, complexity, time to implement, level of risk, and other common factors. The critical point, though, is that each will get you to your destination.

While it may be that you prefer a more direct, faster route to your destination (e.g., flying), if the realities of your available resources and/or the need to balance with other priorities suggest that you should take a somewhat less desirable option (e.g., driving the family mini van), don’t resist. You will still reach your destination.

Your learners and other stakeholders are much more concerned about you meeting their ultimate needs than with whether you have the latest and greatest technology. You are better off spending your time making sure you really understand where you are going rather than getting bogged down in the route and the form of transportation.

Jeff

See  also: