When it comes to selecting a learning management system (LMS) we’ve always advocated following a methodical process. This process starts with asking yourself and, if relevant, others in your learning business a range of questions to help clarify your strategy and understand your business needs and the needs of your learners. If you don’t make the effort to understand what you are aiming to achieve with an LMS, it will be very difficult to identify the best prospective systems, much less choose one that truly meets your needs. 

Asking questions like those outlined here will help you with developing a detailed set of requirements. Ideally, you will get vendors to respond to these requirements in writing.* As important as these written responses are, however, there are also key areas that are best addressed in the context of discussions and demonstrations with vendors. The following are seven areas we recommend covering as part of your process

1. What are some examples of success you have had with clients similar to us?

“Similar to us” is particularly important in this question. The vast majority of learning management were created to serve the needs of internal corporate training or academic programs. Most of these do not meet the needs of market-facing learning businesses very well partly because they are missing key capabilities (like handing continuing education credit or supporting e-commerce effectively) and partly because the companies behind them usually have little, if any experience supporting clients that market and sell education. 

2. What has your specific contribution been to the success of these clients?

Answers to this question will give you insight into the range of service and support that vendors can provide and how they see their role in supporting clients. Look for indications that the vendor has been proactive not only in solving problems but also in capitalizing on opportunities.  And, note the clients the vendor references: you may want to follow up with them.

3. Using some of our existing content, please show us how the content would be imported into your system and configured into the type of learning experience our learners need. 

This, obviously, is something that would happen in the context of a demonstration, whether by Web or in person. If you don’t actually have any content, ask the vendor to use content similar in format to what you anticipate offering to your learners. (This should not be a big ask of an experienced vendor.) It’s critical to understand how your content will actually be made ready for use by learners, how complex the process is, what it will look like in the end, and what the experience will be like for your  learners. Take your time on this one and ask for the vendor to repeat steps wherever necessary to truly  understand the process. 

4. Please show us how the content we create/configure in your system can be exported for use in another system if we choose to part ways down the line. 

Once you start using a system, you will import and configure quite a lot of content in it. And, over time, your users may add to this content - for example, through discussion boards or uploading assignments. Chances are high that you will want to to switch LMS vendors  at some point, so what happens with all that content? Most vendors probably will not be able to “show” you how you can get your content our of their system in an organized fashion, but look for evidence that they have thought it through and have a solid, trustworthy explanation for how it would be  accomplished.

5. Please show us how would you address [detailed description of a specific use case]. (Repeat as needed.)

This is really the heart of a high quality demonstration. If you have gone through the kind of self-questioning and requirements  gathering suggested at the beginning of this post, then you know the most critical things an LMS must be able to do for you and your learners. Whether these are specific administrative tasks you need to be able to perform - like running a certain report - or aspects of the learner experience that it’s essential to get right, write them out as step-by-step, detailed scenarios and ask the vendor to show you how they would work  - or not  - in the LMS.  To the  extent they don’t work, what’s the workaround or what is the vendor willing and able to do modify the LMS to address your use cases?

6. What are the key areas you are investing in as a company and what are the specific ways your customers will benefit from those investments in the coming 3 to 5 years?

The world of learning and learning technologies is evolving rapidly. You want to be sure you are working with a company that is investing to at least keep up, if not stay ahead of the curve. Even if you don’t feel your learning business requires cutting edge technology, keep in mind that your learners are almost certainly experiencing technology from a variety of sources. If you can’t provide comparable experiences, they will eventually start to drift away. And do be sure to ask about how customers will benefit. You want to know the “why” that is driving the investments of any company you choose. 

7. What do your best clients say about you? What do clients you have lost say about you?

As you might imagine, getting answers to the first of these questions is easier than getting answers to the second. With either question, be prepared to press for specifics. How recently were the comments made? By what type of organization? Why do you think this is what customers say? If the vendor is willing, get the names of the organizations they have in mind and ask if they will provide contact information so that you can call the organization for a  reference. (Note: Our view is that you should not actually call references until  you are far enough along in the process to know the company/platform is a good fit for you and you are seriously considering moving forward with them.) Another line of questioning to consider here is to ask what types of prospective customers the vendor turns down. The answer to this will provide good insight into how clear the vendor's strategy is.