Guest Contributor: Tracy King, Chief Learning Strategist and Founder of InspirEd.
When in the market for a new piece of technology, it’s natural to stop by the store and compare your options. Appropriate for a nice pair of wireless headphones, lightning fast laptop, or a shiny new HD TV. And helpful to compare features and reviews of mobile apps, software, or plugins. Which is why it seems reasonable when an organization decides to purchase an LMS they begin to schedule demos to take a look at the options.
But it’s not.
Because acquiring an LMS is an investment like buying a house. Sure, you can go to Open Houses to see what’s out there. But you’re not really in the market until you understand your wants and needs.
What happens when organizations skip to demos: Frustration, feature confusion, overwhelm, sticker shock.
What happens when organizations first understand the kind of LMS house they need: Confidence, ask the right questions, tour the features they will specifically need, compare options not based upon everything solutions offer but upon what the organization requires.
“But,” you may counter, “we don’t know what we want, what we’ll need, or what an LMS may be able to do for us. We don’t know what we don’t know.”
I hear you. It’s a big purchase. You want to make the right decision. You don’t want Money Pit scale surprises. Similar to home buyers who identify a real estate agent, savvy organizations work with a consultant to navigate the options. You can buy a home on your own if you don’t mind how long it takes and have the bandwidth to come up to speed on the market and front to end process details. A consultant can inform you what you don’t know, navigate the market of options, and even help you move in to your new eLearning home.
The process of acquiring an LMS typically looks like this:
The process begins with Discovery Discussions, identifying first your strategic objectives and then detailing your wants and needs for the new system. Based upon that foundation you should be able to Document Requirements, which is essentially the system blueprint you will use to communicate with solution providers when you begin Vetting Solutions, first with an RFI and then issuing an RFP to your shortlist. These three steps should ideally happen before you dig into demos.
It benefits some associations who have complex use case scenarios to ask prospective vendor partners during the RFI to offer brief case-based demos of how their solution will handle those key scenarios that would qualify them for the RFP. Demos become most meaningful when you begin Evaluating Solutions, applying your decision making matrix first to demos vendors perform and then to sandbox sessions. This will provide the insights you need to make a Solution Selection in alignment with your strategic objectives and the feature set that will best meet your needs. Once you negotiate your contract, you prepare to move in during the Implementation, staging out phases of building, testing, and migrating content.
“So wait. You mean demos don’t come to play until the fourth step of the process where that yellow star is?”
Correct. And here’s why.
Discover what’s unique about you
The reason you can’t walk up to an LMS solution provider kiosk and ask what the system costs is because Learning Management Systems are customized for the client, and each client has some similar and some unique needs. When you have not identified your needs up front, a demo may be a tour of a mansion when what you really want is a tiny house. LMS representatives speak the languages of requirements, system processes, workflows and UX. They want to show you what you need to see so you can imagine living in the space they provide, but they can’t do so when you haven’t done your homework first.
So let’s review those first three steps.
Assemble your stakeholders and facilitate discussions establishing your strategic objectives and analyzing your needs/wants. Everything from hosting to data security, learning formats to accreditation reporting needs, eCommerce to your exit plan. I guide my clients through a six page Discovery Questionnaire fleshing out each expectation. You’ll want to ensure alignment between your strategic objectives and the features you prioritize. This is your opportunity to fully understand your ask and expectations. Which is empowering because the first question an LMS provider will ask you is: what do you need?
The discovery discussions should provide what you need to create your requirements documents and use cases. You may find you’ll need to go back and clarify a few things which is great. I like to categorize requirements as follows (and I’ll explain why in a minute)
Business and Functional Requirements: Your strategic objectives and what the system should be able to do to support them. How the system should work.
Technical Requirements: Your technical infrastructure requirements. How the system should be built and with what other systems must it integrate.
System Administration Requirements: Consider how your staff will build and maintain content within the system. How the system will address your processes.
User Experience Requirements: Consider how your learners will interact with the system and access content. What experiences you wish to provide to learners.
Technically, your system administration and UX requirements are functional requirements, but breaking them out challenges you to think through these critical workflows so that you can specifically demo not only will the system work, but what will this system “feel” like for administrators and members. Offering these requirements allows prospective vendor partners to get specific about how their solution would meet those needs (vs taking wild guesses about what you may want to see).
Organizations that are dissatisfied with their LMS often report it’s clunky to administrate and difficult for learners to navigate. When staff and members don’t like the experience you’re offering with your LMS technology, it’s going to get dusty from disuse. Specify what you want and make these experiences part of your system evaluation.
Your requirements documents should suggest a host of use cases for consideration based upon your feature priorities. Prepare some common as well as some complex and challenging use cases. Solution providers would love to demonstrate these scenarios for you AND your team should try them out during the sandbox sessions of your LMS finalists.
Why a Request for Information before a Request for Proposal? Because you likely have some questions for the list of vendors you’re interested in to see whether they may be a good fit to explore further. And those vendors will have some questions for you before they can accurately bid on your work. Your requirements documents will inform the questions and use cases you pose to vendor prospects. This approach has a few significant advantages:
Quickly weed out the LMS systems that won’t meet your needs and which may without going through the full RFP process (which vendors will also very much appreciate since responding to RFPs is a lot of work for them and you). Now you know who you really want to see proposals from.
Set the stage for meaningful use case demos, not just demonstrating what the solution can do, but what it can do for you.
Refine wants and needs. Maybe during your RFI discussions you discover that licensing your content to other organizations will require substantial customization ($$$) but you like everything else you’ve seen in the solution so far. This may mean you downgrade licensing from a need to a want so that you can budget for that feature post-implementation.
Notice the first two and a half steps of the LMS acquisition process are all about you. About your strategic vision for your LMS. About understanding expectations across the organization and identifying needs and wants that can then be prioritized. About thinking through how your learners will want to interact with your LMS. About thinking into the future so you can select a solution that will grow where you’re going. About defining the specifics of what this system will do, how it will perform, and how it will support your processes. About thinking through the individuals who will use this system so you can ensure their needs will be met. About forming questions around what’s distinctive about the LMS you’re dreaming of so you can narrow the playing field to the real contenders.
THEN, you’re ready. Demo away. You know exactly what you’re in the market for and can ask to see what you need.
Note: Seeing demonstrations at the beginning of your process won’t damage your search, it just typically leads to either confusion or serious envy of the mansions that sit outside of your budget. Kind of like touring the Parade of Homes here in Minneapolis (do you have that where you are?). It’s fun to see what’s out there, but can also lead to unrealistic expectations. Best to know thyself first, and then tour the market.
If you’re ready to get serious about acquiring an LMS, contact me. I’ll show you the way.
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