Questions You Should Be Asking Of Your Potential LMS Vendors - But Likely Are Not
By Justyn Howard

Editor's Note: The last decade has spawned the development of literally hundreds of software packages for managing and delivering training (LMS). Choice is a good thing, but choosing the right LMS package and the right vendor has become exceedingly complex, and that's a major issue since the costs can be (but don't have to be) huge. Here's a good starting point to help you identify the information you need from LMS vendors.

What’s missing from your LMS RFP? If you have been involved in sourcing or researching Learning Management System vendors in the past few years, you may have noticed that your functionality spreadsheets and RFI responses all look the same. If you think about it, this makes sense. Now that the number of vendors in this space has gotten closer to reaching earthly proportions, you would expect all vendors to meet the common requirements. Your task at this point, to narrow the field or identify a clear leader becomes quite difficult. It’s your responsibility to not only spend your company’s money wisely but also to put the right software behind the objectives.

Here are some tough questions that are not asked often enough of vendors. Some of them may make your salesperson squirm, but in the end will help you be more confident in your decision and avoid all-to-common pitfalls. This list should not be used verbatim nor is it intended to be complete. Pick the questions that are important to you and add them as you see fit. Most of all, keep a sharp eye out for candid responses. The vendors who are forthcoming with this information are one’s that deserve serious consideration.

What Post Implementation Costs Will We Potentially Incur? Some vendors report as much as 65% of annual revenue from professional services. Why should this alarm you? Because you don’t want to more than double your initial investment to get the system to work the way you want it to. Find out what aspects of the system you have control over and what you will have to rely on (or pay) the vendor to do. Will you pay a fee to upload content? What will you have to pay if you choose to create a sub-portal to serve a unique user base? You’re responsible for your project budget, don’t let hidden costs derail your efforts to serve your organization.

Describe your 3rd Party Partner Relationships There will always be a valid debate between best of breed vs. software suites. I could provide a compelling argument for either. Instead I will offer this insight: If your chosen platform includes 3rd party components, what does that mean to your support? Do you have a direct line of communication with those vendors? Do the 3rd party vendor’s product plans mesh with your LMS vendor’s? Is there potential for future competition between the parties? Will new releases always be in-synch to avoid any software conflicts? OK, so I just made a compelling argument for the latter. Regardless, this is a must-know.

How many clients are using the latest release of this exact platform? Provide references using the exact version of the software you plan to sell me. With all of the mergers and acquisitions that have taken place in the LMS space, it’s not uncommon for a company to support several applications. Knowing if the vendor has a couple of dozen clients on each, is in the process of moving all clients to a single platform ($$) or phasing out products will give you a good read on what you may be in for during the term of your contract. I would also want to know that the household name references I was provided actually use the exact software I intend to purchase.

What impact will customizations have on future upgrades?

6 months after deployment, you finally have the application behaving exactly the way you want it. You and your team have put tremendous effort into building out your system. Your HRIS integration works flawlessly. Now, what happens when an upgrade is pushed out in the middle of the night? Will your system revert to its out-of-the-box existence? Will you be put into a queue until the vendor can provide you the manpower to make the migration? Worst of all, will you be forced to live with the current release while new clients get all of the new bells and whistles?

Describe your Support & Development Services (including location and escalation process). Outsourcing is commonplace and I do not feel it should be weighted any differently than the domestic equivalent. I would like to know however if the support team and development team are in different hemispheres. I would also like to know specifically what support resources are available to me and how much client feedback goes into future product development.

How will integrations be supported on future releases? At some point you are going to upgrade or change your existing enterprise applications. You will want to be certain you know what impact that will have on both one-way and bi-directional integrations with your LMS and what support will be made available to you to manage this process. Forward thinking vendors have chosen integration technologies which will require very little (if any) reworking to keep the data flowing.

Provide product release notes for the previous 12 months, next 12 months. First, I want to see what you have done with the product over the past year. Are most of the changes enhancements or repairs? I also want to be wary of any large gaps in development. Stagnant software could be a sign of bigger concerns. I also want to know where the product is going. I’m going to feel a little silly buying a shiny new competency library, only to see it included in the next release of my LMS. Also be wary of any end-of-life releases in the vendors recent past. This scenario has caused countless headaches for otherwise faithful clients who are now forced to adopt the new (and sometimes unproven) technology, or stay with an obsolete and unsupported version.

Describe any major changes within your organization, and how this has impacted your clients? If hundreds of clients were forced to upgrade to a different platform because of a merger or acquisition, well, I just want to know. I liken this to your car dealer calling and telling you that your new car was going to blow up in 6 months, but for a few thousand bucks you could come down and get on the waiting list for a new model.

How does your licensing model support infrequent users?

Many companies have large populations of learners who will be accessing the system infrequently (annual certification, compliance requirements, etc.). Your chosen vendor should offer a licensing model which takes into account that your bandwidth requirements and use of the system may fluctuate. There is no good reason to pay an annual fee for users who will access the system once a year. You may also consider asking about ways in which the “deactivation” of users can be automated to manage your licenses.

Closing Thoughts… The Learning & Talent Management purchases that you make will have sizable and long lasting impact on your organization. We are fortunate to have learned from the first generation of LMS and eLearning licensing when we all became highly aware of our overzealous buying habits. I hope that we will continue to learn from our mistakes and share these ideas with our peers. All told, the Enterprise Software arena is high-stakes for all involved. While these types of questions appear only in a small portion of the RFP/RFI’s that come across my desk, I feel that they are imperative to making a sound decision. This is certainly a short list and I encourage you to share additional pearls of wisdom with your peers in the learning community.

Read more on this topic by visiting the Learning Management 2.0 Blog

Justyn Howard is the author of Learning Management 2.0 ( a blog dedicated to the training & development community.

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