Buying and using an LMS: a hype-free guide - Learning Technologies report

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A conference session at Learning Technologies last week explored the issue of buying an LMS. Chaired by Vaughan Waller, it featured two speakers from the vendors's side, David Wilson (Managing Director of eLearnity) and Neil Lasher (Chairman, e-Learning vendors' Association), and two from the buyers', Andy Wooler (Manager, LMSs, Royal and Sun Alliance Insurance Group plc) and Derek Bembry (Training Manager, Enterprise Solutions, HP).

Vaughan Waller opened proceedings by remarking on the massive hype which launched LMSs onto the market, and suggested that relatively few had actually been sold. So the questions for the panel to discuss were: can you do without one, and has the e-learning industry really got going yet?

Andy Wooler recalled spending two and a half years on research before choosing an LMS, and noted how difficult it was to get relevant reference, or to see a product in action. Derek Bembry then enthused about the advantages of an LMS as a source of clarity and a sense of ownership of training.

Neil Lasher asked the question, "what came first, content or management?", and noted that often LMSs were marketed as essential, aside from proper considerations of their relevance to content. He questioned the need for an LMS in many organisations, drew attention to the importance of effective integration, and suggested that among the many products on the market, several don't do what they say. In his analysis, an LMS needs to run e-learning and classroom learning, and HR data. If it can't do all three, then it's not worth having.

David Wilson said that both hype and anti-hype were making it difficult to discover the truth behind the frontline stories, and suggested that market uncertainty was another factor in slow uptake: buyers need to know that the vendor will still be around in a couple of years. He pointed out the problem of the fragmented nature of training in large organizations, with training managers buying what suits them rather than concentrating on compatibility. He also noted that the market is converging, with e-HR and LMS providers moving into each others' domains.

The panel then responded to questions from the floor. Their (lively and often contentious) advice and observations included:

Remember, it's about managing learning, not just e-learning.

Show vendors a real set of business scenarios, and make them show you how you'd deal with them.

The responsibility is on the buyer to explain everything in absolutely clear terms.

LMS providers, like any vendors, will tick each box. Then when you have bought you'll find that half of what you want are extras.

Are you fixing on an LMS to fit a process, or vice versa?

If all you need to do is to track completion, say for FSA compliance, then you don't need an LMS...

...but compliance is so important that you need to your system to be cast-iron guaranteed, whatever it is.

[Compliance emerged as a major issue, and one difficult to assess ROI on. What's the ROI for not being fined? Not something that is always counted!]

American products often don't export well. Anything that launches initially in more than one country in Europe has the advantage that it faces multi-lingual and multi-legal issues immediately.

The most important issue surrounding LMSs is sound data integration. And the problem is often not with the LMS, a lot of data in HR systems isn't as good as it is supposed to be. An LMS can fail if it uses data that can't identify who someone's manager is properly.

With self-service applications, you need a push and a pull: employees need to know that the system exists, and why they should use it.

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