The decision to replace a learning management system is not simple. It has ramifications in terms of dollars and staff resources and requires a change management strategy. Before an organization makes the decision, it must determine whether a new system will meet its stated requirements and relieve problems.
Despite the complexity of the decision, many companies are planning to take action. Dissatisfaction with learning management systems is at an all-time high. Organizations’ intent to replace has risen from 33 percent of companies surveyed in 2011 to 47 percent in 2012, according to “The Race to Replace: Results From the 2012 LMS Trends Survey” from the Brandon Hall Group.
There are a number of reasons behind the dissatisfaction. System age and type of implementation top the list. Some 58 percent of companies that implemented their LMS five or more years ago intend to replace it. Technology has evolved significantly over that time, and the business climate itself is quite different. Perhaps most importantly, users expect more from technology now.
However, switching isn’t limited to the old-time systems; data shows similar levels of dissatisfaction among companies with implementations from one to two years old. The acquisition frenzy of the last two to three years could be a factor, because service levels and support can drop or change dramatically after an acquisition.
Most companies (64 percent) with multiple installed learning management systems are also looking to replace current systems and consolidate. The benefits of SaaS and cloud services — ranging from reduced IT and administrative requirements, easier updates and lower maintenance — are also factoring into replacement decisions. More than half of companies with installed systems are looking to replace their learning management systems.
When it comes to features and functionality, satisfaction plummets. Approximately one-third of those surveyed rated satisfaction with their LMS features at a 1 or 2 on a five-point scale, with 1 as extremely dissatisfied and 5 as extremely satisfied. Only 10 percent of respondents gave their LMS feature sets a 5.
The aforementioned factors set the stage for a replacement decision, but learning leaders should do their own internal research. The following questions can help to determine the problem:
• Is it reporting? According to the survey, regardless of company size, length of implementation or type of system, lack of reporting functionality is the most-cited reason for deciding to switch.
• Does the LMS have an outdated appearance? Looks matter. This reason was a close second. Many heritage vendors struggle to keep up with the modern look and feel users now expect.
• Is the LMS easy to use? This factor is likely related to a system’s appearance. The important takeaway is that a system’s “under the covers” power matters little if users don’t find it easy to adopt and use.
• Are vendors supportive?
Thoughts From the Trenches
Once the learning leader makes the decision to switch systems, it pays to solicit independent references. They can identify potential problems and help to facilitate the transition.
Home Care Institute provides training to approximately 25,000 health care and hospice professionals employed by 230 companies. Since each client company gets its own customized and branded learning portal, the company’s business success is directly tied to its LMS. In July 2012, company President Lu Post began evaluating other LMS options.
“We’d had our current LMS, one of the first SaaS providers, for many years and had enjoyed excellent support and service,” said Post. “However, after it was acquired for the second time, we noticed a big difference in support. We were experiencing issues that had direct impact on our customers’ businesses and couldn’t get resolutions.”
While Post did not use a formal request for proposal in her evaluation process, she did have a list of essential requirements, such as the ability to easily create branded, fully functional portals; to manage and track employee skills and competencies for each client; to meet a diverse range of reporting requirements; to be easy to manage; and to look and feel “new.”
Post decided on an LMS that met all of her primary requirements and brought new efficiencies to content management and competency mapping. The transition was accomplished in six weeks.
“We had an assigned project manager and a programming expert. We did twice-weekly calls. Working together we were able to load all content, build all portals and set up permissions, build client curricula, move all client historical data and train our team and clients,” she said.
Post said others considering a replacement should take their time with the transition, if possible. “We had to move fast because of end-of-year compliance reporting. But, if you can, take your time because the process involves learning a new platform while still supporting a problematic one.”
She also said to hold off notifying the current LMS provider of the decision to switch until the last possible moment. “Once they find out you’re leaving, that’s the end of your support.”
Andi Campbell has considerable experience in LMS selection and replacement. As vice president of learning and development for LPL Financial for five years, she took her team through two different migrations. Now, in her new role as director of learning and employee development for LAZ Parking, she’s involved in her second implementation of the same vendor’s LMS.
Campbell had a short list of mandatory requirements for an effective LMS replacement and transition, including easy data migration, cost, social collaboration capabilities, service, single sign-on and efficient integration with other internal systems.
Campbell prioritized flexibility and ease of use in content handling. Given that LAZ Parking doesn’t have a large legacy content library, the new LMS had to easily upload and manage videos, simulations and other user-generated content.
“Since most of our employees work in the field, learning mobility is also extremely important,” she said.
For those considering a switch, Campbell cautioned against overcomplicating the process. Be clear on top priorities and have five key-use scenarios developed before contacting a new vendor. “Always stay in charge of the conversation. And watch out for extras. In my opinion, vendors shouldn’t charge more for mobile or social modules.”
Campbell also recommends working with a vendor that will allow a full system test with no strings attached or charges. “I found that several vendors would let you play in a sandbox, but then would charge you $30,000 above the purchase contract to keep the work that you’ve done.”
Finally, Campbell said she would urge decision-makers to take advantage of LinkedIn and other social groups to get the real scoop on customer experience. “The client references given to you by a vendor will be carefully selected and likely biased. You need to go out on your own to tap into the everyday customer experience.”
Greg Redekopp, employee development coordinator for Basin Electric Power Cooperative, relied on analyst research and consulting during the selection process. “They immediately helped us narrow the search and cut through the market hype. They also helped us focus on our key priorities for current as well as future needs.”
Making the Leap
Before making a replacement decision, learning leaders should perform a critical audit of the current system without letting emotion or politics get in the way. Evaluate complaints and determine their actual impact. Is some dissatisfaction the result of insufficient training or unused functionality? What functionality is “nice to have” and what is imperative? Talk with the current vendor to determine if there’s anything that can be done to resolve areas of dissatisfaction.
In addition to getting clarity on priorities and key-use case scenarios, get a detailed understanding of all costs and resources involved in the operation and maintenance of the current system to provide a solid point of comparison. Do a risk/benefit analysis that lays out the positives and negatives of staying with the current system and those associated with moving to a new system.
Also, learn as much as possible from peer experiences. Mine social sites and groups for advice and recommendations, and network at conferences and professional events. People are often willing to share insights and recommendations.
While evaluating other systems:
• Examine the three R’s: robust, relevant, reporting. Report tools should provide easy customization without professional services. Ideally, reports should be easy enough to pull that managers can do their own reporting at will.
• Evaluate the system’s look and feel. If the system appears outdated or is difficult to use, adoption will suffer.
• Think about system integration. What types of systems are in use that would require LMS integration? What about possible future systems? Understand how the system integrates, the expertise required to do the work and any associated charges. Ideally, ask the vendor to prove ease of integration through demonstrations and client references.
• Consider the content, data and processes needed to migrate. Get details on how the migration would be done, whether it is typically done internally or externally, the time required and any associated costs.
• Think long-term. A company has a long-range business plan, and the learning function should too. If the organization decides to replace its LMS, the new system also should align with the company’s vision, not just its current needs.
• Consider the vendor’s culture. Often, the source of customer dissatisfaction is a result of a cultural misalignment. For instance, if a company likes to have input into product planning and personalized support, it may want to buy from a smaller vendor. If the company culture emphasizes defined procedures, it may be better off buying from a vendor with highly defined standards based on years of industry experience.
The market offers many options for consideration. In some cases, customers can achieve the holy grail of software replacements: a reduction in licensing and operating costs with improved functionality.
During the last few years, technology advancements have made replacements easier. So, while the decision to replace an LMS isn’t one to take lightly, breaking up is doable and often beneficial.
Stacey Harris is vice president of research for Brandon Hall Group. She can be reached at editor@CLOmedia.com.