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Do we need management systems?

Bob Little reports on the in-depth discussions on learning management systems, skills management systems and virtual classrooms that took place at the March 2004 meeting of the eLearning Network.

Part 5: Getting the 'right' management system for your organisation

After lunch, Neil Lasher, of the independent suppliers and developers of bespoke learning, Trainer1, began by revealing that he had been working within the 'e-learning' industry for some 25 years. He observed: "These days, we're using a range of systems - and acronyms - in order to manage. These include SMSs, LMSs, VCs, CMSs, LCMSs, MMSs, KM and Win FS.

"I believe that the learning content management system (LCMS) will not gain a major foothold in the market," he added. "Our biggest client - Procter & Gamble - has 57 learning materials developers but most of our clients only have five or six. With fewer people developing the learning materials there may well be a need for the developers to share resources, via shared files, but there is no need for an expensive LCMS.

"There are lots of systems on the market but you - the buyer - should be driving the process of defining what you want these systems to do for you, rather than buying what the vendors want to sell.

"First of all, it's important to answer the 'chicken and the egg' question," said Lasher. "Which comes first: the system or the content? An LMS without learning content is like having air traffic control without aeroplanes, filing cabinets without paper, bookshelves without books or a fully fitted kitchen without any knowledge of how to cook. Is an LMS the central point of any learning strategy? Until you have learning content and people using it to learn things, there is no point in trying to manage it.

"Trainer1 has a customer - a bank with some 35,000 staff - which has commissioned Trainer1 to produce an anti-money laundering course in several languages. Usage of these learning materials is written to a central database via simple script and is accessed via a few, basic reports. This bank is not interested in buying an LMS because it has the information it needs without one. It will only need an LMS when things escalate. This illustrates that it is important to know when to decide to 'put your toe' into the LMS 'water'.

"Who says that you need a management system?" Lasher asked. "Is the process of acquiring a management system driven by vendors - or by you? Or even by the system's users?

"And, having bought a management system, how do you decide whether it was money well spent? Do you evaluate this in terms of the cost per user or the cost per lesson? How do you measure the ROI? And do you merely want the system to 'break even' in terms of an ROI or to do more?

"Maybe you should look at the number of learning events in the system rather than the number of users? If you have, say, 500 users doing 20 learning events a day, you can manage this without having recourse to a 'system' - but 500 users doing thousands of learning events each day will be unmanageable without a system.

"There are only three ways to make money," said Lasher. "You can buy it for less; sell it for more, or steal it.

"So, is learning content ever going to give us an ROI? Is 'management' going to bring an ROI? Is there even a break even point for 'management'? Management is indivisible and a fixed cost of operating, rather like buildings. Its costs cannot be fairly apportioned to different aspects of the business, such as learning."

Lasher looked at the typical decision process to acquire a management system. He said: "You have the evaluation of the requirement, a request for information (RFI) and a request for a quotation (RFQ). You go to shows, get brochures and, generally, do some research.

"If you ask vendors - and everyone is a 'leader in the field' - they will say that you should buy their product. But vendors are really saying, 'buy my product because it's the only one I have', rather than 'buy my product because it's the best'. And any LMS is the best there is if it fits exactly with what you want it to do!" he added.

"You should go to the market with an RFI, yet many buyers make the mistake of going for an RFQ first," Lasher continued. "Once you have the information, you need to match it to your requirements and then - once you have found a product that matches your requirements - go for an RFQ.

"The question is, which vendor do you trust?" he said. "There are four types of vendor in this market: those which are product-led; consultancy-led; 'manufacturer-offered' and 'independent-offered'. Each will have a different 'angle' and it's worth bearing that angle in mind when dealing with each of them.

"You could make your buying decision on how many industry awards these vendors have won. However, you need to remember that, in this field, industry awards go to those who propose themselves for them - and other 'league tables', such as the IT Training Top 50, are based on revenue. This means that the most expensive companies are at the top! Moreover, one of the companies that has been around the top of the IT Training Top 50 for some years is not now in business and so won't be named in the 2004 list. So would - should - you trust these companies?

"Are the most expensive companies necessarily the best? Is the best instructional designer the one with the most colours in the box?" he wondered.

Lasher outlined the top ten purchasing mistakes in this sector:

  • Skirting senior management until it is too late (and so failing to get management 'buy in' to the project)
  • Failing to spell out exactly what you need the management system to do
  • Comparing 'apples' and 'oranges'
  • Excluding the in-house IT department until it is too late
  • Focusing on price rather than value - the ROI focuses on price, whereas you should be asking what value is attached to the project and assess the value return, not the return on price
  • Overlooking scalability
  • Ignoring LMS interoperability - figures from the USA indicate that many organisations have more than one LMS and these LMSs do not communicate with each other, thus reducing the value of having these LMSs. In addition, the words 'SCORM conformant' or 'SCORM compliant' should mean that the LMS can deliver any piece of learning content. 'SCORM' should mean 'plug and play' - but, at present, this does not appear to be the case. The person who can change this current state of affairs is the buyer. If buyers stopped buying non-conformant LMSs, things would soon change, said Lasher
  • The vendor's track record - you should ask to speak to a vendor's dissatisfied customers as well as their satisfied ones
  • Automating dated business processes - you need to understand whether you are merely automating what already exists or are introducing a system that will enable the organisation to make progress
  • Customisation instead of configurability - 'customisation' means that it will be expensive and, probably, be difficult or impossible to upgrade, while configurability means that the system can be upgraded at the 'flick of a switch'

Earlier this year, Lasher attended the 'TechKnowledge '04' show in the USA. At this show, he reported, it was said:

  • For every $1 spent on an LMS, you should expect to spend three to four times more on its implementation
  • It is no longer a 'single vendor world'
  • Some 25 per cent of delegates were from organisations that had more than one LMS

According to a panel of buyers at TechKnowledge 04:

  • You should be sure who owns the intellectual capital in the system and its content
  • You should determine your requirements - bearing in mind that the devil is always in the detail
  • If the vendor doesn't follow the RFI but, instead, sends a boilerplate with a few specifics at the end, you should eliminate them from your shortlist
  • Pick an independent advisor, not one form a manufacturer
  • The translation of 'we can do that for you' is 'this will cost lots of money'
  • Would you buy version 1.0 of a system? Consequently, all systems start at version 2.0 - so you should check how long a product has been on the market befor you buy it
  • You should sign a 'pre-nuptial agreement' with your preferred vendor - just in case you need to get out of the contract if everything goes wrong

"How do you decide what you want - and need - a system to do for you?" asked Lasher, whose firm regularly helps buyers to decide the answer to this question. Based on Trainer1's experience in this field, Lasher divided the ELN delegates into two groups and asked each group to determine a list of needs, wants and 'nice to haves' from an LMS.

"We do this - over two days - with clients," said Lasher. "We then do the same exercise with them one month later, bringing in people from their organisation who were not involved in the previous decisions - and usually find that the final list of priorities has changed completely from the initial list!"

At the end of the exercise, Lasher revealed his checklist for getting the 'right' management system for your organisation:

  • Decide what is available to you
  • Involve everyone
  • Learn the industry jargon
  • Speak to those who have implemented other systems and find out what benefit they expected - and what they really got
  • Design your own RFI - ask yourself: 'does this system already do what I want or does it have to be created? If it has to be created, you are at 'version 1.0' again and you would be right to become cautious
  • Compare like with like
  • Create your own RFQ
  • Speak to the clients (those who will actually be using the system)
  • Re-evaluate from the top down - then ask yourself, 'is this the right thing for us?' If it is, sign the cheque

Part 4 < Back to Top   

© 2004 e-Learning Network. Reproduced with permission. Any opinions or views contained in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Training Reference.

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