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An All-in-One Guide to
Learning Management
Systems (LMS)

This learning management system guide includes a comprehensive exploration of the software, its benefits, popular features and advice about how to choose the right one for your organization.

Northpass is the LMS companies like BambooHR, Freshworks and Shopify use to create industry-leading customer education programs.

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What is an LMS?

A Learning Management System, or LMS, is a software application for the management and delivery of online learning content. LMSs help subject matter experts (SMEs), educators and business professionals deliver materials to their target audience, communicate with the online community, administer assessments, monitor progress and track records.

The characteristics of an organization’s target audience (the end user, typically called the “learner”) depends on the type of organization using the LMS and their training goals. Learners may be students, employees, external workers, customers, channel partners or the general public, to name a few.

From the corporate perspective, companies typically use an LMS to train anyone and everyone considered part of their larger workforce. For example:

  • A healthcare company may use an LMS to deliver customer service training to their patient care support representatives.
  • A software company may use an LMS to train their salespeople on product knowledge and launch trainings for newly released features.
  • An on-demand tech company may use an LMS to deliver resources to their service providers.

Other ways LMSs are used include the following:

  • In the education space. To deliver online courses or supplement in-class instruction as part of a hybrid or “blended learning” course.
  • In an online course marketplace. Independent experts sell their expertise through eLearning content; universities digitize professor lectures to deliver a catalog of free Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs).
  • Any scenario in which content, knowledge or expertise can be digitized and delivered in an engaging and trackable manner.

LMS Benefits

The benefits of an LMS come from the value an organization derives from using it. If you are moving from traditional, face-to-face classrooms or training, using an LMS can save you tremendous time and resources. You will be able to eliminate expenses such as venues, travel costs and paper materials while enabling end users to learn on their own time, at their own pace and in any location that is convenient.

Regarding content development and upkeep, one of the benefits of using a learning management system is that it streamlines the process of creating and maintaining learning content, making it easier for teams to develop online courses, keep them up-to-date and scale their learning programs over time. Most learning software solutions allow you to leverage existing content such as PowerPoint presentations, videos and audio to create a course, and some even give you the ability to author content from scratch. And when it comes time to update the material, changing content within an LMS is fast, easy and happens in real time.

The delivery functionalities LMSs offer can also be a key benefit, especially in the workplace. With the right LMS, you can deliver content contextually by making relevant information seamlessly accessible, exactly when it’s needed. For example, if you’re delivering onboarding materials to new hires, you can embed links to the content in your human resources software or email it directly to the employee. LMSs that offer webhooks and APIs can even automate content delivery based on actions that happen in your company systems.

Another significant benefit of an LMS is its tracking capabilities. When you use learning mediums such as books, manuals, online support articles or Google Docs, you receive little to no insight into how learners are interacting with the content, whether they’re engaged or if any learning has occurred. LMSs give you visibility into these metrics. They allow you to track learner engagement and take action to improve your online initiative. For businesses, mapping learner analytics to business outcomes can be critical in proving LMS ROI and measuring the impact on key performance indicators.

Finally, aside from the general training benefits, an LMS can offer every organization benefits that are specific to their training goals. For businesses, higher-level metrics such as lower support costs, improved Net Promoter Scores and increased overall revenue could be a business outcome of an excellent online training program delivered through the right LMS. So before you begin the process of selecting an LMS, you should seek first to understand your organization’s strategic goals for the learning program.

Types of Learning Management Systems

There is a tapestry of eLearning tools available for creating, delivering and measuring online learning. These tools can be bucketed into several categories, based on factors such as their deployment model, target industry or training goals served and feature offerings. Be sure to consider each of these categories in your LMS comparison process, if you plan to purchase an LMS in the near future.

“Deployment model” is the broadest category for drawing distinctions between the available LMS solutions. There are four types of deployment models. The first is a cloud-based learning management system, also known as a hosted LMS. With this deployment model, the LMS vendor hosts all data, programs and applications on their server. No installation is required, and updates are automatic. The second is an installed LMS. In this case, the customer purchases a license and installs and maintains the LMS on their own server. The third type of deployment model is an open source LMS, with which the source code is open and free for anyone to use and adapt to their specifications. Finally, we have the custom-built LMS, which is a tailor-made system, built and maintained by a team of developers employed or contracted by your company.

An LMS may also be designed to serve a specific industry (such as higher education, hospitality, healthcare, IT and more) or cater to a particular use case (such as sales enablement, customer service training and professionals selling online courses). This type of LMS is considered a vertical solution, whereas an LMS that is industry and use-case agnostic is called a horizontal solution.

LMS software can also be distinguished by LMS features. While there are, no doubt, dozens of features that distinguish one platform from the next (see the following section), one is especially significant. The term “Learning Management System” traditionally refers to a high-level solution for performing all steps involved in the planning, delivery and management of a full online learning program. Some solutions take a different approach to learning management by enabling course content creation directly within the platform. These companies refer to their software as “Learning Content Management System (LCMS),” “Modern LMS,” “Learning Software” and “Training Software” to distinguish their product from the traditional LMS. The goal of these solutions is to remove the learning curve and democratize course content authoring for any professional, from Instructional Designers (with extensive knowledge of eLearning) to business unit leaders (with little to no eLearning knowledge). The use of an LCMS-type solution is most effective for creating smaller units of learning content that are delivered when and where the learner needs it.

LMS Features

LMS technology has advanced significantly over the past few years, making the average LMS requirements checklist considerably larger than it once was. In the past, most organizations’ needs entailed having the ability to create courses from documents, enroll learners by email and administer basic quizzes. As more organizations from different industries saw value in investing in online learning and training, training goals diversified and the demand for a wider range of functionalities increased. The LMS market has responded by serving up a number of sophisticated and intuitive features to meet the needs of modern organizations.

With regard to course building, the standard features (the ability to upload documents, presentations, videos and audio) continue to be useful. However, nowadays, organizations are seeking SCORM-compliant LMSs to create interactive content that is authored and exported to SCORM. Additionally, features such as discussion boards, surveys, assessments and virtual online sessions have made online learning profoundly more engaging. Moreover, LMS administrators are looking to keep all work within a single platform, which means in-product content authoring has become critically important.

Usability is another area of focus for modern organizations. They want the learner experience to be completely seamless, from the moment they see the link to the materials to when they complete their online course. To achieve that end, the software must include multiple authentication options. Whether the organization wants to pre-authorize learners’ course access and enrollment, give access with shareable links, or use single sign-on (SSO), the LMS should allow them to accomplish their preferred authentication flow.

Other common features you should look for in an LMS are options for styling and learner experience customizations, tracking capabilities and integrations with other systems used by your company or organization. The LMS’s styling features should give you the power to brand and fully customize your learning experience. Its analytics should deliver data to help you glean meaningful insight into learner engagement and map those numbers to business outcomes. Finally, integrations with popular SaaS tools such as Hubspot, Citrix and MailChimp are essential for achieving streamlined operations.

As you create your LMS requirements list, you may want to standardize the comparison process by using an LMS Request for Proposal (RFP). The RFP will document your criteria, and when LMS vendors submit their proposal, they will address if and how their solution meets each specific need. Still, be sure to keep in mind that while checking off items on a list can help vet LMSs, the determining factor should be whether the LMS can assist in solving the larger operational or training problems you’re facing rather than if it checks every box.

LMS Comparison

When conducting an LMS evaluation, the topics covered above can help narrow down your choices. Things such as how you want to deploy your LMS, the types of eLearning topics you’ll deliver and how learners will access your content, will all be critical in determining your LMS needs. We recommend revisiting the sections titled “Types of LMSs” and “LMS Features” and jotting down your training objectives. After that, decide on the features you need, and you should be able to create a shortlist of LMS vendors.

Once you have created your shortlist and are nearing the end of your learning management systems review, it can be difficult to narrow your choice down to one. As you consider, keep in mind that LMS features are not the only factor in ensuring your learning program is successful. Two other components to long-term success are the vendor’s overall company philosophy and the quality of their customer support.

Philosophy is important because the beauty of an LMS is its adaptability in the constantly changing landscape of online learning. As the market changes, learners change and technology changes, and so will your company and its needs. Consequently, you’ll want to select an LMS with an approach to online learning that aligns with yours at a high level. When you’re in sync on a strategic level, you’ll continually benefit from the type of features released by the LMS in the future. This will help your learning program grow, mature and scale over time.

The quality of the LMS’s customer support is just as critical, and there are several questions you should consider. Does the LMS offer robust support documentation? Do you have access to technical support? Will you have a dedicated customer success manager? The right vendor should give you sufficient access to support to ensure you reach success on their platform.

LMS Pricing

Features, roadmap and support offerings are all essential considerations when selecting an LMS. But none of that will matter if it’s priced out of budget. When it comes to LMS pricing, the published number doesn’t always give you the full picture. Rates may vary based on feature add-ons, access to support and learner usage, so it’s important that you come into these pricing conversations with comprehensive knowledge of how pricing works.

Let’s start by looking at the three most common types of LMS pricing models. The first is all-inclusive. An all-inclusive model gives customers access to the LMS’s full suite of features and services at a flat rate. The second is packaged LMS pricing. This model offers different rates for different feature bundles, allowing you to select the package that best fits your feature needs and upgrade if/when the time comes. The last type of pricing model is called metered pricing. Metered pricing fluctuates on a monthly basis based on the number of learners who access your online courses.

There are pros and cons to each type of pricing model. Considerations such as your training goals, monthly active learner volume, budget and company billing structure all play a key role in finding a suitable pricing model. If you find yourself in a situation where the LMS is perfect on all accounts except for pricing, inquire about a custom contract. If the LMS vendor is truly a good fit, they will work with you in coming to pricing terms that you’re happy and comfortable with.


LMS Implementation

Once the LMS purchasing process is wrapped up, it’s time for implementation. LMS implementation can take anywhere from a few days to a few months. The length of time it will take your team to implement an LMS will depend on the usability of the LMS, the resources available to you and the amount of content you already have developed.

The first step to LMS implementation is to select a framework for designing your learning content. Models such as ADDIE, SAM and Northpass' Beginner's Guide to Creating an Online Training Program will help you lay the blueprint for everyone on your team to follow during the implementation phase and beyond. From content planning to development to measuring your program’s strategic impact, the framework you select will offer guidance and keep your team aligned at every stage.

Next, select an implementation team. An average LMS implementation team may consist of:

  • A Training Director (also known as Team Leader) who oversees the project.

  • A Training Manager (or Project Manager) who is responsible for hitting milestones and meeting deadlines.

  • An eLearning Specialist or Instructional Designer who focuses on creating content.

  • An L&D or LMS Administrator who ensures the software and program match the needs of the organization.

  • An IT expert who helps you integrate the LMS with other software used by your company, department or team.

In some cases, a team may consist of only one person whose full-time role is to launch and manage the program. When teams are smaller, the usability of the LMS becomes that much more critical, as it must streamline workflows so significantly that just one or two people can manage a project that is typically managed by a full team. Small teams are also more likely to periodically pull in company subject matter experts (SMEs) to help develop content. This makes granular permissions a profoundly helpful LMS feature.

If you have existing learning materials through a different LMS or another medium, you’ll need to create a data migration plan. This plan should include the tasks that need to be completed to transfer content, learner information and/or other essential data points into your new LMS. If you’re not sure what the best method would be for your migration, you should connect with the LMS’s support team. They should have extensive experience helping customers perform migrations and can advise you appropriately.

Now that you’ve thought through the most important elements of your LMS implementation process, it's time to create a timeline for execution. Outline milestones such as when you plan to complete your migration, add the online school styling and develop the first course. Then, launch your first course to a small sample of learners, collect their feedback and make final changes and updates before launching the course in full. As part of your LMS project plan, it’s always good to start small, learn from your target audience and expand your program from there.

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