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The Ultimate Guide to Finding an LMS You'll Love

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Buying An LMS 101

Learning Management System

noun, (acronym: LMS) Software that provides a framework through which learning content is delivered and managed. An LMS allows for an anytime, anywhere learning environment, delivering and tracking eLearning courses and testing.

Did you know that only 8% of people love their current LMS?

A 2012 poll by the Brandon Hall Group confirmed just that. By comparison, more than three times that many people said they outright hate their LMS.

Why would this be? What causes some companies to love their eLearning system when so many others can't stand theirs? And how can you ensure that your organization falls in the "love" group when buying your own learning management system?

We're here to answer those questions. Think of this ebook as your textbook to finding the best LMS for your business.

As training methods have evolved over time, so too have the software applications available to conduct training.

Nowadays, you don't have to fly all of your employees to headquarters for a week-long crash course on your corporate history. You don't even have to mail them all CDs with recorded tracks of your executive team's presentations. Instead, employee training can take place online, through web-based software, on an iPad, or even on a smartphone. But if you're the one charged with developing a training plan, all that flexibility (not to mention over 300 different LMS programs on the market) can easily leave you feeling lost, confused, and overwhelmed.


Taking the leap to formalize your employee training and development program is a big deal. How do you know you're ready? Is a LMS even what you really need? And most importantly, which eLearning system is going to breed love (and not hate) in your organization?

Over the course of this textbook we'll cover…

  1. How to determine it's time for an LMS
  2. How to identify and evaluate your LMS needs
  3. How to select the best LMS for your business

Ready to get started? Or are you feeling unsure? Let's take a quick 'members survey' to see where you stand…

Chapter 1

LMS Readiness Assessment Test

There are a lot of excellent reasons to buy an LMS…and a few bad ones. Does your organization have all the necessary prerequisites?

  1. Do you have someone in charge of training at your company?
  2. Do you have employees in multiple locations across a large distance?
  3. Do you have a formalized learning strategy in place?
  4. Do you offer external training to customers?
  5. Do you offer and report certification training?
  6. Do you need to track and report an individual's progress and completion?
  7. Do you handle hundreds of registrations per learning event?
  8. Do you already have courses created?
  9. Do you charge a fee for courses?
  10. Do you hire new employees frequently and track their training progress?

Tally up your "yes" answers to determine your readiness score.

Decoding Your Score


An LMS may or may not be what you need right now. Let's review some of the basics before you move on


You're most likely ready for an LMS, but keep studying the material so you're 100% prepared


You're at the top of the class! Skip ahead to Chapter 2 and get started!

Scored lower than you thought? Don't fret. You may still be ready for an LMS even if you're not a "textbook case":

Most companies don't offer certifications, host external training sessions, and hire big batches of employees all the time. Often just one of these needs is enough to merit buying an LMS, but if you do two or three of those things, then you're most likely to benefit from an eLearning system.

Also, the need to charge for training doesn't necessarily mean you need an LMS. But if you need to handle refunds and credits, an LMS could certainly make it easier

If you hear yourself saying things like: "We need to figure out our learning strategy" or, "Wouldn't it be cool if we could offer all our classes as virtual classes?" … you have other issues to address before purchasing an LMS.


Here's what an LMS CAN do

  • Increase efficiency by reducing employee knowledge gaps.
  • Eliminate downtime by allowing more flexibility when scheduling employee training.
  • Improve employee retention because employees typically value more training.
  • Reduce travel costs for live training and cut postage costs for training materials sent via mail.
  • Boost employee productivity due to better training.

Here's what a ChMS CAN'T do

  • Create content. Some can provide a platform to help you create courses. Others come with preloaded courses, but the software won't write the content for you.
  • Eliminate the need for instructors. It will, however, reduce the number of instructors you need.
  • Manage and create your learning strategy. An LMS will only highlight your lack of strategy.


There are a handful of applications that complement an eLearning system but don't necessarily serve the same function. Make sure you don't mistake these LMS peers for an actual LMS. These applications are typically separate products, but the industry is increasingly overlapping, meaning more functionality from these applications are being included in LMS or vice versa.

Learning Content Management System (LCMS)/Authoring Tools enables organizations to develop customized training courses for educating employees; focuses on the creation of learning content through various multimedia and formats, whereas an LMS allows you to publish and distribute that content.

Testing allows users to administer and grade online quizzes, tests, and exams; not nearly as comprehensive or robust as a full-scale LMS.

Computer-Based Training (CBT) focuses on specific skills, often customized for the needs of the organization; more focused and specific training program than a comprehensive eLearning platform.

Talent Management gives employers the tools to accurately recruit, manage, evaluate and compensate for employee performance by tracking development and standards; while talent management solutions help companies evaluate where employees stand in terms of their learning and development, an LMS allows companies to offer learning materials to actually improve performance.

Why do so many companies hate their LMS?

If this isn't your first LMS purchase, join the club. In a Bersin & Associates survey, one quarter of respondents said they were likely to switch their LMS within one year. Some of the most commonly cited reasons for wanting to replace an LMS include:

  • inadequate reporting
  • complicated interface
  • inadequate reporting
  • poor client support
  • inability to scale
  • outdated features
  • excessive fees
  • lack of integration with existing systems

25% of LMS owners are likely to switch within 1 year

Most companies aren't sure what to look for when shopping for an LMS. That lack of knowledge sets them up for a long-lasting hate of their eLearning system. Fortunately, the next chapter will tell you exactly what to look for and how to anticipate your needs so you don't end up hating your LMS.

Chapter 2

LMS Course Syllabus and Objectives

Now that you've taken the assessment test and know that you're ready to buy, it's time to dig into the meat of our course – identifying your LMS needs. With hundreds of eLearning options and features available, clearly establishing your requirements will ensure that the LMS you ultimately select makes the grade



Define your learning strategy

First, to figure out which features you need in an LMS, your company needs to define its learning strategy.

By answering the following questions, you'll pave the way for a much more productive conversation with church management software companies.

  1. What types of education do we need? (Instructor-led, online, audio, video?)
  2. Who are the audiences for each type?
  3. What is the curriculum for each type and audience?
  4. What is the delivery method/format for each type and audience?
  5. What are the standards and requirements for content developmment?
  6. How comfortable are we with the Internet and web-based applications?
  7. How will we measure success and impact?


Come up with use cases

Develop detailed examples of how you will create, deliver, access, and use your learning programs. In these use cases, include what sort of tracking, testing, and reporting are necessary.

Use the answers to the questions in Step 1 to create all the possible combinations of types, audiences, curriculums, and delivery methods, so that when you talk to an LMS vendor, you can paint a clear picture of what you need their system to do.

For example: Awesome Widget currently has 200 employees, and they are bringing on 30 new sales reps this spring. The new sales employees need to be trained on Awesome Widget's product details, proper use of their CRM, phone selling skills, and the widget competitive landscape within 2 weeks of their start dates (ranging from March 11th- April 29th). Some reps will be based overseas, and they will need access to training in different timezones. All will have iPads, as well as Windows laptops.

Each of the four training segments will include one mid-way assignment and one final test/evaluation. Awesome Widget's sales manager and HR director need to be able to grade the assignments and tests, track progress of each new sales rep, and approve completion of each segment before they are allowed to move on to the next.


Identify your basic features

When you consider the entire pool of LMS products available, you'll see hundreds of potential software features. Try not to get caught up with what the cool kids are doing (see: Trending in #LMSFunctionlity). Instead, focus specifically on the top 5-10 features that you can't live without. You can keep a separate list of "nice-to-haves," but these should not be deal breakers in your LMS decision.



  • Assessment and testing management
  • Blended learning – online/offline, virtual classes
  • Content management and delivery – catalog, access, and search
  • Content integration and interoperability (ex. SCORM compliance)
  • Course management and evaluation
  • Learner self-service, tracking, and reporting
  • Resource management (instructors, classrooms)
  • Reporting and analytics


  • Ability to private-brand and configure the system to your look
  • Built-in course authoring tools
  • Certification and licensure
  • Curriculum tracking and prerequisite enforcement
  • Integrated eCommerce
  • Mobile learning
  • Personalized learning plans and professional development
  • Social learning
  • Succession planning
  • Talent management
  • User-generated content


Cloud-based LMS: Basically just a fancy way to say "online" or "web-based."

Personal Learning Environments: These allow learners to personalize their own educational space and store materials within the software, often integrating with other Web 2.0 channels like blogs, wikis, RSS feeds, and social networks. Like a Google Reader or Pinterest board just for storing/organizing training materials.

Gamification: Ding, ding, ding! You're the winner of a virtual trophy for being the fastest person in your training class to answer this question correctly.

Content Management Integration: Content management solutions are computer programs that allow publishing, editing and modifying website content. They often have custom apps and mobile marketing, and churches often use it to integrate their church database with their church website. There are some great content management solutions out there for you to consider.

Talent Management Integration: TM solutions tell you where employees lack knowledge or need more development. LMS systems offer a way to fill those knowledge gaps and train them. These two were made for each other like PB&J.

Social Learning: According to a Bersin & Associates 2012 report, nearly half of large organizations are purchasing social platforms at the departmental level to learn about them and to test their effectiveness.

Mobile Learning: In a recent survey on the E-Learning 24/7 blog, 88% of respondents thought they needed or said they absolutely needed their LMS to have mobile learning capabilities for tablet devices.

88% need mobile learning devices for tablet devices

Another LMS "feature" to seriously consider is its platform. Do you want a web-based or an on-premises solution? There are pros and cons to both, so ask the software companies detailed questions about security, backup/recovery, and data ownership.

Here are some pros to each kind:


Web-based: accessible anywhere with an internet connection, can be used on most computers/devices, maintenance and upgrades are handled by the vendor, lower initial investment.

On-premises: greater ability to customize, greater access to data, easier integration with other installed systems, greater flexibility with deployment, potentially lower lifetime investment.


The 5 Most Commonly Requested LMS Features:

  1. SCORM Compliance
  2. Custom Branding
  3. Blended Learning
  4. Testing/Assessments
  5. Course Authoring

*Based off of Capterra LMS buyers in 2012.

Now that you know what you're looking for, it's time to start shopping around. But be forewarned… you won't be graded on a curve when it comes to finding the right LMS, so if you want to get an A, you've got some homework to do. Your first assignment to prep for the LMS exam is to create a list of possible software solutions for your organization.


  1. Which of these options is smarter?


    Spend days researching LMS solutions and enter your findings into a complicated spreadsheet


    Use an online tool that does all of this for you

  2. Do you really need to demo every LMS?


    No. Demos are just sales pitches. If you've seen one, you've seen them all.


    Yes. You wouldn't buy a car without test driving it.

  3. Who should be involved in an LMS demo?


    Your administrators (educators/training professionals)


    Your employees, members, or clients (learners)


    Your IT department

  4. How much does an LMS cost?




    $1 million


#1: If you want to make the honor roll, the answer is B.
#2: B. Demos allow you to get past the sales jargon and actually see the software in action.
#3: All of the above. Each of these groups will focus on different things, and leaving one of them out is a recipe for disaster.
#4: Neither. LMS pricing is complicated, but we'll break it down for you so you can compare products easily.

Chapter 3

Test Taking Tips for Buying an LMS


Create a short list

Capterra's LMS software directory has all 300+ learning management solutions listed in one place. Use the filtering tool to check off your must-have features and narrow down the list to a much more manageable size.

The goal is to create a list of 3-5 LMS solutions that you'll evaluate more closely. But if your requirements are pretty basic, narrowing your results could still leave you with 15, 20, or even more viable options. Alternatively, your needs could be so specific that after filtering the list down, you're only left with 1 result. That's why in Chapter 2 we said to only focus on your top 5–10 features… hopefully those should leave you with a manageable amount of options to evaluate.

If this process looks overwhelming – or even just annoying – just browse our software directory, and use the filter tool to narrow down your options!


Demo your options

Now that you have your handful of options, it's time for the fun part-- demos!

Software demonstrations are the best way to determine which eLearning software fits your needs. Some of these demos happen one-on-one with a sales person (like office hours with your professor), while others are webinars with groups of potential buyers (like a big lecture class). Either way, the demos and conversations you'll have with each software company should answer the following questions about your remaining LMS contenders:

  1. Does the solution satisfy your most important requirements?
  2. Does the vendor offer excellent support and speedy service?
  3. How user-friendly is the solution?
  4. How compelling are the vendor's testimonials/reviews?
  5. How easy is the implementation?
  6. Does the solution require changes to your business processes?
  7. Does the vendor have customers similar to you?
  8. How customizable is the solution?
  9. How innovative is the solution compared to others on the market?
  10. Does the solution satisfy some of your less important, "nice to have" requirements?

Helpful Tip

In order to compare products, you may want to quantify your answers to the questions so that 1 is "not at all" and 5 is "absolutely."


Extra Credit

Live, one-on-one demos are best because you can control the conversation and ensure that your specific questions are answered.


Get buy-in

When you're demoing and selecting an LMS, make sure to gather answers to the following questions from each involved party:

ADMINISTRATORS (Educators/Training professionals)

  1. How easy is the system to use?
  2. How flexible and configurable is the system?
  3. How much access is there to data and reporting, and what does it look like?
  4. How will the system integrate with other systems and content?
  5. How do I create a new training program or course?
  6. How do I track the progress of learners?
  7. What type of course materials and content can I use/are accepted?

LEARNERS (Employees, Members, or Clients)

  1. How easy is the system to use?
  2. How easily can I search for and access content?
  3. What tech skills are needed to use the system?
  4. How do I know which courses are assigned to me?
  5. Where do I see the courses I've completed?
  6. How do I take the test or complete the electronic signature requirement?
  7. Do I learn about new courses as they become available?
  8. How can I add a course to my learning plan?


  1. Will the LMS solution be web-based or on-premises? Can we handle one better than the other?
  2. How much customization is needed?
  3. How do we integrate content from other systems?
  4. How do we rollover from our previous training system?
  5. How much maintenance and ongoing administration will be necessary?


Compare Pricing

There's no simple answer when it comes to LMS pricing. Besides the fact that there are several different pricing models, your specific requirements are also a big factor in how much you'll pay. However, it's important to know the various pricing models so that when you get quotes, you can compare apples to apples

Here's a breakdown of how most ChMS providers charge for their software:


This is the most common pricing model in which you pay a flat fee per learner (regardless of how much training they're receiving). Additionally, there's often a one-time setup fee.

Price Range: Around $5/user/month, but prices go down as you scale, to as little as 50¢/user/month for large companies with many learners.

Solutions with This Pricing Model: SumTotal Systems, Skillsoft, Taleo, Latitude Learning, Edvance360


This can mean different things depending on the LMS provider, so you'll want to make sure you understand whether they charge a fee-per-user-per module, fee-per-course-per-user (this is very common), a fee based on elements or materials delivered per course, or a fee based on number of class attendees.

Price Range: Depends on the specific model and your volume, but expect anywhere from $0.50-$10 per learner per course.

Solutions with This Pricing Model: SuccessFactors, Cornerstone OnDemand, DigitalChalk


This is either a one-time, upfront cost to access the software, or it is a fee to access the software for a specific period of time (monthly, annually, etc.). There may also be an annual support fee.

Price Range: Less than $500 to tens of thousands of dollars.

Solutions with This Pricing Model: Desire2Learn, Halogen, Meridian

Additional pricing models you may run into include Unlimited User Flat Fee (ex. Interactyx) and Pay-Per-Course (ex. CourseWebs).

The great thing about the LMS software test is that it's open book-- or in this case, open ebook! Keep this guide close as you move through the buying process, and you'll be sure to get an A. Asking yourself the right questions and taking the time to examine your organization's specific needs will ensure that you end up with an eLearning system you love today and in the years to come.

And don't forget— this isn't really school. For this particular test, it's ok to ask a friend for help.

Let us be your study buddy. We've taken this exam thousands of times and can help you ace the software selection test. Search our software directory, and we can get you halfway to your perfect solution in a matter of minutes.



We've covered enough to get you started, but as you're going through demos you might come across terms you aren't familiar with. Here's a cheat sheet to help you translate.

Blended (aka Hybrid Learning): Learners complete some parts independently through an e-learning system, and other lessons in a traditional classroom setting.

Channel Learning: Channel learning happens when organizations share their LMS content with other organizations. One firm, for instance, might find it useful to borrow content from another firm rather than recreate a similar course for their learners. Sharing content between one LMS and another is easy and effective because of the standards in place for LMS content objects (See SCORM).

Collaborative Learning: takes place through social learning tools, like a virtual classroom or an application-sharing tool. A group of learners can be assigned a project and work together on it either simultaneously or at different times.

Course Authoring: adapting a course taught in a traditional classroom, or producing new content specifically for the LMS.

EE (Extended Enterprise): ability to open up the capabilities and content of your LMS to an audience beyond your employees, such as clients, partners, suppliers, and other third parties.

Learning Pathway: The order in which a learner completes the elearning content of an LMS. A learning pathway can be set up by the manager of an LMS, or by the learners themselves.

Getting Started

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