A custom LMS can be a real game changer for your company
So you've concluded that a custom LMS is the right solution for your organization. You've sat down with all your stakeholders and agree that the business case for a custom LMS is compelling, that none of the current off-the-shelf LMS options is a good fit, and that you have the time, staff, budget, and resources to leverage a custom LMS fully. However, the real question is, "Are you ready to embrace a custom LMS?"
Introducing a custom LMS will be inherently disruptive for your organization. No matter how skilled a change management expert you are, the introduction of any change is intrinsically disruptive and challenging for folks. In some cases, your organization may need to spend as much time on the implementation and roll-out as it does on the design and development of your custom LMS.
Fundamental questions you should ask yourself to determine your readiness for a custom LMS
Your learning organization requires some serious self-assessment if you want to head in the direction of building a new custom LMS. If your organization isn't ready for this innovation, the development and roll-out of a custom LMS will fail. The following list of questions are ones that warrant the most consideration based on my experience, so I advise you to consider them carefully.
Do we have experience with the CMS platform we wish to use as a custom LMS?
If you don’t have experience with the CMS platform you’re considering, talk with your marketing department about the platform they use for your company’s website. See if they would be willing to participate in a few team discussions to figure out if your team have the skills needed to leverage a custom LMS built on a CMS platform to its fullest. I would also recommend learning about some of the most common content management systems in everyday use today. Two of the current leaders in the open-source CMS space are WordPress and Drupal.
Get trained on the CMS you intend to use for your custom LMS
LinkedIn Learning, formerly Lynda.com, have some excellent eLearning offerings that can help you get up to speed quickly on both these platforms, but only from a technical perspective; you'll have to make the connection between technical capabilities of WordPress and standard LMS functionality.
Are we prepared to have a project champion and SME on working on the custom LMS project for ten hours a week?
Some of my readers may have worked on website build projects, and you might be thinking, "Ten hours a week is excessive." For the build-out of what the web-dev business calls, "brochureware," you are correct, ten hours would be excessive. However, a custom LMS built on a CMS is not brochureware. Your LMS will have a lot of feature functionality that places it more in the class of custom software vs. a customized CMS. If you don’t allocate a project champion -- with decision-making authority and some pull within the company -- you’re looking at long project delays and higher administrative costs on your project.
Your project champion and SME can be the same person, but that individual must fulfill both rolls. Your SME must be tech-savvy and possess a knowledge of your current eLearning infrastructure. This person must also have an in-depth understanding of your training content and training infrastructure: how your department organized it in the LMS, the technical details of your courseware and other rich instructional media, how LMS data from your course content feeds your department reports, and how your organization uses SCORM or xAPI for systems integrations.
Are we prepared for a significant content revision project?
For content marketers and training professionals, content is king. Training departments, however, produce eLearning content using different standards, best practices, and approaches. Development practices and standards vary between companies, and when I do see standardization, it's typically driven by the technical requirements of an LMS rather than a voluntary adoption of a shared set of industry standards. The diversity of training content will also vary I've seen some very cleaver HMTL5-based interactive training media all the way down to recorded PowerPoint presentations. In both cases, there was a general assumption that the LMS could play the courseware produced by eLearning teams. This has always been a safe assumption because LMS developers made sure their product could play the media files generated by all the major eLearning course authoring software like Articulate, Captivate, and Lectora. Off-the-shelf LMSs still support these courseware formats, but more and more LMS systems are offering native content authoring tools that give eLearning developers the ability to gin up eLearning materials quickly without specialized software. A custom LMS made with WordPress will provide eLearning authors a pretty robust suite of content creation tools right out of the box. Streaming instructional video from hosts like YouTube, Vimeo, or Wistia is straightforward and building fully responsive courses is a breeze since most WordPress themes are fully responsive out of the box.
Your instructional design process will need to change once you have your custom LMS
All these benefits, however, will require your content developers and instructional designers to think differently about how they create content and why the steps in your current process are the way they are. Design assumptions will also change, and this can be very jarring for some instructional designers. Whereas the current standard of most eLearning is the traditional surface area of a PowerPoint slide, you now have to think in terms of scrollable web pages with virtually no limit to the content you can put on the page. Rather than build course navigation into your courseware, the website will manage all of that for you. Gone are the days of developing the visual design of each instructional product, the CMS will uniformly enforce branding standards across any native content you create. Instead of trying to cram all your content into a video with a voice-over narration, you need to think of your "on-page" content as more modular and get creative with mixed media.
Along with a change in your content creation mindset, your instructional designers and LMS administrators will need to think about content curation differently. Video eLearning, for example, becomes more dynamic, but also more complicated. You can more easily re-use video content across your courses and also update videos in a centralized manner vs. locating all the individual locations a video gets used and update each instance of the video.
You will need to select a video hosting service that works with your custom LMS
Another significant change you will need comes in the form of selecting a video hosting service rather than rely on your website host. Video hosting is complicated and expensive because of the processing and user demand on servers. If, for example, an organization with 8,000 employees builds an LMS on WordPress and attempts to host all its video on the website server, the server itself will crash if too many employees try to access training videos at the same time. You will need to select a video hosting service like YouTube, Vimeo, or Wistia for your eLearning video hosting and each platform has different features, limitations, and use cases. You also need to carefully think through which hosting service offers the features your eLearning program requires. For example, if you are providing customer training and want your videos to double as marketing collateral, then you should consider YouTube. However, if you're going to keep all your video safely behind an authentication wall, then you need to find a platform like Vimeo or Wistia.
Do we have the support budget for the next five years?
If you cannot pay for the care and maintenance of your custom LMS, then you shouldn't build one. Unlike a fully-hosted SaaS LMSs, your custom LMS will need technical support. You need someone making sure the plug-ins are kept up to date, who can troubleshoot if a plug-in breaks, who can respond to service outages when the system goes down, and who can manage all the technical details of the system too arcane for your LMS administrators. That level of support requires a budget. In many cases, companies may be better off selecting a fully managed host web host and outsourcing the technical support of a custom LMS to an agency. For companies that must internalize this role, you need to make sure you hire an expert in the CMS you selected for your custom LMS, the last thing you want is to justify hiring too junior a professional for this role when the LMS goes down during peak training times because this person was, "a real bargain."
Do we have a rebuild budget for the next five years?
The average lifespan of a customized CMS is approximately five years. This estimate has a lot of complicated factors behind it, but the primary factor is the rate at which the Internet has evolved over the last 20 years and how much support the developers of a CMS--open-source or proprietary, it does not matter--can provide to older versions while simultaneously building the next version of their product. Drupal, for example, only has community support for the current two versions, which at the time of this post are Drupal 7 and Drupal 8. Your company needs to plan and budget for a re-build of the system within five years from the start of your LMS build. This last point is essential and should underscore moving the project along with a sense of urgency; the technology community moves at its pace, not yours. If you commission an LMS and your company takes too long to implement you could be looking at a platform rebuild much sooner than budgeted for and thus lose significant value on the initial investment in a custom LMS.
Can our staff level-up quickly on our new custom LMS?
Where I believe most organizations will struggle with a custom LMS built on a CMS is when their staff have to adopt the new change. I've never seen a successful web development project deliver a product that matches current business processes. I'm going to risk a gauche remark, but it needs saying:
One SME I recommend involving as a stakeholder on your custom LMS project team is your chief instructional designer or someone your instructional design team trusts. A word of caution though, do not choose a thought leader who is too intellectually ridged. I have seen some very senior training professionals with a long tenure in the field dig their heels in at the notion of updating from the current version of a course authoring software to the next release because the developers replaced menus with tabs. You cannot afford to have a professional like this on your project team no matter their seniority or the organizational politics. At best, this stakeholder will drive the web development team to implement features fights how the CMS wants to do things. At worst, they will evolve into a "bad actor" and undermine the project. The better option is to pick someone who is mid-level in the profession, is tech-savvy enough to think about user experience issues, but is also a strong eLearning professional. They should wield the influence to earn buy-in from the rest of the instructional design team, but they should also have the confidence to now bow to peer pressure when his or her peers request features that are not reasonable or even realistic given the project schedule and budget.
Can we give our eLearning developers time to learn the custom LMS?
Despite having all the early indicators of success, your instructional designers will need time to experiment with the new system, to develop courses and test out their new skills. The last thing you can afford during your roll-out is for your team to look like Lucy and Ethel working at the conveyor belt in the chocolate factory.
As I stated earlier, your instructional designers are accustomed to interacting with their courseware authoring tools whereas now they have to communicate with a website that offers them a new set of possibilities and constraints. Your eLearning experts will not intuitively grok to your new system no matter how tech savvy they are or the depth of training provided during the hand-off process from the development team to the eLearning team. They will need time to, "bump their knees against the new furniture before they know their way in the dark," as my grandmother would put it.
I recommend using the hand-off as an opportunity to do a mini staff retreat using the "hackathon" format. Gather your instructional design team for a three-day seminar where small groups rally around creating small courses they believe would benefit your business and attempt to use the new system to create the best course they can. Each day should give each team an opportunity to iterate on the previous day's work based on peer and web developer feedback.