Should We Hire An Agency To Build Our Custom LMS?
Let's say your organization is looking at building a custom LMS. Your training team has a solid business case for investing in a custom LMS. Your instructional designers and eLearning developers are confident they can adapt to a custom LMS built on WordPress -- but you can use just about any Content Management System -- and your boss is supportive of a substantial project to implement and migrate your eLearning content to a custom LMS. You have one last question you need to ask yourself, "Should we hire an agency to build our system?" Argyle Analytics has the following recommendation.
Hiring an agency to build your custom LMS is pretty much a no-brainer. I phrase it this strongly because a custom LMS is a substantial investment and you don't want to waste your budget trying to do something you have no expertise in doing.
Maybe Our IT Team Can Build Our Custom LMS
Your first instinct might be to ask your IT department to develop your custom LMS. While your IT team has technical experts, your IT team focuses on implementing, configuring, and managing your IT systems; your IT team are not software or web developers. It's analogous to asking a cardiologist to perform brain surgery. Unless your IT department has demonstrated expertise in developing systems with your chosen CMS, then you're in for a very bumpy road.
Maybe We Can Hire A Web Developer To Build Our Custom LMS
If the IT team can't build your custom LMS, and you know you need someone to support it, ask yourself, "Why don't we hire a web developer to work on our training team?" Out of curiosity, you start looking for a web developer who can meet your needs. You talk to a technical recruiting agency and let them know you're seeking a web developer with skills in back-end coding, front-end design, front-end development, CMS configuration, and also understands the nature of instructional systems design, SCORM, xAPI, and corporate training strategy. Your technical recruiter explains to you the concept of a "unicorn" and explains that you're not just looking for a unicorn, but one with a purple mane that speaks Mandarin, and practices El Flamenco on the weekends. If this person does exist, I doubt you could afford the mid-range six-figure salary she could easily earn as a consultant. On the surface, hiring an expert might sound like a good idea and may even have its appeal, but it may not make economic sense.
Maybe our eLearning Developers Can Build Our Custom LMS
Okay, so the IT team can't build a custom LMS, and you can't afford to hire the person, or people, need to develop and maintain the system. Maybe you can rely on your eLearning developers and current LMS administrator to build the system. Afterall, two of them have WordPress blogs, and the LMS administrator is very tech savvy and has been working with your current LMS for two years now. Your eLearning team talks about how easy WordPress is to master, so surely this can't be that difficult. This last sentence is what we in the consulting biz call, "famous last words." Your eLearning developers are accustomed to an LMS where all the functionality is thought out ahead of time by the LMS developers. These are features they instinctively know the system has, but they would struggle to articulate the functionality in technical terms and translate those into a custom LMS. Your LMS administrator is hardworking and diligent, but can only speak to the pain points of the current system and struggles to articulate preferred alternatives.
Hiring An Agency Is An Investment In Risk Mitigation
Rather than look for ways to avoid spending money on your custom LMS because you'll receive praise from the boss you should return to your business case for a custom LMS. Think about why you are making the investment in a custom LMS in the first place and then think about what the investment means. Investments are risky, and there is no such thing as a guaranteed ROI. You can, however, manage those risks and work to minimize the impact they could have on your project. The risk represented by your organization's lack of expertise in your chosen CMS is one you can externalize by throwing some money at this risk. Think of hiring an agency to develop your custom LMS as an investment in a successful outcome you can deliver on schedule rather than as a waste of budget.
Working With An Agency Requires A Different Mindset
"How can we get the most out of our agency partner while they build our custom LMS?" is a great question, but not one many folks ask when they are commisioning a custom LMS. I worked for a web development agency in Philadelphia for a time serving as the Development Project Manager. Agency life is not for everyone, but if you like variety in your work, get bored with the same tasks every day, and don't mind working odd hours then you might enjoy it. However, the job is very client-focused and requires a high level of emotional stamina because your clients will demand a lot from you.
Demanding clients are just part of the game when you work for an agency, and while what I'm about to say is just my personal opinion, I will say that some clients have some odd notions of what an agency should provide them.
Your Web Development Partner Is Not A Source of On-Demand Temps
Some clients think of agencies as a source of on-demand talent they can tap at the drop of a hat. While some professional services agencies are set up to offer staff augmentation, that's a specialized function that most web development agencies don't provide.
Your Web Development Partner Will Not Absorb All Your Risks
Organizations are comprised of people, and as people, we have our strengths, weaknesses, and idiosyncrasies which we contribute to the corporate gestalt we call, "corporate culture." Some corporate cultures are healthy and grounded in reality. Some corporate cultures are off-the-walls nuts with enough psycho-toxicity that the office should be declared a Super Fund site. Most organizations will fall somewhere in the middle, and you need to know where your organization stands. The closer you are to the psycho-toxic end of the spectrum-- with irrational leaders, thick organizational politics, entitled employees, and quixotic project champions --the more risk you inherently bring to the project. Agencies are disinclined to absorb this risk because it's expensive and they are at risk of losing money to deliver your custom LMS on time even if that means eating budget overages due to issues created by the client.
Some agencies will absorb all this risk, but you should expect to pay a pretty penny for additional consulting, project management, and administrative hours. If you are looking for an agency that can provide a high-level of hand-holding at a discount, then you may need to watch a team of freelance developers. Free-lance developers might be less expensive, but they are also riskier in that they may not be available when you need some technical support. Conversely, if you want the benefits of working with a well-established agency, but one that works within your budget, then you need to expect a higher price tag. Your team will need to absorb more of the project management on your side of the table, be willing to follow the direction of your agency partner with a high level of trust, and have a frank discussion about your team's strengths and weaknesses and develop strategies for compensating for these weaknesses.