(Editor’s Note: This is the second of five articles by Steve Foreman on learning management systems.)
What is involved in successful LMS implementation? It can be a significant investment in cost, time, and potential disruption to your organization. To be successful, you need significant planning and attention to detail. There is a proven approach to successful implementation, which I am going to describe in some detail.
The process steps
There are six steps in the approach. I describe the first three in this article, and the last three in the next article, which will appear in this magazine next week. Whether you are implementing a new LMS or performing a major upgrade to your current system, allocating the right resources to accomplish each step in the process is critical. Organizations that lack appropriate planning and resources risk a string of unwanted surprises, extensive delays, and problems that are likely to result in unhappy users.
Before you begin the six steps, though, there are two things you must do.
- Assemble your team
- Establish your implementation timeframe
Assemble your team
To get started, you must assemble your implementation team. You need a core team that is directly responsible for LMS implementation tasks and for making decisions. You also need an extended team that you activate at various points during the implementation when more people are required to handle the workload. Involving the extended team also gives participants valuable experience with the LMS before you go live. You can get started once you have identified and engaged your core team members. You can identify the extended team members after the core team has convened and begun to develop the project plan.
The size of the core team is likely to reflect the size of your organization. In smaller organizations, two or three people may each wear several hats. Larger organizations may have a larger core team comprised of five or six people. But regardless of how many people are assigned, the core team should include five main roles.
The team leader is ultimately responsible for keeping things moving toward a successful outcome, working with team members to remove obstacles, plan contingencies, interact with the LMS vendor, and escalate issues when necessary.
The project manager is responsible for keeping track of all the tasks, subtasks, resource assignments, dependencies, and due dates. An LMS implementation project has many moving parts, and a skilled project manager is critical to success.
An eLearning technology specialist is responsible for representing the organization’s eLearning tools, platforms, and instructional models. Migrating eLearning courseware from a legacy system to a new LMS can be complex. The eLearning technology specialist will have primary responsibility for managing the courseware migration and interoperability testing, along with any native LMS content such as surveys, assessments, and social media for learning.
A training administrator is responsible for representing the organization’s administration needs. These include course structures, certification and compliance, audiences and domains, user profiles and demographics, assignments and notifications, the course catalog and metadata, and reports. The training administrator will play a key role in deciding how to configure the LMS to accomplish the organization’s needs.
An IT architect is responsible for a range of system issues that may include hosting and installation, if your organization is hosting the LMS on-premise. The IT architect is also responsible for security, user account management and authentication, data migration from the legacy LMS to the new LMS, system integration with an HR system, and perhaps other systems such as security role management, portals, eCommerce, general ledger, web-conferencing, enterprise search, etc.
You’ll activate the extended team at key points in the project. It is comprised of people who will work with the LMS frequently after implementation. Consider including eLearning authors and instructional designers who behave as extensions of the core team’s eLearning technology specialist role and training and curriculum managers, administrators, and registrars who act as extensions to the core team’s training administrator role. These team members will be involved in implementation activities such as administrator training, content cleanup, and user acceptance testing. The extended team should also include IT production support, database administrators, systems integrators, network managers, and security officers who perform as extensions of the core team’s IT architect role. These resources will be involved in systems-related tasks such as login and authentication, data migration, and systems integrations.
Assuming that you have assigned adequate resources, implementation of an LMS that is hosted on-premise can take anywhere from six to 12 months. Vendor-hosted solutions, often referred to as “cloud” or “software as a service” (SaaS) solutions can take anywhere from three to nine months. Much of the time involved depends on how clearly you have defined your organization’s requirements, how well-suited your LMS is to those requirements, and the amount of variability and complexity that must be accommodated to support how your organization operates.
How to implement an LMS
Generally, the LMS implementation process involves six major steps: planning, LMS configuration, systems integration, course and data migration, user acceptance testing, and go live. I will address the first three in this article, and the last three in the next. In addition, there are a few key activities such as communications and change management that, while not directly related to LMS implementation, must be part of the project if you want the highest likelihood of success.
Figure 1: The six steps to successful LMS implementation
Planning is critical, not just at the outset of your project, but throughout. As the project proceeds, unanticipated needs and challenges will emerge. You will need to continually expand and refine your project plan. A strong project manager is a great asset to your LMS implementation.
The specifics of your plan will vary based on the needs of your organization. A good way to start is to ask your LMS vendor to provide a project-plan template. The vendor plan is likely to include all the tasks needed to implement the LMS from the vendor’s point of view. You can start with the vendor’s template and add the tasks that do not involve the vendor, but which are nevertheless important to your organization, such as data cleanup, communications planning, change management planning, user acceptance testing, end user support, etc.
Most project plans are likely to include tasks related to LMS configuration, and I describe them here. Depending on the specifics of your implementation, you may identify additional tasks to include in your plan.
LMS vendors are in the business of selling their product to as many organizations as possible. An LMS vendor will train you on how their product works and then expect you to make system configuration decisions based on your knowledge of your organization and what you have learned about the LMS.
The challenge is that the vendor will ask you to make far-reaching configuration decisions, some of which may be difficult or impractical to change later on, without the benefit of hindsight and while you are still brand new to the system. While most vendors will do their best to advise you on your options, a vendor cannot reasonably learn the ins and outs of each of their customer’s organizations in order to provide the necessary customer advocacy, consulting, and guidance. Your vendor’s expertise with their product, and your core team’s expert knowledge of your organization’s needs, must meet somewhere in the middle to produce the best possible outcome.
The configuration decisions you will need to make involve (a) an understanding of your data and operations, and (b) an understanding of the system’s data fields, functionality, and capabilities.
You will need to decide what user demographic data you will need, where it is currently stored and managed, and where to put it in the LMS. For a corporate LMS, demographic data may include the user’s name and contact information, job function and organization, manager, employment status (e.g., part time, full time), time in current job, time in current organization, hire date, etc. For an academic LMS, demographic data may include the user’s name and contact information, grade level or year, degree program, major, transfer credits, etc. For an explanation of the various types of LMSs (e.g., academic, corporate, and integrated LMS/LCMS), see the Learning Solutions article Five Steps to Evaluate and Select an LMS: Proven Practices.
It is important to consider the data needed for your LMS reports, and the data needed to segment your users in order to assign training. User demographics can also be used to personalize your system as explained in the next section.
Domains and audiences
Some LMS products allow you to configure multiple domains. This approach is particularly useful when you need to train employees and customers. You can place the employee user accounts, internal courses, and administrators in one domain and place the customers, external courses, and another set of administrators in a different domain. The result is like having two LMS installations for the price of one.
Within a domain, many LMS systems enable you to configure audiences based on user profile information. For example, you may define an audience that consist of people in the northeast region who work in sales, or people whose hire date was within the last three months. Audiences enable you to assign training to groups of users in a way that is self-organizing. If you assign training to a list of named users you must update the list whenever someone changes jobs or leaves the company. But when you configure an audience based on profile information, anyone who fits the profile is automatically included in the audience.
Many LMS products also enable you to restrict a course’s visibility to people within an audience. For example, someone in sales may see a different set of course offerings than someone in IT, finance, or manufacturing.
Administrator security roles
A security role is a set of permissions assigned to each type of LMS administrator. For example, your implementation may require one set of people who can run reports, another set of people who can create and schedule courses, and another set of people who can register users. To accomplish this, you will establish three security roles, configure the appropriate permissions for each role, and assign users to the roles.
Some LMS products enable a single user to have multiple roles. Other systems allow only one role per user. If your LMS supports multiple domains, you may be able to assign a user different roles in each domain.
Course catalog and metadata
An LMS course catalog is typically a menu-driven method for users to browse the courses offered in the system. You will need to design your catalog menu structure, and later, associate courses with catalog nodes. Course metadata is a set of properties or tags that describe your courses. For example, one property may be the delivery mode. The values for this property may include web-based training (self-paced, live webinar, recorded webinar, classroom, etc.). Another property may be the language in which you offer the course. These metadata properties can be very useful to end users when they are searching and selecting course offerings from search results.
Course and curriculum structures
A course may include multiple learning activities such as a reading assignment, a pretest, a self-paced module, attendance in a classroom or webinar session, a master test, and a survey. Learners may need to take these activities in sequence. Some may be mandatory, others optional. Each combination of learning activities forms a course structure.
A curriculum may include a number of courses that may or may not need to be in sequence. Again, some may be mandatory and others optional. The criteria for earning completion credit may vary from curriculum to curriculum.
You cannot fully configure these structures until you have completed migration of your course data from your legacy system to the new LMS. However, you can experiment with some placeholder courses to establish models and templates for the types of course and curriculum structures you expect to use. This approach enables to you see how the LMS behaves so that you can adjust the course or curriculum structures until they are working the way you need. Then, you can replicate the structures with actual content after you have finished migrating your data.
Evaluations and assessments
Many LMS products have built in evaluation (survey) and assessment (test) tools. The advantage to using a native LMS tool is that you can easily view reports at the question level, which enables you to perform item analysis and determine the validity of your survey or test. The disadvantage is that, if you switch LMS products, you may need to redevelop all the assessment data. This is especially the case for corporate LMS products. Academic LMS products that support the IMS QTI standard provide methods to transfer tests and test results from one system to another.
If you are using a third party testing or surveying tool, you will need to determine how the tool interoperates with the LMS. You may be able to use the ADL SCORM standard, or simply serve up the test or survey in the third-party system after launching it from the LMS. Check with your tool vendor and LMS vendor to discuss options.
Some organizations are interested in implementing a competency model in the LMS. Typically, an LMS will allow you to create a list of competencies and a proficiency scale applicable to any competency. For example, a user may have novice proficiency at one competency and expert proficiency at another. Competencies are then associated with jobs, people, assessments, and courses. If you have a certain job, you need a certain set of competencies, each at a specific level of proficiency. If you do not have adequate proficiency at all the necessary competencies, you can find courses to help you develop your skills and knowledge. You may demonstrate competency by passing a test, through observation by your manager, or by completing a self-survey.
To configure competencies, you will need to enter the competencies and proficiency scale, and then associate competencies with jobs, assessments, and courses.
Most LMS products provide an out-of-the-box set of notifications. Some allow clients to create custom notifications. There are essentially three types of notifications: alerts, reminders, and confirmations. An alert may notify users of a cancelled course or a change to a date or location. A reminder may notify users of a class that is about to begin or an assignment that is past due. A confirmation may notify users that they have enrolled in a course, completed a course, or passed a test.
To configure notifications, you need to decide which notifications to activate and deactivate. It is a good idea to turn off all notifications that are not essential in order to avoid “spamming” users. You may also need to customize your notification email message recipients, subjects, body, and/or signature. Many LMS systems provide you with a set of variables that can insert system-generated text such as the course title, dates, and location.
A note of caution: be sure to disable the LMS email-send capability or temporarily remove the email addresses of your users before you go live. You don’t want to be sending unintended email notifications to users while you are migrating data, configuring the system, or performing user-acceptance testing.
Most LMS products provide a set of out-of-the-box reports. Many include reporting tools that enable you to configure your own custom reports. Some even provide advanced capabilities for creating graphical reports, dashboards, pivot tables, and more. Early in the implementation process you need to define your report requirements. List all the reports that you need, for whom, how often, for what purpose, with what set of data, and in what format. Since you need to be sure you can get these reports out of the system, your report requirements will guide many of your LMS configuration and data migration decisions.
Some LMS products enable you to generate a report that contains all the right data, but is limited in terms of its formatting capabilities. If needed, check to see whether the LMS can export its reports to Excel so that you can format them there.
Some LMS products enable you to schedule a process that automatically runs a report and emails a link to the report to a recipient list. Some even allow you to send the report as an Excel or PDF attachment in the email message.
An LMS may integrate with a number of systems. I describe some of the most common system integrations below.
Systems containing user accounts and profiles
One of the most common LMS systems integrations is with a system containing user accounts and profile information. Some academic organizations have a student information system (SIS), which contains student information. Some professional associations have a member management system (MMS), which contains member information. Many businesses have a human resources management system (HRMS), which contains employee information.
Some businesses use their LMS for training the “extended enterprise,” which may include some combination of customers, suppliers, dealers, agents, and distributers. These organizations may use a list directory access protocol (LDAP) solution or something similar to keep track of their extended enterprise users. If your organization has one of these systems, you will probably want to develop a systems interface to synchronize user accounts with the LMS.
Most LMS products provide mechanisms to import recurring data feeds from these systems. Your IT group will need to develop a program to extract the data from the user account system and format it according to your LMS vendor’s specifications so that you can import it into the LMS. You can schedule the entire process to run automatically on a nightly basis. Your IT group may refer to this as a nightly feed or ETL (extract-transfer-load) process.
If your organization does not have a system containing user accounts, you will probably need to configure the LMS to create and manage user accounts. If you have a limited number of users, then you may want to implement an account create-or-change request process outside of the LMS and restrict LMS account creation and management to administrators. This will ensure that only authorized users can access the LMS and decrease the risk of user-generated errors.
If you have too many users to manage accounts administratively, then you may need to enable self-service user-account creation. However, with this approach you are more likely to end up with duplicate accounts, incomplete user profiles, and other suspect user data. One approach to remedy this is to find an LMS that requires that users enter a unique email address when creating a new account; the LMS then emails the user and waits for a response before validating the account. Many public sites where users can create their own accounts use this approach. You may also want to make some mandatory user profiles to ensure that you have a complete profile for each user.
Whatever approach you take to managing user accounts, be sure to check your license agreement with the LMS vendor to ensure that you are licensed for the number of active users who have accounts in your system.
Single sign-on (SSO)
Another frequent LMS integration is with a single-sign-on solution. In order to avoid requiring end users to log in to different systems with different logins, some organizations have implemented single sign-on (SSO). This enables a user to log in to the network once, and gain access to multiple systems through a silent authentication process that accepts credentials from the SSO solution and circumvents the login page of those systems.
Many LMS systems support a variety of SSO methods. It is a good idea to put your IT department in touch with your LMS vendor to determine how to best implement SSO in your organization.
Many LMS products offer two methods of integration with a portal. One method, called “deep linking” enables you to capture the web address of a specific course in your LMS and paste it into a portal page. When users click on the deep link, it takes them directly to the course page in the LMS. Another method, called an API (application programming interface) allows your IT department to access the data and functionality of your LMS programmatically. An API enables your IT group to pull data from your LMS dynamically and post it in the portal. A portal/LMS integration may involve one or both of these two methods.
Though it has been rare in the past, an increasing number of organizations are integrating their LMS with an enterprise search platform. There are several benefits to this approach.
First, a user can enter a single search string and get a mixture of training from the LMS along with information and documents from a document management, knowledge management, or content management system. This approach is superior to searching one place for information and another place for training.
Second, the user can take advantage of the superior search experience to which they have become accustomed with tools like Google, Bing, and Yahoo. Like those tools, enterprise search platforms offer more advanced search methods such as proximity ranking (most to least relevant), controlled vocabulary (synonyms and acronyms), all forms of a word, and spelling correction (“Did you mean...”).
The challenge is to configure the search platform to “crawl” the LMS database and index its course titles, descriptions, and metadata in a way that makes it searchable. This can involve considerable programming time and effort by your IT department and the results are somewhat dependent on the quality of the LMS data.
Organizations that charge for training may be interested in integrating their LMS with a credit-card-processing service. Some LMS products support eCommerce and can be configured to work with a variety of industry-leading service providers.
Having completed these first three steps, you will be ready to continue on to carry out the next three and complete the installation: course and data migration, user acceptance testing, and go live. I will address these steps in the next article.
Steve Foreman is the author of The LMS Guidebook: Learning Management Systems Demystified (Association for Talent Development, 2017).