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Updated: April 26, 2018
TechnologyAdvice Learning Management Systems Buyer’s Guide
What is Learning Management Software?
Learning management software (or learning management systems (LMS), e-learning software) allows organizations to teach and train employees from one central platform using custom curriculum, quizzes, and gamification, among other methods.
Perfect job candidates won’t magically appear on the company doorstep. Every business is unique, and as jobs become more nuanced, it’s far-fetched to expect every team member to hit the ground running. To ensure each new hire and employee is up to speed, companies must inventory skills, identify what’s missing, and empower their workforce to bridge that knowledge gap.
Admittedly, this is a complex task. But when your hiring process is thwarted by lack of skills, it’s time consider what your business can do to create the employees you need. From onboarding and training to ongoing education and skill development, learning management software (LMS) helps businesses facilitate the consistent transfer of critical knowledge and skills to workers.
However, since nearly every HR software vendor offers learning management software, discerning between options is tricky and time consuming. To simplify the buying process, this guide will examine the learning management software market, provide a learning management software comparison chart, and feature LMS case studies for organizations of any size.
LMS Market Overview
Learning Management System Comparison (by category)
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Changes in the Market
Learning management systems track an employee’s education, qualifications, and skills, then outline materials or courses available to develop those skills. In 2014, the LMS market grew by more than 21 percent, putting its value well over $2.5 billion.1 By contrast, the LMS market only grew about 13 percent the previous year. This significant growth is driven by several factors, including:
- A heavy focus on corporate training. Swiftly changing technology (electric cars, big data initiatives, healthcare advances) and new global regulations require professionals to continuously learn and grow their skillsets.
- The market for Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs, has exploded. Several leading online education platforms, (Coursera, Udacity, Udemy) have started licensing courses to businesses.
- Business are replacing learning platforms that are 4-7 years old. Rapid advancements in functionality and deployment have led to more advanced collaboration and knowledge sharing platforms, and business are eager to upgrade.
The sheer volume of LMS options on the market makes workforce training and learning more accessible than ever. If a company is dissatisfied with their current system (or lack thereof), they needn’t look far. Finding learning platforms that can be tailored to your specific business needs is relatively easy— it’s narrowing the options and choosing between them that proves most challenging.
The Best Learning Management Software
LMS deliver and manage educational and instructional content, as well as identify and assess individual and organizational learning or training goals. The system then tracks employee progress towards meeting those goals, and collects and presents data for analyzing the entire process. Additionally, the best learning management software will integrate with other critical platforms, such as HR, accounting, or even ERP software, which enables management to measure impact, effectiveness, and overall cost of training initiatives.
Talent development and skills management is the most straightforward motivation to adopt a training system. However, if your business must track employee training to uphold industry, government, or company standards, then a LMS can streamline this process. An LMS can help:
- Centralize and automate learning administration
- Consolidate training initiatives through employee self-guided services
- Customize learning or training content and enable knowledge reuse
- Document and report learning activities
Learning management software is typically quite customizable; it’s paramount that training spans topics which enable the growth and success of each employee, and in turn, the business. To determine which system best fits your company, identifying the programs you’ll offer is necessary. Common topics include:
- Certifications and compliance
- Workplace safety, diversity, and inclusion
- Management, supervisor, and leadership development
- Communications, computer, or sales skills
Learning Management Software Comparison
If you’ve already tried to compare learning management software, you’ve likely discovered it’s an involved process— it swiftly feels like if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. In fact, e-learning expert Charles Severance stated,2
“There’s a lot of parity between the systems. You can almost throw a dart at a dartboard and pick an LMS, and it won’t be that bad.”
Though the dartboard method might sound tempting, it’s far from necessary. Learning management systems may seem indistinguishable on the surface, but they vary significantly from vendor to vendor— if you know what to look for.
Plus, you don’t want a system that’s ‘not that bad.’ You’re reading this guide because you want to choose the best learning management software for your business. When systems start to blur together, don’t let one single dart control the fate of your entire workforce.
Instead, decide which features are non-negotiable for your LMS. Then, after you’ve created a checklist of requirements, examine the following key factors to further evaluate each option.
Integrations and Suites
There’s no gentle way to say it: standalone learning management systems are fading. HR software market leaders continue to buy out smaller LMS vendors, and many LMS providers now offer full talent management suites. This is not surprising when you acknowledge the overlap between recruiting, administration, payroll, and performance systems. On average, companies manage over eight HR and payroll systems. However, over 33 percent would be willing to “sacrifice features in order to get a single vendor solution”.3
Of course, there is nothing inherently wrong with purchasing a standalone LMS. But as companies grow, having one end-to-end HR suite can eliminate duplicate data entry and paperwork, as well as consolidate reporting processes. Overall, your unique business needs will determine which type of systems you choose. When conducting a learning management software comparison, a system that integrates with your existing business software and processes, and easily syncs data between them, should be higher on your list than similar solutions that don’t.
Who doesn’t love to take a test drive? Set up a software demo (or register for a free trial) so you can see each LMS in action. It’s important to experience the software for yourself— you may discover things you didn’t know you wanted, or realize that clunky functionality lies behind a pretty interface. Experience the software for yourself before you sign a contract.
When selecting software, it’s important to consider a vendor’s familiarity with your market. Do their sales representatives only care about enterprise companies, or do they cater to small business? Do you need a vendor that specializes in your industry? Can you trust your payroll provider with your learning solution?
In addition to simply posing these questions directly to vendors, the following resources can help you find the answers you need:
- Client testimonials and recommendations
- In-depth case studies and use cases
- Industry recognition or awards
Remember, choosing a vendor is not a popularity contest— there are many lesser-known or niche players that offer reliable functionality and a solid user experience. But it’s important that vendors have a proven track record, strong customer support, and standard integrations.
3 Tiers of Learning Management Software
Though the core functions of all learning management software are similar, there is additional functionality or vendor qualifications that different business sizes might look for. Let’s examine some of those differentiators below.
For large organizations, a learning management system that integrates with existing HR or ERP systems is necessary. A full HRIS or HCM system from a single vendor generally has a lower total cost of ownership when compared to implementing and integrating systems from separate vendors. With such large workforces, enterprise organizations benefit from suites that incorporate multiple modules in order to standardize internal processes and connect data.
At minimum, an enterprise LMS vendor should offer a full talent management suite. If a vendor doesn’t offer HR administration functionality as well, then integration with a common HCM system is critical. Additionally, enterprise managers will need strong collaboration features that facilitate sharing employee data across departments. Enterprises may also prefer an LMS that offers a customizable or white-labeled learning portal interface.
Market Leader: Saba Software4
Saba Software pioneered the enterprise LMS business. They serve complex, global customers and offer a full talent management suite. Saba’s “Learning@Work” solution provides personal and relevant class recommendations, internal instant messaging, and is available in over six languages. For companies that do not create their own learning content, Saba’s system integrates with major content providers like Skillsoft. Saba has a sophisticated compliance and certification system, along with collaborative and social learning features— all available through on-premise or SaaS deployment. Their LMS was ranked in eLearning 24/7’s Top 50 Learning Management Systems for 2015.
Case Study: BayLearn5
BayLearn is an initiative of the Bavarian Government that provides an extensive centralized education portal for training and higher education organizations to manage learning initiatives. Prior to adopting Saba, managing all instructor-led or blended training was a mostly manual, time-consuming process. As a result, BayLearn initiated a major learning transformation to improve their learning technology and to achieve the organization’s vision for education. To do this, BayLearn needed to establish a centralized, highly secure, and Internet-accessible next-generation learning and talent management platform for all Bavarian authorities and state-owned enterprises.
They chose Saba to support the learning transformation. Saba enables BayLearn to address the full spectrum of learning needs on a single, easy-to-use, enterprise-grade platform. The solution operates on a state-owned data centre in Munich and is easily accessible via the internet and intranet. The Saba system meets all the expectations and requirements including security, scalability and usability. After implementation, BayLearn experienced the following benefits:
- A next-generation learning and talent management platform for over 300,000 employees of Bavarian authorities and state-owned enterprises
- Standardized, easy-to-use training and access via the web for all employees state-wide
- Reduction in travel costs associated with classroom training
- Efficient management of compliance certifications
- Effective delivery of over 150 courses and 1,100 offerings for training and higher education institutes across Bavaria
Thanks to cloud-based software, medium-sized companies can get all the functionality of enterprise systems at a lower cost— and without the infrastructure. These companies often benefit from faster implementations and integrated solutions that meet all of their talent management needs. Companies will find large vendors that often create a “one stop shopping” solution tailored to mid-market needs, as well as vendors that were designed for the medium sized businesses from the start. Mid-market buyers must be extremely thorough when requesting proposals and signing contracts, as many vendors may only offer critical functionality in tiers or as an add-on.
Market Leader: SilkRoad
Headquartered in Chicago, Illinois, SilkRoad is a leading global provider of end-to-end cloud-based HR software solutions. The company has over 1,800 corporate clients, primarily SMBs, though their larger customers include IBM, eBay, and L’Oréal. SilkRoad provides six talent management modules available in an integrated suite or as touchpoint solutions. Greenlight, the company’s learning management solution, earned the Brandon Hall silver award for excellence in the Best Advance in Learning Management Technology. SilkRoad’s goal is to create a “start anywhere” architecture so companies can implement the complete suite or begin with one product and add functionality as needed.
Case Study: VMS6
Founded in 1995, VMS is a biomarketing leader in medical education and healthcare meeting management. Since the biotech and pharma industry is highly regulated, VMS’ clients depend on them to be extremely knowledgeable about policies. The company was tracking complex policies through Excel spreadsheets, which meant handling and filing an enormous amount of paperwork. If clients required proof that VMS’ employees were properly trained in a specific area, VMS would manually track down the paper record. The process became overwhelming and inefficient as the company grew.
Their unscalable processes lead VMS to search for a LMS to handle their training and tracking, as well as facilitate a paperless process that quickly pull records for clients. VMS vetted more than ten vendors over a two month period and selected SilkRoad’s learning management system for its flexibility to handle all of the company’s needs. With SilkRoad, the company has been able to create in depth classes that are specific to particular jobs. SilkRoad Learning courses offer more streamlined and thorough follow-ups to basic courses, which employees say is extremely beneficial.
VMS now tracks every employees’ individual training plans (ITPs), which includes orientation training for all new hires, training specific to starting a new job with a client, critical training to VMS or one of its clients, and core trainings specific to individual jobs. After implementation, VMS experienced the following benefits:
- VMS is now able to track every employee’s individual training plans and pull reports in a matter of seconds, previously it would take several hours to sort through paperwork
- Along with time-savings around scheduling, there has been time-savings around the administration of paperwork
- The company can be more strategic in the rollout of course training and offer more streamlined and in depth follow-up courses
- They no longer have to work around schedules for training and can train all employees quickly
- VMS and its clients avoid any penalties that come with not being able to prove your workforce is compliant, which can include fines
III. Small Business
In 2015, sixty percent of firms with fewer than 100 employees plan to invest in human resources technology software7. These companies are generally young and aren’t weighed down by a lot of custom designed legacy HR systems that need to be phased out or integrated. Just like medium sized companies, they can take advantage of the SaaS boom and find low cost, enterprise level functionality.
Small businesses benefit from a LMS in the same ways as their larger counterparts, but they often need simpler and more economical systems. Small companies with very specific talent management needs may prefer to take an à la carte approach and build an HR system from independent, stand-alone cloud-based vendors. However, with this method, companies are likely to outgrow their tools. Be mindful of this ahead of time and be sure you can export your data when the time comes.
Market Leader: SumTotal
SumTotal is a Florida-based HR software company that offers features and delivery specifically designed for small companies with big goals. When it comes to talent management strategies, SumTotal gives small businesses the opportunity to compete with much larger organizations through their scalable services. SumTotal’s ‘Learn’ LMS provides personalized, contextual learning, offline access, social learning, and content management. Their partnership with SkillSoft, a leading provider of online learning courses, gives companies access to competency-mapped and vertical-specific content bundles for small and medium business— all available on a mobile app. For small companies looking for end-to-end solutions, SumTotal offers both talent management and HCM suites.
Case Study: Pharmacy Systems, Inc8
Pharmacy Systems is a leader in hospital pharmacy management and clinical consulting services in Dublin, Ohio. Their client base includes acute care hospitals, rehabilitation hospitals, psychiatric hospitals, specialty hospitals, and long-term acute care facilities. In the rapidly changing healthcare industry, Pharmacy Systems needed their employees to stay current on new care procedures, technologies, and regulations.
To ensure that competency and compliance are being appropriately documented, Pharmacy Systems created the Pharmacy Systems Resource Center using the SumTotal’s learning solutions. They needed a system that would improve communication and distribution of knowledge, deliver training, measure the competency of team members, and track the organization’s compliance requirements.
With SumTotal, Pharmacy Systems used widgets, i-frames, navigation configuration options, and role-based logins to deliver unique online experiences for corporate and field employees at all levels. The results:
- Enabled a single-stop for employees to access learning and communication, measure competencies and track the organization’s compliance requirements
- Ongoing savings of more than $2,000 per quarter by eliminating hard copy distribution of company’s proprietary assets
- Expedited communication with corporate and field employees
- Embraced by end users who say the solution is part of their daily workflow and makes them more effective in their jobs
- Bersin, Josh. “The Red Hot Market for Learning Management Systems.” Forbes, August 28, 2014. http://www.forbes.com/sites/joshbersin/2014/08/28/the-red-hot-market-for-learning-technology-platforms/
- Straumsheim, Carl. “The Post-LMS LMS.” Inside Higher Ed, July 18, 2014. https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2014/07/18/analysts-see-changes-ahead-lms-market-after-summer-light-news
- Fairchild, Micha. “HR System Integration: Suites Versus Best-of-Breed.” HR Lab. Accessed March 18, 2015. http://www.hrlab.com/hr-suites.php
- Bersin, Josh. “Is Saba Coming Back?” Bersin by Deloitte, April 13, 2014. http://www.bersin.com/blog/post/2014/04/Is-Saba-Coming-Back.aspx
- “Saba Helps BayLearn Transform Bavarian Authority Education Portal.” Saba Case Study 2014. http://www.saba.com/media/1038601/cs_baylern_web_english.pdf
- “VMS Gives the Green Light to Learning Management with SilkRoad.” SilkRoad Case Study, accessed March 18, 2015. http://www.silkroad.com/hr-resource-center/vms/
- Gale, Sarah Fister. “Smaller Companies on an HR Tech Buying Spree.” Workforce, March 10, 2015. http://www.workforce.com/articles/21161-smaller-companies-on-an-hr-tech-buying-spree”Navigating the Challenges of the Dynamic Healthcare Sector.” SumTotal Case Study, accessed March 18, 2015. http://www.sumtotalsystems.com/casestudy/pharmacy_systems.html