Up to Speed

Up to Speed


When independent software consultant Paul Mitnick needed a learning management system (LMS) for one of his clients, he set out to research the industry. What he found shocked him.

LMS’s were surprisingly complex and not often successful. But Mitnick — who had a long track record of effective software implementation as a senior executive with several software firms, as a CIO/CTO of a multi-billion-dollar organization and as a consultant — was determined to achieve success for his client.


“The No. 1 reason for failure in LMS implementations is a miscommunication of objectives between the client and the vendor,” observes Mitnick. “It is only too common to have a client totally dissatisfied, while the vendor thinks it did a great job. In short, they were aiming at different targets.”

Miscommunication stems from two causes. One—which accounts for at least 80 percent of implementation failures—is that the client has not defined its objectives. “Know exactly what you want to achieve before you shop around,” Mitnick recommends. “Select a system based on your actual business requirements, not on the features available from different vendors. It’s common sense, but usually overlooked.”

Companies that don’t take the critical first step of determining their objectives start off in the wrong direction by re-searching vendors and evaluating systems. “Evaluate and understand your old system first,” Mitnick says. “Only then can you determine your goal and look for vendors that can meet it.”

A related failure is comparing vendors to vendors rather than comparing each vendor’s offerings to the organization’s needs. “Many vendors offer slick features, but how much value can you place on a feature for which you have no use? Know what you need first, and then compare each vendor’s offerings to your goals,” Mitnick recommends.

The fourth type of failure occurs in the process of replacing an old LMS with a new one. “Training organizations make absolutely certain that everything they dislike about the old system is gone,” says Mitnick. “However, they forget to make sure what they like about the old system still exists in the new one.” The result is that old problems are replaced by a set of new ones.

Failure No. 5 is what Mitnick calls “scope creep.” Companies purchase a system that can do everything they might possibly ever want to do. Tasks they don’t plan to perform in the foreseeable future become key decision criteria, while bread and- butter features are forgotten. “Stay focused on simple goals,” Mitnick advises.

Successful implementations also require certain skills. For example, report-writing capability is a popular feature, but few education departments hire people with the skills of extracting the data and creating the reports. They then look to IT, which is asking for trouble because many IT departments view the LMS as a third tier, non-business-critical application. “Build the skills you need to take full advantage of the system,” Mitnick advises.

Lack of management buy-in is the final common failure, but it relates back to the first. If the education or HR department has not clearly defined its needs and what it hopes to gain from the LMS, management support is difficult to secure.


The majority of pre-purchase research should happen before any vendors are contacted. “First, research your current LMS and training operations and determine what you want to achieve that you cannot accomplish with your current system,” says Mitnick. “That’s the research nobody does. Understand where data is coming from, where it is going, and why it is needed there. Why exactly do you need a new LMS?”

Next, find out what platforms the IT department can support. “If your IT department is strictly a Microsoft SQL shop, don’t expect them to add an Oracle database just for the LMS,” says Mitnick.

Another important item on the research agenda is to create a list of deal-breakers. “For example, if you know in advance that your organization cannot utilize ASP services, you can eliminate some vendors,” says Mitnick. “Having a list of deal-breakers will save time, once you begin contacting vendors.”

When Mitnick first began researching the LMS market, he identified about 30 legitimate vendors whose products might fit the need, but he knew how to cut that list in half.

“Half of the systems are offered by content providers,” he explains. “They are course-based and designed for organizations that want to track how many people took which courses. If you’re in the business of providing content and you’re looking for a way to track your billing, this is the system to consider.”

The second type of LMS system is student- based and well suited for organizations that want to track their employees’ education and where they stand toward curriculum completion or certification. “If your company is tracking the education of employees, focus on a student-based system,” Mitnick suggests. How can you tell one from the other? “Ask who the vendor’s customers are. The vast majority of course-based products are bought by companies with large numbers of learners, but relatively few courses, while learner-based systems appeal to customers with usually smaller numbers of users but a significant number of course offerings. Other telltale signs are that course-based products have no ‘organization’ table or structure and do not track ‘curriculum’ or ‘programs’ while learner-based systems track and produce student transcripts. If the LMS vendor is also a learning content provider, the system is almost always course-based.”

The next step is to prepare a requirements document. “It explains what you want to do and may be distributed to vendors,” says Mitnick. “Some of them will eliminate themselves.” 

Since vendor evaluation can be a long, costly process, Mitnick recommends involving as few decision-makers as possible (one or two is best) in the initial evaluation. The end result should be a list of no more than three or four vendor candidates. To narrow the list further, Mitnick recommends dictating a demo script. “Ask the vendors to show you how their systems will operate in the context of your operation,” he explains. “You cannot visualize how a system will work based on seeing it operate in a different environment. Have all short-listed vendors do the same demo so you’re comparing apples to apples.”

Once the vendor list is down to two or three, make a decision. “Don’t linger at this stage,” Mitnick advises. “Pick one, and be done with it.” If the decision is to be made by a committee, he recommends not revealing the relative costs of the systems. “Don’t let people shape their opinions based on cost,” he says. “Rather, have everyone pick the system they like best. Quite often the least expensive will turn out to be best suited to the organization.”

After beginning his research process with close to 30 vendors and seeing 14 product demonstrations, Mitnick ultimately chose Training Partner from Geo-Metrix Data Systems for his client. “It is a flexible alternative to high-priced enterprise learning management systems,” he says. “It has sophisticated customization options and met all our criteria. Geo Metrix is a customer- centric boutique firm, and our relationship with them has remained excellent.”


Mitnick’s most urgent advice when dealing with vendors is to be direct, honest and reasonable.

“Don’t worry about hurting their feelings,” he says. “Most good vendors would rather know the truth than be led along. However, it’s also important to be reasonable. You don’t owe them business, but you do owe them a decision. Don’t waste a vendor’s time with a price negotiation unless you are prepared to make a decision. If you get the price you want, then make a deal.”

Price, however, should be the least important factor, as long as it is within budget. Satisfied customers rarely complain about the price, while dissatisfied ones complain about it no matter how low it may have been.

Part of being straight with vendors is being a demanding prospect but a great customer. “We had the customizations we wanted outlined in spec before we signed the agreement,” says Mitnick. “It led to a lower cost of installation but a much higher cost of sale.”

“Vendors should be prepared to demonstrate that their products can meet the needs,” says Justin Hearn, president of Geo Metrix. “But once that capability has been demonstrated on one or two occasions, the client should be confident that the entire system will work equally well. Being demanding of vendors is certainly good advice, but do it in a way that is balanced and fair.”

Hearn strives for a partnership with his clients rather than a mere vendor/customer relationship. “The best projects are those which are viewed as a partnership by both sides,” he says. “Both sides must be flexible. There may be challenges along the way that call for discussion and clarification, but partners always remember that they are building a relationship together that will work effectively, benefit both sides and last into the future.”


While upper management support is needed to explore and fund the LMS project, and the education or HR department must support the implementation plan, a stakeholder group that is often overlooked is line management. “Without line management support, rolling out the system is an uphill battle,” says Mitnick.

Two other factors contribute to an effective LMS implementation:

>> Ease of use. If the technology is cumbersome or not intuitive to use, the roll-out will be extremely difficult. Proper testing is equally important. “If there are many problems after roll-out, credibility is lost and will be difficult to get back,” says Mitnick. “Credibility will also be lost if reports are inaccurate. In the final analysis, key management only sees the LMS through its reports. If they are inaccurate, people will stop running them.”

>> Involving a consultant. “IT departments don’t always view LMS implementation as a critical project and rely on HR personnel to manage it,” says Hearn. “Yet these systems are as complex as any enterprise software and require considerable knowledge and skill, and without the involvement of an IT professional, the risk of failure is great.”

A simple measure of success is how quickly the organization is off the old system and using the new one. Ultimately, the most crucial yardstick is whether or not the goals of the original requirements have been accomplished.


Mitnick’s initial research included attendance at a seminar on implementing LMS’s. He was stunned to discover that many of the participants were installing their third or fourth system, and one company was up to its seventh.

Curious about the high incidence of failure, he asked around and discovered one reason, above all, which they all had in common: They had purchased systems without first taking the time to figure out what they needed.

To find the last LMS you’ll ever need, base your selection on a thorough analysis of goals and requirements. It should meet all current needs and be flexible enough to accommodate training innovations that may emerge in the foreseeable future.

—Alice Shepherd is a Southern California based business-to-business journalist specializing in training and development topics. For further information, visit www.tradepressservices.com or telephone (805) 496-8850. For further information on Geo Metrix Data Systems, telephone (800) 616-5409, e-mail info@trainingpartner.com or visit the Website www.trainingpartner.com.

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