The potential pitfalls of a custom LMS solution

It is nearly 13 years since I started working in the LMS space. That time has been split between working on customized LMS implementations (about 8 years) and cloud-based LMS solutions during my time with LearnUpon. One of the main drivers behind Des (LearnUpon’s CTO and co-founder) and myself starting LearnUpon was our strong belief that a configurable, cloud-based LMS would be a much better proposition for most companies than a customized solution.

And while there is no doubt that cloud hosted (SaaS) learning management systems are by far the most popular option for companies looking to deliver eLearning to their employees, customers, partners and resellers, from time to time we still see organizations choose a customizable solution over a cloud-based one. And there are some valid reasons for going down that route.

Reasons to choose a custom LMS

  • Your organization’s requirements and workflows for the delivery of online learning are quite bespoke and very few LMSes can meet everything you need out-of-the-box. I’ve seen these scenarios and sometimes when I read through a set of requirements or an RFP I am the first to say “This company needs a custom build, no LMS will do all of this off the shelf”.
  • Your organization is looking to implement a platform that covers lots more than just online learning. For example, you might need an LMS, an event management system, a member management system, and a billing system all fully integrated with lots of unique workflows and use cases. In this scenario, the chances are you will not find a cloud solution that ticks all the boxes or is strong in every area.The best way forward might be to select the solution that is the closest fit and then custom build out the missing functionality.
  • You need total control over your data and/or the solution must be hosted on your own servers which can often be the case with some government departments. The vast majority of these situations require a behind the firewall/locally installed LMS.

Pitfalls of a custom LMS solution

There are however many potential pitfalls and drawbacks of going down the customized LMS route. Having experienced many of these first hand in the past I thought I’d share them in the hope that they might help those trying to make a decision between a cloud-based LMS and a fully customizable LMS.

Implementation timeframe

Probably the number one factor for me is implementation timeframe. On the one hand you have cloud solutions like LearnUpon where our customers are up and running, with learners taking courses in a matter of days (sometimes within hours). This contrasts against customized solutions that need to be “implemented” which will take months if you are lucky and can often run to years. You will get a project plan that will look something like:

    • Project kick-off
    • Requirements workshops
    • Requirements documentation
    • Solution design
    • Development environment setup
    • Customizations
    • LMS Vendor QA
    • Administrator Training
    • User Acceptance Testing (UAT)
    • Bug Fixing
    • More UAT (probably more bug fixing followed by more UAT, etc…)
    • Live environment setup
    • Go-Live
    • And of course Project Management from start to finish

 

Maybe all of the above phases will not be required but even with cutting some out you can easily see why your LMS implementation project is going to take months or years as opposed to the days or weeks it will take to launch on a cloud based LMS. Assuming there is a real business need for implementing an LMS in the first place and at some level the L&D department expect to show a Return on the investment, then the sooner you can start delivering online courses to your learners the better. There are other risks that come with a long implementation timeframe such as hardware going out of date, new browsers getting released that now need to be supported, key people might leave on the vendor side or from your company, etc.

Cost

It is no surprise that a long implementation timeframe involving lots of customizations comes at a price. It is not uncommon for customized LMS implementations, similar to the example above, to run to hundreds of thousands of dollars and even to millions of dollars. LMS vendors with solutions involving implementation projects will typically have a professional services team made up of business analysts, solution architects, implementation consultants, project managers, etc…and these resources are charged out at high daily rates, ranging from $800 a day to $1,400 or higher. When you are on a daily rate clock it doesn’t take long for the total cost of your implementation to hit some very big numbers. Everything related to your LMS implementation will have a number of days (and dollar value) associated with it. Branding might be 2 days, HRIS integration might be 10 days, server installation 3 days, testing and bug fixing 8 days, administrator training 5 days, project management 15% of the overall no. of days, etc..

 

One way to control the implementation fees is to agree to a fixed price contract. That will work to a certain degree but vendors with big professional services divisions are usually very good at documenting the scope of the project and any additional change that arises outside of that scope will see a change request issued which, if approved, will see additional costs over the fixed price agreed. If you are worried about potentially signing up for an expensive LMS implementation project one way to get an idea upfront is to try find out what % of the LMS vendors comes from Professional Services revenue. If the majority of their revenues come from Professional Services rather than license or subscription fees that might be a red flag as to the type of project you could be signing up for.

Upgrades

Possibly an even bigger issue than the cost and time involved in the initial implementation of a customized LMS solution is when, in two or three years time, you want to upgrade to the latest version of the software to get access to new features that are now available. With a SaaS solution like LearnUpon there’s no such thing as upgrade projects, instead new features get released on a monthly basis, with zero downtime, and you can just enable them if you want to use them or leave them disabled if particular features are not of interest to your organization. With a customized solution however you have to embark on an upgrade project which can sometimes be even more difficult than the original implementation depending on how much customization was done.

 

When you upgrade to a new version all your customizations need to be re-applied, sometimes re-worked if they no longer fit the new architecture, and re-tested, bugs fixed again, etc.. For context at Learning Solutions earlier this year I spoke to a lady who worked for a large blue chip company and they had a well known enterprise LMS implemented that had been heavily customized. They now needed to upgrade to the latest version as the current version was no longer supported… The cost of that upgrade project? $6.4m….I’ve seen a lot in my time in the LMS space but even I was taken aback by that upgrade quote!

Constant maintenance

Not only are upgrades to the latest version of the software expensive and difficult but smaller releases to fix bugs, to provide support for a new browser, e.g. Microsoft Edge or the latest version of Chrome, security patches, etc..are also much more complicated when you are not operating off a standard code base for all customers using your software. Instead even the simplest of bug fix releases need to consider the implication of any customizations in place and a QA cycle is needed to ensure there are no unexpected outcomes in pushing a fix live for a bug in the core product.

Bespoke Hardware

The items listed above could be considered somewhat obvious implications of implementing a customized LMS. Some other perhaps less obvious considerations are whether the solution needs to be installed on it’s own hardware. The cost of the hardware is less of an issue nowadays but ensuring your LMS is hosted on the latest hardware providing the best performance and experience for your learners is something to be conscious of. The rapid advances in hardware and content delivery technologies means that unless you are hosting your LMS on a leading infrastructure provider like Amazon Web Services (AWS) and using a Content Delivery Network (CDN) like Cloudfront then the chances are your LMS is running on outdated technology if you are not upgrading your infrastructure on a regular basis. Because they often need to be able to handle millions for learners and deliver 100’s of thousands of courses each month cloud providers like LearnUpon have no option but to invest heavily in their infrastructure and ensure they are taking advantage of the latest hardware and technologies. If you do decide to host your own customized solution then it is important that scalability, reliability, backups and security are all items that either someone in your IT department or your LMS vendor is given responsibility for.

Conclusion

In an ideal world I think most people are looking for the benefits of a cloud hosted, SaaS solution combined with the flexibility you get with a solution that can be customized to do whatever you want. At LearnUpon while you can’t customize workflows and functionality anyway you want to, we do believe in building configuration into almost every feature we release. I think coming from a background of very bespoke solutions has allowed us to see the merits of having flexibility while not compromising on our brand promise of being an LMS that is quick to setup, easy to use, scalable and secure.

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