When Off-the-shelf LMS software won't cut it

Posted by Bruno Cozzi on 13/05/2019

LMS Customisation

Your learning and development team have determined that none of the LMS solutions evaluated will meet the needs of your organisation. So you now have to pick the best of the bunch and make a decision to either customise it or integrate it with solutions that provide the missing bits. This article looks at what's involved in those choices and offers suggestions.

Customisation can be expensive, open ended and risky. Integration can offer best-of-breed products at off-the-shelf prices, but how well do they integrate, and what does it cost to integrate?

Example - Workflows

Let's say you need an LMS that offers custom workflows, enabling you to auto-schedule classrooms, send expiry reminders, course documents, outlook appointments and notify trainers of scheduling changes. For whatever reason, the LMS you chose has great features but doesn't include custom workflows. Now you need to make a choice: do you get the LMS vendor or licensed developer to customise the LMS for you, or do you purchase a software subscription that provides great custom workflows and get an experienced developer to integrate it.

Let's assume we mean effective integration, not the kind that forces your admin team to work two systems, perform spreadsheet acrobatics and double handle student data. An effective integration is seamless, reliable and transparent. Your people shouldn't even know that two systems are involved.

After looking at the price, ROI and risks associated with customisation you decide to integrate MS Office 365, making full use of MS Flow, a highly programmable workflow designer. Later we'll explain why integration in this case was a far better choice.

Microsoft Flow (1)

Customisation Option

In this approach you'd work with the vendor or licensed developer to modify the off-the-shelf product to cater to the training and assessment needs of your business. The steps might include:

  • Write a requirements specification describing the changes you need
  • Getting the vendor or a licensed developer to quote
  • Implementing the changes
  • Performing user acceptance testing in a staging environment
  • Addressing defects and changes with the option to re-test
  • Sign-off the development as 'completed'
  • Deploy to your production environment

One important point to raise here. Customisation and Configuration are not the same thing. Configuration gives you, the customer the ability to make changes to the products options and behaviour. While configuration is built-in flexibility included in the off-the-shelf product, customisation is not pre-planned. It requires the software vendor or a licensed developer to make changes.

Integration Option

In this approach you'd research existing software that provides the functionality and services that will address the gaps in your LMS, ensure that the software has the necessary capabilities, and employ a developer to implement it. The steps in this approach might include:

  • Identify the gaps in your LMS
  • Find off-the-shelf software options that can fill those gaps
  • Ensure the LMS and new software can communicate and exchange data
  • Employ a developer who has experience with ideally both APIs
  • Provide and integration specification detailing the data flow between systems
  • Perform user acceptance testing
  • Address defects and changes with option to re-test
  • Sign-off the development as 'completed'
  • Deploy to your production environment
Both options can potentially address any shortcomings in your off-the-shelf LMS, but it's important to choose the right tool for the job, employ good skills and be involved and diligent in acceptance testing and sign-off.

Pros and Cons

Customisation is a good option if the changes are small and easy to implement, or the requirement is so specific that no 3rd party software can feasibly address your functional gaps. Another possibility might be that you absolutely must retain ownership of the source code, though that is a rare requirement these days.

But in most cases, and particularly for larger projects you'd get better results by integrating an established 3rd party application.

  • Integration often adds significant value over and above filling your missing gaps. In the example earlier, by integrating Office 365 you didn't only get a Custom Workflow designer. You also got: the full suite of MS Office 2016 products, Active Directory for internal login and single-sign-on, Microsoft exchange mail server, SharePoint, OneDrive document management system, Skype for Business, and enterprise social platform for sharing and team discussions.
  • Cost: The cost to implement a custom workflow system from scratch is probably 10 times the price of 5 Enterprise licenses of Office 365 E3. Granted you still have to pay a developer to integrate it, but the integration project is far more cost effective an a lot less risky.
  • Maintenance: Unless either the LMS or the integrated software changes substantially, maintenance is more or less included in your license fees.
  • Best of Breed: You have the options to work with companies that offer best-of-breed solutions, well established, with documented APIs and predictable pricing. In fact, you may already be using products like this in your business. If, for example you already have Office 365 then integration would allow you to amortise your investment and solve the missing gaps in your LMS.
  • Support: your support channels are immediately expanded since, you're no longer reliant on the software developer who originally implemented your proprietary customisation, but you get support from the LMS Vendor and the integrated 3rd party software, e.g. MS Office 365 support team in this example.
  • This one is important: most LMS vendors will not bare the cost of maintaining your custom software. They will either refuse to customise or they will charge you for customisation and make the feature you paid for available to all their clients. They're not being evil. They know that the cost of maintaining individual customised LMS builds is not financially viable for you, the customer. Some LMS providers will recognise that your requirements will benefit other customers and will agree to add the feature to their roadmap. But it will be implemented to their specification and in a timeframe that may not suit your needs.

In Summary

Good software today is designed to communicate and share data with other software products. Customisation is becoming less and less important and in many cases, not available as an option. The decision usually comes down to scope and price. So get quotes for both options, and decide whether the list of benefits above are important to you. Look at what software you already have, and ask the experts whether integration is feasible.

 

TOPICS eLearning Solutions Learning Management System

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