Blog Post

What To Look For in a Learning Management System (LMS)

By:
Dave Sliwinski
Published:
August 31, 2023
Updated:
illustration of learner looking at LMS on sea foam background

Shopping for a learning management system (LMS) to educate your employees, customers, or partners? 

Whether this is an initial purchase, or you’re upgrading your LMS to keep pace with company growth—or as part of an EdTech stack consolidation, one thing’s for sure: 

You need to know what you’re looking for before entering sales conversations with LMS vendors. 

We recommend creating a request for information (RFI) document that outlines your evaluation criteria.

When you show up to a demo with your requirements laid out, you’re in control. You know exactly which questions to ask your sales rep to understand how well their LMS stacks up.

And then, after you’ve met with several LMS vendors, it’s easy to tally up scores and select the right LMS for your company size, goals, and budget.

This article is broken down into four sections:

Example RFI: See which LMS features one company shopped for

Different types of LMS platforms

Choosing the right learning management system for your needs

Key features of an LMS, organized by category

Resources to help you shop for a new learning management system

By the end of this article, you’ll be more prepared to create your own RFI. 

You’ve got questions, so let’s right dive in!

Example RFI: See which LMS features one company shopped for

Since the goal of this article is to prepare you to create a request for information document that you can share with LMS vendors, we wanted to start by sharing an example RFI. Hopefully, this example document sparks ideas for requirements you hadn’t yet considered.

To be clear, it’s not a fictitious example: it’s the actual document Gusto used to evaluate LMSes. 

View Gusto’s RFI.

If you’re unfamiliar with the term, a request for information (RFI) is a document that includes questions about product requirements. A buying team sends the RFI to different vendors to gather information about their product capabilities and services. Some companies skip the RFI and instead create an RFP, or request for proposal.

Terminology aside, what’s most important is that you and your fellow buying team stakeholders define LMS requirements, then write a question for each requirement.

Here’s what that might look like:

  • Learning paths: “Can I bundle courses within learning paths that are intuitive and easy to navigate?”
  • LMS reports: “What sort of pre-built reports and visualizations do I have within the LMS? Are they actionable? 
  • E-commerce: “Can I sell training courses?”
  • Content authoring: “Does your LMS integrate with content authoring tools for an inline experience?”
  • Customization: “Can I white label the LMS?”
  • Personalized learning recommendations: “Can I customize the in-app experience based on custom user data?”
  • Integrations: “Do you integrate with our  other platforms (CRM, HRIS,  Web Conferencing, Data Warehouse)?” 
  • Data extraction: “Can I easily extract data from the LMS to use in my BI tool?”
  • Authentication: “Can I use the SSO method we use with other platforms?”
  • Scalability: “Will your LMS perform as we scale to larger and global audiences?”

You might find it helpful to hear the full story of how Gusto brought Gusto Academy to life. Identifying a scalable, enterprise-ready LMS was a key piece in their journey.

Different Types of LMS Platforms

There are four different types of LMS platforms: 

  1. Cloud-based SaaS LMSes (like Intellum)
  2. On-premise installed LMSes
  3. Open source LMSes
  4. Custom-built LMSes

Most of the big players fall into the SaaS category. You simply pay a subscription fee and your users can log into the LMS from any device, and from anywhere. SaaS tools are a safe bet for most organizations, and you can get up and running quickly. Many tools allow for white labeling, so that whatever learning destination you build is on-brand. 

However, the other options could be a better fit for you depending on your unique situation. 

For example, if your head of InfoSec isn’t comfortable using a cloud-based SaaS solution, you might select an installed LMS that lives on your server for max control. 

Or perhaps you want the ability to develop features that are critical to your use case, but not relevant to other organizations (and therefore not offered by any LMS vendors). In this case, an open source platform might be a fit.

Finally, some organizations choose to build their own LMS. Building is a viable decision for some companies, including those that want full control over what the platform looks like and how it operates. 

(Of course, there are pros and cons to each of the above solutions.)

Maybe you know exactly which type of LMS is right for your organization.

But if not, this article is a good starting point: Should you buy or build?

Choosing the right learning management system for your unique needs

Whether you decide to buy or build, the required features of a learning management system will vary based on factors including company size, education maturity, and goals. 

Let’s say you’re a small startup that’s educating employees to reduce employee turnover. Since you’re a small company, you likely have a lean EdTech budget. And since you’re educating one audience—employees—you might not need a high-end LMS with excellent UX, built-in social, and real-time chat. 

In the above example, a basic LMS might meet your needs.

However, let’s say you’re an established company that’s educating employees and customers to upskill your workforce and increase customer expansion revenue.

In this case, you might be ready (and financially able) to upgrade from a basic LMS to a more scalable, enterprise-ready LMS with all the bells, whistles, and integrations a learning professional can dream of.

Or maybe you’re somewhere in the middle. You’re educating one audience using a custom-built LMS, a “lite” LMS, or a homegrown microsite. But you plan to build learning programs for customers and partners, need additional platform capabilities, and want to invest in a robust LMS that will grow with you—so you don’t have to go through the buying and implementation processes again in a year or two.

It can be more efficient to buy the tool you know you’ll need down the road.

Fun fact: While most companies educate their customers and employees, only 25% educate their partners. (This statistic comes from a study of 500+ education leaders.)

If your company practices organizational education—the strategic act of training employees, customers, and partners in order to reach specific business goals—you need an LMS that allows you to build personalized learning paths. This way you can reuse some or all of your materials across audiences to save time and money. (More on this below.)

Key features of an LMS, organized by category

Below, we’ll outline some key features of a learning management system so you can start to think through which ones are nice-to-have and which ones are requirements. We’ll also include professional services like data migration. After all, you’re not only shopping for an app, you’re shopping for team fit, too.

As you read through this list, add any must-haves to your RFP spreadsheet. 

Integrations

  • Does the LMS have a robust application program interface (API)? You’ll need your LMS to communicate with other systems you use. Understand which integrations are available—and whether those APIs are “read” or “write.” 
  • Does the LMS integrate with your customer relationship management (CRM) tool (e.g., Salesforce, Hubspot)? If you plan to educate prospective or paying customers, this is important for measuring education’s impact on customer retention and spend.
  • Does the LMS integrate with your video meeting tool (e.g., Zoom, WebEx, Microsoft Teams)? If you plan to incorporate live and on-demand video learning experiences—like webinars or virtual events—into your workplace learning programs, this is a nice feature to have.
  • Can you build a single sign-on (SSO) from your product to the LMS? If you’re a tech company, you’ll want to give your users the ability to use one set of credentials to login. Offering SSO helps you deliver a positive user experience. 
  • Is the vendor able to assist you with historical data migration? If you’re upgrading from a legacy system, this is critical. You’re not only evaluating the app itself, you’re also evaluating the team and their ability to support you during the implementation process and beyond. 

Scalability & Availability

  • Can the LMS perform as our audience grows? Some tools are simply not equipped to handle heavy usage. To avoid having to switch LMSes a few years down the road, be sure the tool will meet your needs today and in the future.
  • Can the LMS support a large content catalog? Similar to the last bullet point, don’t just think about your current catalog—think about future volume as you add more products, features, and services and create new training materials.
  • Is the LMS highly available (i.e., minimum downtime)? If you have a large user base—and especially a global user base—you don’t want an LMS that is unavailable overnight on a regular cadence, as it will interfere with user access. 
  • Is there responsive support for the LMS if there are availability issues? Will phone lines be staffed around the clock? What type of support is offered?

Customization

  • Does the LMS allow you to customize the branding (e.g., logos, colors, fonts)? A good LMS offers customization so when a learner lands on your academy page or eLearning destination, they feel like they’re still on your website. 
  • Does the LMS allow you to customize the UI/UX? Be sure your LMS lets you customize your user interface and user experience. You’ll want control over homepage, subpage, and navigation layout and features to create your desired look and feel.
  • Does the LMS allow you to deep link to a page, course, or learning path? Ideally, each activity, training program, and assessment includes a link you can send to learners via email, in-app notifications, etc. Learners click the link and go right to the linked content. 

Course organization

  • Can you surface a course both a la carte and within a learning path? Flexibility is key, as you might want to include content in the catalog for learners to choose from, but also use the same content within several different learning paths (think of a product tour video). 
  • Can you tag learning content by topic, role, or format so learners can filter and find what they need? Be sure you can design and organize a taxonomy to boost discoverability and manage content easily.
  • Can you customize the in-app experience to give custom recommendations? You know how Netflix makes suggestions based on your watch history and user profile? A good LMS can do this too—so that learners are shown fresh, relevant content often (so they want to come back to the LMS and keep on learning). 

Gating

  • Can you let learners browse your academy, but gate individual courses behind a login form? You might want to use your eLearning academy as part of your marketing strategy. Prospective customers trade their email addresses for access to interesting courses and other educational materials.
  • Can you customize pop-up language when a viewer tries to log into a gated page? If you sell to different customer personas—or if you’re speaking to prospective customers and prospective partners—you’ll want to tailor your messaging accordingly. 
  • Can you make some courses available to only those with the course URL? You might want to create “private courses” or restrict certain courses for certain users or user groups. For example, you might offer customer-facing employees training on upselling; you wouldn’t want to display that content to your customers. 
  • Can you make some courses available to purchase? If e-commerce is part of your strategy, be sure the LMS lets you sell certain certification paths or exams.

Content creation

  • Does the LMS allow for native content authoring—or will you have to integrate with a separate content authoring tool? Ideally, you can build courses right inside your LMS.
  • What happens when you edit a course? How does the LMS handle versioning? See if restricted admins can edit courses and content, and then an unrestricted admin will review and publish the edited version. You’ll also want access to previous versions in case you’d like to revert back or compare versions. 
  • Can you build quizzes natively inside the LMS? How simple and streamlined will your life be using this LMS? Is it an “all-in-one” tool or will you be forced to work in (and maintain) content within different systems?
  • Can you build blended learning experiences? You might want an LMS that allows you to build hybrid learning initiatives where learners complete online learning materials and also get face-to-face instruction. Why? Because social and collaborative learning elicits learner behavior change and improves learner outcomes. 
  • Does the LMS support offering courses in multiple languages? If you support a global learner audience, you’ll want an LMS that has localization capabilities so that you can present content to users in their language of choice.

Rewards

  • Does the LMS issue certifications when learners complete a certification path? Ideally, you can associate certifications with the completion of any learning activity. For some learners, the ability to earn a certification is the biggest motivation to participate.
  • Can learners share certifications and badges to social media right from the LMS? Ask if the LMS allows for learners to share their earned credentials to sites like LinkedIn or Facebook with the click of a button (or relative ease). Not only is this an engagement booster for the learner—it can also catch the attention of others who might be interested in your academy. 
  • Does the LMS feature gamification? There are many ways to gamify online learning experiences, including leaderboards and letting learners redeem points for prizes like gift cards or branded apparel. 

Reporting and analytics

  • How does the LMS help you track learner progression? You’ll need a clear view into how learners are progressing through the “funnel” of a given course or learning path, from login to completion. 
  • Does the LMS allow you to measure traffic sources? Which sources are driving the most people to your eLearning destination? Ask if the LMS supports UTM tracking codes and affiliate tracking so you can understand what’s driving traffic to the academy or site.
  • Can you pinpoint learner drop off inside the LMS? According to the same study mentioned above, the number one education challenge is learners who abandon training midway through. This issue can derail your results, so it’s important to spot it and correct it quickly. 
  • Can you easily export data from the LMS? Ideally, your LMS has a built-in reporting dashboard. However, learner-generated data becomes even more valuable when you can combine your LMS data with data from other sources for analysis. 

Please note that this is not an exhaustive list, but we hope it points you in the right direction.

Resources to help you shop for a new LMS

What is a learning management system (LMS)? Share this blog post with internal stakeholders on your buying team who are less familiar with EdTech than you are.

9 examples of skills gaps in the workplace (and how to close them). A primary use case for buying an LMS is to close employee, customer, and partner skills gaps.

Customer Education Slack Community. This community of practitioners includes a channel where you can ask questions and receive unfiltered feedback from customers and former users of LMS products.

About the Author

Dave Sliwinski headshot
Dave Sliwinski
SVP Solutions Engineering
Dave Sliwinski has over 20 years of experience in the software services industry and managing LMS platforms and L&D programs. He joined Intellum in 2016 and serves as Intellum's SVP of Solutions Engineering, a trusted source of technical product expertise and platform best practices for clients and prospects.

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