As I looked across the table I knew the question that the CEO was going to ask.
Weeks of meetings and investigations into his business had been leading up to this presentation. The project owner was on board and sweating at the table next to me. So much had gone into the work we did to evaluate this LMS solution for them. It was perfect. It was going to make life so much better for the staff and fit the organization perfectly. Saving time, making money, scalability – it was all there. Then the inevitable question came out:
“Why don’t we just use something off-the-shelf?”
Believe it or not, this is a common scenario that we find ourselves in. The ‘build versus buy’ decision is a significant one that many companies face. We often have to take a step back and help internal teams take an honest look at the benefits, and risks, of using an off-the-shelf solution when addressing their LMS needs.
It’s a valid question, and one that every organization should ask themselves.
When should you look at off-the-shelf LMS solutions and when should you go all in for a custom build? A learning program’s capabilities can vary widely, as can the volume of components to think through.
It’s hard to predict the future, but that’s essentially what you’re asked to do when selecting an LMS solution. How comprehensive does the platform need to be? Will your LMS grow with your company? Have you thought about the long-term scope of the project?
If you don’t need specific features or functions, a generic learning management system can address many of the needs of some companies. Most off-the-shelf solutions are aimed at providing the most popular features for both your business and your users. Off-the-shelf solutions are already available, making the time to market much faster. They typically require a lower initial investment and make more financial sense for a companies with smaller budgets and less need for adaptability.
We’ve seen off-the-shelf platforms work really well for many of our clients. For example, if you only need to serve an internal team of 200 – 300 employees over the next 3 to 5 years, an off-the-shelf solution might be able to handle that. I’d go so far as to say that if you have a 5 year goal to scale from 200 employees to 2,000 employees, but the content is all going to be the same, off-the-shelf makes sense.
Speed to market
Minimal work on your part to get it built out
Lower initial investment
Known set of tools and features for getting started
Defined process for organizations that don’t have any
However, the lack of customization relative to the day-to-day operations can ultimately lead to inefficient, manual processes. Off-the-shelf systems cannot meet every need, are rigid, and may not be compatible with other programs your business relies on.
Even if your roadmap to the future isn’t 100% defined, a custom solution gives you the agility to adapt once it goes to market. Custom builds give you the ability to make your best guess up front, but not be tied into those processes for the foreseeable future. If you later decide that you need to have some users log in and other users not – based on brand and MVP status 6 months after launch – the code in the custom LMS can be updated and off you go. Trying to make that work in an off-the-shelf system after launch would be painful at best, if possible at all.
There’s also the added benefit of ongoing support to keep the solution up to date and functioning well. There are consistent feature requests and improvements to be made (which is why you went the custom route in the first place). Support teams evaluate when feature requests and improvements need to be made, or when it’s time for an update to the core application.
If you’re trying to build a business of meaningful scale, with specific needs and the ability to evolve, a custom LMS can be well worth the cost. For us, that process starts by establishing a planning structure that ensures the right information is obtained to position the project for success. Building the strategic framework upfront keeps the project focused on designing technology that’s best suited for your business. As your business needs change and your industry evolves, being able to quickly shift technology can end up being a smarter investment when applied to long-term initiatives.
Matches the way your organization does business
Easily adapts as you grow to evolve with the organization
Not reliant on a 3rd party (you own it)
Total cost of ownership tends to be less depending on scale
So now when your CEO asks you which direction you should go, you have a clear understanding of which camp you fall into. Ultimately it boils down to your company’s vision for growth, and the return on the investment. Technology changes fast. How will your company handle the challenge of choosing the right LMS solution?
Read our Case Study for the LMS we built for Carrier Air Conditioning:View Case Study