Nearly on a daily basis, I receive inquiries about systems. Everything from which one should I pick, to what do I think of X or Y to whether or not, they should use a RFP.

I see it equally on sites such as Linkedin and various groups within. Questions on whether there are any good systems for under 50K (yes, plenty), what systems offer batch uploading and curriculum paths (nearly all of them), do I need a content authoring tool built in (no), it is better to have a SaaS system or on my own servers (SaaS), and many more.

People have questions and they need answers, but they need accurate answers and not “theory” or conjecture.

Buying a LMS

This is probably the biggest stunner to people. They think when they purchase a LMS, it is theirs forever. Yes and No.

No, in the sense that you are actually “leasing” or “renting” the system. The length of this “lease” is the length of your contract. When the contract is up, you can renew for more years or months or decide to leave for another system.

In this regard, you do not “own” it. Sure, you have it customized (to a degree) of what you need – skin it, add children or sub portals, use e-commerce, and blah blah, but at the end of that contract, it either goes back to the vendor (in a sense) or you renew.

Are there systems, I can actually purchase?

Yes, but it is a challenge, because there is only a handful of vendors, who will actually sell you outright their system.

While, you may be thinking to yourself, “awesome”, there are some caveats with this angle.

  • Most of the vendors who offer this, will require you to “lease” the system initially – for a year or two
  • After the “lease”, they will sell it to you – but it is not cheap, nor is the price the same as the initial “buy (aka rent/lease)”
  • If it is a SaaS system, you have to either host it on your own servers or host it on net server farms, such as Rackspace
  • Updates, upgrades to the system are extra (yearly charge), support (same)
  • You can decline the above options and go it alone, but if something happens – you are responsible for the fix, not the vendor

Free

Sometimes in education, the LMS is free, but again its misleading. Yes, its free- but again, you are renting/leasing it. At the end of your agreement, you either renew or you leave for something else.

The only spin on this of course, is a LMS that you build 100% yourself – either through open source or something else; or you download a 100% free open source system (files included).

In this case, you truly own the system – for as long as you desire.

When should I use a RFP?

Ideally never. I’m in a camp of folks, who believe that the RFP is an unecessary document, that has outlived its usefulness.

They used to be worthwhile, when every system was hosted on your own servers and when many systems could be 100% customized. That isn’t the case any longer.

A RFP is a time waster – for you and the vendors. Rather, I recommend the following

  • Identify the systems of interest
  • Schedule demos or some systems you can access and view the system without scheduling a demo
  • After the demo, narrow down your list of top three or five
  • From this list, send out a RFI- it should be no longer than a one page spreadsheet.
  • 90% of all the features are similar regardless of the system, the difference is 10% – so, system X may not have a marketing component, system Y might, system A may have e-commerce with built in invoicing option, system D may have e-commerce but no built in invoicing option, etc.
  • Next, test drive the products – i.e. trial. Any vendor worth their weight, is going to offer a trial. You want a minimum of 15 days, ideally 30. If the vendor only says seven, walk away. In 2011, any vendor that pulls that, clearly thinks that you have unlimited time and thus no work at the office, which is a joke, so why play the game?
  • While you are test driving, send out inquiries to the sales person. I prefer e-mail only, until it is the final stage, and I make it clear in the initial call or in many cases, e-mail. If this disregard this simple request, they are out, because it tells me, they are not really listening to the customer

For people asking, “what about pricing”, yes this should be part of the initial inquiry. It is only at the initial inquiry, do you ask for an estimate based on the following

  • Number of users (seats)
  • Any additional add-ons, whether truly an add-on or built into the system (it can be turned on/off)
  • Customization, if applicable
  • Support & Training (many systems, offer it for free, but some still charge)
  • Extended Enterprise (if you go this route – cost for initial child or additional children)
  • Length of agreement

When you are into the final round, testing it out and sending out any additional inquiries, you can start to negotiate pricing. I always go this route. I prefer initial negotiating, before even deciding if the system is the one I want to select or recommend for a client. Heck, I followed this route, when I used to purchase (lease) systems, themselves.

Estimates, when is it the wrong time?

Whenever a vendor, tells you the estimate is based on the hours of implementation or the project, this should be a red flag. Listen, if you are this far into the game, and have provided them the specifics they need, time line for the project, then there is no reason for them to use this angle.

A vendor should (and many do) tell you how long it will take to implement the system. If they don’t, ask them. Realize that customization, or feature sets that are not already avaiable, but you want into the system, will affect implementation time. Equally realize, that implementation times can be shorter with one system versus another, depending on the vendor, regardless if it is SaaS or not.

However, typically a hosted system (on your own servers) will take longer to implement, then a SaaS system.

The Gotcha! – Implementation Teams

A little known bonus that sometimes is the whammy, comes down to the implementation team. There are vendors, who have multiple implementation teams. While there are great benefits to this, there is also an occasional bad effect.

The effect? You get a bad team. We are not talking bad, as in nasty people, but rather they have a track record of delayed implementations, project management issues (not related to you or your “additional requests”) and issues frankly with integrating the system with an ERP or whatever type of system you wish to interface with at your company (if you are going with this component).

How do you know, whether you are getting the superstars or the all “D” team?

You don’t. Vendors who have multiple implementation teams, are going to say they are all great. Otherwise, that vendor wouldn’t be in business for long. However, you can try to assess yourself, by asking the following questions.

  • Do you have multiple implementation teams?
  • If yes, do you have a team that has experience with implementing a system that does X (X could be interface with an ERP (specifically whichever one you are using), or X could be extended enterprise or X could be interface with salesforce.com or X could be integrate or interface with a social learning platform, etc.
  • How many projects has this team worked on, and how many clients has the project manager worked with?

Some vendors have an array of people who help implement the system, rather than a specific team of three or four folks, who always implement. An array is not a negative. I know of plenty of vendors, who rather then having multiple sets of teams (always the same team of folks for say team A, etc.), have an array and it works quite well.

Implementation Time

Always find out how long it will take to implement the system. This can be part of your RFI, but I like to ask it via an e-mail. Why? Written proof. I have known vendors who have said it will take A and then it takes B, and they claim they never said to you, it will take A.

Verbal is okay, but written is better. Of course, always have it included in your contract as a line item. Thanks to SaaS systems, implementation times are decreasing, but if the vendor says on average it takes three weeks – get clarification.

Is it three weeks, with everything you are getting? Especially if you need some customization beyond skinning it, or adding a logo? If the vendor offers integration of APIs (from you), that will impact the implementation time (with many vendors). So, always clarify.

Bottom Line

This is by no means an entire list of questions and answers, rather it is a list of questions that are often not asked, but should.

In the next few months, questions and answers will continue to be part of this blog.

The end game? To help you make an informed decision on which is the right system for you – short term and long term.

Ask the right questions. Do the due diligence and see what happens.

You might be surprised.

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