Learning Management System Comparison: What You Need to Know

October 19, 2016


LMS comparison

Any CIO or CLO attempting a full learning management system comparison might think they’re facing a daunting task. Many LMSs populate the Software as a Service (SaaS) marketplace, using many different models promising solutions to your training needs.

So how do you conduct an LMS software comparison to find the one that suits your specific organizational needs?

The first step is understanding the options among broad categories or types of elearning software. Once you decipher the different types, you can judge which LMS fits best with your organization.

LMS Comparison: Horizontal vs. Vertical

The first broad categories we can use to compare learning management systems are horizontal and vertical — or broadly useful and niche specific.

A horizontal LMS will be industry agnostic since it can be used by corporations in any business sector. They’re often referred to as a “one-size-fits-all” solution to handle various operations, as they aren’t limited by a company’s content or specialty. For example, an online cloud-based training platform like SchoolKeep can be considered a horizontal LMS that works effectively across many industries, business models and use cases.

You can understand this distinction in types of LMSs by considering what has happened with enterprise software generally in other functions like marketing, finance, HR administration or sales. Examples of horizontal enterprise software include customer relationship management (CRM) giant SalesForce, leading inbound marketing and sales software HubSpot or HR software Zenefits. Companies in a wide variety of industries use those software solutions because they work well as companies grow and change. The same thing is happening with learning management systems.

Vertical LMS solutions tailor their product design and feature sets to one industry, such as insurance or health care. This approach to integrating training software can work well in legacy companies with established business models and partnerships.

The most recognized examples of the vertical LMS are in one very large niche, higher education, where there are many specialized solutions available, such as Blackboard, Canvas and D2L.

But other industries with their own training needs are served by specialized learning management systems also. For example, G-Cube is an LMS designed especially for life sciences industries. Other well-known vertical LMSs include MindTickle for sales training or Teachable for independent professionals developing and selling their own courses.

Which axis — horizontal or vertical — is right for your company? The decision is based primarily on your company’s objectives. If you are highly specialized or have a single use case — as is often the case in governmental or non-profit organizations, for example — a vertical solution might be best. But if you need flexibility because you are in a dynamic industry, a horizontal LMS is better designed to adapt and grow with you.

Related reading: Want to Speed Up Onboarding and Product Adoption? Integrate Training

Compare learning management systems deployment models

Another factor to consider as you compare LMS systems, or comparing any enterprise software, centers on where it lives and how you will interface with it. There are four basic deployment models:

  1. Cloud
  2. Installed
  3. Open-source
  4. Custom-built

A cloud LMS houses the data, programs and applications off-site on the vendor’s server. Users access the LMS via an internet browser, paying on a subscription basis. Since it requires no lengthy installation, your staff runs it almost immediately so you don’t lose any downtime. The vendor handles all maintenance, upgrades, backups and licenses so your organization needn’t purchase hardware to maintain the software or expend any resources to manage it.

The cloud-computing sector has skyrocketed in recent recent years, so much so that Gartner projects the global public cloud service market to leap by 16 percent this year, reaching $204 billion.

One of the main advantages of a cloud-based learning management system is that, because your usage is flexible, the pricing and therefore your costs can also be flexible.

With an installed LMS, the buyer acquires the license or a copy of the LMS and installs it on its own in-house server. This type of LMS requires internal staff to maintain it, but that does traditionally give the organization greater control over the software. (Although, modern cloud SaaS may be more customizable than you realize if it’s been awhile since you looked at them.)

Control comes into play when the company envisions a fully customized LMS to fulfill very unique training requirements.

Since the LMS must first be set up — for a cost — on the company’s server, an on-premises LMS likely delays the implementation of the program. Unlike a cloud LMS, it’s not a turnkey solution.

Selecting a cloud or on-premises LMS hinges on whether your organization has the in-house resources — IT staff, time — to maintain the software. Also keep in mind how much of an initial investment you want to make into the LMS and how quickly you want the program up and running.

Also referred to as “free,” open source LMS means the source code is open to anyone. The “free” in this case refers to the freedom to adapt the software to your specific requirements.

Therefore, it is highly customizable but requires a sophisticated level of technical expertise to configure the code. It’s also easier to switch LMS providers if the open source software fails to meet your needs as your business evolves.

Lastly, for some companies a custom-built LMS may be appealing. If you have the internal resources and infrastructure, you can hire a team of developers to build and maintain your own LMS. This works best if the organization demands a highly specific and tailored learning solution. Sometimes, an open source LMS serves as a springboard to a custom-built LMS.

Questions to guide your learning management systems comparison

Whether you’re comparing LMSs for the first time or seeking a new solution to replace your old LMS, take the time to consider these questions that must be answered:

  • Are we a growing company who needs a horizontal solution so we can remain dynamic?
  • Or are we specialized and established enough to want a vertical solution?
  • Will we benefit from the flexibility and support of a cloud-based LMS?
  • Or do we have the tech savvy and resources to customize and maintain an on-premises LMS?

Weigh the costs and benefits of each and then select the one able to underpin your training program now — and in the future.



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