Take a left at the next decision…

Image: scottchan / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Process mapping sounds complicated. It sounds like something you need to spend time learning before you even engage with your LMS provider. But it’s not! In fact, you probably do it all the time without even realising it.

What does your LMS vendor mean when they ask you to “map” your requirements?
What your vendor is looking for is a series of LMS Workflows, i.e. how work will flow through the LMS. For this, you will probably be required to generate a series of flowcharts (check with your vendor for specific requirements and ask for templates if possible).

When you first engaged the vendor and provided the requirements used for tender you probably used general statements such as “students must be able to register for courses” or “training team must administer attendance”. At this point the vendor will want to translate these general requirements into specific actions and flows of actions. You should look at every requirement and ask the question “what does this really involve?”

Using our example “students must be able to register for courses”, some process considerations might be:

  • Can students register for any course or will available courses be restricted by some attribute, e.g. manager/employee, finance employee/customer service rep?
  • Do students need to have approval to attend a course? From who?
    Are there any pre- or post- class assignments?
  • What happens if there are no places on the course the student selects?
    Should students receive reminder emails? How many? When?

This can seem like a daunting task, however, you probably considered all of this when you were writing your requirements….you just didn’t put it into fancy boxes.

Step 1: Know your users

Who are your users? This seems like a simple question, however it has implications for the entire system. Every user will have more or less permissions, depending on their role. Most companies will have one or more super-users, some training administrators, trainers and employees. Depending on the complexity of your organisation you may or may not have subgroups, e.g. employees may be broken into managers & staff; trainers may be broken into external & internal. The first step is to write down all the distinct user groups you will deal with.

Step 2: User activities

The next step is to define what activities each of your user groups will engaged in. A good way to do this is to take a blank A4 sheet for each group and write in the actions each group should be able to carry out on the system. For example, under trainers you might write “mark attendance”, while under students you might write “view attendance record”.

I would suggest that this is not a once-off task. You should let it “sit” for a while. Keep the sheets beside you and jot down additional activities as they come to your mind. If you have a source of information regarding historical training queries (e.g. a mailbox) it would be worth going through this information to check for common trends.

You can also make notes regarding the things that user groups should not be able to do. For example, you may not want students to be able to cancel courses they have registered for; or maybe only super-users should see exam results, etc.

Step 3: Walk a mile in their shoes….

Once your list of activities is ready, in order to effectively map out each one, you should put yourself in that person’s shoes. Choose an activity, e.g. a trainer completing attendance records, take a blank piece of paper and starting at the point “trainer logs into LMS” write down everything that happens. This might look like:

  1. Trainer logs into LMS
  2. Searches for course name
  3. Enters the system course record
  4. Selects students who attended & marks “complete”
  5. Repeat for no-shows
  6. Repeat for cancellations
  7. Trainer logs out

These are the essential steps from that user’s point of view. Once you have written out these points, you can then add in the system’s point of view. In our example this might be:

  1. Trainer logs into LMS
  2. Searches for course name
  3. Enters the system course record
  4. Selects students who attended & marks “complete”
  5. System sends completion emails/certificate notifications to students
  6. Repeat for no-shows
  7. System sends no-show notifications to students and copies their manager
  8. Repeat for cancellations
  9. System sends cancellation notifications to students, copies their manager and accounts department
  10. Trainer logs out

You don’t need to add in system steps such as “system updates user attendance record” – these basic functionalities can be assumed.

Step 4: Dress it for dinner

Once you have these steps completed for all the activities you identified, it is time to make them look more process-like.  It’s time to build your flowcharts. Mind Tools has a useful article on flowcharts  and RFF also have a good overview.
I use Excel to generate my process flow charts. You can also use PowerPoint or Word. There is no need to buy any specific software – you will only waste time trying to learn how to use that software, instead of dedicating your energies to getting your processes right. Another bonus of using one of the common MS Office programs is that everyone has an idea how to use them, so you can ask colleagues to work on the charts with you.

I have shared a tutorial on how I make flowcharts in Excel. While my method may not be technically correct, it has served me well in implementation projects to date. The most important thing is that you and the vendor understand the icons/method being used. You should also use the space on either side of the chart to make notes for the vendor, e.g. you might want to note that usernames should be in a certain format, or that a field in a survey is mandatory, etc.

Hopefully anybody attempting to get started on this process will find this post useful. I would love to hear your feedback if you do (or don’t!). Thanks.


Code trumps WYSIWYG (IMHO)

I absolutely loved this post about code on eLearning Weekly, which also linked to an excellent tutorial on 30 best practices in HTML for beginners.

I am a huge fan of code. Everything I know about HTML, CSS and JavaScript comes from the excellent (and free!) W3Schools. People often ask “what do you use” and my answer usually surprises people – notepad! I am a believer in clean, basic code. I don’t like the extra “bits” that invariably creep into my nice source file when I’m using a tool. I like to be in control and I know with notepad – if I didn’t type it, it’s not in there. Certainly, the more ambitious your design and structure becomes, this is impractical, but for starting out there is no better tool than notepad (or programmers notepad).

If you have served your HTML “apprenticeship” of typing <html><head></head><body>…..a few hundred times, it will make it much easier to analyse more complex code for problems further down the line.  It’s also useful when Dreamweaver or some other tool insists on inserting a line space you never asked for, to know that you want to jump into the code & simply delete the </br>, rather than fighting with the editor for 20 mins!

Check out my directory for a list of useful stuff I come across. I will keep it updated.

Project Managing your LMS Implementation

PlanIf you are a project manager you might want to skip this one! I am going to assume that anyone who reads this has either a) never had the joy of project managing a project before; or b) has done a little PM work, but nothing on this scale.

EDIT: Fantastic list of Project Management tools on slodive.com

Any project needs to be managed. This is common sense. Someone needs to control the budget, review the workload and ensure the finished product is delivered on time. There are different established project management methodologies and bodies, e.g. check out the websites for Prince 2 or PMI to access information and some free templates/guides. Check out ProjectSmart for this useful PM Glossary and an excellent guide to PM (pdf). 

Project Management Office
Your first port of call should be your PMO. If you have a preferred (or mandatory) project management methodology in your company, then you should follow it. There’s no point in submitting a project update of your own making if it’s going to be sent back and cause delays. Keep your PMO updated, as required.

Project Plan
Are you building an apartment complex or implementing an LMS? Don’t make your project plan so complex that no-one else in your department can understand it. Microsoft Project is the obvious choice of tool, but there are open source alternatives (see this Wikipedia comparison of tools). And if you don’t have the time/will to learn a new tool, there’s nothing wrong with using Excel or Word. You can find project plan templates for all the Microsoft Office products on their support site.

At a glance, your project plan will probably have, at the very least, sections on the following:

  • Project Initiation
  • Process Mapping
  • Data Migration
  • LMS Review Cycles
  • User Acceptance Testing (UAT)
  • User Interface Design
  • End User Training
  • Project Close

Other Online Resources
There are various project management resources online at the Free Management Library and Business Balls.

Obviously, developing a good project plan is only step one on the project management process. As the project progresses you will have to monitor the plan, make adjustments for early/late milestones, motivate your team, engage your stakeholders, etc. We’ll get there!

LMS Contract or Yo-Yo?

Version control is your friend! If you don’t know how to use it, find out. Regardless of your best intentions, there will be an amount of over-and-back between you and the vendor when it comes to the contracts. They will want a 30 cancellation period, you’ll change it to 10, they’ll settle at 20. It’s all part of the fun! Make sure that everyone who is reviewing the contracts is tracking changes and keep copies of every version as a backup. It might also be helpful to keep a master tracking sheet of the negotiations so that nothing gets missed, especially if some of the items are being discussed over email or on the phone.

I don’t pretend to be a contracts expert. There are plenty of sites that provide information on what to look for in a systems contract and, as mentioned in my previous post, you should be tapping into your internal resources for their guidance and advice. Every company will have different requirements and every vendor will have different terms. A lot of the larger vendors will have standard contracts and they won’t be too keen on changing them – but remember, you are the customer! With this in mind, here are a couple of things I learned along the way:

Make sure you have an appropriate definition of “users”. This might be simple or complex, depending on your organisation, e.g. do you have staff that are contracted by an agency? If so, you can’t define users as “employees of XYZ Ltd.”

Clarify the definition of “license”. When is a license used – when a person logs into the LMS or when they use it to do training? How many licences do you have? Are these concurrent? What happens when you go over your agreed number of licences, what pricing structure comes into play?

Your data belongs to you. As do any materials that you load to the LMS. Ensure you have a clause that allows you to take back all of your data and materials should you terminate the contract for any reason. In addition, most vendors will include a clause that removes all responsibility for your data – be careful about signing up to this. What would the repercussions of your vendor losing all your employee training history be?

If you are purchasing an out-of-the-box product, clarify the conditions under which your company is allowed to request customisation. Is it simply when you don’t agree with a feature? Is it only when the standard feature would cause significant disruption to your operating processes? In addition, clarify all costs for such customisations up-front, if they are not going to be included in the standard project fee.

Make sure the contract details acceptable methods of raising a query and the SLAs for resolutions. Consider carefully issues such as down-time, e.g. if they state they must have 30 days to rectify a major issue, ask yourself “can I carry on my day to day business if my system is down for 30 days”. This would also be a good time to ask to see some statistics around their average response and resolution times.

How will your administrators know how to use the system? How will your end users know? At the very minimum you should have handover training of your finished system included in your contract. There should also be some provision for the preparation (and possibly delivery) of training for your end users. If you are purchasing an out-of-the-box LMS that you intend to customise then check if existing training materials provided by the vendor will also need customisation, and if this is included in the cost.

Agree acceptable expense rates in advance, if they are to be charged outside the contract fee. Any vendor representatives who incur expenses must then adhere to what you have agreed is reasonable.

Your name and your logo belong to you. As do the details of the services provided. The vendor should not have permission to use these without your approval every time. While this might mean a bit of work approving press releases or marketing materials, especially in the initial phase, it is worth it to ensure that your company is represented accurately and positively both online and in print.

Check out this excellent post on eLearning 24/7 site about what you need to know about contracts

Build your LMS Implementation Team

TeamAfter extensive research, countless excel comparison spreadsheets and a mind-numbing array of vendor presentations, the LMS vendor and the exact package is chosen. Then the fun really starts – contract negotiations! First of all, I am not a lawyer. I am not familiar with contract law, or even legal terminology. If you are like me (and 99% of other L&D professionals I know are) it would be a good idea to get a team together, consisting of:

1. Legal Department
Get your legal department on board early. In most companies the legal department will have to be involved before any contracts can be signed anyway, but don’t assume that you can do all your negotiations and then present them with the “finished” article. You can’t. Undoubtedly they will find legal terms or wordings that an average person might skim over, but that have them gasping in shock. Best to get them onboard to sort out their side at the same time as you are hammering out the commercial information.

2. IT Representative
Okay, so you’ve possibly decided to go outside of IT and host your LMS independently (with the LMS vendor or a hosting company) however, much as the IT department is maligned for putting road blocks in the way of new projects, the support of the right IT person in contract negotiation is invaluable. What is the standard SLA on a systems contract? What are the standard clauses in a software licensing contract? What is the average daily rate for an IT development contractor? Don’t know? Exactly! Someone in IT with day-job responsibility for negotiating with vendors and managing contracts will take one look at your first-draft contract and immediately pick out all the items that will cause you headaches down the line.

3. L&D Member(s)
You, an IT person and the company lawyer might think it’s acceptable to negotiate an SLA of 4 days for an urgent query, but the person on the ground, who will be relying on the system to carry out their day job, might have very different ideas! Involving one or two key L&D members at this stage allows you to get their input, but also allows them to witness the give-and-take of the negotiations first hand. This can help to smooth your way later in the implementation. If they’ve seen the negotiations in progress and they can understand why a certain point had to be conceded or why a certain feature was traded for another service, then they are more likely to accept the finished system and work within its limitations.

LMS Selection is like a box of chocolates….

ChocolatesSo, now you know why you want an LMS it’s time to figure out which one you want! One thing that is clear is that there is no such thing as the perfect LMS. Even out of the box solutions that claim to “meet all your learning needs” have shortcomings.

The value of an LMS is relative to you and your company, which is why you won’t find a huge number of articles entitled “this is the best LMS and everyone should buy it”. Unless, of course, you are on a vendor website that is! What you will find is a selection of comparison tables, lists of features and both simple and complex guides on how to write up your “must have” and “nice to have” lists. All of these have been compiled by various contributors all across the online L&D community and I have no desire to replicate them. Instead I will share some of the ones I have found useful. If you found a different resource that you think is good/better please do share it.

Firstly, some of my own thoughts on this process:

Does exactly what it says on the tin

Never believe the vendor’s marketing – request a live demo or, even better, access to an evaluation system. Make sure that the system works with your data, with your user structure, with the types of courses that you run. Essentially, try to break it! Log in as an administrator, a manager and a student to see how the system operates on the various levels. If you see something you don’t like, ask if it can be changed. You might think “oh, I don’t like that they call students ‘users’, we will change that”, but that might not be possible and you don’t want to figure that out after your ink is on the contract.


Decide early on – will you change your processes to meet the system or will the system have to deliver existing processes. This might seem like a simple one, but there is nothing worse than a project manager telling 10 administrators they now have to address all student correspondence by hand because the new system doesn’t do mail merge! Of course there will be tweaks to existing processes and in some cases you may have to balance the changes required to run the LMS with the benefits gained in another area. Be realistic about what your new system can achieve, but decide at the start what the general rule of thumb is to be.


Check the vendor’s responses to your requirements – if they state “customisation required” then find out the cost and time details now, not 3 weeks into the project when you realise half of their system won’t work for you. Also, agree the conditions under which you can reject out of the box solutions & request customisation. It might seem reasonable to you to require customisation because the system default is American style telephone numbers, but the vendor may not be willing/able to customise at this level.

Be wary of “add-ons” or “in development”. If you have an item on your list that requires additional purchases or is scheduled for a future release, be careful: if the vendor has an add-on that does the required task, you won’t get customisation; if it doesn’t transpire in a future release you will be left with no option but potentially costly customisation.

Data, data everywhere & not a byte to click….

Don’t underestimate the impact agreeing to use a “standard data upload template” will have on your ability to upload your existing LMS data/excel spreadsheets/post-its into your new system. Get access to a copy of this template in advance and check that you have someone who can work with transferring a large amount of raw data into the required format. This won’t be a problem if you don’t have/don’t want to upload existing data, or you have very simple existing records, but the more complex your organisation and your L&D offerings are, the more complex the data you are uploading will be.

And now for the promised links:

eLearning Technology has a nice post on the LMS selection process

E-Learning 24/7 has some excellent resources on this topic (as an aside, this is a fantastic site & I encourage you to explore it). Some of the posts relevant to this topic are:

Discovery through eLearning is also an excellent blog and has a very useful post on questioning vendors during a demo

Upside Learning has a post on five things not to do when selecting an LMS and also one on what you might need an LMS for

So – in sum – to select an LMS get to grips with your must-haves and nice-to-haves, write it all down and do your research to find a vendor that meets the best possible combination, at the best price. You should also consider process implications, customisation and data migration. Simples!

Directory: Check out my collection of useful links

Why do you want an LMS?

Why?I don’t think there is one blog about learning technologies that doesn’t have a post on the need for an LMS. The death of the LMS is a topic that you will find many discussions on (don’t get me started!). From my perspective, in order to implement a system that a company wants, I have to understand why they want it in the first place. In doing this, I am often struck by several observations.

1. Who is this LMS for?
You will find the many perceived benefits to having an LMS outlined in any RFT or proposal you pick up. I often feel strongly however, that the benefits are mainly from the L&D side. Day to day “customers” aren’t going to see the reduction in administration for a basic course from 5 hours to 1; they aren’t going to see the compliance reports submitted to the CEO; they usually don’t know about the potential time and cost savings through elearning. In fact, sometimes you are going to be asking them to do more than ever – go online, see for themselves what courses are available and go through a registration process. All this instead of just picking up the phone or sending a quick email, which you will hear over and over is “they way we’ve always done it”. Sometimes your new LMS can be a hard one to sell!

2. We will have plenty of time to file our nails…
Some of L&D team members can be unrealistic in their expectations of what the LMS is going to do. I sat in many meetings where, after a lengthy discussion over a process or a form, someone would turn to me and say “you are our saviour – all of this will be gone once the LMS comes in”. However, as anyone who has ever managed an LMS will know, often it doesn’t reduce the amount of administration you have to do; yes it automates some processes but more often than not it replaces them with new LMS-related administrative tasks.

3. What can this LMS really do?
Several times I was approached with “ideas” and “suggestions” for an LMS, e.g. the inclusion of a “simple career planning tool that would see where you’re at and then generate a training plan for you and monitor it and tell you if you were on track to meet it or not and then do your ironing….”. Clearly these conversations were not with people who had a) understood the concept of an RFT or b) ever been involved in developing technology such as a “simple career planning tool”. Be careful of scope creep, as they call it in project management circles. Sometimes (always!) non-technical people don’t understand the complexities of development. While you are buying an LMS and being given the opportunity to customise it, you can only really switch on or off existing features and change the branding. Anything outside of this requires *customisation (* read: lots of money). So while my L&D colleague walked away wondering why I couldn’t just “make” the LMS have a career planning tool, seen as he can do one up in MS Word in 10 minutes, I walked away wondering what his reaction would be if I asked him to develop a ten week management programme in an afternoon!

To conclude: I guess what I’m really saying is: manage expectations. Manage the outcome expectations with your customers, your colleagues, your boss, etc. But even more importantly, manage your own expectations – don’t assume that anyone else has a clue about what it is that you do (or don’t do!).