LMS. Should you build or buy?

2nd Dec 2013

In the early days of e-learning adoption it was quite common to have to make a decision between buying an LMS and building one yourself. Just ten years ago the LMS market was a much smaller place, with the majority of systems available being so costly that they were only in reach of large corporates.

These days the market has changed; there are many more suppliers, particularly at the mid to low end of the market, as well as some viable open source options. Although it's a question I’m now asked less often, there are still times when you may need to consider that same choice.

So why might you consider building rather than buying an LMS?

Well, if you've read many of my posts on this blog you will be aware that I'm passionate about the importance of clearly defining your requirements and selecting the right solution to meet those requirements. But what if no matter how hard you look you can't find a solution that fits?

The first thing to do would be to look for a solution that gets as close as possible to what you need and then to look at the options available through customisation. I've previously warned against overdoing the amount of customisations, but if you have a critical need that can't be met any other way then you may have no choice but to take this route. Just be sure to take whatever measures are required to minimise the associated risks.

If we decide to build, what are the challenges?

  • The first issue is the amount of time and effort that is likely to be spent developing features and functionality that already exist elsewhere. Before we even get to LMS specific functionality we have to think about user management, data storage and retrieval, reports and so on.
  • The second issue is cost. No one should underestimate the financial cost of developing a platform from scratch. It is likely to be considerably more than purchasing an equivalent system.
  • The third problem is ongoing support and maintenance. Not only do you have to invest in the development of the platform in the first place, you need people around to keep it running. Once the development team has disbanded who will take care of what they've built?
  • The last problem, which despite being the least obvious perhaps, is to my mind the most concerning. It is the lack of future innovation. Whether you opt for a commercial platform or an open source one, there will be a group of other users/customers who are asking for features that may benefit you, but which you haven't even considered. If I'm helping a client find any kind of platform, LMS included, one of the things I'm looking for is the supplier’s track record in innovation.

In summary there are very few circumstances under which it is worth considering building your own LMS. If you do feel this is the route to follow you must give serious consideration to the time effort and cost involved not just in developing it, but also in maintaining, supporting and growing it.

Are there any circumstances that you can think of which would persuade you to build rather than buy?

About the author
Barry Samson

Barry Sampson is a consultant focusing on the use of technology to improve workplace performance. In 2009 he co-founded Onlignment, a consultancy specialising in organisational communication and learning. Previously he worked in a range of delivery and management roles in HR and Learning & Development before becoming Learning Technology Manager at B&Q where he led a number of award-winning elearning and blended learning programmes.

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