Build vs Buy: Learning Management Systems

It’s a question I’ve been asked many times as an elearning consultant and as a developer: is it better to build your own LMS or buy one off the shelf? Having worked in organizations that bought, built, and eventually sold LMSs, I’ve been lucky to see some of the good and bad outcomes from each case. Let’s take a look at each option and see when they might be appropriate.

Building

Building means hiring developers and designers to create the LMS for your organization. When the product is done, you will own the code you created outright. You and your team create the system from the ground up including: provisioning servers, selecting a platform to build on, writing the code, producing the graphics, and more.

Things to consider:

  • Who to hire to design and develop?
  • When do you need to launch?
  • Where will the LMS be hosted?
  • How will you maintain the LMS long term?
  • After it’s built, you still need to create content!

Pros:

  • Designed and built according to your exact requirements to fit your organization no matter how specific they are.
  • Expandable in the future; as long as you have developers you can keep adding to your system.
  • Totally controlled by you; no other company can change or remove features from your system.

Cons:

  • Expensive and time consuming; developing and maintaining software takes special skills and a lot time so it’s not going to be cheap!
  • Uncertainty and risk; what you set out to build doesn’t always come out exactly as planned at the price you estimated.
  • No existing documentation or support; because your LMS is completely custom built, you won’t have a community or support team to help, it’s just you.

Buying

There are many companies out there that provide LMS as a service. These are owned and maintained by the company and licensed out for their customers. Although the product is already built, you will usually find options to customize how the product looks and functions, with some limitations. When buying an LMS service, you will never own the code itself; think of it more as renting an LMS.

Things to consider:

  • Which LMS is right for you?
  • What customizations will you require?
  • Besides the LMS itself, what else does the company provide (e.g. training, documentation, support, etc)?

Pros:

  • Faster and cheaper to deploy with less development cost or time needed (just your customizations).
  • Already designed and developed for existing requirements; you can judge the final result for yourself while know the system has been implemented and working in other situations (ideally similar to yours).
  • Development and maintenance are handled for you; you don’t need to hire a team long-term to perform basic maintenance on the LMS.
  • Existing support, documentation, and community; expert help is just an email away.

Cons:

  • It can be difficult to change or add features; if your LMS is managed by another company who have many other clients to worry about, new features are prioritized according to their schedule, not yours.
  • Your product is dependent on the LMS company; changes to their company may affect your system.

Making the Decision

The choice of whether to build or buy comes down to your specific situation.

Building is great if you have the time, resources, and expertise to create and maintain a new product (in addition to the rest of your responsibilities). For companies that have very specific training requirements, building might be necessary to meet those needs. Companies who are heavily training focused (e.g. online education programs) can also find value in building their own platform that they own and control so their product won’t be disrupted or depend on an external company with different goals. Keep in mind that programming an LMS and designing instructional materials are two completely different jobs and you’ll need to plan for both!

Buying is appropriate if you don’t want to focus resources on developing the LMS and just want to get your training program launched in the shortest possible time for the lowest cost. When surveying the market, you’ll find that each LMS is specialized for specific use cases with insights that might take you years to figure out when developing yourself. There might be an LMS out there that is a perfect fit for you! Once you have chosen an LMS to buy, you need to get you and the team trained and ready to start producing materials. You may find that your resources are best spent making the training materials as good as can be.

Ultimately when making a decision, it’s best to explore a bit of both options beforehand. First, document your organization’s training requirements. Do any existing LMSs meet your requirements (maybe with some customization)? What features do you see in the market that you like? Do you have the resources and expertise to build an LMS in-house?  Who in your organization will manage the LMS long-term? Do you have a plan on where to hire or contract programmers and designers for the job?

Conclusion

Whether to build or buy your LMS is a tough choice that depends on many factors. Take the time to analyze your own organization and what’s available out there. There are many things to consider but the main thing is to have a vision for your training program and to choose the path that’s most likely to make it come to life.

If you have questions about this very topic, feel free to email us at admin@cogcentric.com. We are happy to chat and share more of our experiences!

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