It is an age-old question in the software industry… Do you need a heavily customized Learning Management System (LMS) that reflects your ideal business process flow, or are you better off adapting to an out-of-the-box product that meets most of your needs? Is extensive LMS customization really necessary?
Large and small businesses as well as educational institutions have failed when it comes to determining the ideal training platform based on this question alone. Certainly, you don’t want your employer to be next on the list of those who have failed over these questions, or to be the employee that made the decisions that led to this failure. So how do you avoid it? How do you give everyone what they want, but still stick to a budget and get a maintainable product?
Creating a Home for Learning
Buying a Learning Management System, or any software for that matter, is a little like buying a new home. You start by making a list of requirements. For your home, it might be 4 bedrooms, a separate office, a renovated kitchen, and a minimum of 2 bathrooms. Additionally, you add on your dream items such as a wrap-around porch or a separate playroom for the kids. And of course, you want all of this on a dead-end street in a nice neighborhood!
From there you begin searching real estate listings and identifying houses that meet your criteria. Lots of things normally happen at this point. First, you realize your wish list is probably above your budget. Second, you realize the perfect house that meets all your wants and needs (and is actually in your budget) will be much more difficult to find than you initially thought. You start riding around with a real estate agent and it quickly becomes clear you will probably have to compromise. You realize you might have to settle for 3 bedrooms instead of 4, or 1 bathroom instead of 2 in order to get the renovated kitchen and a house you can afford in a nice neighborhood. Eventually, you settle on one that feels right and you buy it, even if it didn’t have all the items on your wish list.
This process is very much like purchasing a new software system. None of them are perfect. They all have pros and cons. In the end, you choose one that has the best features for the most affordable price.
The alternative is to build one from scratch, which much like building your own house sounds like a good idea at first. Once you get into the process, you realize it is WAY more involved and expensive than you realized, it takes far longer than anyone ever imagined, and, in the end, compromises are still made to stay on budget or on time. Plus, you are stuck with one architect in both examples (for either the house or the software system) and if that individual ever becomes unavailable to you or their services are less than satisfying, then it’s “good luck!” on configuring your system or figuring out where the leaky pipe terminates.
Common pitfalls of LMS customization
To continue our analogy, let’s dig deeper… You’ve bought your new home, but now it’s time for the renovations needed to truly make it your own. In this case, you’re happy with your new home, but the bathroom is a mess. The tub is pink, the walls have hideous wallpaper, and a new toilet is needed pronto. A renovation is needed immediately, so you meet with some bathroom remodeling experts.
The first thing they do is show you a chart that compares the amount you’ll spend on the remodel to the actual value you will get for the work you put in. It turns out you can actually overspend on a renovation and reduce the overall value of your home with a room that doesn’t fit into the home, the neighborhood, and the overall cost of the house. So, your bathroom remodel decisions are colored by the resale/recoup costs you can get for that project.
Over-Customization Makes Your LMS More Difficult to Manage
The same is true when you look at LMS software customization. Customization in general, but over-customizing in particular, ties your hands when it comes to the maintenance and upgrades of a product. If you have a lot of custom code, all of that will need to be reviewed, tested, and potentially updated before you can upgrade the product itself. This is a major project, and a potentially expensive project. It isn’t unusual for software to have frequent changes in today’s world, particularly if a major security vulnerability is identified. Heavy LMS customization puts you in a position that makes it difficult to remain agile and upgrade quickly if necessary.
LMS customization also leaves you dependent on the individual or group you hire to do the customization work. If they choose to stop doing this work or you are unsatisfied with the results, you are left with a product that you cannot upgrade without significantly degrading the functionality.
Finally, customization makes it more difficult to evolve workflows as processes change. If you’ve designed a product that specifically meets the exact needs of your process, and then the process changes or needs to be changed, you’ll also have to change the custom work you’ve done. If the product introduces a new feature that you’d like to use, you may not be able to use it because it doesn’t tie into your custom workflow.
The Open Source Factor
Open-source software is often an attractive option to buyers because it’s highly customizable and incredibly robust due to its freely available open code. But, as they say, “With great power comes great responsibility.” One of the benefits of the open source community is there are a plethora of modules, plugins, and feature sets that plug-and-play with these applications without the need to directly customize the code. This means that even though a core product may not have 100% of the features you require, using modules developed by third parties may be able to get you quite close to satisfying all your requirements.
As providers of open-source Moodle and Totara Learning Management Systems, eThink helps you navigate the many third parties out there and choose solutions that are technically sound, well maintained, and bug free. These tools, when combined with an existing product, can produce great results.
Finding the Customization/Configuration Balance
You will find some LMS companies who open the door to any and all customizations a customer may want. While this can initially seem attractive, they are also opening the door for complications, vendor lock, and added expenses. We’ve consistently seen an industry trend where some companies in our space sell LMS customizations unnecessarily to generate initial revenue as well as longer term maintenance fees instead of configuring the solution to meet a client’s needs or using lower cost third party options that might yield better outcomes.
However, that’s not to say that sometimes customizations aren’t needed. At eThink, it’s important to us that we only do customizations to meet our client’s needs when a core or third-party, lower-priced option does not meet or exceed their needs. This approach gives a much lower cost of ownership and better long-term results. We prefer to work with our clients to create the best possible solution available with existing tools and then fill in the gaps with customization if required rather than design large scale custom solutions unless they are truly needed.
This approach to LMS customization is one of the values that defines eThink as a company, as we see ourselves as your partner throughout your eLearning journey. Our goal is to help you understand the pros and cons in order to make smart decisions on all fronts so that you can get the most out of the tools already available, understand the risks in customization, consider the impact of slight compromise when adapting to existing tools, and then customize when (and only when) customization makes sense.
Want to learn more about eThink’s philosophy on LMS customization?
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