When To Commission a Custom LMS

Why do you hate your LMS?

I’ve never heard one of my peers or colleagues say, “We love our LMS.” My personal opinion is that LMS developers have flooded the market with solutions that almost meet the needs of their customers, but never quite live up to their marketing hype. I find that LMS companies fail in a few fundamental ways, particularly in the admin experience and supporting designs for complete learning experiences as opposed to learning and a digital event. For example, LMS developers often produce systems that tend to be click-heavy for admins and instructional designers because the LMS developers don’t invest enough in robust user experience design no matter how much they spent on the visual design. Reporting on tests tends to be laborious, painful, and LMS developers don’t automate any of the analysis that most of us would consider standard and useful (e.g., providing a pass-fail rate for specific test questions when using the LMS's native testing tool).

We want a custom LMS; that’s the solution

Surley it can’t be that difficult.
— Famous Last Words of the Cavalier

The process of building a custom LMS for learning organizations can be difficult for training departments with limited experience in commissioning custom software. Anyone who tells you differently is trying to sell you something, and their are selling you up the river. A little truth in advertising, Populouz offers consulting services for organizations that want to build a custom LMS, especially if they are considering WordPress as the framework. While I'm hoping to sell custom LMS consulting services, I have a fiduciary responsibility to all my clients to make sure they know what they're in for when they start down this road.

If a custom LMS isn't easy to develop, then what should we expect?

Asking what you should expect when developing a custom LMS is a smart and savvy question. Most certainly, you're an expert in the training and development game, but custom software of any kind might be a new adventure for you. However, one of the most challenging things for any project sponsor commissioning a custom LMS is to accept and hold true to this one central fact:

The LMS is not about you, it’s about your organization, about your team, and about your trainees. 
— Words of Wisdom from Populouz

Don't miss the forest for the trees when building a custom LMS

Remember what happens when you get lost in the woods.

Any instructional designer can say, "I want an LMS customized to my preferences," but this focus means that you're likely to drive the planning conversations in ways that will run counter to the advice of the technical experts helping you develop this system. It also presumes that the preferences of the instructional designer are evidence based, up to date, and are worth investing a large quantity of money to replicate at scale. You have to balance the things you want --which likely other people also desire-- with the things that are truly important. I have nearly five years of website consulting under my belt, and I often see clients blow their project budget on things that are of minor importance relative other big-picture issues. Here are two examples.

Missing the forest for the trees: The project sponsor for a custom LMS built on WordPress hates how click-heavy his current LMS is so he allocates budget away from mobile testing to optimizing the admin interface. As a result, the mobile experience for trainees lacks polish and looks broken and it’s the only thing the mobile salesforce and customer success teams talk about.

Seeing the forest and keeping track of the trees: The project sponsor for a custom LMS in WordPress wants to engage in "drip training" where trainees receive email notifications reminding them of important facts after the training. She works with her developers to implement some marketing automation tool that empowers her instructional designers to schedule email campaigns that link to content in the LMS considered too important to forget.

How do we even know if we need a custom LMS?

Knowing when to commission the build of a custom LMS built on a CMS platform like WordPress is not an easy decision to make. There are many trade-offs, and depending on the perspective of individual stakeholders, not all compromises have the same value. For example, your instructional designers like WordPress because a few of them have WordPress sites as a side hustle. Your IT Security team likes Drupal because its harder to make changes to the system and offers better data security, especially for e-commerce. Your procurement team is pushing for Sitecore since the company already uses it for their public website and they can negotiate a discount for the additional licenses without disrupting the company's IT stack. Your IT support function wants you to consider another fully-hosted LMS similar to what you have now because it will limit what they expect will be an increase in support requests. All of these are good points but they all require various compromises and getting all parties to agree can be an onerous task. If not managed correctly, you will end up with a system that doesn’t really meet the business need, but kinda makes most of the stakeholders emotionally comfortable. Remember, even though emotions are important to manage, they are not an objective reality. How your organization “feels” about the solution doesn’t make it a value-add for your organization.

After hearing all the hidebound wants and demands of each stakeholder I doubt you will feel any clearer about answering the question, "Do we need a custom LMS or can we go with another market offering?" If Populouz is lucky enough to help you think through this puzzle, I'd start by talking about what you need to accomplish as a learning organization.  From there, I'd ask questions probing the pain points with your current system to understand what's challenging for your organization when it comes to your existing LMS. A detailed explanation of what I listen for in these conversations is too broad to contain in a single blog post, but I can at least give you the broad strokes.

When to use a fully hosted LMS 

When helping clients think through a fully hosted LMS vs. building a custom LMS, there are four primary reasons I would recommend an off-the-shelf LMS over a custom LMS. First, you need a fully-hosted solution with a service level agreement so that you can reduce the demands on your IT department. Second, your instructional designers and the stakeholders working with the system day-to-day are flexible in making trade-offs in functionality. Knowing where and when to make these trade-offs on feature functionality should be carefully considered after test driving the off-the-shelf LMS; never take the word of the sales rep from the LMS company at face value. Third, your organization either does not need to pass data back and forth between system or the limitations of the LMS's API are within your current tolerance levels. Most LMSs have APIs that allow for data integrations with CRM, Learning Record Stores, and even some website front-ends. However, these APIs have their limitations, and you need to have a clear understanding of how your trainee data needs to flow from system to system and a solid read on the technical documentation offered by your vendor. Fourth, you need a lower total-cost-of-ownership to satisfy budgeting requirements. Custom LMSs may have a higher total cost of ownership once you start factoring in hosting fees, increases to help desk utilization, and ongoing maintenance costs. Your total cost of ownership will flip at some point if you are dealing with a fee-per-head LMS vendor that doesn't offer discounts for enterprises with hundreds or even thousands of users. A skilled consulting partner can help you with modeling these costs over time, so we recommend engaging a consultant that can help you think through the long-term budgeting.

I wrote another post about Evaluating Learning Management Systems and I highly recommend you read that article if you're leaning towards a fully hosted LMS.

When to use a custom LMS

I would recommend a custom LMS built on a system like WordPress when I hear the following things.

Your custom LMS needs custom integrations with multiple systems not typically supported by other LMS options

When, in the course of client interviews, I discover a need for complex integrations between different systems such as a human resources information system (HRIS) or a learning record store (LRS) this tells me my client may need custom work. The need for complex integrations usually arises when we start talking about tracking learner behaviors that an off-the-shelf LMS will not offer and the client is currently inserting all their xAPI webhooks into their courseware. 

Your custom LMS needs functionality not typically found in other LMS options

Second, a custom LMS affords you functionality options that off-the-shelf LMSs do not. One of my favorite use cases for this comes in the form of marketing automation. The more I learn about digital marketing, the more I'm convinced that learning organizations should run their eLearning programs like automated marketing campaigns including automating follow-up reminders of essential facts and concepts delivered via email. Most LMS systems do not offer this kind of drip training, but you get this functionality from a custom LMS. A custom LMS built on WordPress, for example, can use plugins developed to help automate some of the work content marketers use to establish personalized touch points with their target market. These plugins can be very robust and extend your learning experiences in ways that would be cumbersome with an off the shelf LMS.

Your LMS needs custom API and integration points unsupported by other LMS options

Third, your organization needs a very robust API with more flexibility than an off-the-shelf LMS provides. I have an excellent use case for this in the form of customer training. Let us say that you offer free customer training, and your sales team encourages potential customers to take the free eLearning, or an unknown sales lead registers for the online training without prompting from sales. The sales leadership wants a Salesforce report showing them all the trainees not currently customers, but who've completed 70% or more of the eLearning. Your sales leadership considers a sales lead with 70% completion to be more qualified than a lead who finished 10% of the online training. The records the custom LMS needs to transmit to Salesforce would are custom data objections that require some feasible and cost-effective integration work, but this is custom work that an off-the-shelf LMS will not supply. 

Your LMS has a unique business case unsupported by other LMS options

The fourth, and final reason, I would recommend a custom LMS built on an open-source CMS is that a solid business case justifies it. The annual maintenance budget for a custom website could be as low as a few hundred dollars a year to a few thousand depending on how robust a system you commission. Let's return to the example of offering free eLearning to sales leads. The cost of prospecting and qualifying sales leads is typically very high because of the risk of not closing the deal after all the time and effort sunk into business development. There is also the issue of customer churn, which is costly in terms of lost revenue, new customer acquisition, and the reputational damage of a failed customer relationship. If you have a website that helps generate inbound sales leads and can prioritize which sales leads get the most attention, this tool can save a company tens of thousands of dollars in staff time. With the correct tracking in Salesforce you should be able to verify that the strategy is having its intended effect. The cost savings from reduced cycle-time in winning sales opportunities will likely be enough to justify the higher maintenance costs of a custom LMS.

Hold true to your LMS vision or you will lose your way


The monster is a beast to use and maintain.

Custom LMSs can be a real game-changer for a company and content management systems like WordPress and Drupal can be customized to a much greater extent than off-the-shelf LMS. However, it's this same flexibility that requires a clear strategic vision because you are likely to see a higher level of investment in this system over time. Your needs will change, new insights into adult learning theory will emerge, and you may need the flexibility to tap into these new opportunities faster than an off-the-shelf vendor can adapt. However, these benefits also come with risks. The open-ended nature of a custom LMS means that you need a clear and strong vision for what this system needs to accomplish. Without a clear vision to help guide the development of your system over time your organization will end up with a Frankenstein's Monster that will rampage through your budgets and disrupt the flow of training solutions out of your learning organization. 

LMSKevin Taylor