Bespoke vs SaaS: Choosing the Right LMS for Your Business

Helping you understand the difference between the options, and how to decide which is right for you right now.

By Innovate Learn

September 21, 2020|10 min read

As recently as the early-2010s, one of the most important consideration factors for organisations looking to buy a (new) learning management system was hosting. Specifically whether to go on-premise, or move to “the Cloud”. Today, with Cloud hosting the de facto deployment method, a new question has taken its place: should I build something bespoke, or use a SaaS (software-as-a-service) LMS solution?

In this post, we’ll give you a quick overview of the main differences between the two, and highlight the questions you need to be asking yourself to ensure you make the best choice for your business.

What is the Difference Between Bespoke and SaaS LMS?

If you’re trying to decide between a bespoke-build LMS, and a SaaS Solution, we’re assuming that you already know what a learning management system is. But just incase you do need a quick reminder:

A Learning Management System (or LMS) is used by organisations to plan, manage and deliver training to employees (and other forms of “learner”). In particular, an LMS takes the pain out of the administration, documentation, tracking and recording of learning.

As with most software industries, the Cloud has opened up a new delivery channel for learning platform distribution. What may have once only been available via on-premises deployment, is now almost guaranteed to have a cloud-based, software-as-a-service (SaaS) alternative/ to choose from.

The easiest way to think about the differences between bespoke and SaaS LMS solutions is the car lease model…

When you’re leasing a car, you don’t actually ‘own’ the car and you’ve probably only got a restricted number of choices you can make in terms of configurations. But for a relatively low monthly fee you’ve got a product (or in this case, a learning platform) that will cover your need to get from A-to-B (to launch and track learning content), and the only additional costs you need to consider are the fuel to keep it running (the learning content itself) and possibly insurance (training for your admins) if it’s not included in the monthly fee.

SaaS LMS: A one-size-fits-all solution

Although there are great cost savings to be had with a SaaS solution, the main drawback of a software-as-a-service LMS is, by its very nature, that it’s pretty much a one-size-fits-all solution. (It  is a shared platform that you’re buying access to, after all). 

You might be able to configure some basic theming and reporting, but other than that, your options are likely to be limited and you’ve only got the inbuilt features and integrations to work with.

If you need your LMS to look and feel like an extension of your corporate website, or have some specific reporting that you need to run, you may find that going down the bespoke LMS route is the better, or indeed only, option.

Bespoke vs SaaS LMS: A Quick Comparison

Customisation isn’t the only consideration when choosing between bespoke and SaaS learning solutions though. There’s also things like the time it takes to implement, the upfront and on-going costs, maintenance requirements etc. 

We’ve summarised these for you in the table below.

Consideration FactorSaaS LMSBespoke LMS
InstallationNone requiredRequires installation and set up
Deployment2/3 weeks3 months +
CostsStandard monthly fees (usually based on active user numbers) + an initial set-up feeDay-rate or fixed project fee, 
HostingShared CloudDedicated Cloud or on-premise
Data SecurityManaged by the SaaS providerMaintained by the Organisation, or their LMS Hosting Partner
New FeaturesRolled-out with version updates – generally once a year (included with your monthly subscription fee)Customised integrations and additional functionality can be developed as you need them (for additional cost)
UpdatesAutomatic and free of chargeRequire manual intervention and compatibility testing
SupportAvailable 24/7 for free via online community forumsAvailable 24/7 for free via online community forums + dedicated support from your development partner (at additional cost)

How To Choose Between Bespoke & SaaS for Your Next LMS

If money were no object, then a bespoke build would almost always come out on top. (Let’s be honest, why wouldn’t you build something to your exact specification if you could?) 

More realistically though, is that you’ve got a budget and a timeframe that aren’t infinite. So here’s a run down of the 3 questions you should ask yourself to help decide on the best option for your specific circumstances.

3 Key Questions to Ask Yourself When Deciding Between Bespoke and SaaS LMS

  1. What is our budget?
    Your LMS is often one of the most expensive outlays you’ll have. With a SaaS solution, your upfront costs will be minimal and you can be fairly sure of what your annual cost of ownership will be (but you may end up having to pay for additional technology if all of your requirements aren’t met).

    With a bespoke-build, not only will your upfront costs be higher (projects are usually costed on a day-rate basis), the more heavily you customise your platform, the more it’s going to cost to upgrade to a newer version in the future.

You’ll need to decide whether you’re happy to compromise on the unknown cost of maintenance and upgrades in order to have a system that does exactly what you want, or whether you’d rather have a fixed costs and more limited configuration options.

  1. How quickly do we need it?
    If you need something within a couple of weeks, you’re almost certainly only going to be able to achieve that with a SaaS solution. In fact, you’ll be lucky to have completed your discovery/scoping stage if you need something bespoke – as implementations can take anything from 3-months to 12months+.

    There is a third option here though. Using a SaaS version of a product to act as a stepping stone, or to use as a pilot or trial rollout ahead of going ahead with a customised build.
  2. What are the essential features we can’t do without?
    Unless you’re just getting started or you only have a small team and fairly standard  requirements for reporting on and managing users and learning content, you may find that a SaaS solution doesn’t quite have enough features and functionality to meet your needs.

    Likewise, although most SaaS learning management systems will come with a set of standard integrations to support things like basic ecommerce, gamification, video learning etc, if you’ve already got an established business technology stack, you may find it tricky to fully integrate.

    A customised LMS implementation will ensure that it not only integrates, but that it removes data silos and reduces admin strain across your whole organisation.

SaaS or Bespoke LMS? Our Advice

If you’ve made it this far, it may be that you’re still not quite sure, so here’s a final round up of whether SaaS or Bespoke build is likely to be the best route for you.

Organisations commonly opt for SaaS because they are looking to…Custom-built learning management systems are a better option if you…
Stay in control of costs

Only want to pay for features/functionality they need

Have limited/no internal IT capability 
Have specific workflow and integration requirements

Are looking to do more than ‘just’ learning management (for example you need additional engagement and performance capabilities/tools)

Need specific security/hosting configurations, including multi-tenancy

If you’re a smaller organisation and/or just getting started (or maybe you aren’t quite sure what your longer-term requirements may be), we’d suggest you start with a SaaS solution. This will allow your team (and learners) to get used to the platform, and for you to gain a better understanding of what your longer-term requirements are. 

You can then scale and build a more bespoke learning platform as your learning needs mature, and your internal capability grows.

But, if you’re a larger organisation, are replacing an existing LMS, or have more complex needs, going down the bespoke-build LMS route is likely to be the only way you’re going to meet all of the unique workflows, reporting, integration and other requirements that you have already come to rely on.  

And with an open learning platform like Totara, this might not be as expensive as you might think.

If that’s something you’re ready to explore, we’re here to help – just get in touch and we’ll talk you through the options.

About the Author

Innovate Learn

Founded in Manchester (UK), in 2010, with a mission to make people’s lives better through learning, Innovate has since gone on to help organisations across the globe overcome their biggest employee learning, engagement and performance challenges.

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