How to choose an external e-learning vendor ?

Pick up the hints. Interaction with a prospective vendor can show and shed more light than reading up about them or viewing their work online.

1. What skills does the e-learning vendor offer?
Are the skills that the vendor brings, something that is complementary to your team? Are they more proficient at it? There is comfort in knowing that a vendor can work on a particular skillset, but can also work with aligned skill sets? Do they offer more fluff than substance? Good vendors counsel, advise, suggest alternatives, join you in the thinking process and then propose. It is not a hard-sell. Beware of the hard-seller. This is not a car.

2. Is e-Learning their major line of business?
This obviously will give you the answer about their focus.

3. Cost vs Value proposition.Can the vendor work within your budget?

This is a likely tipping point. There is a delicate-dance that you can play asking for a quote from the vendor to evaluate them. From our experience, this separates the ones that you can work with and the ones that you cannot. Explain your goals and vision to vendors, and ask if they have experience producing effective products within that budget. It helps if you can envisage the project screens and articulate it. The vendor would be able to provide a better refined quote. We know of vendors, that will charge a minimum base-rate for a piece of code-change regardless of the size. Remember that the lowest cost may not always be the best solution. The price you pay for bad e-learning outweighs the cost you pay for good e-learning.

4. Can they help you determine the best solution to meet your needs within your time and budget and other considerations.Can the vendor educate you about the choices you might make and help you define the requirements more clearly?

Do the vendors genuinely listen and if they are able to share recommendations and alternatives. For example, have they clearly presented the options available for technical design and visual design? Do they discuss the advantages and disadvantages of different methods of creating and presenting information? Do they arrive with a solution they want to sell, or do they first listen to your needs, understand your technical environment, and gather information on your learning objectives and audience?

5. Will the vendor provide prototypes/samples of various components for your project?
If it is a large project a vendor might be willing to make a prototype to get the work. The sheer willingness to do this will establish their credibility and integrity. This will also decrease the ‘risk’ element in your decision.

6. Does the vendor have multi-lingual or localisation experience?
This is an important consideration because your audience will most likely be multi-cultural. Even if your initial deployment scope is limited to a homogenous community, the scope of the training program may expand. Therefore, you need to determine if the vendor can communicate across cultures and what level of experience they have with localization. And if yes, do they do all the work in-house?

7. Do they have experience deploying content using diverse media and applications, e.g. Learning Management Systems (LMS), Internet, Intranet, flash drives, class handouts? Can they help you integrate at the back-end as well – or do you need another set of technical folks to do that for you?
Deciding how to deploy your content is an important consideration and you need to ensure that the vendor has adequate knowledge and experience to assist you.

8. How does your vendor manage projects? Is there a well defined flow/structure?
Some clients like a tight hold on the project and try to micro-manage the development from an external perspective. Managing a vendor becomes a full-time job – a chore. When you hire a vendor, you should be letting go off your stress..not add to it. Ask your prospective vendor about their processes. What about corrective actions? What happens if something goes wrong? You will get an idea about how they perform when they talk to you about it. Beware of the exquisitely drawn project diagrams that you get as a response.

9. How will the vendor handle the meetingperformance goals?
Many a time, you will not be sharing your project goals or internal performance objectives with a vendor. Not many of our clients do that either. And we, as vendors, offer our suggestions based on what we hear and ask for. Ask vendors if they have instructional designers available for the project. If they have ID’s with the same domain expertise – that would be fantastic. When discussing learning, listen to, whether the vendor talks about performance analysis or gap analysis. If they don’t have that skill area, ask how they develop learning objectives and how they design student practice opportunities.

10. How responsive, accessible, and flexible is the vendor? Do you like the team? Would you want to work with them daily?
There needs to be a hunger in the vendor to work with you. It would reflect in the way they interact with you. Eager – yet not submissive. Pleasant – yet not meek. Smart – yet not overbearing or arrogant. Note whether vendors respond promptly to your messages and emails in an informed and courteous manner. In addition, look for indications that they are willing to collaborate and lead whenever appropriate.

11. Check out references
Ask previous clients about responsiveness, project management, and what surprises they had (good and bad). Remember that on large projects there are always difficulties. Find out how the vendor handled recovery and communication about the issues. Did they make things right for their clients on past projects?

Vendor selection needs to be given due diligence. Internally, you can earn bouquets or brickbats based on vendor’s performance. But one would always prefer the bouquets and come smelling up roses !!

Acknowledgement : Some of the factors for this blog post have been aggregated from various sites and have been synthesized with our own experiences with various clients.

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