If you've ever had to augment your internal team's resources by bringing in a vendor to develop eLearning, you know that selecting the wrong partner can cost a lot -- in money, time, and sometimes a bit of your sanity.
Finding an eLearning development partner that is highly skilled, cost-effective, and easy to work with can make or break your project. But how do you properly vet a potential partner? What should you look for in a partner to ensure your project succeeds, with your budget, timeline, and emotional well-being all intact?
Here are five tips for identifying a strong eLearning Development partner:
1. PUT INSTRUCTIONAL DESIGN FIRST
You've likely seen eLearning demos with plenty of eye candy. Cool graphics, 3D animation, and gamification are frequently used to elicit a wow-factor. But it's important to distinguish between Instructional Design and Production. The elements listed above can be nice additions, but are frequently aimed more at enhancing the perceived production value, than making a real contribution to instructional effectiveness.
So what, exactly, is instructional design? How is Instructional Design different from eLearning development? One of our favorite answers to this question is provided by Connie Malamed:
Instructional design [is] the process of identifying the skills, knowledge, information and attitude gaps of a targeted audience and creating, selecting or suggesting learning experiences that close this gap, based on instructional theory and best practices from the field.
Note that Instructional Design does not include programming eLearning modules, creating animations and graphics, or recording audio. Instructional design is used to understand and articulate a performance issue or learning challenge and find the best possible ways to solve them.
How to Probe for Instructional Design Expertise
The first comment many L&D people make after seeing a flashy eLearning sample is, "That's really cool, but can we afford that?" Of course that's an important question, but even more important questions to ask include:
- What business or performance issue were you trying to solve with this project? How does the design of this piece contribute to solving those issues?
- What was your role, exactly, on this project? Did you interview Subject Matter Experts for content, create the instructional design, and write the script, or did you focus more on programming the finished product?
- How effective is the eLearning? Pick any measurement method, (Kirkpatrick, Brinkerhoff, Phillips) and tell me how this piece performed? In addition to learner feedback and knowledge transfer, was any attempt made to observe behavior change on the job?
- Are learners really connecting -- intellectually and emotionally -- with the material? How do you know?
- Was the project completed on-time and on-budget?
Finally, (and we could argue that this question should actually be at the top of the list) ask:
- In what ways are you complementing and reinforcing the material in this eLearning module?
Follow up questions include:
- Did you explore ways to reduce the duration of the module?
- What follow-up activities were employed to ensure long-term retention and behavior change?
- Were there practice exercises, prompts to get feedback from peers and managers? Is there a place to quickly retrieve information from the eLearning after-the-fact, without having to re-take the entire module?
SUMMARY: Is your potential partner focused on outcomes, or on "taking your order?"
2. BE REALISTIC ABOUT SUBJECT MATTER EXPERTISE
Look for a firm that places a higher priority on Adult Learning and Instructional Design expertise than a specific body of domain knowledge. One of the reasons Instructional Designers can produce quality learning content is because they are not experts in the field at hand. A good instructional designer uses their objectivity and curiosity to see the material through the learners' eyes, which enables them to present the material in the most effective way.
In a meeting recently with a large manufacturing company, we learned that their internal L&D team was "12 months behind on an 18 month project." The learning content was complex and scientific, so they partnered with a firm that used chemical engineers to develop the learning program. The problem came when the L&D team realized that huge chunks of critical material (i.e., lawsuit-producing-critical), were being omitted from the training. The engineers -- without realizing it -- were making assumptions about things they expected the learners to already know and understand.
When asked about our stance on the ID vs. SME approach, we clearly stated a preference for using IDs over SMEs as training developers. The team leader immediately said, "Great answer!"
Of course, if your internal content SMEs are electrical engineers, it would be a big plus -- and not unrealistic -- to find an ID with a basic understanding of electrical concepts and engineering principles. However, the chances that you'll find someone with deep domain expertise -- who also happens to be an excellent instructional designer -- is very close to zero.
Find a partner who can understand the topic and apply adult learning theory to create easily digestible content for those who are not subject matter experts. Knowledge of a subject does not equal teaching capability. In addition, look for a firm that has shown the ability to create quality content across numerous industries and on a variety of topics.
SUMMARY: Are they Subject Matter Experts or Instructional Designers? Ask them to describe their Instructional Design methodology.
3. CHECK THE TRACK RECORD
Choose a vendor who has worked with well-known names in both the private sector and the non-profit space. Companies who have healthy L&D budgets also have the resources to vet out competent partners.
Still, just because a vendor has worked with some recognizable names doesn’t mean those engagements were successful. Ask to speak with some of their current and past customers to understand the customer’s experience. Did the learning company:
- Meet deadlines and work within the budget provided?
- Find new and creative ways to solve difficult instructional design challenges?
- Help you meet your company's business objectives?
SUMMARY: Ask to speak with three clients with whom they have performed several engagements and with whom they have built a solid long-term relationship.
4. LOOK FOR PROVEN PROCESSES, PROCEDURES AND PEOPLE
If you’ve ever managed a team, you understand the importance of established processes and procedures. If you haven’t, we can’t stress this enough. eLearning development involves a lot of moving parts, and many people working in concert to move those parts.
Instructional Designers, Visual Designers, eLearning Programmers, Authoring Tool Experts, Project Managers, and Quality Experts must all work together to be successful. Look for a vendor with a clearly-defined project management methodology that also has the necessary tools to support the process. Things to look for:
- How will project assets be shared? Your partner should be using a cloud-based collaboration platform and a secure staging environment -- never email -- to exchange documents and drafts.
- How is the team structured? Even if you don't have a big budget, a variety of different resources should be spending at least some time on your project. Obviously, the person producing eLearning should not also be doing Quality Assurance. A few of the specialized roles that you can benefit from include:
- A Graphic Designer who can help design the overall look and feel and style guide. This person may work with your internal team to ensure adherence to your company's brand standards.
- A Scriptwriter, focused on narration. Scriptwriting is often performed by the Lead ID, but if the project is big enough a dedicated scriptwriter can make a world of difference.
- A Project Manager. Again, unless your project is very large, you don't need a full-time PM. However, someone who's only job is to facilitate draft reviews, schedule meetings, and track the budget can improve the experience dramatically, even if they're only spending a couple of hours a week on your project.
- An Engagement Manager. This is a more senior level person at your vendor's company, who can act as a point of escalation for you if anything starts going awry. This person can quickly remediate issues,
- Quality Assurance Specialist. Be sure to ask not only about who will be doing QA reviews on your work, but ask them to show you their process. Work should be QA'd before it comes to you, so you can focus on evaluating content, not typos, graphic alignment, colors, and other distracting details.
Throughout your engagement, you’ll need regular status updates, periodic reviews and demos. If their engagement management approach isn’t a fit for your company culture, expect headaches and frustrations.
SUMMARY: Ask their approach to managing learning engagements. Who makes up their internal team?
5. FLEXIBILITY & FIT
Outsourcing your eLearning development to a company that is qualified technically, but hard to work with carries a huge risk of essentially making more work for you. Ideally, an outsourced partner should feel like part of your team. They should seamlessly integrate with your internal team, learn how you work, and be flexible and adaptable to changes in scope or deadline on your end.
Learn who your partners are as people, and understand what success means for them. (Note: It should have something to do with you.) Why are they in this field? Are they passionate about each and every project?
SUMMARY: Ask yourself, "Will I like working with these people?"
Whomever you choose, expect excellence. An eLearning development company should be a true partner to your organization, and 100% invested in your business outcomes. Chosen properly, an eLearning partner with expertise in instructional design, high quality samples and references, a solid track record, well-defined processes and the flexibility to adapt to your culture will provide zero management headaches and real cost savings.