eLearning Outsourcing: Buyer-Provider Partnership

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Deloitte’s global outsourcing and shared services survey 2019-2023 indicates that outsourcing which was once associated with cost cuts, loss of jobs, and delegation of tasks has evolved dramatically. Over the years, the world of outsourcing has grown more dynamic and encompasses a multitude of functions that add significant value to companies of all sizes, from start-ups to multinational corporations.

Companies are rapidly shifting their focus away from merely contracting out tasks. Instead, they are looking to work in partnership with specialist outsourcing providers to bridge the skills gap, streamline processes, and maximize productivity. More importantly, businesses actively look towards outsourcing providers and shared services centres for ideation and innovation. Like any other industry, outsourcing and its change in behavior encompass the learning domain too.

The Brandon Hall Report states that 77% of companies leverage at least some outsourcing for content development. This clearly explains that most organizations have or are looking towards one way or the other for outsourcing their content development. Content development is seen as a priority or critical by 68% of companies, second only to leadership development in importance.

Most organizations prefer to outsource because having an in-house content team to handle can often be very tough at different levels and a costly affair to maintain too. And why not outsource, when you can avail creative services from professional outsourcing providers to innovatively market your brand while staying focused on your core business activities.

There certainly could be challenges to outsourcing such as identifying the right vendor, weighing their capability, ascertaining their credibility, evaluating cost-effectiveness, and managing continuance. We offered solutions to these challenges in our earlier blog ‘eLearning Outsourcing: How to do it right?’

What we intend to discuss today is your role in the buyer-provider partnership and how to make the most out of it. There are certain elements that you need to focus on, for the best outcomes. These are basically guidelines that will help you in every stage of the outsourcing process- starting from the decision making to project handover, and in establishing a long-lasting relationship with the vendor you wish to work with.

  1. Define Clear Objectives: ‘If you don’t know where you want to go any road could take you there’

This applies to eLearning Outsourcing equally well. If you are not clear about what you want from an eLearning project you can be sure no one else is either. The vendor will often create a sketchy picture of your goals and try to achieve that. That is NOT what you want.

  1. Use well-defined Statements of Work, detail the vendors’ and your responsibility as accurately as possible.
  2. Define the ‘level’ of output by using the reference of previous projects (your or vendor’s). If you can add more details good. Just agreeing to something like ‘Level 2 output’ is fuzzy and will create confusion later.
  3. Study and understand the Project Scope Documents and Design Documents well before you sign them off. If you do not understand them, your vendor should walk you through the documents.
  4. Include any specific goals your senior management has from the program and articulate that for the vendor development team and yourself. If these come in late in the development cycle costs will escalate and timelines are sure to be affected.
  1. Follow Process: ‘A well-defined process is a roadway to a well-designed project’

You’ve checked the vendor’s process documents & maturity models and how they will work for your projects. Allow the vendor to conform to those processes and models, and for you to emulate them yourself. There are times when deadlines are advanced, and you may be tempted to skip that prototype stage. Skipping an earlier stage comes at a cost – the quality or delivery suffers due to endless modifications and rework. Apart from the additional cost, it would also mean frustration for the development team. You need to stand by and conform to the process in the best interest of your project. A common mistake the clients make is to assume it is a simple task and can be done quickly. We suggest you check with your vendor during the kick-off stage about the time a project needs and at which stages. A day’s delay from your end could sometimes lead to more than a day’s delay from the vendor’s end especially if you are not working with a dedicated team at the vendor.

  1. Get the Communication Right: ‘Miscommunications can be a costly affair’

In the case of outsourced projects, communication can at times become more important than the actual deliveries themselves. We have heard clients complaining that the lack of information bothers them more than the missed deliveries. It is important to set up a proper channel for communication and keep them open to create an environment of confidence & trust between your own team and the vendor’s development team. Signed off specifications documents and approved prototypes should not necessarily hold you from having discussions on new ideas that may emerge. Also, provide constructive feedback whenever there is an opportunity. This tends to prompt the vendor to commit even more to your project. If you are working with a vendor on multiple projects have periodic review discussions to evaluate how the relationship is going. Iron out any persistent issues in the processes or otherwise. Be forthcoming in resolving your side of issues too.

  1. Define and Measure Quality: ‘Like beauty, quality is subjective too’

While a sense of ‘quality’ should emerge from your defined objectives you still need to clearly spell out what you mean by quality. Understand your team’s and management’s collective quality expectations and make sure your vendor understands them clearly. List individual details about features, elements, and specifications of the program that you consider a part of good or acceptable quality. For instance, some clients consider the amount of animation and interactivities to be an indicator of high quality while others do not. Quality is what TRULY affects the outcomes of the program in a real sense. A good quality product will have the intended learning impact on the audience. We suggest you focus on what the learners are supposed to ‘do’ or ‘perform’ after the program and whether that is being achieved by the program. While you may add several bells and whistles to an eLearning course, the core must be solidly focused on achieving that single most important objective. The cost of bad eLearning is much higher than you think. It is a good idea to define the quality assessment criteria for a program and approve checklists the vendor will use for testing. This will make the development team give output that is closer to your expectations and will eventually require a smaller number of iterations.

  1. Think Long-term: ‘Find a partner, not a vendor’

As your organization grows, you will probably outsource more eLearning projects. Every time you work with a new vendor it is a learning experience for teams at both ends, as they come to understand each other and their unique working culture and style. After working together on a few projects, communication, and understanding between the teams reach a level where projects start to flow smoothly. It just does not make sense to switch vendors often. Think of your vendor as a possible long-term partner from the very beginning. Invest in building their understanding of your organization, how it functions, and what are the short-term and long-term goals; the returns will be well worth the effort.

If you work with an innovative vendor, it helps your team to develop new thoughts and skills too. This in turn could help you sell your services better internally and to external clients. Encourage discussions with your vendor to explore advances in the field and how you could take advantage of them. One way to greater involvement is to revamp the engagement model with your vendor from being just a ‘cost-reduction’ or ‘staff-augmentation’ option towards becoming a ‘strategic partner’. Think ‘business performance improvement’ & ‘strategic capability building’ beyond cost savings. Lastly, you should also remember that your partner needs to be profitable to remain in business for the long-term and be a suitable strategic partner. Do not splurge but be ready to pay for experience and expertise.

There are hundreds of eLearning service providers out there, and an equal or greater number of organizations keen on outsourcing their content development. This makes it difficult to identify the right vendor partner, but a relationship built on trust and quality output can typically work through these.

So, here are the conclusive 4 steps to a successful Buyer-provider Relationship:

  1. Look for innovation – also remember that Content Development Process is iterative in nature, is somewhat unique to each client, can be perfected over a period, and needs commitment from your team as well.
  2. Cost should not be the only focus – as there are many other aspects that affect the cost, and hence it should not be your prime focus.
  3. Get Involved – after all, it is your project too. Be an active participant during the entire development process and share useful feedback from time to time.
  4. Quality eLearning – is not a one-step process. Believe in the vendor’s capability, give them the freedom required. And be bold when necessary; get buy-in as your inputs can surely make a difference.

On a parting note, Upside Learning stands as a potential and promising provider. Established in 2004, we have been around and seen it all. We have been helping our clients worldwide since then with solutions that have evolved with the market and with the changing needs of our clients. Our investments in innovation have meant that we are ready with new solutions before our clients start requesting them. Since we work mainly with overseas clients the whole organization is set up – process and thinking – to service clients in different time zones and from different countries. Most importantly we focus on building relationships and pride in several clients who have been consistently outsourcing their eLearning development for more than 5 years. Being their vendor of choice constantly year after year is probably our best award. Nevertheless, over the years we have been recognized as a leading eLearning outsourcing company by various renowned awarding bodies too.

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