If you lead an education organization you've learned to be resourceful. There is no another way to succeed. Despite analysis showing learning to be one of the few truly competitive weapons organizations can control, education almost always gets the short straw. It is the nature of being viewed as an expense against the bottom line. Thinking broadly, leveraging our resources, and cultivating strong networks make sound business sense.

Fortunately many e-Learning professional services providers have stepped up to become more like trusted business partners than shortsighted vendors of years past. We can talk candidly about budget constraints, expectations, and hidden politics in ways that would have been unheard of a decade ago. The transparency that comes with Web 2.0 has affected our interpersonal exchanges and in-person interactions, too. The hard boundaries of financial rigor, if anything, make conversation easier because ambiguity is gone.

Our job now turns to how we can work best together, identifying what should be done in-house or where outsourcing would be more economical, and how a team approach can align the brainpower of widely diverse groups, often across the miles.

When compiling a list of almost 100 specific tips and techniques for selecting and then working successfully with e-Learning professional services providers these themes surfaced repeatedly. In our peers' words are the deep and wide lessons learned from personal experience and daily triumphs.

So here we offer just 10 of the almost 100 great tips we complied for working with eLearning Service Providers. Join me in listening to them, learning from them, and becoming even more resourceful because of them.

Tips for Selecting eLearning Service Providers

Know your corporate learning services’ goals and objectives. With these goals and objectives in mind, develop a strong list of key questions. Double-check these questions with your colleagues to see if you have covered all of the bases. Prepare questions well in advance of any meeting with an e-Learning vendor (even for those impromptu solicitation calls) so the process is not overwhelming, time consuming, and counterproductive. During that initial vendor screening over the phone, ask your top three or four questions to scope out whether or not a meeting is worth the time. My standard questions address my learning organization's top three requirements:

  1. What kind of a learning curve exists for non-developers using this software?
  2. What kind of collaboration tools are built into the software (for remote teams working together on the course)?
  3. Will it work with my LMS, and are you willing to prove that it does?
  4. What kind of training and support (if any, and hopefully free) does your company provide?

If you are still interested in the tool after that:

  • Ask for a trial version of the software for you to use.
  • Schedule a demonstration of the tool with the vendor.
  • Have the vendor record the demonstration so that you can review the tool with your colleagues and other stakeholders after the meeting. In addition, you can compare and contrast all the tools you are interested in purchasing. You may find you have even more questions after you have reviewed the demonstration a second time.

Be proactive and do the research. Again, go back to your communities of practice and ask other learning professionals what tools they use and why. Often, I will consult with my e-Learning Developer's Group (http://finance.groups.yahoo.com/group/eLearningDev/) and ask specifically "What tools do you use to author courseware and why?" This is invaluable information. — Linda Nelson, eLearning Instructional Designer, Iron Mountain

Ask hard questions:

  • Free pilot?
  • Any guarantee for results?
  • How flexible are you?
  • How do you keep up with learning trends?
  • Which conferences have you attended recently?
  • Who are your current partners?
  • Do you offer any free training (initial or ongoing, number of attendees allowed)?
  • Have you worked with similar organizations, industry, size, culture?
  • Have you worked within similar technical environment, (e.g. using dummy terminals)?
  • Will I have a dedicated project manager?
  • May I speak to former customers?
  • How do you treat your employees?
  • Will you assist me from planning, implementing, and rollout to reporting and assessing ROI?

— Faith Legendre, Sr. Global Consultant, Cisco Systems, Inc.

Identify a provider that offers many levels of service. Find a company that can provide both comprehensive turnkey cradle-to-grave e-Learning, or assist with a piece of the development or hosting activity. For example, you may want to let your team capture their knowledge, and then outsource the consolidation, editing, and hosting of that content. — MJ Moncher, Application Process Consultant, Siemens PLM Software

Select external partners and service providers willing to assist you with the continued transition of traditional training to multi-purpose blended learning strategies (i.e, virtual classrooms, Webinars, and self-directed e-Learning). A partner willing to work with you to decide on best mediums and deployment methods for this transition can result in more options for your geographically dispersed or global audiences. — Michael Sunnarborg, Global Consultant, Target

Lean on the shoulder of giants. Look at what others are using, or have used, and get the scoop directly from those with firsthand knowledge. While you are at it, be open to sharing your experiences with others as well. Compare experiences, and ask for free demonstrations using realistic situations that push the limits of the provider's services. This often reveals where there might be technical or support issues, and new discoveries of system features that might be used in future situations. — Marie Ortega de Ortiz, CPM, Ed.D., Director of Training, Kansas Juvenile Justice Authority

Find out the rating a particular professional service provider was assigned by those who have actually utilized them. Check a provider's Web site for other organizations that use them, and then contact them for their impression of the provider's service. — Carol Stoil, Learning Development Specialist, Bureau of Engraving & Printing

Examples, examples, examples! There is nothing worse than finding out you hired an e-Learning provider onto a project only to learn their skills are lacking, or they are unable to deliver content on your system. A company who will offer everything they've ever done on a Web portfolio for you to review at your leisure makes a great first impression. Look for more than just screenshots and the names of the companies they work with, but actual working e-Learning courses you can access. This will give you a great idea of their use of images, navigation, flow of content, assessment delivery, etc. I think of it as if I were to hire someone to build my house. Just because they have a truck, great tools, and a team of dedicated workers, doesn't mean they know how to build a house. I want to see, walk through, climb stairs, open doors, look out windows, and flush the toilet in a house they actually built. — Kevin Thorn, LMS Administrator, eLearning Development, AutoZone, Inc.

Do a thorough job analyzing the gaps for which you want to provide a solution. Include all potential stakeholders, identify all potential requirements, select several vendors to compare (do a cost benefit analysis for comparison purposes), and get samples of what they can do using your data. — Laura Darr, Human Performance Technologist, American Express

Be as prepared as possible going into the selection process. Hold a design meeting with the key individuals from your organization (sponsor, SMEs, designers, etc.) and arrive at a game plan before you ask service providers for estimates. Then network! Ask colleagues at other organizations for their experiences working with their e-Learning service providers to get honest feedback about strengths and weaknesses of the vendors. — Anne Scott, Training Program Developer, Sodexo

Test one or two modules that vendors you'd like to work with have developed in the past. Test the modules in AICC or SCORM within your LMS before you sign the final contract. You do not want to spend several months having a new module developed, and then find out their coding won't track properly in your systems. — Andy Riley, E-Learning and Technology Manager, Wells Fargo

Download the complete free e-Book: 98 Tips for Selecting and Working with e-Learning Service Providers