This is the era of outsourcing. Like it or not, outsourcing is a strategic necessity to remain competitive and to control costs (an increasing need). Whether you are contracting a single development project or your entire development operation, you must ensure your development provider is up to the challenge. So what should you look for?
The commitment to outsourcing brings risk. If you pick the wrong partner your reputation could be in question and your decision could compromise the success of your company. You may not get a second chance to get it right. How do you know if your provider aligns with your organization? How do you spot a mismatch before the relationship begins?
Learning solutions development is complex. To design, develop, and implement an effective learning program a developer needs to understand the business objectives, the subject matter, and the audience needs. They need to know how to get the subject matter out of the heads of the SMEs. They must know the review process, know how to coordinate development, know how to determine an effective instructional-design strategy, and know how to get it done on time and on budget. And that’s just for the traditional modalities of instructional delivery. When it comes to mobile and social, they need to dig deeper into the processes and behaviors on the job, as well as the organizational dynamics of the company environment itself—I haven’t even touched on the technical needs themselves.
The mobile- and social-learning modalities are far from historic classroom and web-based training. Mobile and social learning engages the audience, not only with the content but also by synchronizing with the workflow and the organizational structure itself. Does your current outsource provider have the savvy to implement these sophisticated solutions?
Unfortunately, no base metric exists that every procurement officer could reference to choose the right provider; they are often comparing apples with zebras. Outsourcing learning development is not like outsourcing manufacturing or customer service, where there is a clear set of standards to draw upon and transactions to measure against. Nor is this like outsourcing accounting or legal tasks where there are industry-required educational and certification requirements.
There’s nothing easy about it. It’s hard for you to do, and you work inside your company. It’s harder for an outsource provider because they do not. How do you determine which provider has the expertise to do it right?
One fact is clear. The success rate of outsourcing is dismal. Over the last two years, I’ve been collecting case studies and research data to support this statement. From my personal perspective, over the last 13 years, I oversaw the outsourcing relationships of over 50 clients and my teams completed over one-thousand custom solutions. The clients were not lightweights. Most were in the Fortune 150 and 10 are the top company in their industry. Our engagements ranged from short-term $15,000 projects to multi-year $5,000,000 accounts.
One persistent fact was clear; in the vast majority of the accounts, we were replacing a former provider who had failed.
Some of these failures bordered on historic. For example, the pharmaceutical company that nearly missed its deadline for compliance with a Corporate Integrity Agreement mandate from the Office of Inspector General, Health, and Human Services, and the FDA. Or the global technology leader that nearly missed the rollout date of their largest software release in history. Or the sole-source provider that had to refund one-million dollars after the first year of the relationship. These are just a few, each caused by the failed outsourcing relationship with a learning development provider.
Why is there such a high rate of failure? More importantly, what can we do to overcome it?
The seven attributes of highly effective development vendors
I have witnessed many organizations that produced excellent results, while also witnessing countless other organizations that have struggled. I have seen impressive successes and massive failures many times. What makes one initiative succeed while others fail?
I dug into my archives, evaluated a lot of case studies, surveyed my past clients, examined the many successes and failures that I witnessed, and tried to define the most important success factors for development outsourcing.
The attributes that make a difference
I took my observations and constructed a framework that I call the seven attributes of highly effective development vendors (Figure 1). These are the vendor’s attributes required to produce effective solutions and strong outsourcing relationships. These seven attributes compartmentalize those characteristics that really make a difference. The attributes are, in order of importance: Experience, methodology, infrastructure, process, technology, talent, and innovation.
Figure 1: The framework for identifying the right outsourcing partner
These attributes focus on the key requirements that identify the right outsourcing partner for your current needs. The goal is to identify a partner that can achieve your vision and produce a healthy business relationship where both of you succeed.
What is “success” in an outsourcing partnership?
When I designed the framework, I needed a definition of “success” that represents a healthy outsourcing partnership. My definition: Success is the equilibrium where the client achieves their original vision and the provider makes a profit.
When this equation is balanced, great things happen. The product rolls out on time, the learners are pleased with the result, we solve challenging business problems with confidence, and the relationship continues to strengthen. When the equation is out of balance, then no one is happy. The product development takes too long, the SMEs don’t commit, the learners find the courses irrelevant, trust wavers, and we spend too much time and energy trying to salvage the relationship.
Knowing the attributes when you see them
The goal of the seven attributes is to help you identify the strengths and weaknesses of your prospective partners and identify the essential areas where a misalignment could risk the success of your initiative. Here are the seven attributes and all the things you must check out to help you know them when you see them.
This means the experience of the provider related to your company’s needs, as well as the day-to-day working experience they will establish with your leaders, stakeholders, and SMEs. This includes their experience in your industry, your subject domain, the complexity of your solutions, the modalities you are using, and their proven accomplishments in these areas.
This means the existence of an effective instructional-design philosophy and associated methodology. This includes the orientation and adoption of that philosophy and methodology across all of their teams and their ability to apply it to a wide range of solutions (low- or high-complexity, single or mass production, online or classroom, mobile, social, etc.).
This is the ability to sustain a cost-effective, scalable staffing model without sacrificing quality. Infrastructure includes the supporting back-office business processes necessary to produce an efficient development operation and its influence on the outsourcing relationship.
Process is the workflows the prospective partner uses to develop the solutions and their consistent application across their organization. This includes the activities and techniques used by the development teams, including their flexibility, team composition, global integration, stakeholder and SME interactions, user testing, etc.
This refers to the tools the prospective partner uses to support their end-to-end development, including financial management, production management, deliverable reviews and testing, issues tracking, and project management, etc. It also includes the prospective partner’s competence using your authoring, learning management, and deployment (eLearning, mobile, social, etc.) environments.
This means the qualifications of the prospective partner’s staff to meet the specific needs of your company. This includes their standard credentials, onboarding process, definition of roles, integration of global staff, and ongoing staff development. It also includes their ability to provide full-service consulting services or merely staffing services.
This means the prospective partner’s ability to help you adopt new techniques and technologies, through their in-house capability or through other partnerships. This includes their participation in the industry, their recognition as a thought leader, their experimentation with innovation, and their ability to provide their thought leaders to support your initiatives. (This is massively important with today’s emerging learning technologies.)
The order matters
Why are the attributes in this order? If talent is so important, then why is it sixth on the list? Answer: Because there is a clear dependence between the attributes. Without a strong predecessor each attribute is weakened. For example, if the vendor has no experience in your business, then they are more likely to fail to understand your needs—and thus nothing else matters. You could have the brightest talent in the world, but if adequate infrastructure, processes, and technology do not support them, then they flounder with inconsistent results and will not achieve their potential. Innovation is great, but not if you can’t deliver the basics. And so on. These are some of the reasons why the listing is in this order.
Trust and competitive ability
These seven attributes, in my opinion, will greatly assist the buyer’s ability to produce an effective RFP (request for proposal) and identify the right partner. Applying the nuances of the seven attributes will also allow the vendor and the client to form an alignment in a constructive relationship. I’d further suggest that a solid study of each attribute could lead to improvement opportunities for any vendor and increase their competitive ability.
What we do is very hard—there’s no question about it. No two projects look the same. No two clients have the same needs. The complexity and sophistication of our solutions continues to advance. Identifying a perfect partner who fits each unique need and has the capability of producing a long-term trusted relationship is a foremost challenge in any business and for any individual asked to make this choice.