The commitment to outsourcing bears risk. If you don’t pick the right partner, then your customers could question your reputation and competitors could challenge the success of your company. You may not get a second chance to get it right. So how do you spot a vendor’s weaknesses? How do you know if they will align with your organization?

Earlier this year, I wrote a book called The Seven Attributes of Highly Effective Development Vendors. As part of an extended research process, I set out to determine what made a successful outsourcing relationship, learn what made so many such relationships fail, and how to provide guidance for future success.

Let’s start with my basic premise: A successful outsourcing relationship is the equilibrium between when the client is fully achieving their vision and the vendor is making a profit. Both sides of this equation are important to success.

This isn’t tricky. When the equation is balanced, great things happen. The product rolls out on time, the learners are pleased with the result, challenging business problems are solved with confidence, and the relationship continues to strengthen. When the equation is out of balance, no one is happy. Product development takes too long, the SMEs don’t commit, the learners find the courses irrelevant, trust waivers, and too much time and energy is spent trying to salvage the relationship.

Tips for choosing the right partner

Using the seven attributes as a guide, here are some key questions and considerations to include the next time you are seeking a partner for your learning-solutions development:


Do they have experience in your industry? Not just their company, but the people that they will assign? (Watch for the bait-and-switch.) Do they have experience in the modality you have selected? Do they have experience with the subject matter you are addressing? A firm with experience developing classroom courses for product sales in manufacturing may not be the best choice for an online course in leadership for a pharmaceutical company.


Do they have one? Are they dedicated to it? Is it something that every employee understands or just something that the sales representative shows in the proposal? ADDIE isn’t enough. Your partner needs a clear methodology that will guide all their employees. Can their methodology scale between small and large projects, high and low complexity, and across modalities?


Can they sustain a scalable staffing model to meet your needs without sacrificing quality? Are their recruiting processes proactive or just-in-time? Do they have thorough orientation and mentoring programs and do they actually conduct them? Are they centralized or decentralized? (I personally prefer centralized organizations.)


Do they have refined, standard workflows, including content drafting, reviews and testing, product development, and SME interaction? How do they organize their team composition and how do they integrate global resources? Are they following a linear process or an iterative process? Do all their employees follow their processes (or are they making it up as they go along)? Deming once said, “You put good people in a bad process and the process will win every time.”


Do they have technology to support their end-to-end processes? What do they use for project management, resource management, workflow management, SME reviews, feedback and issues tracking, and (online) user testing? If they don’t have solid technology they are manually handling these tasks and that increases their project management overhead and, thus, diverts your budget that could otherwise be invested in the actual product you need.


What are the qualifications of the staff, including the education and experience? How do they define assignment of roles? Do their ID’s have master’s degrees in instructional design or merely bachelor’s degrees unrelated to learning? This is vital. You are trusting them with your business. You need to have high expectations of the talent they are assigning you.


Will they be able to provide leadership in the adoption of new techniques and technologies? Are they actively involved in the industry? Do they have proven success with adoption of new techniques? Do they have the resources to experiment with innovative techniques, make mistakes, learn, and refine their ability before introducing you to the ideas?

About pricing

Now comes the hard part: pricing. Here are three tips to getting the pricing right.

First, determine your best partner based on the seven attributes, then negotiate. Do not select your partner based on price. Your best candidate initially might be higher priced, but there may be some really good reasons. The candidates want your business. They will haggle.

Second, communicate your budget parameters early in the selection process. Give your candidates a fair chance to propose a practical solution. Withholding the budget information will almost always result in proposals outside your means and/or unintentionally eliminate the candidate who was the best choice.

Third, make sure the candidates understand your definition of course complexity, typically categorized as low, medium, high, and that you understand theirs. There are dozens of ways to define these categories, so you must ensure that you have a common expectation about the final product.

Use the framework!

I have been fortunate to be involved with so many successful outsourcing initiatives. I’ve also been witness to a large number of failures. From both sides, I’ve defined the seven attributes framework. I hope this advice will improve your odds of a successful outsourcing relationship.


West, William. Seven Attributes of Highly Effective Development Vendors: Secrets to Establishing a Successful Client/Vendor Relationship. Quantum7 Publishing, 2014.

Note from the Editor: Meet the author!

William West will be attending The eLearning Guild’s DevLearn Conference & Expo 2014 in Las Vegas, October 29 – 31! Come by the Quantum7 booth in the Expo, or look for him around the conference!