My fellow Learning Solutions columnists and I spend a lot of our allotted space talking about eLearning development: choosing and using tools, designing good approaches, building interactions, and creating graphics, programming simulations and games.  

 In April 2010 ( ) I wrote about whether instruction was the right solution at all. Another question: If instruction is indicated – who should create it?

Before we get going: I’m all about finding low-cost eLearning solutions – it was the topic of my first book back in 2005. But I see an awful lot of people throwing expensive resources after bad chasing a custom, in-house solution when an off-the-shelf product or some outsourced development work just makes more sense. 


I am thinking of:

  • The company that, in the name of “saving money,” instead of purchasing a high-quality but inexpensive commercial product, chose to bring in a Web developer and commit hundreds of person-hours to the creation of a text-heavy online program on workplace harassment. The learner completion rate for this mandatory program: an abysmal 5%.
  • The company that, insisting they could do it better themselves, built an “office safety” course when literally dozens are available commercially at reasonable prices. (Or via YouTube and Vimeo for free.) Months in, the project has been through dozens of iterations and rounds of review, issues with acquiring graphics and other program elements, and delays while personnel learn to use a new authoring tool.
  • The company that, in need of online training on the new employee timekeeping system, repurposed classroom trainers to build poor screenshot-based tutorials rather than hire a custom development firm with extensive resources for, and experience in, efficient development of online software training.

When I hear these kinds of stories, the Adult Jane in me tries not to shout, “Seriously, people, it’s office safety. It’s harassment. It’s time sheets. It’s customer service. It’s supervisory skills. It’s ethics. Please!”


Why does it happen? Sometimes it really is money, with organizations not considering the real expense of sunk costs – like hundreds of hours of employee time devoted to a project, assembling assets, and learning new tools. Sometimes, in resisting existing off-the-shelf programs, it’s the “not created here” syndrome: I’ve joked that if I made a “fire extinguisher safety” video starring Meryl Streep, and gave it away for free, that four of our agencies would say they couldn’t use it because I showed red fire extinguishers in the video, and their fire extinguishers are purple.

Other reasons? People just assume they can’t afford to contract the work out, or buy an off-the-shelf product, without really investigating possibilities. People greatly underestimate the reality of the development process, particularly when considering projects that will involve many stakeholders, contributors, and program assets. Or they see an opportunity for a big public splash, without considering how visible a failure might be. Or they are so concerned with whether the LMS can “count” uses of things like YouTube videos that they don’t really explore ways to handle that. Or they don’t know how to say “no” or offer alternatives to the manager asking for a complex online course for only 50 users. And frankly, the idea of developing it yourself is alluring: it’s the “fun” part of what we do, the creative part, and the reason many of us got into this business. But it just doesn’t always make sense.

When does building make sense?

So here’s quick decision-making guide, a buy-vs.-build flowchart (Figure 1). The conditions include both content and potential use. Briefly: Build when information is proprietary, absolutely requires company-specific language or graphics (not purple fire extinguishers), and will be used by more than 500 learners.


Figure 1. “Buy versus build” flowchart. Copyright January 2002 from Learning Circuits by Laura Francis. Reprinted with permission of the American Society for Training and Development.

Otherwise, look at buying a whole off-the-shelf solution or outsourcing all or part of the work. Sit down with pencil and paper and calculate the real cost to the organization; in the harassment example above, the cost of building came out at about $60,000 in terms of salary and benefits – far more than one of the many good off-the-shelf harassment courses would have cost.

Another option: renovate, don’t reinvent

You’ll notice in the chart that an alternative to buying an OTS product outright is customizing one. You can do this not only by the vendor reworking the product (an expensive proposition) but also through providing your own introductory, supplementary, or concluding content. 

What does it really cost?

I realize it’s hard to reconcile finding money when staff is in place to help with development. But apart from the factors I’ve already mentioned, consider not only staffing expenses but also the costs of delays caused by learning curves, process meetings, pilot phases, and tweaking. If performance is critical, a yearlong wait to get the course out to workers brings with it a cost to the organization, too, in terms of inadequate performance, mistakes, rework, lost sales, and lawsuits.