Last month’s column “Buy or Build?” and the decision-making flowchart included there, sparked an interesting comment from reader John Lundholm, “Sometimes organizations go to great trouble and expense to build (often inferior) eLearning in-house because they don’t really know what their other options are.”

It’s true that often we don’t know what we don’t know. Some common problems? The in-house decision makers:

  • Assume building will be quick and easy,
  • Assume buying will be expensive,
  • Assume custom development will be exorbitant, and
  • Assume partial customization isn’t possible.

Whatever your final decision, it’s important that you make it on a sound knowledge base. Here are some suggestions for developing an understanding of real costs of development, outsourcing, or off-the-shelf purchases.

Read it

You can start here, with this column every first Tuesday. The rest of Learning Solutions Magazine is rich with help for you. Also read Clark & Mayer’s eLearning and the Science of Instruction and Clark Aldrich’s Complete Guide to Serious Games & Simulations (reviewed at Start evaluating the reality between what we know to be “good” online instruction and what realistically you can develop. Then ask yourself, “Can I do this? Can my company create anything of this quality? ”

See it

Join the eLearning Guild and read what the organization sends you. Go to conferences. Visit conference expo halls. Download conference apps and review handouts and resource materials (I don’t give out copies of slides [what IS that about?] but provide links to references and examples via diigo for all my presentations, some of which I update long after the actual event). Even if you can’t make the big national or international conferences, look for local training-association chapter events or other networking opportunities in your area. Follow conference backchannels like those actively nurtured during the eLearning Guild events DevLearn and Learning Solutions ( Sign up for the online Guild forums. Watch especially for the results of course or learning game development competitions and showcases, like DevLearn’s annual DemoFest. Learn the names of vendors and keep an eye out especially for discussions of costs or fee schedules.

Try it

Lots of authoring companies and off-the-shelf purveyors offer free trial periods or limited guest access to courses. Don’t rely on just viewing demos, but take advantage of these to test the authoring tools against your idea of a program you want to create; the learning curve might surprise you. Take some of the eLearning courses to develop a better understanding of good, bad, intuitive, and boring. (One of my favorite tricks: choose a topic you might need in your world, like hiring practices or ethics or some such, and review every online course you can find on it. The variance in quality is quite stunning.) Talk to vendors – just talk. Don’t make them spend 40 hours completing a RFP if you aren’t serious or are just fishing. Ask instead for price and fee schedules. Find out your options: for instance, will the inexpensive addition of a welcome screen to an off-the-shelf course “customize” it to your needs? Can you outsource a particularly tricky piece of programming or custom art? Consider specifics of your reality: a development company with a history in creating training courses on, for instance, new time sheet systems will likely be able to just work more quickly than you.

Want to save on outsourcing development?

Get your act together. The developers can’t work if you don’t give them what they need. Get clear on your expectations and performance objectives. Learn – and teach others – how to review storyboards as “big picture” views of a finished product, not excuses to argue for days about the color of an avatar’s shirt. Fix your internal processes, like an over-fondness for meetings and imaginary deadlines. Assemble assets, like photos of the CEO, logos, maps, directions, links, and reference materials, into one place. Every call from a developer looking for an image or document will run up the price. Development company WeeJee Learning’s Ian Huckabee says he welcomes calls from potential clients looking to develop something new or rethink an existing classroom program in an online format, and stresses the “knowing what you want” factor as critical to reasonable pricing and quick turnaround.

The quick version

In short? Per last month’s flow chart you should build only if the content is truly proprietary and you have a large potential audience. Even if the conditions tell you to build, building with the help of experts may give you a better product more quickly at less expense than you’d ultimately incur doing it yourself.