“Successful E-Learning Outsourcing”
Talk presented as part of the panel on Education Integration Strategy by
E-Learn Expo, Paris
February 22-23, 2001
Palais des Congrès,
Many of you are engaged in migrating your classroom operations to e-learning. You are facing many unknowns, and this forum is intended to help share experiences, provide some guidance, and facilitate some networking. I have been active in this field for more than twenty years. I started working on computer-based performance improvement in the ‘80’s, founded my first Internet-based company in 1994, and since then have been providing ebusiness consulting, development contracting, and emarketing services to corporations around the world. One area of focus throughout has been elearning, particularly in the fields of marketing, performance, Project Management, and problem solving. Over the years my companies have developed online learning experiences and trained a very large volume of e-learners, as an “outsourcee”. In my brief presentation on this panel today I’d like to share some of the lessons learned, and propose some rules for successful outsourcing.
How things have changed
Several years ago I presented a paper to the conference of the American Society for Training and Development (ASTD) in which I described the kind of online courses we had been running for professionals seeking certification in Project Management. Back then, we provided anytime, anywhere courses that were heavily supported by online mentors. In addition to a formal curriculum, learners were guided to use chat sessions to create their own content, which was built into an organically growing learning community. Many people in my audience just did not “get it” because they were so focused on delivering “CD-ROM on the Web” but now it looks like attitudes are changing. I am pleased to hear so many people in recent months starting to embrace the idea that e-learning should foster communication and experience-sharing, and create self-sustaining learning communities.
E-learning is evolutionary survival
I’d like to begin with a comment on the “new economy” and the cynicism or denial with which many people regard the term. By making real-time networked communication ubiquitous, the Internet has changed the world of business and the world of education forever. You can try to contest that with studies, academic research, and cost benefit analyses. You can challenge the impact or the benefit from any theoretical or philosophical platform you choose. But the reality is that the world is changing at a pace faster than you can measure.
The future is a place none of
us has visited, yet many of us, foolishly, feel we know it quite well. But in
the new economy whatever you know about how things work today cannot be
extrapolated into the future without risk of embarrassment. Everything you know
about learning is changing fundamentally, and the collective impact of those
changes will produce exponentially more changes. It will never stop. It will
only accelerate, and it won’t be smooth and predictable. Just to stay competent
in their jobs, people have to learn more, and learn more often, than ever
before—and they have less available time in which to do it. Companies that do not
help their workforce stay competent will lose their own ability to function. It
is now a corporate survival requirement that education and training is
continuously available and continuously evolving. (The only alternative to
continuous real-time training of employees is to view them as disposable: don’t
build your own human capital, rent it from an outside vendor. We are seeing whole
IT departments being outsourced to low-cost high-education countries like
E-learning is not a single species with a fixed DNA. There are many manifestations of e-learning. When the media tell you that the e-business bubble has burst, it is not true. You are not seeing the death of an industry—for the first time things are changing so fast you are able to witness evolution unfolding, as in a time-lapsed movie. The extinction rate in this evolution is terrifying. Technological progress is usually measured by Moore’s Law, which states that processing power doubles every eighteen months. But the Internet changed that. Networking makes the power of any one microchip irrelevant. The speed of applications development has accelerated ahead of the speed of hardware development, because human minds are now connected. While scientists struggle to build computers with massively-parallel processors, the Internet is already a computer with massively-parallel processors. But it is people and human ingenuity—not microchips—that are being networked. The rate of evolution is breathtaking.
I have always believed that the true power of the Internet as an educational medium lies in its ability to network learners and experts with each other, not in its ability to cheaply broadcast canned messages to millions. We have all heard so much about B2C and B2B models, but I believe that the model that will be the “killer app” in education is P2P: peer-to-peer. The Internet is not a network of machines, it’s a network of people. When you allow people to connect with each other without forcing them through some central controlling institution, the value of that network explodes. Where, according to Metcalfe’s Law, an ordinary network has a value of n2 (where n = the number of nodes), the value of a peer-to-peer network is a vastly greater 2n-1. On the Internet, n is already many hundreds of millions.
It’s February 2001. E-businesses are already discovering the power of P2P networks (Napster is a prominent example, as is Hotmail’s viral marketing), but educationalists are inherently opposed to the concept. They believe that education is best achieved in a hierarchical distribution system. They believe that learning is about a central knowledge resource communicating its knowledge in a controlled way to an audience, in a one-to-many broadcast model. But the value of a learning network lies not in centralizing knowledge, but in networking the experience of learners. As more people share your knowledge, the value of that knowledge to your company increases.
E-learning should be rich in experience-sharing processes that draw people into the learning environment.
What is outsourcing in the e-learning context?
Outsourcing is an old-economy word that implies buying some product or service from an external provider because they are more reliable or cost-effective than your internal resources. In the new economy, outsourcing implies more. It implies a partnership that integrates seamlessly with your own business—and the businesses of other partners—and contributes to your strategic evolution. It implies the streamlining of your internal processes, and the compression of planning horizons. An outsource partner is an agent of change, who can make things happen faster, better, more economically, and with less operational risk than trying to do it all internally.
If you needed to build a new house, would you order a truckload of bricks and enroll in a bricklaying course? Would you buy a spade and start digging the foundations? No – most of us would call in an architect and a builder. We do that because we want the project defined, managed, and executed in a quality way—on time, on budget, to our chosen standard. Building an e-learning environment is really no different. The reasons that most companies outsource are simple:
· Time to deployment: It can take you a long time to research the market, pick your development tools, learn how to use them, develop a few courses, test them, re-develop them and finally deploy them. And that’s only the start of the work involved in providing a dynamic e-learning service. Outsource providers are already high up that learning curve, have the expertise, use efficient production and deployment processes, and can get your courses online in weeks. They can also host and manage your courses and provide learner technical support until you are ready to do it in-house.
· Quality: You can’t afford to deliver a learning experience that doesn’t work, from the perspective of technology, pedagogy, administration, or support. However you define quality, your end product must meet your standards. Outsourcing the project helps you achieve this in two ways. First you are forced to define your target quality, along a number of parameters, with your outsource partner helping you manage your own expectations. Second, your partner has the experience to deliver.
· Cost: The cost of internal development can be significant. Software is the smallest, but most obvious, item on the expense list. Training and personnel costs are substantial, as is management time. Hardware and bandwidth can be prohibitive, as can learner technical support. If you factor in all your costs honestly, outsourcing should be cheaper.
· Risk: If the end result is not as expected, and you have incurred huge expenses and delays, the damage to the reputation of the learning department may be the least of your worries. If an outside provider lets you down, you at least have recourse. But working with an outsource partner inherently reduces your risk from the beginning because the project is defined in realistic terms and managed according to a project plan.
· Innovation: Your perception of what e-learning should be is limited by your own experiences and knowledge. An external provider has a broader understanding of e-learning technologies and e-learning pedagogy, so can help you avoid hidden dangers and suggest alternative approaches. Even if you decide to do everything in-house, calling for proposals from outsource companies will give you great insights into the different paths you can follow.
· Mission focus: Is it really the mission of your department to acquire technology and production skills and to engage in the development and deployment of courseware? Or is your mission more accurately to be an integrator of education, ensuring that your workforce gets appropriate learning of a quality that will improve performance to desired levels? Outsourcing can relieve you of the burden of building and managing a large infrastructure that distracts you from your true focus.
· Strategic advantage: An outsource partner can rapidly put you in an education leadership position in your industry while your competitors are still trying to acquire new skills and infrastructure. And if they need to build new skills and infrastructure, they don’t inherently have the core competencies to do the job properly. In the online world, where hardware and skill-sets are evolving continuously, in-house programming talents and infrastructures are unlikely to be sustainable assets. Hiring external talent that has to keep itself leading-edge is much more attractive. If you’re not clearly the best people to be doing a job, don’t do it. Use an outsource provider that is.
If there are so many good reasons to outsource, why do many companies start off by trying to do their e-learning in-house?
Why companies don’t outsource:
· Fear of losing control—though it is often easier to control an outside provider than your own conflicting internal resources.
· Fascination with new activities, and a desire to be conspicuously progressive.
· Perception that outsourcing is expensive or complicated or risky.
· Perception that in-house e-learning development expertise is strategically vital.
· Defining the education mission as the building of courses, instead of as the ongoing delivery of a workforce with knowledge and skills appropriate to your business strategy.
· Reluctance to embrace e-business principles of speed, efficiency and streamlining, which have become indivisible from partnering in all other corporate disciplines.
· Unavailability of adequate outsourcing partners.
I have listed a number of reasons why companies might not outsource all or part of their e-learning operations. In my view, none of these are valid. You could look at me with cynicism, because, after all, I am an outsourcing resource. But the reality is that corporate learning professionals should be focused on strategic performance improvement issues, not on operational e-learning development and deployment. You can build up a fifty-strong e-learning development team, equip them with high-end machines, and train them in all of the latest authoring tools and ISD techniques. And maybe that’s price you are willing to pay to get you up a learning curve. But a year or two from now I suspect you will be “rightsizing” your operations, firing that team, and partnering with a competent development shop on the other side of the world. Heck, I already outsource many of my own company’s operations to people who can do things faster, cheaper, better.
Learn from e-business
There is an evolution in Internet adoption that takes place inside companies, and e-learning is just a thread in that process. If you are like most companies, you start out regarding the Internet as a good place to have a corporate presence.
· Your corporate communications people put up a site that is like a static annual report.
· Then people want to know more, so the marketing people use the site to advertise products or services.
· Then people want to buy, so the commercial people build transactions ability into the site.
· Then customers want better service, so the IT people integrate those transactions into supply-chain management systems, and the customer service people want to help customers online.
· Finally your business partners want to integrate their online systems with yours to streamline everything, and you have what is now called e-business.
The more Web-savvy a company is, the more it focuses on its core competencies, out-sourcing the rest to external partners. In e-business, core competencies are typically defined by the value that you can add to your customers’ processes. E-businesses now outsource many of their mission-critical processes because they fall outside of core competencies. The same is becoming true of e-learning.
There is actually nothing that we do in e-learning that is not already done (usually better) in some other e-business context. Tracking and analyzing click-streams is fundamental to e-commerce, as is instant customization and personalization, management of knowledge-richness, database integration, real-time reporting, and online customer service. E-businesses already integrate with the systems of their suppliers and customers. In fact, good e-business sites are in many ways much more powerful than e-learning sites, and usually do a better job of managing dynamic content and customer satisfaction. Training departments can’t do that sort of thing with an in-house group of people schooled only in ToolBook, DreamWeaver and Flash.
What to outsource?
The e-business experience tells you this: you cannot take an online course and manage it successfully without integrating it into a learning environment that is in turn integrated into a service environment, all operating at Web speed in real time. There is much more to providing an e-learning service than simply building courses and attaching them to a Learning Management System.
Beyond the vital strategic tasks, here are some of the major operational activities involved in going online:
· Developing courses—whether you adapt existing classroom courses or author new ones, there is learning design, editing, and creative work to do. You must define content, testing, and assignments, as well as the ways you will leverage the networking of learners and experts into a sustainable learning community.
· Web-enabling—you have to code your content, create your audio and video if used, acquire your graphics and images, code your interactive tests or assignments, and integrate all of the components with chat, threaded discussion, and library functionality. Then do quality assurance and revisions.
· Deploying—your courses can’t be accessed without the hardware and telecommunications that make them accessible, so you need to plan for performance, scalability, privacy and security, then acquire and install the systems that put your site on the Web or the LAN.
· Hosting—your courses should have a learning environment to support them. That includes a Learning Management System to manage gatekeeping and tracking, but it also includes support functionality for learners, faculty, and administrators, and e-commerce systems if you are a commercial training business.
· Resources—in addition to technology infrastructure, you need to provide the people to keep your service competitive, particularly in the areas of ongoing quality control and technical expertise. If you are using online instructors, you’ll need to do some training and recruitment.
· Administration—your LMS might handle some administration like basic learner tracking, but you’ll need to customize a system to integrate with your other administrative systems such as order processing, interdepartmental billing, CRM, and reporting. Ideally, your administrative systems are all real-time browser-based tools.
· Support—Your online learners work a lot at nights and weekends so you have to provide 24x7 technical support. If you work with learners from other companies, you may have to provide different levels of customer service and support.
· Upgrades—your courses and their background technologies and services will need updating and upgrading continuously so they stay fresh, relevant and technically viable.
· Marketing—finally, if you are providing internal training, getting employees to want to learn online is a marketing challenge. If you are a commercial course provider, you have a host of additional complications to overcome, from troubleshooting a client’s firewall problems to integrating your LMS with theirs, to custom-building invoicing or gatekeeping systems. Your sales and marketing team will need a lot of education and experience to deal with these issues.
You can build the resources to handle all of these tasks, but it you should also be able to outsource any or all of them, and be as involved or as distant from the day-to-day as you choose.
· Learn about e-learning. Go to expos and conferences, take some courses, join an online discussion forum like ASTD’s e-learning community. Talk to other companies, share experiences. Remember, there are no experts, and everyone is at some stage in their own discovery process.
· Know what you want to achieve. E-learning means so many different things that unless you know what results you are looking for, you will not know where to begin. Defining the educational result is more relevant than focusing on the means—let your outsource partner work that out for you. The solution that works for your situation will probably be unique to you. But defining your solution should start with looking at the content, context, target group, and technology infrastructure, at an individual course, individual learner, and enterprise level. Consider also the development time, ongoing support resources, and overall cost constraints that you have.
· Do a reality check, redefine your goals, define your risk tolerance. Learn to recognize vaporware. Understand that bleeding edge technology is compelling but frequently impractical. Start with technology that works today and will achieve your learning objectives. Your learners should not have to master a technology learning curve before they can get into the content of their course.
· Be clear about who owns the e-learning process inside your organization. The Education, Training, or Employee Development group should own the e-learning process, not IT or IS. While IT has to play a major role in the e-learning development process, it is the education integrators who should own that process and manage the project. At the very least, Training should be the customer, and IT the vendor. Training is paying, is responsible for the effectiveness of the service, and should define acceptable quality parameters. If your IT people do not know enough about e-learning to be helpful, get them educated.
· Evaluate prospective partners:
o Send out a “Request For Information”.
o Determine what the vendors do best, how they think, what their service record is.
o Look for a learning company that understands e-business, not a pure software company. Insist on talking with the proposed vendor’s project manager—you will be working with that person pretty intensively, and it is vital that you like and respect the individual. Work with people who challenge your assumptions and change your perceptions.
o Look at actual courses they developed or deploy, and talk to their customers or learners.
o Ask about their technology and methodologies. Practically, standards certification is still a remote ideal and should not be as important as open architecture.
o Find out their attitude to quality (high production values are not learning quality)
o Make sure their operations and technologies are scalable.
o Do not let geography be a factor. People like to work with a vendor down the street, or in the same city. This can be an obstacle—get used to living in a global marketplace, and be ready to work with vendors in other countries, on other continents. E-learning is ideal for virtual project work.
o Be concerned about vendor longevity. Smart companies will endure, and they are not necessarily the big companies or the old companies.
· Define your needs in writing in a “Request for Proposal” and have several companies submit bids for the project.
· Try to work with prototyping and iterative development cycles rather than designing and building the whole project. Use development methodologies that are suited to speed and flexibility. That means embracing Rapid Application Development as a core approach to building functionality. RAD assumes that 80 percent of a solution can be produced in 20 percent of the time that would have been needed to produce a complete solution, and that much of the missing 20 percent are operational requirements rather than business requirements. That partial solution can be used as a prototype, which gets refined iteratively. Usually you do not know what you want until you have a straw man to critique, so building prototypes is a more effective route to e-learning than spending months intricately planning the perfect solution. Besides, if you take months to build it, it’s probably going to be out of date when you’re finished.
Ten rules for successful outsourcing
1. Define a vision and communicate it clearly. The difference between a vision and a hallucination is the number of people who can share it.
2. Decide that your mission is to deliver quality knowledge, skills, and performance, not low costs, to your company.
3. Understand that you are providing a service—not just courses—to your customers, and partner with people who share that commitment.
4. Partner with profitable companies who will still be in business next year. Their profitability is your insurance.
5. Pick partners who have a depth of experience in developing and implementing e-learning in a corporate culture, and who know how to manage intensive projects.
6. Don’t be seduced by technology. Use open architecture rather than proprietary authoring systems or “platforms”, because your infrastructure is going to change—constantly.
7. Be willing to rewrite your purchasing policies and procedures. The best vendors are not always the biggest or the oldest.
8. Learn to work virtually—do not let vendor location be a major factor.
9. Be willing to take on more risk and embrace rapid change as a constant.
10. Don’t think e-learning is a destination or a journey. It’s a Big Bang.
11. All rules have a half-life of two months. Even this one.
Some of the failings of this nascent industry are that we focus on technology instead of service; on activity instead of outcome; on tactics instead of strategy; on linear extrapolation instead of fundamental change. Our industry trade shows are dominated by software salespeople. Our seminars tend to focus on how to apply the latest tools, or on technology standards. There are plenty of authoring tools and Learning Management Systems out there, but the tools do not make you a service provider, any more than Microsoft Word makes you Voltaire.
We have exaggerated the ease with which companies can engage in e-learning, and made it appear to be all about technology. It’s not. A quality e-learning service is all about streamlining business processes and integrating them into your corporate strategy for dealing with the new economy. An experienced outsource partner (or partners) can help you define your learning vision and strategy, and help you see beyond tools, technologies, and courses.
Like an e-business strategy, your wired world learning strategy has to ask and answer the following questions:
· How will you build an online presence and a community of customers?
· How will you treat your online customers as individuals?
· How will you retain your customers and grow their business with you?
· How will you deliver your products and services faster?
· How will you improve the cost-effectiveness of production and delivery?
Whether you are creating internal training or commercializing your learning experiences, these are vital issues to debate and decide on. Your answers to these questions will determine your strategy and the future viability of your venture. If successful you will improve the fundamental value of the company, making it more competitive, customer focused, streamlined, and efficient.
The easiest path to fast, successful global implementation of corporate e-learning is usually strategic outsourcing. Outsourcing gives you simplicity: simplicity in project management, design, technology, learning models, infrastructure, administrative and instructor systems, and business models. It allows you to be flexible and responsive and professional, minimizes your risks and your investment, and gets you up the e-learning curve with the least amount of unnecessary baggage. Most importantly, it helps you to see through the operational fog so you can focus on keeping your strategic educational vision in line with your corporate vision.
Godfrey Parkin is the President of MindRise, a consulting firm in Washington, DC. In 25 years as a marketer, he has run companies and divisions in the US, UK, Switzerland, and South Africa, including the international training operations of A.C. Nielsen, world’s largest marketing research and consulting firm. Contact Godfrey at firstname.lastname@example.org.