E-learning design, development and deployment need multiple skills - instructional design, graphic design, multimedia, ICT and good old project management. So, should we just outsource it so that we can focus on more crucial tasks like identifying training needs and taking care of the implementation and evaluation of the e-learning program? Many did go down that road - that decision spawning literally hundreds of e-learning companies across the world and many in India, the outsourcing capital of the world.
That is easier said than done. You could, of course, rely on Google to display some links, but from then on, the going gets tough. As the saying goes, God made men but Sam Colt made them equal, so is it with the Internet. It leveled the playing ground for organizations, big and small. It is almost impossible to get a sense of a company by only going through its website. All of them seem to claim all same the virtues - instructional design skills, Fortune 500 customers, decades in business, customer service…ad nauseam.
So, how do you proceed? Pick up the phone and call the number on the website. You can figure out a lot of things in that first call. If the phone is picked up within three rings and someone understands your accent well enough to put you on to the person concerned, you can shortlist this company. Then, start asking the following questions.
It really doesn't matter how long he was in business but it is reassuring if he has been in business for at least 5-7 years. Of course, the longer the better. If he is new, consider once again after you have heard his answers to your other questions. You may want to proceed even if he is new to business.
It is important that your e-learning partner has real time experience in corporate training. If not, he will not understand the business challenges you are trying to solve with training and e-learning. If his understanding of the pull-and-push of corporate training is only theoretical, he will not be able to support you with practicable solutions. He should know how training works in organizations, not just e-learning design and development.
E-Learning design and development is a singularly specialized field. If the company has a large portfolio of services, even though related, it detracts from the single-minded focus that is required to excel. I would go for the company which specializes in custom e-learning.
You can learn a lot from the qualifications of the top team. By qualification, I don't mean any qualification. In India, almost everyone in these positions will be a postgraduate. What I would want to know is: Qualified in which field? Are the qualifications anywhere related to training, HR, instructional design?
When you ask someone to explain the process of how they would go about executing an e-learning project, it is highly revealing, especially when asked suddenly. A smooth and comprehensive explanation would indicate that the process is really followed. You should also make note of the milestones of customer sign-offs, which is a dead giveaway if he is a novice.
E-Learning design is both a creative as well as a mechanical process. Seldom can you, as a customer, visualize exactly what you want your end product to look like. Added to that, if you are outsourcing to a remote location, it really complicates the issue. E-Learning projects cannot have a fixed specs document. A successful project management process is essentially agile, which means that at every stage of design and development, the work-in-progress should shuttle between you and your outsourcing partner’s team for your feedback and comments for improvement.
Indians are supposed to be good in English. But Indian English and accent is a huge challenge to a native speaker. Most Indians are woefully lost when it comes to idiomatic English and native accents. A quick and dirty way to find out if the team with which you may be working with can understand you and vice versa is to have a quick chat with the guys in the trenches, not the generals, so to speak.
The minute you ask this question, most prospective partners suddenly lose interest. A serous player will always take it up. Indian businessmen usually do not believe in the law of harvest.
Everyone will be eager to show his best samples. I am sure you are wise in the ways of the world - the 'best' samples are always airbrushed. Ask to see current projects, work-in-progress. It is not necessary to sign an NDA to see them online. Seeing current WIP will give you a much better idea of competencies and skills than any number of samples.
Finally, there is no better way to assess the partner than to speak with a few of his customers. How ready he is to provide you these details and what is the profile of these references will tell you a lot, even before you actually call or write to them.
You can, of course, ask some more questions about local representatives in your country, e-learning and instructional design standards followed, experience in working on various learning management systems (LMS)...
Okay, if you ask me what is that one foolproof thing you need to do to choose the right partner, I would unhesitatingly ask you to try him out with a sample project. I can assure you that this is the acid test to validate all his claims of greatness. You would definitely need to spend some time and effort, maybe a small sum of money, to do it but it will be worth it. Ask any of our customers; they did just that!
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