Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Two Ships Passing in the Night

I'm in the unique position of straddling the for-profit and not-for-profit sectors and seeing the way that each approaches eLearning. I have worked in both sectors. I now serve clients in both sectors, and speak to prospective clients in both sectors. And what a study in contrasts this presents. It is like observing two absolutely different cultures, and two completely different ways of approaching a problem. In short, they are so different that it is like watching two ships passing in the night.

Corporations (for-profit sector) tend to approach eLearning as an IT problem that needs to be solved. There is an inordinate focus on software systems (e.g. learning management systems, learning content management systems, etc.), software tools (e.g. course authoring, content creation, testing tools, etc.) and technical standards (e.g. SCORM, AICC, etc.). Every day my email inbox is inundated with the latest studies directed at corporate training departments about which LMS or LCMS is rated as "best of breed," or which content creation tool will cut eLearning development time in half. In all of this, it seems that there is an assumption that if you choose the right technology, everything else (including learning) will take care of itself. I liken this to a sort of techno-fetishism.

By contrast, most educational organizations, professional associations, advocacy agencies, etc. (not-for-profit sector) tend to approach eLearning as a way of solving a particular learning challenge (e.g. meeting defined learning or competency objectives, increasing reach, providing more flexibility for targeted learners). They tend to start with thinking of creative ways of solving learning challenges, and then work back to the types of technologies that will help them achieve their goals. Because of this, they are more open to looking at alternatives to expensive software expenditures such as build-your-own approaches and open source solutions. Because they generally have tighter budgets than the for-profit sector, they have to be more creative in finding solutions. This can be a good thing.

We recently met with a professional association about their eLearning efforts. They apologetically mentioned that they do not use an LMS, and that their eLearning was very basic. They created a rudimentary HTML template for the organization of content and tacked on a link to very basic discussion board software. However, their eLearning was good because they took care to ensure that it is based on principles of active learning and learner engagement. They invested a lot in learning design, and very little in technology.

Many corporations invest a fortune in complex eLearning technology, only to under utilize it. For example, they may use a tremendously expensive and complex software suite to post static content, test on it, and record who has competed what. It is much like buying a Hummer for trips to the corner store. At the same time, I have seen not-for-profits hammer together a beater with used parts, yet drive it across the country.

Of course, these are generalizations based on personal observation. There are always exceptions both ways. However, my experience shows me that not-for-profits are spending less on technology, yet getting better results from their eLearning. In other words, they are profiting more from their eLearning investments than the for-profit sector. Ironic, no?

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Kicking the RFP Habit

Two weeks ago, in a moment of weakness, I almost submitted a response to a request for proposals (RFP). It was for an eLearning development project for which I knew our firm could have done a terrific job. However, I remembered an earlier vow that I had made to myself never to put myself and my colleagues through "RFP hell" again, was resolute, and I ignored the invitation.

Don't get me wrong, I am not expecting work to land on our doorstep, and I know you have to prove yourself and compete for work every day. I have won and lost my fair share of RFP competitions in the past. What has turned me off the RFP game is that far too many times I have invested precious time and resources in responding to such competitions that had ill-defined or unreasonable expectations, did not have transparent evaluation criteria by which to judge proposals, were for projects that never materialized, or wherein the "fix" was in (i.e. a favourite vendor was already selected and the RFP process was a bureaucratic necessity to prove "due process").

Here's my list of RFP pet peeves (in no particular order).

Information Extremes

Some RFPs expect you to base an entire proposal on two or three pages of ill-defined generalizations regarding project purpose, goals, deliverables, etc. On the other extreme, some RFPs outline project deliverables, submission rules, bureaucratic procedures and associated legalities in such infinite and prescriptive detail that it takes you the better part of a day just to read the document, by which time you have lost focus on the actual purpose of the project.

Project Vaporizes

Twice in the last couple of years we have put many days work into responding to RFPs only to find out some time later that the projects were not going to go ahead. No apologies, no sorry you wasted half your life, nothing.....urgh.

Unreasonable Expectations

You know the story....they want learners to develop and demonstrate 10 key competencies, but they only have a half hour per person to devote to learning. Oh, and by the way, they want this online course up and running by Tuesday.

Cone of Silence

You are not allowed (under penalty of death) to talk to anyone "on the inside" about the project, or to toss around ideas with them about approaches that might work. It is very hard in such situations to meet client expectations when you can't even talk to them. The reason stated for such rules is that this may produce an "unfair" advantage. Well, if someone shows that kind of initiative maybe they should have an advantage.

No Transparent Evaluation Criteria

RFPs often do not have clear and transparent criteria or processes by which they will judge proposals. This means that it is based entirely on the whims of whomever is making the call. This makes it difficult to know what points to stress in your proposal. Worse yet are those situations when they say they will be judging proposals on A, B and C, and then say you didn't get it because you didn't have X. When did X enter the equation? If I knew you needed X, I wouldn't have bothered.

Moving Goal Posts

We responded to an RFP for an eLearning development project not too long ago and were told we were the only ones to have sent anything in. We met all the stated criteria, and were within the budget of $X that they had set for the project. I thought great, the project is ours. Not so. This organization re-issued the RFP with a budget of $X + 160% (not kidding). We thought, fine, they want something a bit more elaborate, so we will included many more Flash animations in our second proposal and pegged our budget at $X + 140%. Needless to say, we didn't get the job and, to top it off, were criticized for increasing our budget to such a degree over the first proposal. Huh? They could have had an excellent product for $X if they had given us the job in the first round. This led me to think that the "fix" was in (see below).

The Fix is In

I have no hard evidence, no smoking gun, but I am pretty sure that a lot of RFP competitions are fixed. The client knows exactly which vendor they want, but because of internal purchasing rules, they have to get X number of bids. This is really frustrating if you are one of these sacrificial lambs. If ensuring value for money is the goal, why don't folks just find another way to do this without wasting every one's time? For example, why not submit your preferred vendor's quotation to some disinterested third party expert review?

It is for these reasons that I resist the RFP urge. How do we get business, you ask? Luckily, we have existing clients that keep coming back to us for our services and who recommend us to others. And we also get business the old fashioned way....we contact those we think have needs for the types of services we offer (eLearning strategy, design, development, evaluation, etc.) and see if we can get a foot in the door to learn more about potential clients, have a conversation, and make a pitch. If there is interest, we will produce a work plan and budget for a specific project.

If you are someone who regularly issues RFPs for eLearning work (or for anything else for that matter), and you are noticing that there are fewer responses, it may be that other vendors have also sworn off such processes. Karin Albert, the author of the eLearn Campus course titled Maximizing the Value of Your eLearning, offers these tips about preparing RFPs.
  • Be specific and precise: the more you can clearly explain exactly what you want, the easier it will be for the vendor to provide an accurate estimate of costs and time lines.
  • Be conservative: don’t give the vendor an exaggerated or overstated picture of the opportunity you are offering them.
  • Be realistic: don’t minimize or understate the negative side of the opportunity.
  • Be complete: don’t leave anything out that you know will affect the project.
  • Be succinct: ask for only the information you need to make a decision.
  • Be straightforward and honest: if you don’t really know something, say so.
Words to live by.

Can I say for certain that I will never ever respond to an RFP again? No. It is hard for an addict to promise this. Maybe it would help if there were some sort of support group for those who have "gone clean."

I'm interested to hear what others have experienced with RFPs....from both sides of the fence (vendor and vendee(?)). Is the process always painful, or I have just been very unlucky?