Outsourcing of learning content and solutions is here to stay, and it is a function of maturity in the areas of necessary skills and processes on the client and vendor side. The client side of the business usually has a small team that is involved in managing vendors with larger teams of developers and executives. A transparent process is imperative for the development to take place without tears, fears or surprises.
In outsourcing the development of learning solutions, there should be synergy between the vendor’s expertise and the client’s decision-making. Seamless development of learning material and solutions requires that both the entities establish governance practices and keep refining them as the partnership develops.
The vendor’s internal processes and deliverables should inspire confidence in the client that the mutually agreed-upon deliverable acceptance criteria have been satisfied at each phase of the development. With transparency in processes, the client will have to do only a threadbare or even no review of each deliverable. Audit of compliance with the processes would suffice for deliverables of acceptable quality.
For example, at the closure of the instructional design phase, the vendor can share with the client the various versions of the reviewed document, indicating satisfactory compliance with the gate criteria checklist and closure of issues. Therefore, more important than the instructional design review is the client’s trust in the vendor-side processes. This, in turn, is a measure of process maturity.
Insight into the vendor-side processes will also facilitate the client’s understanding of the vendor’s capacity to deliver. This allows the client to plan suitable steps should an over-enthusiastic vendor commit to mission-impossible. Often, this is done just to keep the client in good humor, though the result can be a strained relationship.
There can be situations where, in spite of the vendor’s capacity-to-quality understanding, the client also buys into mission-impossible. In such situations, the client will at least be aware and in the position to caution the vendor against the possibility of deviations from the required quality framework and recourse to shortcuts. This would bring the two sides to the discussion table with a common agenda, and the parties will be in sync sooner rather than later.
Often, managers of the client-vendor relationship cite lack of communication as the cause of several problems. A well-defined communication plan and effective communication is particularly critical in the outsourcing of learning content and solutions.
Large learning development projects face huge problems when clients do not evaluate the change that they want to enforce. There are many subjective decisions involved in the execution of a learning project. For example, in a project that follows a set of standard graphical elements, if a client suddenly wants to change the look and feel, it is not a good idea just to go ahead and implement. The client might be working with many vendors, and hundreds of people might be working on the project. The project might be in different phases of development. There also might be issues related to implementations, which may not have been completely proven. As an example, modifications to the look and feel might result in larger graphics that could adversely affect the accessibility of the content. Also, everyone will have different opinions on the change. The best option is to start a discussion, collect views, test the concept, sort out issues and then decide on a cut-off date for the implementation. The implementation date should also take care of the units that are in the middle of the development and the feasibility of the implementation of the change.
On the vendor side, the tendency often is to throw volleys of questions at the client and ask for quick decisions. It is important to understand that the clients outsource work because they trust the ability of the vendor to deliver on their own decisions. Although it is important to keep the client informed about deviations, and questions will be asked about the client’s recommendations, the approach has to be different. The vendors should not just ask questions and wait for answers. Vendors should clearly define the problem statement, explain all the surrounding details of the issue and then suggest alternatives. The client will be able to quickly approve or disapprove. Asking questions without following this process leads to a loop where client asks questions but does not have the time or inclination to recommend solutions. The point for the vendor to remember is that there are only a few people at the client side managing huge teams of vendors.
It is also important to focus on the larger issues of the communication process, covering the sender, the message, the channel and the receiver. The sender must understand the subject and audience for communication. This builds credibility. The tone of the message and organization of message text are important and the context and objective of communication are critical here. The nuances of different channels of communication—telephone (verbal communication), face-to-face (visual and verbal communication), e-mail (textual communication), etc.—should be appreciated. It is important to appreciate the receiver’s concerns and ideas, and understanding of the issues, as well as such specifics as the receiver’s cultural background. Attention to receiver’s response leads to closure.
Feedback and review systems are generally confused with the client raising issues or identifying errors in the vendor’s deliverables. For an outsourcing relationship to be successful, this paradigm has to change. The client should normally focus on the trends in the quality of products and ensure that changes are implemented in the processes. The client should focus on the need to correct the system, rather than individual deliverables or transactions. It is important that the client and vendor meet periodically and discuss the overall performance to figure what needs to change, so the client’s intervention gradually reduces, and vendor becomes more self-reliant. Over time, the endeavors will pay off as the vendors are able to produce better quality by optimizing the operations, and the client focuses more on customers. There should also be a mechanism in place so that vendors can view end-customer feedback. This enables the vendors to not only optimize the process from the productivity perspective, but also balance it with the end-user requirements.
When the entire process of outsourcing reaches a high level of maturity, clearly defined benchmarks—some of which are yet to become generally accepted—devised to evaluate product performance would replace the rigorous feedback and review process. A progressive next step would be certification from an industry-standard organization.
Both the vendor and the client should strive as partners for betterment by leveraging each other’s capability. The client should focus on improvement in the way things are done at the vendor side of the business, and the vendor should ensure that it gets the required input and directions from the client. This will help the client spend more time listening to the voice of the customer and exploring the potential markets, with the vendors acting as true partners by continually improving productivity and product quality. That is really the essence of a clean process of outsourcing learning content and solutions.
S.M. Nafay Kumail is head—processes and systems at Training Solutions Group, Infopro Corp. Gaurav Chadha is business manager at Knowledge Solutions Business, NIIT. They are co-authors of “E-Learning: An Expression of the Knowledge Economy,” and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.