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October 3, 2013

Are you over the building analogy yet? Have you heard it applied across most industries – from politics to widget design? It usually starts with, “First we need to lay a solid ‘foundation’, we then need the structure, yada yada yada…” So apologies up front, but why it’s overused is it’s so relatable, including for eLearning project management. When you find the right ‘builder’, it will pay huge dividends in your eLearning endeavours. This blog post explores this more and at the end, I’ve listed some very practical tips for finding the right eLearning vendor as your builder (skip to the The List now if you’re interested, but don’t have the time).

Let’s start with some news, we’re about to engage a new full time production manager at The Learning Hook, which is very exciting for our business of course, and it’s what raised for me a lot of dialogue and analysis of production management/project management and the absolute value it brings to our clients – whether they see it directly or not.

Ok, here it comes… So just like building a house, if you’re not a builder (i.e. project manager in the building trade) yourself, it can become an absolute nightmare if you try to run the whole project yourself, how do you manage the trades people? How do you assess the skills of the multimedia developers, graphic designers and instructional designers? How do you assess their progress, hours and craftsmanship? How do you manage their contracts, audio video etc?

A good builder already has all the team and production partners in place, ready to go and manages this for you. You can have meaningful conversations about every aspect of the project without ever having to deal direct with the trades people on their team. This is hugely beneficial in that you get continuity throughout and answers that take into account the effects that all trades have on each other’s work and the outcomes you want to achieve. The efficiencies in workflow, timelines, costs to scope and increase in quality can make a significant impact for you, make you look good and most importantly, get the training out there to start impacting performance.

So getting the right builder is key – enough said.


The List – How to choose the right builder for eLearning:

  • The first and most important thing is to ask to meet the production manager or project manager of any vendor you are going to work with – you will not be working with their business development manager nor relationship manager, so why do the deal based on their promises and how you find them to deal with?
  • When you meet your potential builder (project manager) ask a range of questions that cover technical, learning design and their project management approach. This isn’t so much about their specific answers, it’s about their communication style – are they speaking YOUR language? Do they know what they’re talking about? Can they make sense of it for you? Do they defer most of the questions to others, with answers like, “I’m just a project manager, that’s an instructional design or multimedia development question.”
  • Project managers in eLearning that don’t know the ‘trades’ are dangerous: Of course a project manager should ask their highly skilled trades people for answers – at times – but if it happens too regularly, they’re effectively a middle man and bring very little value to the hours they spend and bill on your project. It also indicates they don’t actually know much about what their trades are doing or need to do … the consequences are obvious.
  • Ask them how they approach problems when they arise. You might ask: “What are the most common problems your clients face?”, or even better, “Having listened to what we need, do you see any problems we might face?”
  • Risk mitigation is a priceless skill of a good ‘builder’. They’re across your whole project, they’ve run many in the past and this experience is amazingly cheap when they can apply it to avoid common mistakes from the start, and effectively mitigate those risks that are necessarily present and unavoidable.
  • When you discuss issues with them, think about how you would find working closely with them through a ‘crisis’ (we all know problems still come up even with the best laid plans). Will your builder provide you timely and practical advice when things don’t go to plan? Are they a ‘transparent’ kind of person? Are they a decision maker? Will they listen to you? This links back to who you will be actually working with – production – not sales.
  • Ask them what they think is the key to a successful project. Think about what you think this is too and see if they reflect your beliefs. Mine’s simply communication. We have robust project methodologies, processes and plans that are proven to work and support our large and small projects, but without communication, all of this breaks down.
  • If you’re going to build training that’s custom to your organisation, expect your vendor to be able to ‘build custom’. Most eLearning vendors offer custom/bespoke services to build what you need. But that’s just an offer. Unfortunately at times, custom can just mean a skin wrapped over the top of another cookie (from the same cookie cutter). One way to check in on their truly ‘custom’ capability is to ask to see a range of products built with different tools and straight HTML. When you view the demonstrations, look for functional differences, not just different look and feels. Also keep in mind all vendors will re-use their proprietary course engines to some degree, but you need to feel they have the capability and willingness to actually customise your course to meet whatever your unique training needs are.
  • Are they progressive in their approaches and R&D? Do they do R&D? Do you care about this? Ask them what they want to do in custom design but haven’t been able to i.e. “What sort of work do you really want to be producing but perhaps you’re not right now because the right project hasn’t come up?” I suggest this kind of conversation to help you assess ‘the brains’ behind the demonstrations and marketing. You should listen for what you feel are intelligent and aspirational answers to this question. Vendors, and particularly production people (who will design and develop the actual work!), will work with you in much greater and rewarding partnerships when they have aspirations for greater and more progressive work. Those that don’t, are much more transactional and likely to expect you to lead the ideas and learning design of your training; now that is certainly a poor investment – your vendor should be the expert!

I have a huge bias of course as The Learning Hook excels at the ‘builder’ role we play for our clients, but having worked within business as well and engaged vendors, I know using a professional builder is cheaper, more time effective and achieves a greater result than trying to cut corners and go direct to the trades – whether those trades are within the business or contractors.

If you’re looking for the builder’s builder, make sure you contact us at The Learning Hook and we’ll happily answer the questions above.

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