Tuesday, August 31, 2004

Outsourcing e-learning revisited

With all of the current buzz in the media about outsourcing and offshoring, I was reminded of a paper on outsourcing that I presented at an e-learning conference in Paris early in 2001. I dug it out of my archives and discovered that the content of "Successful E-Learning Outsourcing" is still as relevant today as it was then.

My focus at the time was not on offshoring, though it gets a couple of mentions, but on the need for training departments to stay focused on being strategically positioned to support business objectives, as rapidly and efficiently as possible.
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.

There is also, early on, a reference to the need for corporations to keep their workforce trained or risk becoming irrelevant:
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 to do it in. 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 India, and this too will accelerate.)

It had not occurred to me at the time, but is the primary reason why companies are outsourcing so much work to low-cost countries more than just a cost-saving exercise? Or is it also happening because we are unable to train our employees fast enough to stay competitive? Is it easier to buy ready-made expertise in a foreign market than to build it ourselves? And if so, what does that say about the historical effectiveness and efficiency of our corporate training processes?

I have added a link to the full text to the Papers and Presentations section on the right of this blog in addition to the link above.

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