[Note: This is a two part series. I wrote it back when I was a learning technology vendor on the receiving end of many RFPs. I am no longer a vendor, and only in very rare instances will I agree to respond to RFPs.]
I’ve recently been reading Exceptional Selling: How the Best Connect and Win in High Stakes Sales, the latest from my favorite writer on sales strategy, Jeff Thull, and while Thull does not write specifically about e-learning or online learning technologies, doing so has reinvigorated a conviction that I have held for some time: the bulk of RFPs issued for the purchase of online learning technologies do at least as much harm as good. Indeed, I believe this is likely true for nearly all product and service purchases, but I’ll do my readers the favor of sticking to territory I know something about.
You see, I receive many well-intentioned RFPs throughout the course of any given year, all of them aimed at securing services for the implementation of online learning technology initiatives—primarily license of a learning management system (LMS) or development of online courses. These documents inevitably contain a very long list of features the prospective purchaser is seeking, as well as frequent use of well-worn terms like “interactive” and “robust.” The better of them also contain at least some information about the purchaser’s e-learning business objectives and measures for success. A rare few contain uses cases (i.e., scenarios that map out in great detail the steps end users and administrators take to use a learning technology and derive value from it) that relevant stakeholders within the organization have attempted to articulate. I plan to address the development of quality use cases in a future posting, but let’s go ahead and consider feature lists and business objectives.
Feature lists, I will admit, are probably at the root of my distaste for online learning technology RFPs. Partly that is because responding to them in a thoughtful manner takes significantly more time than I suspect most RFP issuers realize. More importantly, I think they are ultimately of very limited use. I understand the impulse to include them, of course—and I fully realize that the emphasis many e-learning vendors place on features makes these lists almost inevitable—but too often they serve as a substitute for a truly responsible, strategic decision-making process. The organizational stakeholders responsible for issuing the RFP can point to a list as evidence of their diligence; consultants can play their role by generating the lists and processing the responses; and sales people can feel they have done their jobs by having responded to the lists. Superficially, the needs of all parties are satisfied.
There is any number of problems with this approach, but for the time being I’ll just highlight two. The first is that features, as they appear on paper, are always open to interpretation. What one e-learning vendor means by “Assign students to groups or departments” or “Built-in Authoring Tool,” for example, can actually vary pretty dramatically. Arguably, these differences come out during demonstrations, but in my experience, most organizations—and, surprisingly, a large percentage of consultants—either don’t know the right questions to ask to understand these difference, or neglect to ask them. The latter may happen so often simply because the list of features that the vendor might cover in a demonstration is so long. (I have received RFPs for learning management system purchase with lists of features more than 12 pages long!)
The second problem I have with feature lists is that, if an organization really wants a feature-by-feature comparison, there are already good options for getting this information without going through an RFP. For starters, these can be compiled from most vendors’ Web sites or received from the vendor as part of a simple request for information. If the organization does not want to go through this effort—though, in my opinion, most would benefit from insight it offers—it is often possible to purchase reports that detail the range of features various vendor products offer. Brandon Hall Research and Bersin & Associates both offer an excellent range of reports on various online learning technologies and services, for instance. And while the price tag for these can be somewhat steep, they still are likely to cost less than the many hours of staff or consultant time organizations invest in for compiling lists. [Note: Since writing this post, I have launched a research company that recently issued a report on LMSes for Associations: Association Learning Management Systems.]
Those hours that might be spent by internal staff and/or consultants to develop feature lists could be much more fruitfully applied to developing e-learning business objectives—a topic I will focus on in my next posting about RFPs.