In this posting I continue the musings on the efficacy of Requests for Proposals (RFPs) that I began in “A Modest Proposal: Kill the RFP, Part I”
I rarely see an RFP in which an organization has truly, in a disciplined, measurable fashion, mapped objectives for an online learning technology initiative back to overall strategic objectives for the organization. (And, for what it is worth, I have never seen e-learning features analyzed in this way in an RFP.) This, in my opinion, is information that should be provided to a vendor, and the purchasing organization should expect vendors to be able to engage in meaningful dialogue around these areas. “Dialogue” is the key term, however. I can’t think of an e-learning RFP I have received in recently that asked for the vendor’s reactions to the organization’s proposed objectives for the implementation of online learning technologies.
Indeed, whatever information the organization offers is generally presented as set in stone, and the vendor is simply supposed to provide features that purportedly support the organization’s online learning strategy.
In Exceptional Selling: How the Best Connect and Win in High Stakes Sales, Jeff Thull, who I referenced in Part I of this posting, describes this dynamic as a sort of dysfunctional parent-child relationship:
The request for proposal (RFP)…is an institutionalized version of a parent-child or superior-subordinate transaction. The customer sends out a parental command to bid a project, the “to-do” list, and many sellers automatically obey, often investing huge amounts of time, money, and other resources in the proposal process without question.
It is—or at least should be—the case, of course, that an organization will know its own online learning technology strategy better than any vendor that is hired to perform services for a specific initiative. Nonetheless, a sort of Heisenberg uncertainty principle applies—as the organization and the vendor consider the strategy together, in the light of the additional knowledge and experience the vendor brings to the table, the strategy is bound to change. A good vendor—one that has the potential to become the proverbial “partner”—should be
very comfortable engaging in this process and should bring a lot of value to it.
How do you find that vendor? To be honest, the best of them are going to be likely to turn down the opportunity to bid on any RFP you send them unless they have been instrumental in crafting the RFP. Once you have brought the right stakeholders together internally to articulate clear, measurable objectives for your e-learning initiative, I
recommend developing a list of no more than five potential candidates based on a combination of Web-research, recommendations from peers who have already launched online learning initiatives (consider posting to the DC Distance Learning Coalition list, for instance), and if necessary, a brief request for information from prospective online learning technology vendors.
Next, share your online learning technology strategy with the vendors and schedule a 60 to 90 minute call with each to discuss how they can work with you most effectively to achieve your objectives. When these conversations happen, pay attention to the types of questions the vendor representatives ask and how well they listen. Chances are you will
be able to tell pretty quickly which ones are capable of engaging in meaningful dialogue about e-learning technology strategy—driven primarily by listening to and asking questions about your objectives—and which ones are prepared only to extol the features of their products.
After the initial phone conversations, narrow the list and meet with the finalists in person. I recommend dividing this over a two day period. On the first day, focus on demonstration of the vendor’s offering. In as much detail as possible—using texts, diagrams, examples from other online learning initiatives you like—explain to the vendor ahead of time what you think the most common things a typical end user and the typical administrator at your organization will need to be able to do to make your online learning initiative a success. Ask the vendor to walk through these scenarios in detail, explain the functionalities the vendor’s product can offer to support each scenario, and suggest how any functionality gaps will be addressed.
On the second day—preferably in a different room, perhaps even over lunch—spend more time discussing your objectives and also probing on online learning technology implementations the vendor has done before with similar organizations.
Finally, only once all of the above is accomplished, it is valuable to ask the vendor to which you believe you will award the work to submit, in writing, a document that briefly outlines the vendors understanding of your e-learning business objectives, states what learning technology products and services the vendor will provide to meet those objectives, and indicates the pricing and timeline involved. At this point, the vendor should be very well prepared to provide this information in a meaningful way and you should be feeling good that you know what you are looking for. This “proposal” document should therefore be of dramatically higher quality that what you would receive in the typical RFP process.
To close, I know many organizations will object that their bylaws require them to issue RFPs. In my experience, the real requirement is usually for a competitive bidding process, which does not necessitate an RFP. If an RFP truly is required, I think the above steps could actually be structured to function as a more formal process. But if at all possible, I
advise organizations to stick by my original recommendation: Kill the RFP.