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While the benefits of online learning have been clear for years, it’s only recently that online learning has gone mainstream. Post covid19, traditional face to face training isn’t possible. Due to this abrupt change, many organizations are scrambling to convert their existing inventory of courses. Let alone creating new online learning. So organizations everywhere are hiring elearning consultants to help them. But in the world of consulting, there are many nightmarish stories. Do you really need that new elearning consultant? And if so what should you be wary of, and what can you do to make sure that you don’t become an elearning consulting victim?
If you’ve ever experienced or heard about, a bad consultant you might think twice before hiring another one. Including an elearning consultant. An old definition of a consultant is someone who borrows your watch to tell you the time, then keeps your watch. The world is littered with stories from poor consulting engagements. For instance, how many times have you had a 4-week project turn into a 6-month engagement? Or had a project created by a consultant and then hired another firm later on to make updates, or add new modules? Only to find that you don’t actually have the source files to be able to do it. At best it creates delays and extra work. At worst you have to start from scratch again.
A common trick of less scrupulous consultants is to sell you on the latest and greatest technology solution. An enterprise learning Management System (LMS) perhaps? How long did the project take? Did it meet your needs? Or was there a much cheaper solution that could have been implemented in a 1/3 of the time for a 1/4 of the price? And that still would have done everything you needed it to do?
There’s also an infamous sales trick from some very large consulting companies. You receive a fabulous sales pitch from the head honcho along with many young consultants who silently attend. But when the project starts the only people you see are the most junior consultants. In the meantime, the head honcho is off trying to land another big client. This tactic is known as ‘whale-hunting’ among the consulting fraternity. You will see the head honcho again, but usually only once. As they return at the end of the project, to sum up. And set-up a pitch for your next engagement.
With so many negative stories doing the rounds about consultants do you need that new elearning consultant? While there can be potential problems when hiring a consultant, many, if not all, are avoidable. And there are some very good reasons why you may need that new elearning consultant.
There are many reasons why you might need to hire an elearning consultant. Including that since Covid-19, you can’t do in-person training like you used to. And you need to convert your training to an online delivery method. While the transition to online learning was accelerated by the global pandemic, the benefits of elearning over in-person training have been present for many years.
But there are many other reasons why you might need to engage an elearning consultant. For example,
For most people, it isn’t a realistic option to try to tackle an e-learning project themselves. Yet, you do have the option of assigning an existing person from within your organization. Or to recruit a new employee(s) who has the experience and skills to undertake the project. The advantage of taking either of these options is that you build the competency within your organization. But, that’s not always possible.
For example, the following are all reasons people have why they need to bring on an elearning consultant:
Not only do you have to decide on whether to hire an elearning consultant but you also need to decide when to hire them. If you bring them in too early you might be wasting resources. But if you bring them in too late you may have to live with decisions that may cost you down the road. Below are a few illustrative examples from our work at Spark + Co.
It’s not uncommon for organizations to hire an elearning consultant after they’ve selected and purchased the LMS. Many LMS providers like you to think that they are the star of the show with their features and options. But the reality is that your LMS should be invisible to the “learner”. Our experience is that too often the LMS tail wags the e-learning dog. It may seem deciding on the LMS is a separate decision to creating the elearning. But the two are very much interdependent. Each LMS does things differently, and some don’t allow you to do what you might want to be able to. Often the LMS architecture is rigid so you can’t change as much as you want. As a result, this can lead to challenges when creating your e-learning course.
For example, you have selected an LMS for its easy to use course development. Yet, it doesn’t generate SCORM compliant data. So, either you can’t get the data you need, or you have to build a workaround. Having an elearning consultant knowledgeable about LMS’s and their limitations is very valuable. Ideally, your elearning consultant should have some involvement in the LMS selection process.
SCORM stands for Shareable Content Object Reference Model. It is a set of technical standards for eLearning software products. SCORM tells you how to write code so that it can “play well” with other eLearning software. It is the de-facto industry standard for eLearning interoperability. SCORM governs how online learning content and LMS’s communicate with each other.
Storyboarding was developed in the 1930s by Walt Disney Productions. It’s a process to organize graphically illustrations or images displayed in sequence to pre-visualize, in this case, your online course.
Hiring an elearning consultant after you have storyboarded your course is a missed opportunity. First, you miss out on a wealth of experience and insights. A good e-learning consultant is going to help you determine whether you should storyboard a course in the first place. They might identify that you don’t need a course at all. Or that it should be a very different format that you thought.
If you’re developing training for say a software launch, the timing for hiring your elearning consultant can be tricky. A common practice with software developers is to take screenshots when the product is built. And then quickly assemble them into a user guide. But, it’s much better to have a training strategy developed early in the process. And then to work with the development team in parallel. The e-learning consultant will have useful insights for the development team. As well the development team can ensure that the user’s needs are considered throughout the build process. This does mean hiring the elearning consultant earlier. But the added cost is insignificant when considered with the costs of product development and launch.
One thing that we often see is an organization hires an elearning consultant for one course that they want to develop. Then a few months later they come back again for a second course. Then later on for a third… While this is fine if they have strategically planned out their course offerings, that’s not always the case. Rather than having a series of interconnected course offerings that fit within a clear approach, it ends up like a patchwork quilt. This is even more so if they use different elearning consultants for each course.
There are situations where you don’t envisage having a second or third course. But if at all possible, it’s best to engage an elearning consultant earlier and more strategically. Often doing so not only generates a better outcome but is a more efficient use of resources as well. And understanding or contributing to the big picture leads to insightful strategic advice.
There are 3 types, or sizes, of companies from whom you can hire elearning consultants. Each has its own benefits and challenges and which one you choose depends upon your project.
Freelance elearning consultants are individuals who work on their own. Often on smaller e-learning projects. They are the only person in their company or sole proprietorship. They’ve often worked on several e-learning projects before and most charge by the hour.
If you have a small project, or if you need an extra pair of hands on your team a freelancer can be a good choice. But, if you have a large or complex project you should do a detailed review of the experience and availability of the freelancer. As well, you should ensure that the freelancer has access to more resources that may be required. For example, extra instructional designers, videographers, voice over experts, graphic artists, etc.
Also, if you need professional liability insurance (as many Government and larger companies do) check that the freelancer has the necessary coverages.
Boutique Elearning Consultancies or firms are often a middle ground between a freelancer and a large consulting company. These elearning consulting companies will offer a greater level of support. And personal attention. While a freelancer can offer similar levels of personal attention, a boutique consultancy has access to greater levels of support and expertise.
They will have experts they can rely on in many areas including
Boutique elearning consulting companies often excel at working with rapidly-growing organizations. Including tech startups. If you want to work with someone who understands the lingo, structures, and new realities of your organization, a boutique e-learning consultant with 10 or less (not hundreds) of employees may be your best bet. They have the advantage of having extra expertise and support, often at a reasonable rate. And of having had lots of experience in conducting a diverse range of projects. You’ll still want to check their client list, references, and follow up about their credentials. As well, if you have a very large project (in the millions of $) then you should ensure they can dedicate enough resources for the length of the project.
Large elearning consulting firms are focused on very large projects and/or very large organizations. They may even be large management consulting companies that have a small group that specializes in elearning. If you have a large enterprise project then this is likely the best elearning consultants to engage. They have much greater resources, and expertise available for those very large and projects. They offer all the same services that boutique e-learning consulting services offer but on a larger scale.
However, you should expect to pay more for that benefit. As well, you’ll want to make sure who will lead your project. You don’t want to be sold a great sales presentation and then only see the leader again at the final report meeting.
Below are tips to follow to manage the engagement with your new elearning consultant. And they apply whether you’ve hired a freelancer, a boutique elearning consulting firm, or one of the large management consulting companies.
1. Clear Direction. Set SMART goals for the project so that expectations are clear to the elearning consultant. Also, they allow you to track progress.
2. Business requirements. When deciding on which technology, applications, or software to use, make sure that the elearning consultant is focusing on your business requirements. And not simply pitching you the latest and greatest technology. The extra features will likely cost more and may ignore the actual business problem completely.
3. Ensure you have a detailed statement of work. This includes what the project is to produce, a project plan, timeline, budget, and assumptions. You may also want to include details such as how revisions would be handled after the initial completion of the project too.
4. Source Files. Your contractual agreement should stipulate that you receive all source files and passwords. And that your organization owns the content, files, and the elearning course you create.
5. Consider Breaking Up The Engagement Into Phases. Unless your project is well defined it can be difficult for an elearning consultant to provide an accurate cost. This could vary a lot. As it depends on the number of interactive elements, custom illustrations, graphics, and animations. As well as the amount of content needed. And these are just a few of the variables.
Some elearning consultants will price it based upon you receiving the most basic/minimal course. Knowing at the time that the scope is too small for the results you really want. Most people place so much emphasis on the price they sometimes overlook what it is they will or won’t get. Consultants realize that if they put in a proposal to cover an expanded scope, they will lose the bid.
A few consultants, however, will provide you with a range in the price for the project. And while you may want them to narrow it down, these are the elearning consultants that you should place your trust in. They recognize they could do it for the minimum base amount. But they also know and are telling you, that might not meet your expectations. Hence the range.
So what to do? In the cases where the project hasn’t been well defined it can often be helpful to break the project into phases. First, hire the elearning consultant on a small initial contract to provide you with a storyboard of the course. Then they can cost what that will be and work with you to adjust it. So that it contains what you want, and fits within your budget. Then you can start phase 2 and begin building it within an accurate budget, knowing what you will get.
6. Manage The Scope of the Project. Even with a detailed statement of work issues may arise that are outside the scope of the project. You then have a choice to make. Do you want to include that in the scope and expand the budget and/or timeline, or not?
7. Flexibility. At the start of the project, you will have a defined set of requirements. But as the project unfolds you may have more things that you want to include or change. How flexible the vendor is with this process should factor heavily in whether you select them to do the work. You want someone who understands the budget you have or are willing to spend on the project. And then adjusts the scope or the level of interactivity to match the budget. For example, reducing the number of interactive video scenarios you use. While making sure it meets your training expectations and that you know what you are sacrificing along the way.
8. Clarify Roles. Everyone involved in the project needs to have clear roles determined. Including the elearning consultant. All members of the team working on the project should understand the other team member’s roles.
9. Ensure the Elearning Consultant Understands Your Organization.
Provide the consultant(s) with copies of the organization’s mission, strategic objectives, and values. They must understand the big picture. Including what you want to achieve, but also how you want to achieve it.
10. Timely Access To People and Resources. The timeline for the project will be in the project plan and/or statement of work. But, to meet those you need to ensure the elearning consultant receives timely feedback and access to resources. For example, are your subject matter experts available and responsive? Are requests for feedback, reviewing materials, and making key decisions done on time? Is access to source files and materials and technical questions expediently provided? If not, your timeline likely won’t be met and it won’t be the consultants’ fault.
11. Specify The Lead Consultant. To avoid potential problems about who is conducting the work, ensure your contract names the lead consultant. This is the person who will be responsible for delivering your project, and who will be present throughout its duration.
12. Knowledge Transfer. Unless you want to continue with an on-going consulting relationship you should ensure that knowledge transfer occurs. For any tasks that need to be done ongoing, you should require the consultant to transfer that knowledge to an appointed internal resource.
Elearning consultants are a hot commodity post Covid19. Not only do you need to decide if you need to hire one but you also need to decide on when. And to help, you now know which of the 3 types of elearning consultants will best fit your organization and your project. A freelancer, a boutique elearning consulting company, or a large management consulting firm. As well, if you do hire an elearning consultant you know how to manage the relationship to avoid some of the common pitfalls when hiring a consultant.