Vendor Teams: A Radical Approach
In most cases, our team narrowed the field of potential products to two or three candidates, but there was still much to be done before a decision could be made. We were not just interested in the technology; our group had specific criteria for the people and the corporate culture that supported the products we purchased.
In the past we had felt the burden of having to manage multiple vendors, each of whom was vying for a larger piece of the business and few of whom would work together as a team. We knew about the endless flow of problems that would inevitably arise from working with competing vendors, all of whom had "proprietary" products that were incompatible with other solutions. We knew that a single vendor could not provide us with a complete technology-based training solution ”despite what they swore their products could do ”and we were unwilling to deal with the petty bickering and constant micromanagement that came with overseeing a lot of competing vendors . We had neither the time nor the patience to deal with that level of chaos.
So we put another plan into motion. We decided to build a team of vendors who would work together toward a common goal of solving our learning needs as efficiently and effectively as possible. This was a radical concept for many vendors in the training industry, and it continues to be one, but it had a profound impact on our ability to provide a cost-effective , successful solution at Rockwell Collins.
Rather than interview dozens of companies individually, listen to fifty proposals, then hand down our decisions, we held one big meeting. Our team determined which fifty vendors were most likely to meet our needs based on our criteria-ranking process, and we invited them to a roundtable session. The vendors invited covered the spectrum of tools and services that we needed to implement our system. There were providers of virtual-conference software, selfpaced off-the-shelf training for hard and soft skills, Webcasting, learning-management systems, custom course developers, hardware providers, and specialized learning consultants .
At the meeting we told them we weren't interested in hearing their sales pitches. We brought them together to tell them what we expected from our vendors and products. We outlined our plan in detail to the group, and then we told them that if they were going to get our business they had to be prepared to work together with one another as a team. That meant they would have to share proprietary information if the project required it. We also expected them to team up on course development that we considered too big for any individual vendor, and we insisted that everything they provided to us be compatible with everything else.
It was an uncommon approach because, in this model, there would not be one primary contractor and a lot of subcontractors . There would be no leader, except for Rockwell Collins's learning and development team. They would have to work together, to share information, to break down the walls of communication among competitors .
Many of the vendors balked at the idea. Several walked out, and after the initial meeting, a few told us that it wouldn't work. But it did.
This natural selection process helped us to further narrow our search for the ideal vendors. In many cases, the competition eliminated itself because vendors were unwilling to participate in our project structure. Among those tool categories for which more than one vendor was in the running, we brought the products in for test runs and ultimately made a choice based on which company could offer us the best deal.
Based on that meeting and the following negotiations, our team chose fifteen vendors who agreed to share secrets and modify their products to work with their competitors'. Among the vendors selected were Allen Communications and Strategic Interactive to customize specialty courses such as training on the damaging effect of static electricity. Pinnacle Multimedia was selected to provide the learning-management system that would manage all of our training online. Smart Force, NETg, and The Belgard Group would supply off-the-shelf IT and soft-skills courses. Centra provided the virtual-classroom software, and several others provided hardware and software. The Performance Engineering Group continued to be our sounding board and headed up organizational-development issues involved with our transformation, including change-management initiatives and staff development.
After their initial hesitation, the vendors we chose immediately began developing the required working relationships and forged ahead. There was some infighting and a few vendors were dismissed early on for refusing to share necessary information, but the rest overwhelmingly endorsed the team format.
"I like this approach because the vendor company has the knowledge and can judge the ability of the people helping them," says Steve Allen, technology chair at Allen Communication in Salt Lake City, Utah.
"It's the most innovative approach we've seen," says Bill Belgard of The Belgard Group, a leadership-training consultant based in Portland, Oregon. "All of the vendors are working together like a symphony instead of a bunch of solo acts."
Still, putting a group of vendors in a room and telling them to work together isn't enough to make it happen. It worked for us because we had a detailed plan that mapped out exactly what was expected from whom. "The strategic plan is key to the process," says Jim Kosse, regional account manager for Smart Force. "We can see where we fill a role." For example, the plan lays out the criteria and contributions required to meet its return-on-investment goals for the Web-based training rollout in the first year. "It gives us a target," he says.
"Without the plan it would be chaos," added Allen. "A comprehensive strategic plan helps vendors to be less competitive because they see their place in the overall strategy and how they will profit from it. This is what's missing from most organizations."
Even now, three years later, the vendors our team selected are integral members of our team and continue to provide us with outstanding courses and systems.
The vendors you choose will determine the ease and success of your e-learning implementation, so don't sell this phase short. Do your required work and invest the time to educate yourself on the tools available and to evaluate the background and reliability of the companies you are considering. When you launch with these tools, they have to be easy to use, have reliable customer support offerings, and appeal to the needs of end users. Making the wrong decision at this point will set your project back not only financially and timewise, but it will also damage your credibility in the eyes of the organization and will give ammunition to those who will push back most strongly against your change initiative.
Have researched the learning technology available and determined what tools you need to implement your strategic plan. While this is not an e-learning plan, technology will almost surely play a major role in your transition. process. Don't skimp on your research efforts in this area.
Have established criteria for choosing tools and ranking vendors. Don't make choices based on demos or recommendations alone. Figure out what exactly you need each tool to do, what you can afford, and who will offer you the most service and support for your dollars.
Have chosen your tools. Even if you don't have the budget in place, figure out what you want and let the vendors know of your intentions to purchase the technology based on your timeframe.