We didn't as a team just go out and watch product demos; we developed a multi-tiered, criteria-based process for reviewing and testing tools. The team did front-end needs analyses to determine the features and tasks expected from each tool. Then the team established sets of features for each type of technology by brainstorming with the training and development team, our technology expert, and representatives of the business units. No tool would be purchased without a system of qualifications. Each vendor and product would be compared with the others and against a mapped set of requirements. Everything in our vendor-selection process was criteria based.
You can't choose the right vendor or a product until you know what you need and what's important to you. Establishing criteria gives you a quantifiable list of functions that allow you to easily rate the validity of a product's features.
To simplify the process and ensure we made the right hardware and software choices the first time around, the team created features checklists for each tool. As the first step in the tool-selection process, team members were given a list of generic options that each tool was capable of and asked to rate them as "required," "optional," or "not required." This process made it easier for team members to understand what the tools were capable of and to rank the value of each feature. It also supplied us with organized, quantifiable data.
For example, in the first phase of the needs analysis for a learning-management system, seven Rockwell Collins managers, including people from the learning and development staff and units across the company, reviewed a common set of tool characteristics and functions to define and prioritize their own business requirements. They compiled a list of 168 tool functions across nine categories, including items such as tracking computer-based training, multimedia station set-up , HTML report generation, and cost tracking.
We asked our team to evaluate the tool functions and prioritize the overall categories according to importance. For the learning-management system, the categories were rated in the following order:
Employee access, which includes functions such as online evaluation, password change, and supervisor access
Self-paced instruction, including electronic-signature capabilities, CBT scheduling, and time tracking
Reporting capabilities, including attendance history, report generation, and reporting of quality certification
Library and materials management, including material-ordering options, waiting list, and check-out features
Skills and performance management, including certification options, gap analysis, and individual development plans
Equipment, including inventory management
Classroom-instruction tools, including walk-up attendance options
Facilities, including classrooms and computer-room management
Miscellaneous, including event notification and certificate generation
This process was critical because our intention was not to choose the tool that offered the most features but to determine which tool could deliver the functionality that was important to us for the best price.
Most companies don't use half of the features they pay for in these tools. We had no intention of paying for things the company didn't need. Extra features just make a complicated tool even more difficult to use. Our goal was to build a simple, cost-effective system that served our needs without a lot of extras.
Using the information we'd obtained, we sent an initial checklist to five vendors with the 168 tool functions asking them to indicate whether they offered these features now or planned to offer them in the near future. Each answer received a numeric rating, which allowed us to rank the top five vendors based on the percentage of our required tool functions they offered. Only those who offered the feature at that time received a positive rating.
Our team found that the top two vendors offered 90 percent or more of the features on our list, but they were also the most expensive; the lowest -ranking vendor offered only 33 percent of the features but was the most affordable.
This simple front-end evaluation process made it possible for us to zero in on the vendors who were most likely to deliver what the company needed within our budget, and we did it in a relatively short amount of time. Without this ranking, we would have approached every vendor on equal ground. We would have wasted valuable time reviewing products that wouldn't meet our needs or that fell outside of our budget constraints, or, worse , we might have bought one of them without being aware of its shortcomings.