Saturday, 4 August 2012

Love me Tender

I love learning technologies and trying to assist with getting the right LMS or Learning Management System into organisations, but there's a process that I'm not so fond of sometimes, and that's responding to some tenders that are out there. Unless you've been living under a rock modern businesses of a certain scale have adopted the procedure once seemingly reserved for government departments; putting their requirements out to tender.

Now the idea is sound enough isn't it? You want to see what is out there and have them come to you and compete rather than the other way around. But the problems occur when the organisations that put out the tender aren't 100% sure of what they want, but still manage to construct a lengthy set of requirements that eliminate the very options that work best for them. I remember being in a certain military service that shall remain nameless trying to select an LMS with the decision makers being largely clueless in the world of elearning. We managed to rule out Open Source software at the first hurdle, because the head of IT had it on good advice that this architecture wouldn't work in a military setting! As it turned out we ended up with the wrong corporateLMS (despite my best efforts) and they're only just trying to correct that error now.
The problem is writing the requirements for a tender relies heavily on either knowing what the systems that are out there can and can't do or having some pre-set requirements. Since the prior is often a shortfall in the organisation the best most organisations go for is a list of requirements for vendors to work through. These lists often go in to great detail on obvious features, and skim over the important features such as the integration with other systems and then there's subjective questions like how easy is it to use?

So tenders can be frustrating from a vendor perspective but perhaps even more so from the organizational perspective as the responses you get can often seem so cryptic, they ask more questions than they answer. Is there a better way to do this?

For some organisations tenders are not the best solution at all. If you have experts that know the learning technologies environment then empower them to advise you and get the right vendors in to demonstrate without an open tender process; if you have that expertise in-house you should take advantage of it. If you have no expertise and don't know what you're after, research with similar organisations; try asking them what they use and how happy they are with the product and services from the supplier. If you've seen the field have some ideas but want to get a good range of quotes and services maybe the tender is for you; here's a couple of tips on putting your tender together:
Spend the first part making sure you explain what your aim is and what you want to achieve. Vendors need to know about your size of organisation, software and hardware setup and key business areas you want your LMS to cater for. If you have a particularly challenging environment let them know early on to eliminate those not willing or able to take it on. Think about the requirements of the vendor you want to do business with; particularly geographical, size of previous clients and installations, company stability and track record. Is this their primary area of business or just something that they on sell? Do they have the people to deliver and support the process? Don't immediately put conditions on that are restrictive in this area though. I have seen tenders that we have not submitted based upon some requirements like not using any sub-contractors. We often partner with a hosting company that specializes in open source technologies and hosting; we subcontract them for the bit they're good at and they do the same with us, does this weaken or strengthen any of our propositions? Again, it's the track record and recommendations that are probably more important.

Involve IT and L&D early. It seems obvious but it will sit with your IT department responsibilities as a software system, but the LMS is a learning tool (yes really) so the involvement needs to involve heavily (if not be driven by) LnD teams. Either way you need the buy in of both to make the implementation run smoothly, and the tender process is an extension of that. It goes without saying that you also need to know budgets and have the backing of the budget holders early in the process. If you go to tender without that you just waste time and effort for everyone. It's also imperative that the key decision makers are either part of the selection team or have delegated their powers.

Finally if you're going to tender but already have your solution identified, you need to make the process as simple as possible and try to avoid wasting everyone's time.. In fact you don't need a tender at all. If you have to show due process however, then do it properly, don't write the tender for a product, write it for what you'd like to achieve and keep an open mind.

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Location:Albany, New Zealand