If you’ve decided to add an e-learning component to your training program, the next big step is finding a design firm that can create an effective program that meets your needs. There are several questions to ask internally before talking to vendors. You need to know what kind of training will be best for your employees and what kind of technology your infrastructure can support.

Once you’ve made those decisions, you can start talking to design firms and analyzing their proposals. This article will help you ask vendors the right questions and determine which aspect of an e-learning program is most important for you.

Questions, questions, and more questions

You should follow the standard interview routine when prospective design firms give their presentations. Look at their creative samples, investigate the firm’s financial health, and check client references. You should also develop insightful questions to help determine which firm best matches your company’s needs, vision, and technology.

Teresa Siniger Cochran, marketing director for VCampus Corporation, believes vendors should have a clear understanding of your company’s identity and vision. She suggests that you assess this level of understanding by sending out information about your company beforehand and then asking the vendor to describe your company during the presentation.

Cochran also said it is important to make certain the design firm you hire has experience with the technology you need, such as streaming video or threaded discussion capabilities.

“Also, look carefully at their creatives,” she said. “Make sure their material does more than just teach; it needs to provide an incentive to learn.”

Dan Bartholomew, managing director and practice leader for KPMG Consulting’s e-Learning Solutions, suggested asking questions about the vendor’s instructional design philosophy and experience.

“See that their philosophy—high versus low touch, interaction levels, etc.—matches your company’s,” he said. “Plus, make sure that they employ bona fide designers who are degreed and have experience developing curriculum and teaching, using a variety of e-leaning methods.”

He also suggested asking technical questions about platform independence and internal technical requirements, such as bandwidth.

“Also, ask who owns the content once it is developed,” he said, adding that it is possible other clients will have access to your training material if the design firm retains ownership of it.

James Li, an e-learning designer and CEO of Leading Way, said that companies should consider how easy it will be to upgrade both the content and the technology of an e-learning system.

“E-learning is so new that a system can be outdated in just 12 to 18 months,” he said. “Bandwidth must support the system and upgrades.”

He also recommended discussing change management issues.

“Since technology is changing so fast, you want a vendor who has the tools and systems in place to manage change,” he said.

Finally, Li recommended asking about other ways to distribute learning, since e-learning is never going to be a total solution.

“Classroom training, WBT, CBT, and other methods of training can and should work together… a multi-channeled delivery is best for any audience,” he said.

Peder Jacobsen, chief learning officer and cofounder of the enterprise learning company LogicBay, agrees that a variety of collaborative media, along with a knowledge management system, are essential elements to successful training.

What is the most important?

With so many factors to consider when selecting an e-learning program, it’s hard to know which is most important. Designers, vendors, and chief learning officers differ on what ability or characteristic should have the most influence on your decision.

Here is what our experts recommend:

  • On-time delivery and “people” factors: Leading Way’s Li listed several critical factors, including the promise of on-time delivery and protection of content. He also mentioned “people” factors, including whether a team has worked together before and communicates well.
  • Quality clients with creative samples: VCampus’ Cochran puts a lot of stock in developing a quality client list and in liking the “look” of creative examples. She also said it is important that a vendor understand your corporate identity. “The ideal firm has a good understanding of both e-learning and your needs and your technology,” Cochran said. “Finding that mix can be difficult.”
  • A team approach: e-Learning Solutions’ Bartholomew suggests that you interview the entire design team—instructional designers, web designers, and integrators—because they are the people you’ll be working with.
  • Long-term value: LogicBay’s Jacobsen said to look at the long-term value of the e-learning program and to look at who brings the best solution to the table. “Be sure that they offer an enterprise-level solution. Your project can only be as big as their vision. Look beyond your offices. By reaching out to clients, dealers, and distributors, you could turn training from a cost center to a profit center.”

Also check out: Distance-Educator, which offers solutions for learners, instructors, managers, and designers.

Have you worked with an e-learning firm? What advice would you give to managers who are making a selection? Post a comment to this article.