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Polio and e-Learning Build vs. Buy Decisions

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by Bob Goldschneider, Director of Business Development at SyberWorks, Inc.

I would bet that if you ask most people today about the threat of Polio, many would tell you that the disease was knocked out decades ago because of a standard vaccination regimen now required for children. Yet, there was an outbreak of Polio in Minnesota last year and the disease exists in other countries all over the planet - and this is how I think about e-Learning build vs. buy decisions.

I think if you were to talk with most e-Learning pundits, analyst firms, and consultants, they would tell you that most companies today should know that they could purchase an off-the-shelf solution out there to meet their needs. But, some companies don't.

How could that be? There are over hundreds of e-Learning content authoring tools out there in the market place. There are many, many, web-based, enterprise software solutions available, which manage and track training.

Defiantly, the analysts say... look at the waves of mergers, consolidations, and partnerships in the e-Learning industry in the last few years. [Pathlore swallowed up Centra, only to be acquired by SumTotalSystems; Blackboard bought Web CT; NIIT just bought ElementK; Embanet just teamed up with McGraw-Hill Online; and the list of deals goes on and on.] All of these signs must point to a maturing industry with lots of options and functionality for companies needing this technology. But wait! We have more proof, they say...

What about the ‘convergence’ of web-based training management, web conferencing, messaging, talent management software, performance management software, project management software, e-Commerce, and other technologies? Surely all of these signs must point to a maturing e-Learning/Learning Management Systems industry. How could anyone ever dream of wanting to build one of these things themselves, or, as the character called Vizzini in the 1987 movie, ‘Princess Bride’ would say ...Inconceivable!!!!!

In fact, not a month goes by without at least one company deciding to build their own systems despite all their research, consensus building, vendor choices, RFP processes, and planning. And when I say build their own systems, most of the time, these companies are not using open source technology to do it! [Do I hear a big gasp from the open source community?].

I see this happening at big companies and small companies alike, and while it might be fun to spend cycles pontificating as to why it is this way, I prefer to leave that for the academics and take an in-depth look at the e-Learning Build vs. Buy decision.

Traditionally, general IT build vs. buy best practices say to build when:

But, do these hold true for e-Learning build vs. buy decisions. Let's take a look.

The business is unique

Everyone likes to think they are special or that their problem is unique. If people are like this in their personal behavior, this is certainly manifested in corporations. You're a training company serving a unique audience, or you're a training manager in a complex manufacturing environment that has special certification issues related to production. So how could one e-Learning solutions company understand your problem?

If you have selected a knowledgeable and experienced vendor, try to remember that they have been working in the e-Learning industry exclusively and it's all they do. So, while you think your issue is original, chances are that they have heard something like it before, and have served others with similar problems and needs.

I will say that SyberWorks has been serving the web-based training industry since 1995, longer than most of our competitors. We are a privately owned corporation that is not at the behest of investors or venture capitalists.

Protecting proprietary information or data

The issue to identify here is to determine what you are really protecting, and to ask whether there are other ways to solve the problem. For example, you might want to host the solution on your own server, to protect your data, because you're afraid the information could be compromised. As part of your hosting plan, you could simply purchase a server dedicated to your data and have the LMS company set up a secure https, which they will manage and support for you.

Or, security permissions can be set up in your organizational hierarchy so that only selected job roles or levels can see certain information. A reputable e-Learning company will have load-balanced secure applications with solid intrusion protection, static and dynamic protection strategies, and disaster recovery (with their information stored at a secure data center). A reputable e-Learning company will have non-disclosure agreements, a detailed maintenance and support contract, and customer support.

No off-the-shelf products exists

As I stated previously, there are hundreds of course and content authoring tools available in the market today. There are also many Learning Management Systems, at a variety of price points and levels of functionality. If you find that searching on Google, Yahoo, or MSN for “learning management systems” gives you incomplete results, use a vertical search engine like Capterra.com that is focused on the software industry.

Off-the-shelf products would be too costly and complex to interface with your company's ERP system using an LMS vendor

Part of the service a custom e-Learning solutions company like SyberWorks provides is the ability to integrate its products with a company's IT systems. Companies like ours do this type of work day in and day out with all kinds of systems, so they become specialists in this type of work. They know the e-Learning project-management steps to take, to eliminate scope creep. Since they perform this work routinely, it takes less time and costs less for the Learning Management Systems vendor to perform this work, rather than the company's IT staff (which has no knowledge of typical e-Learning product specifications).

People in IT can build the solution

But do they really have time to build it? Does your IT department have the right set of skills, and the necessary time, to build a system that will adequately meet your needs? Should your IT staff be spending their time this way? Do your IT people have experience building e-Learning applications? Do you have software development and quality control processes in place to manage the in-house development of this product? What happens when the developers who created this in-house system move on?

These types of projects really need a set of internal champions and evangelists to drive them to fruition. Does your IT department have relationships with these types of individuals in your organization? Do you have a person on your staff who will be devoted to managing this aspect of the project? Does that person have the right set of people skills to do this? Maybe it's the CIO's job to perform this function, but do they have the time and inclination for it?

If your IT department does not have good relationships with the internal champions and evangelists piloting your e-Learning implementation, how will you be able to build a system that meets your company's needs? In this scenario, you run the risk that people will not use system you have designed to serve their needs, wasting your development time and money.

IT wants to use open source technologies

In addition to the primary concerns about the time it will take to develop an e-Learning program from scratch, the cost, and the concern over what will happen when the open source developer leaves your company, there are other considerations.

If you use open source software, you are bound by the license to maintain their product's branding. There are other terms of the GNU General Public License, which may or may not be advantageous to you and your corporation.

Specifically, the GNU General Public License “is intended to guarantee your freedom to share and change free software--to make sure the software is free for all its users... When we speak of free software, we are referring to freedom, not price. Our General Public Licenses are designed to make sure that you have the freedom to distribute copies of free software (and charge for this service if you wish), that you receive source code or can get it if you want it, that you can change the software or use pieces of it in new free programs; and that you know you can do these things.”*

For example, let's say that you use open source software to develop your e-Learning program and you make modifications to it, specific to your company, and its needs. By virtue of the GNU license, you must freely distribute your company's specific modifications because it states, “if you distribute copies of such a program, whether gratis or for a fee, you must give the recipients all the rights that you have. You must make sure that they, too, receive or can get the source code. And you must show them these terms so they know their rights.”*

The GNU license also states, “for each author's protection and ours, we want to make certain that everyone understands that there is no warranty for this free software. If the software is modified by someone else and passed on, we want its recipients to know that what they have is not the original, so that any problems introduced by others will not reflect on the original authors' reputations.”*

This article is not an analysis of the GNU General Public License. I raise a few of these considerations to make the point that the terms of the license may or may not ultimately fit your company's business case scenario, long term strategic goals, needs, and requirements for future support.

To summarize, for most e-Learning build vs. buy decisions, it's in a company's or organization's best interest to purchase an off-the-shelf e-Learning solution to meet their web-based training needs. And, I for one would like to see Polio wiped out all over the world in the next few years! Wouldn't you?

*GNU General Public License, Version 2, June 1991 http://www.gnu.org/licenses/gpl.txt

About Bob Goldschneider:

Bob Goldschneider has over 25 years experience in corporate training and educational services. He has served as Director of Educational Services and Director of North American Sales and Service for the Open Software Foundation. He built their Educational Services division from the ground up into a multi-million dollar business. He also served as Director of Educational Services at Apollo Computer and Training Development Manager for Wang Laboratories, where he managed a staff of over 50 instructors, course developers, video producers, and graphic designers.

The Boggs e-Learning Chronicle Blog & The Online Training Content Journal

Dave Boggs writes two web blogs: the Boggs e-Learning Chronicle RSS feed about Trends, Observations, and Information in e-Learning, which reports on trends, provides observations, and information about e-Learning and web-based training; and the Online Training Content Journal RSS feed about Trends, Observations, and Information in e-Learning which looks at best practices, techniques, and trends in online training development and e-Learning instructional design..

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