Articles / Learning technology – tips for buyers

You’ve decided that your company is in the market for a new learning technology solution. You’ve identified a problem and are looking for a solution, but you want to make sure that:

  1. it’s going to work
  2. it’s going to last
  3. it’s going to fit

Will it work?

It’s very easy to be won over by the new and shiny, by vendor case studies, and by long feature lists.

But the only way to know if any new idea is really going to make a positive difference is to try it.

Ask the vendor to create a proof of concept, perhaps trying to mimic something you’re already doing, or something that you know you want to do in the future. Most good vendors will do this anyway, without being asked. They’ll get to know you as best as they can, and build models to show their product working in your situation.

Don’t rely on the vendor to show you everything though. Ask for time to spend with the product yourself and try to build something real within it. If it’s a content authoring tool, build some real content. If it’s a training administration tool, build your administration process within it. If it’s a social media tool find a couple of friends with social media experience and ask them to push it to its limits.

It won’t be perfect, but having a good test drive will start to show you the limitations and the strengths of the product. It will also help you to identify what you are really looking for – what’s important and what’s just a nice to have. By this time, you should be able to complete a MoSCoW requirements list.

Will it last?

When you’re investing a lot of money, you’ll want to know that you’ll get good value from it before the solution dies a natural death.

If it’s software, you’ll probably want to be assured that the language or framework they’ve chosen to build on has solid foundations, a ready pool of developers, an easy-to-implement method of upgrading, extensibility through standard APIs, and can be used by as many hardware devices as possible.

For example, it’s unlikely you’ll want to buy anything that relies on browser plugins like Flash, Silverlight or Java, simply because of the iPad effect. Apple’s strength, and decision to remove all plugins from the iPad’s browser, means that you should be focussing on standards-compliant technologies like HTML, Javascript and CSS.

Of course, if your target users are working with standardized hardware and operating system platforms it can make it easier to set your requirements, but beware of fixing your software too tightly to the platforms. There are far too many large organisations that are still forced to continue using IE6 simply because their software was written to work on IE6 and can’t work on anything else.

If it’s hardware you’re buying, then make sure you’re going to be able to get a lot of use from it very quickly. Hardware breaks, and becomes out-of-date rapidly, without the ability  to be updated that software has.

And you’ll definitely want to have a good idea of how strong the vendor company is. The learning technology market is quite fluid at the moment, with a lot of consolidation taking place, and also a lot of new starters. It’s obviously hard to predict which way things will go, but look for companies with a solid business plan and a strategy that makes sense. After all, you’re investing in their long term future.

Will it fit?

Knowing whether a technology solution will fit your organisation will mean understanding a lot about your organisation’s policies, your IT infrastructure and about your users, and then working with the vendors to find the best match.

Key questions that I ask most organisations are:

  • What is your information security policy? How do you classify information? For how long must it be retained? What security procedures must suppliers have in place? How should data be protected? How will you prevent unauthorised access? What about when people leave the organisation? Do you have any processes to go through to ensure your solution is evaluated properly?
  • What impact will this solution have on your network and bandwidth use? Do you want people to be logged in automatically? Do you need people to have access from outside your organisation’s network? Do you need data to flow between this new solution and existing systems? Do you have friends in IT who can work with you to make this happen?
  • How will you “sell” the benefits of the new solution to your users? Have you identified any champions who can sell it for you? Which parts of the solution can you focus on to have a rapid impact? Who are the potential blockers? What would it take to bring them on-side, or how could you bypass them? Have you talked to users about the solution? Have they been involved in the purchasing process? What incentives can you use to encourage takeup?

You will probably have to make pragmatic, and often difficult, compromises along the way. You may even decide to ditch the whole project if it becomes disproportionately complex or expensive.

But, at the end of the process, you will have a very good idea of how your organisation works, and what you really need to solve your particular problems.

Posted: 25 October 2012

Tags: Learning Technology