Scope creep – How not to work with an eLearning vendor

“Sorry, that’s not part of this project.
We can help you if you sign this contract variation.”

If this sounds familiar, you may have experienced what we call the dreaded scope creep.

Scope creeps come in different forms and sizes. Still, they all have this in common, particularly when it occurs when you are working with an eLearning vendor: an aftertaste of sub-optimal process and possibly even deliverables, impacting your willingness to work with the said vendor again, and vice versa.

1. Scope creep by lack of planning

Scope creep happens when the initial brief is incomplete, unclear or does not include all the expected deliverables. This then forms the basis of the vendor quote (and ultimately the contract).

Especially when engaging a new vendor, make sure you include all upfront information the vendor will need to succeed:

  • project requirements including timelines
  • expectations on review cycles, branding and style guidelines
  • technical requirements and deployment environment
  • learning design requirements
  • assessment requirements
  • stakeholder environment and sign-off process, milestone payments on the successful delivery of project parts.

Providing complete documentation will help the vendor understand your specific environment. It is up to them to read, plan for compliance, and quote accordingly. A good, experienced vendor will know when and what to ask for to obtain complete information, and automatically include ‘obvious’ requirements in their scope, e.g., certain Government standards that need to be adhered to. An experienced and reputable vendor should also be aware of many of your requirements based on their years of experience even if you don’t formally identify the needs for said requirements. This type of working relationship would be more suited to being referred to as a true ‘partner’ versus a ‘vendor’.

2. Lack of communication – beware of the word ‘Just’…

Competent vendors will work with you to develop a learning solution that suits your specific context and budget needs. And yet, in the middle of the learning development phase (i.e. in production), one of your key stakeholders may want to add “just a couple of branching case study streams” in a learning piece that was supposed to be short, succinct and very low budget.

A request like this can have a domino effect on the entire learning piece’s integrity, so the design phase may have to start again to integrate it well and ensure the solution is sound. The stakeholder may not be aware of the impact. Now you need to spend valuable time explaining and navigating conflicting requirements for a disjointed learning solution, with potential contract variations, and blown out timelines and costs.

  • Consult with your subject matter experts (SME) and key stakeholders before going out to market for a quote, or involve the solution designer early in the process. Ask them about their requirements and expectations of what a successful learning solution looks like to them.
  • Explain the impact of increasing content or functions, such as interactivity levels, scenarios, animations, or video, on both time and budget. Your vendor can provide various solutions and talk about the quality, cost or timeline expectations for each solution, so you can have these conversations before the work begins.

3. Lack of imagination

There are many ways to skin a cat, they say, and indeed there are many, many more ways to design learning.

Design, in general, is one of the most challenging topics to discuss in words (try describing the hue of blue or grey in front of your window to someone right now). The same is true for the look and feel of a learning project.

  • Please do not wait for the vendor to finish an entire learning piece to determine the funky flat illustration style they chose does not suit your law practice’s corporate, traditional style.
  • Ask your vendor to show you what styles they recommend and get a few test screens done so you can picture it better via an early prototype.
  • Get sign-off on the preferred style by other stakeholders that may need to be involved, e.g. marketing/internal communications, to make sure your overall branding is on-point throughout your organisation.
  • A vendor you can trust will genuinely advocate for a great solution and not just ‘take orders’.

4. Inattention to detail and testing

Generally speaking, a well-rounded and ‘engaging’ eLearning project consists of roughly 30% instructional design/pedagogical scripting (engagement of the mind), 30% goes towards creative visual design and on-point artwork elements (engagement by the eye), and 30% function development and media production (engagement by the ear and screen). Noting, roughly 10% goes into project management.

All parts are equally important to get right, 100% of the time, as they build on each other. The treacherous belief that “We signed off on that script so the copy in the learning screens should be correct” has tripped over many a deadline.

  • Ensure your vendor has robust QA processes in place. You should expect to receive error-free, complete proofs for your review. Still, human error is real, so it is the instructional designers’ responsibility to check every proof in detail for its correctness and completeness before you can be signing it off to go to the next phase.
  • Test and ensure the solution works in your technical environment and according to all specifications (e.g. WCAG accessibility, various browsers and SCORM compatibility just to name a few). If your vendor says, ‘it works fine in our test environment’, ask them for validation in the form of a test certificate, and still test it yourself given you’re ultimately responsible for final sign-off. An easy way to do that is to upload the SCORM package to a free SCORM platform.
  • Sometimes, a learning piece takes two weeks to make it through all the internal technical mills and get uploaded to your LMS. That’s a long wait to see if all works correctly. If you work with a vendor you have built a trusted relationship with, you can share access to your LMS and they can do the testing directly in your environment for you.

5. Scope creep as vendor business model

Our least favourite scope creeps happened to some of our clients in previous vendor relationships they’ve had. These are veritable scope traps, set by vendors on purpose. Some vendors will win projects by underquoting and try to make their margins back by forcing contract variations at any opportunity (including project administration fees each time) for every single client request of alteration, no matter how small. That is undoubtedly not a sustainable way to work with clients long-term, yet they exist from what we hear.

Here is how you can protect yourself:

  • Set boundaries and list upfront what will warrant a contract variation and what will not, agree on this with the vendor and make sure the contract reflects this agreement.
  • A well-established learning provider will be interested in building a longer-term business partnership (as opposed to selling to you), so may more likely be willing to help you with small change requests, even after the project has been signed-off and deployed. Over time, give and take will even things out, and often it is better to get the project out the door than to squabble about minutiae.

We hope this article will help you avoid some of the pitfalls we have seen over the past 10 years. If you’d like to explore what it is like to work with learning experts that are interested in building long, trusted working relationships with their clients, that’s us!

Contact our Managing Director Rodney Beach if you are interested to learn more.