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When Training Professionals Begin to Manage Vendors

Lessons from Apple Computer

What happens in today's company when training work is outsourced? The job of managing the program or project often is assigned to a professional from within the training department. In some cases, this may be the first time that this individual has been directly responsible for work carried out by others.

As well as getting to understand the issues and requirements for the outsourcing process, there is also a personal or career transition and a learning process the individual training professional must go through, to be successful in the new role. For some, this can mean a major shift in thinking, and a range of new skills and techniques. For these people, a coach can help show how to approach the new role, to take on different tasks, and to see how their own job is changing.

To a person accustomed to working as an individual contributor, the work of managing can sometimes appear less concrete than the "hands-on" work of a professional trainer. Managing may appear either easy or daunting. Ironically, as will be seen in a later vignette, most problems seem to occur when the role of vendor manager is seen to be obvious and easy.

Models and processes can help to provide a framework for both the new and the experienced manager to wrap their mind around the job of setting up outsourcing for a project. They help in selecting and engaging the most suitable vendor, getting the process underway, and managing the performance of the vendor on the project.

It is worth noting that partnering requires adopting a different mindset from simply engaging a vendor, as well as a different approach to that engagement.

Internal or External Resources?

Training departments are increasingly using vendors, contractors and consultants to perform specialized roles, or supplement their training staff for varying workloads. Vendors play a crucial role in the success of many training activities.

  • Training departments may decide to use external resources when:
  • Specialized or costly expertise required for short time, and is not cost-effective to hire an employee
  • Specific, time critical program requires dedicated, specialized resources to meet tight timeline
  • Nature of the training requires a vendor that is geared to run training in a way not possible with internal resources
  • Training requires specialized operation designed for cost-effectiveness and efficiency require
  • Internal resources are unavailable – perhaps as a result of stovepiping of staff to deal with different functions, or maybe as a result of internal politics
  • Training or development work requires unique skill set typically available only with a consulting organization

Understanding and Managing Vendors vs. Employees

Managers must understand key differences between employees and vendors or contractors, and what it means to how they manage. Differences are more obvious when distinct; standalone work is outsourced to a vendor. The role of vendor or external resource is clear and distinct from that of employees. When a contractor, consultant or vendor representative either joins or manages a training project team, the distinction between them and an employee becomes less obvious and less clear. (See the "Employees vs. Contractors" article for more details.)

Understanding Forms of Outsourcing and Management Priorities

Outsourcing can be designated in four different forms, each with its own characteristics, key values provided and selection priorities. (See Think180's "Endeavour Outsourcing Matrix" article for more details.) As in life, not all situations fit neatly into a box, and some outsourcing situations may be a blend of more than one form, or a shift over time.

When evaluating the options for resourcing a project, and making a decision to outsource, it is important to take into account the nature of the task, the context in which it will be done, and the audience or recipients of the work impact the plans for implementation. Using the matrix to identify the form of outsourcing can be a useful guide and starting point.

Common Outsourcing Problem Areas

Problems start in many different ways. As a seasoned Training Manager, I have seen many problems occur. And, I admit, I have created a few of my own along the way. In one case, a particular Project Manager had ignored the processes, had not discussed and properly agreed the deliverables and standards with the vendor. There was only a loosely written agreement. Members of the Training Department were witness to several heated and entertaining corridor confrontations over deliverables and payments due. These arguments highlighted the distinctions between employees and vendors, in terms of how work and results are measured, and the need for careful agreement and specification of outsourced contract work.

These and other problems most often arise with vendors or in an outsourced project where:

  • Short term benefits and expediency dominate as the reason for outsourcing
  • Finance, legal and vendors dominate the decision process
  • Scope of work is incomplete or inaccurately defined
  • Milestones or Service Levels are loosely defined or not measurable
  • General requirements and expectations are not fully agreed and documented
  • Vendors are not selected on their total capabilities against project requirements
  • A project manager or sponsor is not clearly designated
  • Payment schedule is unrelated to deliverables
  • Changes in project are not well managed

Selecting the Vendor

It is easy to select a vendor on the basis of liking or comfort. Vendors who are known and have performed well in the past appear to be a safe choice. Even projects that look similar may need a different set of skills – a vendor who develops effective product data sheets may not create effective training materials for that same product. These types of distinction are important but, in my experience, can often be glossed over.

Criteria need to be developed by carefully examining what is required to perform a specific program or set of tasks. Selecting a vendor against a set of objective criteria increases the likelihood that the vendor will meet the delivery and performance standards.

When outsourced training work must be integrated with internal activities, and the vendor deals with employees or customers as part of the program, good selection must take into account factors beyond “best price” and “most relevant expertise.” Beyond the tangible requirements for an outsourced program, it is important to include the “softer” elements of selection. These are the less tangible, yet critical elements of selecting the most appropriate vendor. These are "The Soft C's of Selection," and include "chemistry" "cultural fit," and "credibility." (See the "7 Soft C’s" article for more details.)

Why and How these Outsourcing Forms are Important

Before I describe our two case study scenarios, let's look at another situation. Apple Computer wanted to provide orientation training for new resellers selling Apple products. To do this, the decision was made to outsource this training. At the time, Apple had in place a national alliance program for training companies who provided computer productivity training for customers. The "best" of these alliance members was selected to provide the reseller sales orientation.

The training was not the expected success. The major flaw in the strategy was choosing a vendor from the wrong outsourcing category. While the company was an excellent Delivery Vendor, its sets of skills, operations, and overall orientation were not a fit for this task. Because it was important for this vendor to have a "look and feel" of Apple, a more ideal vendor would have matched the requirements for a Delivery Partner.

Why a Strategy-Based Approach is Important

Decisions and processes that are not founded on a sound strategic framework have much greater risks of problems arising or failure in terms of achieving positive outcomes. A good strategy helps to ensure that you are attending to the following actions:

  1. Making a good business decision to use external resources
  2. Selecting the best-fit vendor with whom to partner
  3. Creating a strong basis for managing the project and vendor performance
  4. Ensuring effective transitions for Training professionals to manage vendors
  5. Assessing project effectiveness against valid, business-related outcomes

Two Case Studies

We look at two scenarios where individual contributors have been assigned projects that involve selecting, engaging and partnering with external training providers or "vendors."

  1. First, we meet Len, a feisty, hands-on service technician trainer who reluctantly has to turn over to an external organization the work of training service technicians and then manage that vendor relationship and program.

  2. Second, we meet Ruth, a well-qualified and seasoned training professional. She is a member of the development team in a large training organization that is planning to engage consultants to develop and deliver train-the-trainer events for a national training program for the company's field sales and reseller staff.

By examining these two scenarios, we can see how two different examples of partnering fit clearly into a model that allows us to quickly identify the key criteria and actions for each "form" of outsourcing can be managed.

The case studies and lessons learned are available by opening the Case Studies PDF.

© 1999 Endeavour Business Learning, 2004 Think180™

This article represents an abridged version of the chapter written by Jim Everett, Endeavour Business Learning (now Think180"!), and printed in the ASTD’s In Action Series – "Building Learning Capability Through Outsourcing" by Jack J. Phillips, Series Editor and Merrill C. Anderson, Editor

Note: To download a PDF copy of this entire article including the case studies, go to the Think180 PDF Library page.

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