Good communication can turn the project from a chore into a transformative experience, so partners often take advantage of the vendor-selection process to demonstrate their willingness to cooperate. But the nature of the CLO-vendor relationship during the sales process does not necessarily continue into the rollout and operational phases. New issues inevitably arise, which means that both the CLO and the vendor get fresh opportunities to reinforce or reinvent their partnership.
With so much at stake, what criteria and mutual responsibilities should a CLO and a vendor consider in building their partnership? This discussion not only highlights the basics of successful practices, but also suggests that the creation of high-functioning partnerships can accommodate and perhaps ease the all-too-predictable complications in CLO-vendor relations.
At least two systemic issues threaten to entangle CLO-vendor partnerships, and the participants should recognize them at the outset. First, vendors often display a natural tendency to approach learning issues from within the framework of their own products and services, rather than from the CLO’s perspective. After all, a credible vendor functions as a subject-matter expert in a particular market, able to address the standard needs of its customers while offering a unique approach to learning at the individual, aggregate or enterprise level.
Specialized vendor features speak to the economic benefits that derive from innovative development and branding, as well as to the fact that real differences exist in how to best serve corporate education efforts. Sorting out the factors in play may be necessary but should consume a limited amount of time. Ultimately it should be the CLO’s determination of need—not the vendor’s product offering—that sets the fundamental parameters for interaction. Both parties must reach an understanding on this point.
The second major flash point relates to the first. How accurate is the information driving the CLO’s determination of need during the project’s evolution? The CLO operates at the confluence of powerful internal demands: mission-critical learning initiatives, business objectives, business processes and IT capabilities. Synthesizing and dispersing critical data across this scope of concerns and then applying that data to particular learning initiatives requires supreme diligence and insight by the CLO’s strategic team.
At the same time, the CLO must activate a complementary methodology to ensure that essential information about use of the vendor’s product is rising internally from tactical to strategic levels. A CLO who is misinformed about the company’s training and development projects can inadvertently translate that confusion into inefficient applications of the vendor’s products and services.
While insisting upon an accurate feedback loop within the learning organization may sound like primitive management advice, the difficulty of meeting that basic objective is gaining awareness in corporate cultures. (See Cushing Anderson, “Aligning Learning with Corporate Objectives,” Chief Learning Officer, November 2003). In a survey of CLO magazine’s Business Intelligence Board, one-third of respondents indicated that senior managers in their organization do not share their CLO’s commitment to training and therefore cannot effectively convey development initiatives throughout the learning organization.
Fortunately, the flash points of mission focus for the vendor and accurate data for the CLO can be defused through the respective strengths of the participants. By exercising those strengths consistently, each partner can contribute to building the trust that comes from producing tangible results.
Vendor Expertise: Reaching Beyond the Product
While vendors might prefer to deploy their products in ways they find most appropriate, they also realize the importance of functioning as the allies of CLOs. A sophisticated vendor will avoid a product focus, instead defining its expertise in broader terms that can genuinely enrich the corporate education mission it contracted to serve. In fact, a dynamic partnership should offer a vendor numerous chances for providing its expertise:
- Responsiveness: The most constructive service a vendor can offer is its ability to respond successfully to the learning organization’s concerns, whether they occur at strategic or tactical levels. A vendor’s success might be characterized by the speed of its response, the financial or procedural viability of its proposed solutions or the follow-through on its own promises. Further, rather than waiting for issues to reach a high pain threshold for the CLO’s company, a vendor’s pre-emptive inquiries about technical or procedural snags can draw out problems close to their source. This strategy not only saves time, but also may ensure a more precise assessment of what the problems are and where they lie.
- Informational style: No CLO appreciates a tidal wave of information when a thought-provoking summary will do. Likewise, vendors can unwittingly provoke frustration if they fail to recognize that their industry or product terminology comes off as tiresome jargon. Relevant, timely vendor information presented in a concise and comprehensible format proves invaluable in keeping a project on schedule.
- Consulting resources: By offering substantial consulting resources beyond product implementation, a vendor can help a CLO conceptually reshape projects as learning initiatives mature. For example, a strong vendor may already be steeped in the CLO’s industry sector and thus understand the peculiarities of that sector’s ever-changing competitive profile. Whatever its consulting package, a vendor can assist a CLO in generating a more informed set of choices, whether in addressing unanticipated project difficulties or in preparing to take the next strategic step.
- Recruiting additional vendors: Vendors committed to problem solving may suggest supplementary resources to meet the CLO’s needs. Sometimes this commitment sends a vendor to one of its strategic partners, especially if that partner can provide an appropriate, off-the-shelf product for the CLO that the primary vendor would otherwise have to treat as an expensive customized feature. An expansive effort that goes well meets the current project’s requirements and sets the stage for future joint endeavors.
CLO: Clearing the Way
If the vendor’s agenda is based on supporting the CLO’s initiatives, then it is the CLO who bears primary responsibility for initiating and maintaining a hospitable informational environment for the partnership. The importance of an accurate data flow requires the support of other communications elements:
- Redefining the vendor’s role: The conclusion to most vendor-selection processes involves the CLO shaping a strategic vision of the vendor’s role in relation to the corporate education endeavor. For example, the vision might be to implement and maintain the vendor’s product in a limited way without a significant add-on in vendor services. Over a long period, however, events may drive changes in that vision if a vendor proves to be significantly more or less capable than anticipated. While trouble usually forces a CLO to clearly redefine the larger picture, the successes generated by a vendor whose assets exceed the initial vision should compel the CLO to reassess the partner’s role with an equal measure of deliberation. Without that focus, the CLO may miss the opportunity to further capitalize upon the vendor’s strengths.
- Shifting expectations for performance: Even if a vendor’s strategic role does not change over a project’s lifetime, other expectations can shift within that role. Initial benchmarks about timetables and available corporate resources often reveal their vulnerability as ground rules change within the partners’ organizations or as user issues come to the forefront. Obviously, the CLO should take the lead in negotiating the requirements to be met by both partners, as well as in placing limits on what the vendor can address. This step is not complete, however, until the CLO effectively communicates major shifts in expectations to the managers who oversee contact with the vendor’s representatives.
- Listening to the vendor: A diligent vendor will not automatically validate every strategic assumption made by the CLO, but will clearly convey the full range of reasonable options. The challenge for the CLO is to recognize the vendor’s approach as expertise, rather than resistance. A CLO’s constructive engagement with a vendor provides guidance for subsequent discussions and also escalates the likelihood of the relationship moving from partnership to collaboration.
Exceptional Collaborative Endeavors
Open and creative collaboration between a CLO and a vendor can significantly advance the development of both entities. The prerequisites discussed earlier include the voluntary observation of strategic and tactical boundaries, the setting and meeting of expectations and clear communications within as well as between the partners’ organizations. By reaching these performance targets, the CLO and the vendor advance their partnership outside the box of the contract and into the realm of full collaboration, in which each party consciously contributes to the other’s knowledge base:
- Enhancing business processes: The more capable vendors can predict the corporate ripple effects of their products’ implementations. Similarly, if CLOs provide appropriate internal data, many vendors can identify their partners’ outmoded business processes and recommend solutions. An exchange of ideas about business processes can keep the vendor’s product from becoming a technology overlay whose functionalities are hampered by problems intrinsic to the CLO’s organization. Equally important, the CLO can repair major internal dysfunctions that otherwise restrict numerous learning projects and ultimately, the company’s improvement.
- Mutually beneficial alliances: Vendors often support alliances that offer important opportunities for partner input. An advisory board or consortium usually includes customers and outside experts who discuss the vendor’s products with respect to competitors’ efforts and market conditions. A vendor’s user group may meet annually for members to preview new functionalities, learn how to market the product internally and present case studies involving use of the vendor’s products. These alliances help keep vendors current on their competitive status and customer satisfaction, while allowing CLOs a larger forum for problem solving with other users and for guiding the vendor’s product development.
- The partnership as a laboratory: If a CLO or a vendor is determined to improve a partnership’s dynamics, or if they share a concern about their interactions, a progressive approach would be to select a specific project element for reform. Perhaps the CLO wants to amend disconnects between senior managers and their supervisees when project timetables shift, or a vendor needs a better blend of technical skills and writing abilities in order to communicate with CLOs. Rather than attempting global reform across their respective enterprises, a CLO and vendor could agree to pool their talents to address a chronic concern. Documented improvement strategies allow both parties to track their actions, so that areas needing additional attention can be identified and successes can be replicated.
Under the best circumstances, a thriving CLO-vendor partnership allows both organizations to educate each other as the project moves forward. A verifiable success for both organizations can alleviate the cynicism and exhaustion that accrue from pouring human capital energies into corporate education projects that are hamstrung by mismatched objectives or poor communications. If the CLO has accurate information, if the CLO has communicated to the vendor and if the vendor responds through its focus on the CLO’s needs, there are no limitations to what can be accomplished through their partnership.
Katherine O. Foreman, Ph.D., is director of learning research and analysis at TEDS, a global leader in providing advanced learning management and human capital development tools for enterprise-level companies. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.