Some businesses don't survive the force of change; others harness the power of change to transform and grow their businesses. The pace of change wrought by information and communications technology (ICT) in education--including corporate learning programs--has been tremendously fast in recent years and has completely altered the teaching and learning process.
Just ask Stephen Dent. The company he founded--Partnership Continuum, Inc. (also known as Partnering Intelligence), a Minneapolis, Minnesota-headquartered global specialist consultancy with training services and products for enhancing organizational success through building partnering, leadership, and team skills--enjoyed accolades of dozens of satisfied public- and private-sector clients around the world. But the scene changed two years ago.
"During 2004 some of our clients began telling us, 'We love your methodologies, training, and capabilities/skills-assessment workbooks,'" Dent recalls. "The problem is our employees' time away from their work. We can no longer afford to have an employee--much less 30 employees--away from their desks and in a classroom setting for eight hours.'"
"In 2005, the message grew loud and clear," he continues. "Nearly all of our clients told us they wanted blended-learning solutions, and they wanted opportunities where employees who were traveling, had some downtime at their jobs, or were on short breaks could go online and learn."
Finding a Partner
Dent and his partners recognized the need to transform their business and offer their portfolio of capabilities assessments and other products online. But at the time, the company only had an old "brochure-type" Web site. Not only did it not look professional and modern, but it had been cobbled together over the years, with no e-commerce or marketing strategy and no continuity in how they added how content to the site.
At first they thought they could just get a Web developer to redesign the existing site. But they came to realize it would have to be scrapped. They would need different technologies to accommodate building and managing the interactive online assessments and other aspects of an e-business site.
"Above all, we knew we needed a site with the capability to keep the assessment data confidential," states Dent. "Our clients must know that the information they reveal in the assessments to get their resultant scores and personalized learning guides is absolutely secure and not accessible by bosses, colleagues, or anyone else."
Dent says they did a lot of research and due diligence on service providers that had the requisite skills and technologies to build and maintain the complexities of the new site. They selected ArcStone Technologies, Inc. in late 2005 because it had the most professional approach and also offered the most value for the price.
Another selection factor was the design firm's location--like Partnership Continuum, the Minneapolis area is also home to ArcStone. Although many companies now send their outsourced Web development projects offshore to cut costs, Dent knew that was the wrong solution for his business. Expertise in the English language would be crucial in the complexities of building the online assessments.
In addition, Dent says he recognized that the relationship itself would be even more critical to overall success, so this was a top provider-selection criterion. "Also, our Partnering Intelligence business is about interpersonal development, so I like the process of developing face-to-face relationships," he adds.
ArcStone also recognized the value of the relationship aspect. "Right away, I knew it would be interesting to work with a client that specializes in partnering," states David Carnes, President and Founder of ArcStone. "At our first meeting, Stephen gave me some of the company's materials, and I actually did the workbook assessments myself so I could better understand the business and enhance our capability to help grow the business through an online strategy."
Partnership Continuum also wanted one company to handle everything about the site, rather than divvying up the programming, hosting, search engine optimization, etc. to various providers. "Choosing a company with a 360-degree perspective of capabilities--rather than just programming--is vital when selecting a provider for an Internet site," Carnes comments. "There are a lot of synergies and efficiencies if the work is done by one company."
In addition to a better understanding of how to evolve the site to accommodate a client's growing and changing business, Carnes says there is another reason for using one provider. "There can be a lot of finger-pointing between programmers and a hosting company. If the programming company is not also hosting the site, the client needs to fully understand the programmer's relationship with the hosting company and also know which company is responsible for what functions and problem-resolution."
Weighing in with Flexibility
ArcStone and Partnership Continuum spent three meetings getting to know each other, building trust, and understanding Dent's vision for a "younger, more professional, and cool or Aegean" look and feel of the site. They also brainstormed on how the Web site would collect the assessment data and then electronically calculate the individual users' results as well as how the other online products would work. ArcStone would also need to demonstrate flexibility on an ongoing basis for several iterations of the assessments; Partnership Continuum initially updated the existing printed workbook assessments with expanded content for the online versions close to launch time and also planned to continue to improve the existing online versions periodically over time.
During the process, ArcStone advised Dent on content managers and other tools that could help streamline the interactive part of the business. They also had to design the interactive portions of the site to be scalable from one individual to hundreds of people taking the assessments at the same time.
Both parties kept their partnership as the foremost concern and demonstrated flexibility as they worked through the process. "They are truly a very talented group," says Dent. "What really impressed me was their willingness to work creatively and effectively with a concept but still go back to the drawing board if I wanted them to."
In addition to its 20 full-time and five-10 part-time programmers, ArcStone strengthens its client relationships with project managers. "This is a customer-advocate role," explains Carnes. "Our project managers develop knowledge of the client's people and business and also make sure we assemble the right resources at the right time for the client. They not only take care of customer needs but also have an advisory role."
That's not the type of service that usually comes with Web development services, and it's something Dent really appreciates. "I'm not computer savvy, and Annie Picken, our project manager, is always very patient with me," says Dent. "She also exudes confidence that they can accomplish what we want done."
"This is a very good working relationship," Dent says. "David Carnes has gone out of his way to personally communicate to me that our company is a valued customer of ArcStone and that they want a long-term relationship with us." The provider also was flexible on the payment schedule, aligning it with Partnership Continuum's cash flow.
Seizing Opportunities in Change
With outsourcing, companies have access to the resources and expertise necessary to proactively turn change into new opportunities. In addition to the corporate business clients that Partnership Continuum has always had, the new site now also brings in individuals as customers--a new revenue stream. The transformed business also now accommodates blended learning opportunities for train-the-trainer courses and short face-to-face follow-up meetings about learning to apply the results of the assessments.
"I see our Web site as an evolving, organic tool," explains Dent. "Two years from now, the Web site is going to be different than it is today. Our clients are going to have different learning needs and we'll have new technologies and products to offer. That is another reason why I really appreciate the building of the relationship itself, as well as ArcStone's expertise in technologies and Internet strategies. We want somebody to be a partner with our business and help us through the next five to 10 years of the Web site's life as our business grows."
Lessons from Outsourcing Journal:
- The pace of change in information and communications technology in education--including corporate learning programs--has completely altered the teaching and learning process and continues to evolve. For building online learning capabilities, select a service provider that not only has the requisite expertise and resources today but that can keep up with changing technologies and assure your business can evolve with changing customer demands in the marketplace.
- Select a provider that demonstrates a history of getting to know a client's business and a willingness to understand how your business evolves and apply that knowledge to help grow your business through an online strategy.
- Selecting one provider for Web programming, hosting, search engine optimization, etc. will provide synergies and efficiencies that create value.
- If the outsourced services are segmented between two companies for programming and hosting services, you will risk finger-pointing and problem-resolution issues. Make sure you fully understand the programmer's relationship with the hosting company and also know which company is responsible for what functions and problem-resolution.