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Selecting an e-learning solution, part 2
Avoiding common RFP mistakes

By Karl M. Kapp / November 2004

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Selection committees (discussed in the last article) are usually assigned the formidable task of writing an effective e-learning RFP, unfortunately, most of the committee members have little experience writing RFPs and even less experience articulating e-learning requirements.

This leads to problems with most e-learning RFPs. In fact, vendors continually tell me that one of their biggest issues is that so many e-learning RFPs are poorly written, unorganized, and contain a conglomeration of disjointed ideas. While all of these aliments cause problems for the vendor, they cause even more trouble for the client submitting the RFP.

Vendors cannot possibly offer an intelligent, thoughtful e-learning solution if the RFP is not clear, is unorganized, and contains disjointed ideas. In fact, most RFPs suffer from one of more of the following ailments.

  • Poorly Written
  • Illogical
  • Providing Too Little Detail
  • Not Imaginative
  • Poorly Scoped
  • Not Addressing a Business Need

If you want a good proposal from responding vendors, you need to avoid these six ailments and write a clear RFP. Understanding each aliment and what causes it will help you to write a clearer, more focused RFP which will, in turn, yield better proposals. Let's look at the ailments.

Poorly Written

RFPs are notorious for being poorly written. Remember a Request for Proposal is a representation of your company. Take the time to do some proofreading before sending it to e-learning vendors. Often the RFP team is under a time constraint and not entirely focused on the writing process. The result is a document that barely hangs together. You need re-read the RFP many times to correct any poor writing, grammatical mistakes, and typographical errors.

When writing the RFP, use information mapping techniques and plenty of white space, bullets, and lists to articulate your needs. Don't be afraid to include diagrams and examples within the written document. The better you write the document, the more seriously it will be taken by vendors.


Not only does poor writing make it hard for vendors to focus on your needs, but illogical statements and assumptions make the interpretation of the RFP difficult. If you haven't done a Readiness Assessment and don't really understand your internal needs, you will end up with illogical statements in the RFP.

Illogical RFPs result from the fact that you may not be familiar with the nuances of e-learning. Since the picture is not clear, you may omit critical elements in the explanation or those elements may be poorly articulated. Other times, you may misunderstand the elements of an e-learning solution and make requests based on that misunderstanding. Have someone familiar with e-learning check your RFP for illogical or misleading statements. The expense of having an expert review your RFP for illogical statements is far less than the result of receiving poor proposals that don't address what your organization really needs.

Providing Too Little Detail

Vendors cannot help you to solve your e-learning problem if they know nothing about your organization, nothing about your technological infrastructure and nothing about proposed budget. Often clients feel that providing too much information to a vendor is dangerous. They may try to fleece you in terms of price or other considerations. However, if each vendor knows your budget range, then they will all propose a solution within that budget and you can more easily compare the proposals.

Also, vendors need to know if this is your first or 20th e-learning project. They need to know if your PCs have audio capabilities, what type of browser you are running, if your IT department allows plug-ins and other crucial information. Provide enough information for the vendors to make an intelligent and informed recommendation.

Not Imaginative

The RFP process is a good time to brainstorm internally and think outside of the box. While you may not be able to undertake a radically creative idea like full-emersion simulation for training your order-entry personnel, you can certainly ask for scenario-based training or other innovative ideas. Don't be afraid to push the vendors a little bit by adding some creativity and some "fun" to your request. Adults love games as much as kids (witness game shows like Jeopardy, Wheel of Fortune, and Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?). While the idea of gaming as a way of educating internal employees may seem a little off-the-wall, it might be just what is needed to encourage your fellow employees to embrace e-learning. Add some creativity to your request.

One word of caution: The flip side of this problem is that you may get too imaginative and ask for a solution that can't be done, is too expensive, or won't run over the 56K modems your sales force has in the field. Temper your creativity with a dose of reality. Again, this might be the time to consult an e-learning expert or advisor to make sure your RFP is imaginative but not on the lunatic fringe.

Poorly Scoped

A poorly scoped RFP is one in which your needs are larger or smaller than what you are suggesting in the RFP. For example, you may state you "need" an LCMS but are describing the need for an intranet with a couple of e-learning courses. Or you may state that you need asynchronous e-learning courses but are describing synchronous courses. Or you may underestimate the time to convert 800 hours of classroom instruction into a web-based, fully interactive, simulation-based curriculum.

Most e-learning vendors have developed numerous e-learning modules and have a good idea of what it takes to successfully develop e-learning. Look to the literature to determine the average time needed to develop different levels of e-learning. There are a number of sources available that provide industry standards for determining the amount of time it takes to develop different interactive levels of e-learning.

Make an effort to request a project and a budget that is reasonable and appropriately scoped. Remember, you can't have an elaborate, extensive e-learning management system complete with 50 courses designed, developed and delivered within a month. Quantify your needs and keep the budget, timeline, and required tasks aligned and realistic.

Not Addressing a Business Need

This is a dangerous type of a mistake in the RFP. In fact, everything else could be perfect in the RFP (well written, logical descriptions, proper amount of detail, imaginative, proper scope), but if the underlying need for the project is not tied to the business needs driving the company, problems can arise. You need to tie your e-learning to a business need.

This is not only dangerous from the standpoint of the RFP, but without a clear business need driving the project, the entire project is in peril. Funding may be discontinued, resources may be reallocated, and your e-learning implementation team might not be given enough time to assist with the development process.

Let the vendor know your business need driving the RFP so the vendor can help with a solution. Since vendors have worked with e-learning solutions before and have helped organizations implement e-learning (most established ones have), then you can use the RFP to leverage their knowledge to address your business needs.

Avoiding common e-learning RFP mistakes provides you with a solid foundation to build your e-learning solution. If you have an effective RFP, you will help vendors to write more effective proposals.


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