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Writing a winning e-learning proposal

By Karl M. Kapp / April 2004

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The Need

The current knowledge economy demands knowledgeable workers. As information doubles and triples on a yearly basis, employees need to remain up-to-date and informed. In fact, many experts believe that an organization's ability to learn faster then its competitors is the only remaining sustainable competitive advantage. Unfortunately, this competitive advantage does not come without a price.

According to ASTD, a learning and development trade organization, expenditures by organizations on formal training in the United States exceeds $50 billion annually. The costs for training employees is not only in terms of training expenses and travel dollars but, more importantly, in lost opportunity costs. An employee sitting in a training class is not generating revenue. To keep employee training costs from spiraling out of control and to allow employees more time to contribute to the bottom line, corporate executives have demanded a better, more effective method of training. Executives are asking the question "how do we cost effectively provide our employees with just the right training at just the right time?"

The answer is e-learning. E-learning is the delivery of training materials, information and content directly to an employee's computer desktop by taking advantage of Web browser technology to purposefully change behavior or attitude. This anytime, anywhere training entices executives who see the opportunity to provide more workforce training and development while simultaneously increasing productivity and saving travel dollars. Today, it seems as if every executive has concluded that e-learning is a major requirement for remaining competitive. Executives are screaming for e-learning to reduce costs and increase performance.

The Opportunity

This cry for help has created huge financial opportunities for e-learning firms, independent e-learning developers, and even colleges and universities. E-learning vendors charge a premium for helping organizations transition coursework and training programs from an instructor-led classroom delivery method into e-learning. In fact, the amount of money spent on outside providers of training products and services is over $15 billion a year.

The opportunity in the e-learning market is huge. Organizations need to educate their employees quickly and effectively but have no idea how to develop the e-learning courses or necessary infrastructure to be successful. Corporations are scrambling to convert much of their traditional instructor-led training into an online format.

These organizations cannot do it alone. They need the help of e-learning firms who understand the process and procedures of placing courses online and of setting up the technological infrastructures to support their goals. E-learning vendors who understand technology and instructional design and who can write winning proposals are in an excellent position to develop a lucrative business.

The Many Competitors

This tremendous financial opportunity has fueled the proliferation of e-learning companies competing for the limited budgets of companies with e-learning needs. E-learning companies seem to spring up over night. ASTD estimates that more than 275 vendors are building custom and off-the-shelf content programs for delivery on corporate networks. Experts who study this topic also report that "there are roughly 75 [LMS] vendors that have appeared on more than five RFPs in the United State alone." E-learning software companies are all competing for a piece of the e-learning pie. E-learning is big business.

Even traditional institutions that have focused entirely on instructor-led training are reaching into the e-learning arena. Colleges like the University of Maryland, Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania, and the Wharton School of Business are entering the e-learning market, as are high schools like the Florida Virtual School and Pennsylvania's Keystone National High School.

Despite the mad rush to gain access to the huge e-learning marketplace, no single company seems to have an advantage over the others. The market is wide open to all players with some type of e-learning solution. This has lead to a frenzy of mergers, company closings and acquisitions. The chaotic marketplace means corporations wanting to hire an e-learning vendor must be extremely careful in their selection process. They must develop methods to avoid low quality, fly-by-night e-learning firms who might not be around tomorrow.

The Request for Proposal Process

The method most often employed to sort one vendor from another is the issuing of a Request for Proposal (RFP). In its simplest form, an RFP is a description of a project a client would like completed. The RFP typically describes, in some level of detail, the needs (or perceived needs) of the client and provides a minimal description of a desired solution. The RFP usually requests a response in the form of a written proposal containing a description of the solution, a timeline, and a budget.

In addition, most RFPs contain a description of the "rules of engagement;" how the proposal must be formatted, what evaluation criteria will be used, how the vendor is to respond (e-mail, fax, overnight delivery), due dates and other elements that should be contained in the proposal (resumes of key team members, quality assurance forms, company brochures). The RFP is a formal problem statement sent competitively to vendors.

Once the RFP is released, the client receives and evaluates the proposals based on specific evaluation criteria. Based on the evaluation of the written proposal, vendors are then invited to provide demonstrations of their capabilities. Therefore, the written proposal is a critical element for success for any organization wishing to sell e-learning…whether it's an academic institution, an independent consultant, or an e-learning firm.

If you don't have an effective written proposal, you won't have a chance of winning the e-learning business. Fortunately, the proposal writing process has become more and more defined over the past few years. The "wild west" approach to selecting an e-learning vendor has become more science and less guess work. As a vendor, you can take advantage of this formalized process by following the guidelines and providing a well-written, well-presented proposal.

Proposal Guidelines

As with any business process there are guidelines for success. The following guidelines will help you to write the most effective proposal possible and provide you with the highest likelihood of winning. Unfortunately, there is not a magic "never miss" formula for success. Sometimes you lose a proposal on the strangest criteria (your pages scroll) and sometimes you win on the strangest criteria (you showed more diversity in your graphics than a competitor). So you can never be assured of a victory no matter how well you have presented your solution. However, these rules provide an above average chance for victory.

Guideline One: Follow Directions

RFPs are frequently filled with due dates, formatting requirements, and specific instructions. While it may seem like a lot of administrative garbage, an obstacle to explaining your solution and/or a waste of time, you need to pay attention to the requirements of the proposal. Make sure you know when the written proposal is due, when and how you can ask questions about the RFP, what formatting requirements are necessary for the document and other basic information.

One of the most difficult tasks for a client is to sort through proposals. So the first evaluation criterion is usually one involving the vendor's ability to follow instructions. If your proposal is deemed non-compliant (doesn't follow formatting or other requirements), it will be eliminated. Usually this step isn't even done by the evaluation team; it is done by a receptionist or administrative assistant who checks only for format and conformance to RFP requirements. What might seem boring to you is the first item on which your proposal may be judged. Far too many proposals are lost because of a missed due date, misread formatting requirements or misspelling of a contact's name. Take the time do the boring task of "following the directions."

Guideline Two: Solve a Real Need

Clients do not conduct training or education of students or employees for altruistic reasons. They are in it for the money. Corporations want to improve performance, cut costs or increase service which leads to profits. Academic organizations want to attract students, keep them enrolled in the courses, graduate the students and have them make contributions as alumni which leads to profits for them as well (or at least a continued stream of revenue to cover operating expenses if non-profit). These are the real needs of organizations.

The best way of divining the real need of client is to follow the money. What monetary need is driving this RFP? Once you have established the monetary need, you can gear your solution toward helping that client. If the need is to attract students, you might focus your proposal on flashy animations, interactive exercises and a crisp, clean design. If the RFP requests training of the sales force to be better negotiators, the real need might be to increase revenues through more sales. You must determine the real need and separate it from other requests within the RFP. Vendors who focus on addressing the real need of the client demonstrate that they understand what is really driving that client's organization. Vendors who focus solely on presenting an effective educational solution at the expense of addressing the real need of the client miss the boat in terms of connecting with the client. Find the real need and focus on solving that need.

Guideline Three: Good Writing Still Counts

First and foremost, a proposal is a written document. Without good writing, the proposal cannot possibly succeed. The written proposal is usually the first impression your organization makes on a client. If it is filled with mistakes, typographical errors, poor sentence construction, run on sentences, and other mistakes, potential clients will not take your organization seriously. Many people in the training profession are former teachers and in the academic world, most faculty are used to grading papers and essays. If you fail to follow the basics, these people will gladly take a red pen to your proposal and, if necessary, give you a failing grade which means your proposal loses.

It is almost criminal the number of poorly written e-learning proposals that contain grammatical mistakes and poorly worded passages. Clients are insulted by the lack of concern many vendors have regarding the written document. If the vendor can't even write a decent proposal, they believe, then how can they create e-learning which is designed to convey messages in an electronic format. Take the extra time to create a well written document.

Guideline Four: Pictures are Worth A Thousand Words

Clients like to see screen captures and examples of your e-learning product. Part of the requirements of an e-learning vendor is to make difficult information understandable and, possibly, make boring information seem interesting. Your proposal needs to demonstrate your firm's ability to convert mere information into knowledge and instruction. If you cannot do that in your proposal, chances are you will not be able to do that online.

Including graphics in your proposal enhances it in a number of ways. They add appeal and character, motivate the client to read through the entire document and help the reader to visualize the solution you are proposing. In addition, no client likes to read pages of text. It is tiring. By providing graphics, you give your readers a place to rest and relax their eyes. Graphics reduce the fatigue that occurs when reading too much text.

There are cognitive benefits as well. Graphics can explain difficult concepts or relationships in a single image where it may take four or five text pages. Graphics arrange information quickly and provides a clear message. By providing graphics, you increase the chance of readers retaining and comprehending the information being presented. Clear explanations of concepts or topics give you an added advantage over your competitors.

Guideline Five: Develop a Capture Strategy

Simply writing a proposal is not enough, you need to develop a strategy to convince the client that your solution is best for them. To do this, you need a capture strategy. A capture strategy is a systematic plan for the synchronization of all of your proposal elements to support your solution and present it in the best possible light. The capture strategy is the plan you have for winning the work from the client.

Your capture strategy can revolve around having the lowest price, being the most innovative, or developing an approach to quickly solve the client's e-learning problem. The capture strategy focuses on matching the unique capabilities of your firm with the prospect's specific challenge on three levels. These three levels are: the business needs of the client, the technology specifications for the project, and the instructional design requirements. The purpose of the capture strategy is to bring together all of the elements of the proposed solution under a common idea or theme.

Guideline Six: Avoid the HAL Syndrome

First and foremost, your technical solution must support your instructional solution. Too many times, authors of a proposal get caught up in the technical aspects of a solution and fail to pay attention to the instructional aspects. You must remember that technology is a supporting character in most e-learning implementations and not the star. Failure to keep this in mind results in the HAL Syndrome.

HAL was the on-board mission computer in the 1960's Stanley Krubrick's epic story 2001: A Space Odyssey. In the movie, HAL's original purpose was to support the astronauts and help them complete their mission successfully. Unfortunately, for the astronauts, HAL started taking over the mission and killed several astronauts in the process. HAL was no longer supporting the mission, he was subverting it. The focus then turned to HAL and not the original mission of the astronauts.

If you allow the technical aspects of your e-learning solution to overwhelm the learning aspects, you are falling victim to the HAL Syndrome. This must be avoided. Focus on the instructional solution and allow the technical solution to support the instructional goals. It should not be the other way around.

Guideline Seven: Don't Forget Instructional Design

In light of the above guideline, it should be mentioned that the instructional design aspect of your solution needs to be highlighted and explained. Clearly explain your instructional approach, the application of learning strategies when designing instruction and how you evaluate your finished materials. Clients are, themselves, becoming knowledgeable in the area of instructional design and expect vendors to follow a prescribed, systematic process for the design of e-learning.

Explain your instructional design model or method in terms that are not too academic or contain too much jargon. You need to explain how your methodology will impact the quality of the e-learning that you will be developing for your client. Make sure the client understands the benefit of a systematic approach to designing instruction.

Guideline Eight: Give Your Proposal Curb Appeal

Curb appeal is a real estate term describing the impact a house makes on a potential buyer simply by its look from the road. If the house is nicely landscaped, has coordinating colors, and looks attractive, it is said to have curb appeal. Your proposal needs the same type of appeal. Your cover is the first item the client sees upon receipt of the proposal. Make it attractive and functional.

The cover should reflect the fact that your firm is capable of effectively and attractively arranging information. It should grab the client's attention and draw him or her into your document. Part of the challenge of designing a cover is that it needs to be attractive while containing contact information for your organization. Do not sacrifice information for attractiveness. When your cover has no identifying information on it, the client cannot tell who it is from or what information is inside. A cover with no information is annoying and time consuming. The client must open the proposal every time he or she wants to send and email or make a phone call.

Guideline Nine: Name Drop

Name-dropping works in social circles and it works in the field of e-learning. If you can land a big-name client, it helps to use that client's name in the proposal. People like to know that some due diligence has gone into investigating your firm and assume that a big-name client means that you have been thoroughly investigated. If you have some big names on your client list, do not be afraid to use them (unless, of course, they expressly forbid you to use their names).

Guideline Ten: Add a Little WOW!

Tom Peters, that maven of management, writes that every project should have a WOW factor. Something that makes the project stakeholders sit up and take notice. He is emphatic that mediocre successes are far worse than spectacular failures. While I may not go quite that far, I do think that e-learning proposals and subsequent projects need to have a certain degree of "flash and pizzazz" even if it does not add directly to the overall effectiveness of the learning. Remember that many people who don't understand instructional design and the application of instructional strategies will still be evaluating your proposal. Give your solution some pep!


I have included a final guideline (actually this one is a rule). In fact, it should be a given. It is simple…Do good work. If you develop poor instruction, your company will soon lose proposals no matter how well they are written or how many of the guidelines above are followed. The e-learning industry is more closely knit than most people think. If your firm or organizations creates bad e-learning, your reputation will precede you and you will not get much work. The number one method for winning e-learning proposals is to produce high quality e-learning. The other guidelines help only if you already do good work.


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