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Impact Interview: Vendor management

Impactiviti recently interviewed Abby Dionne, Director, Organizational Development, PreClinical Development, Merck Research Labs. The topic of this Impact Interview is Vendor Management, an area in which Abby has long experience.

Abby oversees global training for PreClinical Development, and is responsible for curriculum design and development, as well as instructional design, development and implementation of all leadership, technical and softskills training. Abby spent the last five years building the instructional design and development function for US Sales and Marketing Training at Novartis Pharmaceuticals – a big switch after about 15 years in the educational and non-profit learning space.

Q1: In the design and development of training, name 3 areas where you feel that outside vendors provide the most value?
I expect outstanding content expertise and expert instructional design services from an outside vendor. On top of that, though, there is tremendous value in looking for the three C’s: creativity, consistency, clarity. I look for the creativity of the vendor team – not just visual creativity – but new approaches to training, strategies, techniques – I want a vendor who is passionate about training. Secondly, I value the consistency a vendor brings to a training project. I need someone who will keep things on track and on whom I can rely. And lastly, a great vendor partner brings to the table a fresh perspective. As an outsider, they look at the learning need, the audience, the content and ask questions – they aren’t close to the information, so they’re more likely to see issues a subject matter expert (SME) might overlook. That component ensures that your training deliverable communicates the content with clarity.

Q2: What have you found to be the two most challenging aspects of working with vendors?
Generally, I’ve found the biggest challenges to be around communication and unclear expectations: from vendors, and clients. With a number of vendors I’ve found there can be a limited understanding of how much the internal client knows about managing a training project. Vendors need to consider the level of experience or professional background of the client and take that into consideration. A vendor who coaches you through the process provides an invaluable learning experience to a new trainer. On the other hand, as the client, we need to understand that a vendor will never know your business as well as you do. So don’t be surprised at the number of questions you’re asked or the amount of information requested – expect it and plan for it. A good vendor will do a thorough needs analysis and ask a lot of questions. We, as clients, need to be as specific as possible in describing the goal, our learner’s needs, our expectations, and the standards our organization has for training in order to ensure both parties have a clear expectation of what will be delivered.

Q3: How do you feel about project management practices among the vendors you’ve worked with?
Indispensable. Honestly, I’m not one for the day-to-day details so a crackerjack project manager is my best friend on a project. Their role is challenging – pushing a client without sending us over the deep end when deadlines are looming. I encourage my internal clients to take this into consideration and be open when the communication turns into nagging…if the content isn’t ready, well…then it’s just not ready and so long as everyone understands the impact to the project, we just deal with it.

Q4: From your experience, if you had to pick out one thing that made a vendor stand out head-and-shoulders above the others, what would that be?
I’m biased, I really look for a very strong marriage of content expertise and instructional design. I want to see that these functions are led by key players in the project, not outsourced to third parties. I want them at the table early and I want to hear what they have to say. Too often I’ve seen projects that go awry because key information is ‘lost in translation’ between the account rep and the designers or writers. Great vendors bring that talent into the conversation and let them learn first hand about the client’s needs.

Q5: How do you go about vetting a potential vendor that you’ve never worked with in the past?
The best practice I’ve consistently seen deliver results is very thorough reference checking. I encourage trainers to ask for the vendor’s client list, find out what projects the vendor delivered for those clients and ask for contact information. Call the contacts and find out how things went – what went well and what didn’t. Request the full CV for the project team – sometimes samples of work at the individual contributor level. If the writer’s style or the content expert doesn’t have the expertise you feel is necessary don’t be shy about requesting a substitution.

Q6: Describe the project that you found the most professionally and personally rewarding.
Last year I had the opportunity to overhaul an entire sales training new hire curriculum–what a phenomenal experience! We were trying to address a number of issues under some fairly challenging circumstances: frozen headcount, increasing amounts of required content, no additional dedicated training time. Our goal was to compress the time it took to get a new sales representative to full potential. We implemented pre-testing on a massive scale, moved knowledge-acquisition content out of the classroom to focus face-to-face time on skills development and developed a series of truly robust and increasingly challenging culminating experiences. It was a huge team effort on the part of the entire sales training organization and it really helped the organization standardize the design of training content and align training objectives with the field’s performance objectives. Both personally and professionally, I felt like we really made an impact.

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