Ten steps to composing a world-class Learning & Development RFP

Diane Nowell
Mar 31, 2020

Headspring recently hosted a webinar to explore how a well-constructed RFP can drive excellence when it comes to matching businesses with best-fit L&D providers. Adam Kingl, consultant and author of ‘The Next Generation Leadership’, joined forces with Headspring’s Corporate Partnership VP, Jean-Marie Ardisson, to share their insights and to demystify what can be a daunting exercise. Here’s what we learned.

While it’s not essential to frame every fragment of outsourcing within a formal procurement procedure, large or complex L&D projects often demand a more measured approach.

This is where an RFP, or a request for proposal, comes into play. Outlining project specifics in a document that invites potential service providers to return a considered bid for the work not only standardises criteria but also allows businesses to probe the strengths and weaknesses of vendors in the most cost- and resource-effective way possible.

Crucially, an RFP can tease out the tricky non-tangibles, too. Finding the right cultural fit can be every bit as important as securing the keenest price.

Rather than considering the RFP an end in itself, it’s helpful to view it instead as an invitation to establish a dialogue with both internal business partners and potential providers and partners. It’s an opportunity to collect new ideas about learning and development, in the broader sense, as well as to search specifically for programmes that deliver the most significant impact, given financial and time constraints.

Jean-Marie describes an RFP as a framework for conducting L&D operational conversations.

‘When we are asked to create a learning journey for a client, we invite them to tell us what they are looking for and how that connects to broader strategic challenges they’re facing within the business’.

If an RFP is the key to kick-starting this dialogue, how can companies construct RFPs in a way that engages interest, communicates project essentials and invites bids from the best-qualified and most closely aligned providers?

1.      Be yourself

The RFP offers an ideal opportunity to let prospective providers into your world. First and foremost, prospects will need to know more about you than can be gleaned from browsing your website or Wikipedia entry. Project your corporate personality and be frank about the qualities you’re seeking in the perfect partner. You aim to attract bids from organisations that are excited to work with you, so you’ll want to show them who you really are.

2.      Establish context

It will help L&D providers immeasurably if you take the time to create some background around your ‘why’: why this initiative, and why now? Whether the L&D project is a response to changing market conditions, regulatory requirements or perhaps forming part of a broader transformational journey within your organisation, the context will impact programme scope and L&D outcomes for all parties.

As Adam says: ‘Programmes are best when they’re deeply contextualised rather than generic. Anything we create together has an impact on participants and the organisation; we need to address both things and appeal to both. The energy we generate will mean that participants become ambassadors in their organisation, disseminating information long after the L&D programme has reached its conclusion’.

3.      Define your goals

Be clear about the expected scope of work. Clarity is essential. L&D providers will be wary of so-called ‘scope creep’ from RFPs that lack detail, so, including as much information as you can about your requirements is essential and will keep time-wasting (on both sides) to a minimum. Including all stakeholders – sponsors, HR, procurement and learners – in the discussion process will help to create an informed RFP.

4.      Set evaluation criteria

Generally speaking, if you haven’t yet decided on the metrics for measuring success, you’re probably not yet ready to distribute your RFP. Until you know what success looks like, you won’t be able to evaluate the impact of your L&D programme. That said, outcomes can be slippery when it comes to measuring learning impact. For instance, traditional ROI metrics are only applicable if the organisational objectives are related to growth in revenue or market share.

Adam suggests considering ROL (return on learning) as an alternative metric: ‘Measuring success could be linked to how the learning has affected participants, how it’s continuing or if there are changes in behaviour. You don’t want to start looking at those until a few months down the road’.

5.      Agree on a budget

Any potential L&D supplier will need to have an idea of budget so they can factor it in when planning a response. It can be presented as a range rather than a specific number, but it must be approved before the RFP is completed. No budget is a recipe for disaster. An RFP without an approved budget will act as a red flag for most providers as it’s usually considered indicative of a project that hasn’t been fully embraced internally and is perhaps still in its early stages. Before you create your RFP, ensure you have engagement from sponsors who are ready to agree on the project and sign off on the funding.

6.      Be transparent

It’s essential to be honest about what you’re looking for. While the RFP is intended to formalise the procurement process, it shouldn’t become so constrained that it becomes purely transactional. If you can be transparent about your needs, you’ll invite more open and honest dialogue and be more likely to secure a good fit for your project. The RFP should go way beyond acting as a tick-box exercise.

7.      Remain open to ideas

While defining criteria is a crucial aspect of any RFP, it’s also vital to leave room for fresh input. A challenging idea or design you hadn’t contemplated. A contributor, location or simulation that wasn’t discussed. Consider framing questions in a way that swerves stock answers and encourages creativity. Give the provider a chance to show their expertise.

As Adam says: “At its best and RFP process is an invitation to innovation. In other words, is the organisation saying: ‘Here’s where we’ve got to, and we’ve thought very hard about it, and we’ve talked to many people in the organisation. Now build on that for us’?”

8.      Propose a schedule

Ensure enough time is baked in for co-creation. This planning will vary depending on the client and the project, but, remember that the design and development process is critical: if the design isn’t right, we are less likely to meet objectives. Iteration is an essential step in the process and shouldn’t be considered optional; often, a design will need to be socialised to ensure it’s a good fit. Conversely, an unlimited amount of time isn’t always conducive to a good programme – every project needs boundaries in terms of time and budget.

9.      Offer insight

Consider what you can bring to the process. If you can offer programme support, a learning platform or expertise, it will affect how any programme is created and delivered. Similarly, including a profile of the participants will be invaluable to programme designers who will want to know about the learning culture in your organisation. Do people work in teams? Are they prepared to put aside a couple of days for learning, or does it need to be delivered in bite-sized amounts?

10. Keep it real

Be realistic about your expectations: don’t ask for every detail of the solution at this stage. You want to know what it’s like to work with potential suppliers, what kind of solution are they going to put forward in terms of skills, creativity, professionalism and resources, but they shouldn’t be expected to prepare the detail until you’ve awarded the project. Finally, don’t issue your RPF until the project – and the accompanying budget – has been approved.

To access the full recording of this webinar and learn directly from our experts, please visit our collection of free developmental webinars HERE.

Diane Nowell

Writer and communications consultant