Bespoke vs off-the-shelf: a false dichotomy for corporate e-learning?

E-learning was discussed in the TJ webinar about technology. One of the speakers, Ryan Tracey, reflects on the talking points.

I was delighted when TJ invited me to be a panellist for the August webinar “What is the right L&D technology and how to build a trusted network“.

One of the themes to emerge during the webinar was the customisation of e-learning courses. Paul Norrington asked us whether we are finding more organisations interested in buying off-the-shelf modules and then customising them themselves. I didn’t answer this question directly at the time, and I’ve given it some thought since.

Off-the shelf convenience

I recognise that while off-the-shelf e-learning has always been a convenient option for smaller organisations which lack the resources to develop their own courseware, in my experience big organisations have typically been resistant to it.

I’ve seen these organisations determined to build bespoke modules from scratch, driven, I think, by a sense of being “special”. Indeed, products, processes and systems are different among companies, but by law the principles of compliance (the traditional driver of corporate e-learning) remain consistent.

I’ve always considered it odd for a company to spend so much time and effort reinventing the wheel in-house, when perfectly acceptable wheels are available externally at a fraction of the cost.

Regional compliance

But of course, it’s complicated. For example, compliance modules covering Australian (that is to say, non-US/non-UK) legislation have until recently been relatively difficult to source; full suites covering all the necessary topics can still be hard to come by. Per person payment models are unattractive to some clients and branding policies dictate the look & feel of a module. All of these factors conspire against off-the-shelf purchases.

In contrast, the development of bespoke modules gives the company total ownership of the source files (assuming the vendor supplies them) and their contents. Yet with great power comes great responsibility. Beyond the headaches associated with getting the modules built in the first place, as the owner you are also responsible for their currency. It’s a never-ending story, so the headache persists.


On balance, perhaps the happy medium is a hybrid: in-house customisation of generic off-the-shelf modules – which is what Paul meant by his original question. Effectively the vendor supplies a white label product in which the client can plug in its logo, insert links to its corporate intranet, and perhaps even add new pages and other content elements. If the customisations are kept to a minimum, they remain manageable.

While in-house customisation requires the authoring software and someone who knows how to use it (both of which can be more troublesome than you think), the burden of developing the bulk of the content is outsourced. Given the increasing ease of use of authoring tools, especially when implementing minor tweaks, my prediction is that over time more organisations will indeed become interested in buying off-the-shelf courses and then customise them themselves.

If so, vendors are on notice to offer their modules in the formats that their clients can use.

E-learning future

Looking further ahead, I predict that vendors will supply course files that contain dynamic coding so that the generic content can be updated remotely in real time by the vendor without the need for the client to re-publish the package to its LMS. Alternatively, the vendor will host the course in the cloud and provide windows around the dynamic content in which the client can add its own static content.

In any case, I suggest that the e-learning modules be integrated into a broader campaign to improve the risk culture of the organisation. In this way, they are an important piece of the puzzle, rather than the total solution.


About the author

Ryan Tracey is an E-Learning Manager in the Australian financial services industry. He blogs as the E-Learning Provocateur and can be found on Twitter as @RyanTracey


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