To Build or Not To Build? That is the question …

By Harriet Croxton June 29, 2015

Signpost with build and buy directionsWhether ‘tis nobler in the mind to create your learning content from scratch or to buy it ‘off the shelf’ … This is a decision L&D departments face all the time. Sometimes the answer is obvious, and it needn’t be a Hamlet-like dilemma: if the content doesn’t exist at all in the public domain (e.g. if what you need is training about your latest product) then you are going to have to create it yourself. More often, however, it becomes a difficult decision, with a host of different factors to consider.

So to help you in making those thorny build-or-buy decisions, this post summarises the Pros and Cons of both routes.

Off-the-shelf content: PROs


Off-the-shelf (OTS) content is already built and available to buy. If your requirement is urgent then you can have this training rolled out to your learners in less than 24 hours if needed.


Supplying your training in multiple languages requires a lot of extra translation and development work. An off-the-shelf solution can deliver multi-language content immediately.


Where training is needed in order to comply with an external body or regulation, you will want to ensure not only that the content as it is meets these requirements, but also that updates needed to meet changing regulations are dealt with quickly. The onus on ensuring this lies with the training supplier. With a SaaS-based licencing model updates would typically be pushed out to you immediately, ensuring your content is always up to date.


Equally, as with compliance any course that is likely to require a certain amount of on-going maintenance would be best bought off-the-shelf as the onus on doing this can pass to the vendor.


No internal resource or subject matter expertise is required to create the training when you use an off-the-shelf solution.


In many cases with off-the-shelf learning content, the subject matter expertise has been provided or has been approved by authoritative organisations. For instance, there are some management and leadership courses where the subject matter has been written by the world’s leading business schools. OTS software training is often approved by the original manufacturer – e.g. MS Office training approved by Microsoft.

This kind of endorsement form an authoritative source can help ensure that you are always getting the latest and greatest knowledge and thinking on your chosen subject.


If you are a low-headcount organisation, or have only a small department to train, buying off-the-shelf can be the most cost effective solution, since these products are generally licenced on a ‘per user’ basis.


Finally – and often most importantly – the cost of licencing an off-the-shelf product is, in the main, cheaper. However, this depends on your audience size: at scale, the value proposition of bespoke-build content can change. See Cons below!

Off-the-shelf content: CONs

Not tailored content

The most obvious downside to buying off-the-shelf content is that it is not tailored specifically for your organisation. It assumes generic practices and procedures that might not be relevant to the way you work.


Where you have a very large audience you need to think about how much this will cost. Most off-the-shelf e-learning vendors licence courses ‘per user’. Unit cost is sometimes reduced for larger orders but even so, where your user base is very large your licencing costs might outweigh the cost of building something yourself.


When buying off-the-shelf you are committing to content that has specific system requirements in order to run. In some areas of the world, there are still limitations on internet access and bandwidth to contend with, so building a bespoke piece of content can often be the answer to get around this.

Reluctant learners

In some instances organisations need to create learning that doesn’t look like learning – or which straddles the divide between learning and comms. An example of this would be where a training need has been identified, but the group of people involved are resistant to learning, and perhaps do not even perceive they need it. This can become a political issue, particularly if, for instance, that group of people are quite senior. In such circumstances, you will need the flexibility of a bespoke-built solution to package your learning for maximum cultural acceptability – here, an off-the-shelf course probably isn’t going to work.

Bespoke content: PROs


By far the most obvious Pro for the bespoke content is relevance. Building something specific for your organisation clearly allows you to have complete control over the content and to ensure it meets the needs of learners and of the business. You can also make sure it reflects brand and company values, and talks the particular language of your organisation. It can also help to support particular aspects of your competitive positioning. You have complete control!


Following development of the course, whether you bespoke-build it yourself or outsource to a third party, you will have full ownership of the course indefinitely and thus can roll it out wherever and to whomever you like without any licencing issues.


Where your audience is very large, a bespoke built course that is not chargeable per user can be more cost efficient, as we have said. And here you also get the benefit of a more relevant and specific piece of learning content as well.


Where training is trying to reach people in areas with limited internet access or bandwidth, a bespoke build can allow you to build something which is more easily accessible, as mentioned above. Conversely, if your infrastructure is more technically advanced than in most organisations, a bespoke build means you do not have to be limited in your media use by the general standard of corporate infrastructure, as reflected in the specification of OTS packages. The sky’s the limit!

Shelf-life of training need

You might also want to consider the longevity of the training need. If the training intervention in question is a one-off activity, never to be repeated, then it might be more cost effective to build a course specifically for that purpose, rather than acquiring an OTS package that commits you to an on-going licence cost well beyond the programme’s life.

Bespoke content: CONs

Cost visibility

Costing a bespoke project at the outset can be difficult, because of the very flexibility which bespoke build brings. There are simply too many variables. Does the content exist already? Does it need writing from scratch? What level of interactivity will be wanted? Will scenarios need to be developed? Will there be audio, video, quizzes, assessments? Integration needs? Will videos need shooting from scratch, involving writers, film crews, actors etc.? Also, if you are asking your developer to create something new and innovative, that can increase unpredictability in cost estimation. The key to success is expert upfront project planning and specification: if you don’t have that in-house, an experienced vendor or consultant can help you control risks to your budget.


While it’s possible to create bespoke courses in a matter of weeks, bear in mind that a project development cycle – if you want the ‘bells and whistles’ – can be around 3 months from concept design to final rollout.


The process of creating bespoke e-learning can be resource intensive. If authoring your own content you might need to resource learning design time, a project manager, digital designers and developers. Even if you outsource this to a 3rd party vendor you will still need to provide subject matter expertise and a project manager to manage the project from the buyer’s side, and sign off each stage of the project. Strong project/programme management on both sides will help you stay in control of resource issues from the outset.

Content becomes dated

Once built, your course can quickly become outdated, since no automatic updates will necessarily be provided as they might be with an off-the-shelf course. This could be easier to deal with if you have authored it yourself, as a small change in content might be straightforward to amend and rerelease. A bespoke course from a 3rd party vendor will often require more investment to update.

How to have the best of both worlds

There are a couple of options which can assist the e-learning buyer to make the best of both worlds.


Many off-the-shelf e-learning vendors have customisation tools that allow you to take modular based content and switch on and off different modules based on your needs. In some instances they also allow you to enter some of your own content. This allows you to take something very generic and off-the-shelf and make it more relevant for your audience.

The one issue with this, particularly for any content fulfilling a compliance need, is ensuring that someone is responsible for maintenance, and guaranteeing that content is kept up to date.

Blending the options

A cost-effective way to deal with some subjects that are on the borderline of needing to be tailored is to blend different components together. For instance, you might have a need for leadership training and decide to provide something that has been written by the best business schools in the world, in order to train your leaders in best practice. However you also want to instil in your staff what it is to be a leader in your business, what is expected of them and what sort of language you want them to speak.

A good way to tackle this might be to create a video introduction from a CEO or senior member of staff speaking about the leadership programme; its importance and relevance to company goals. This could be followed by an off-the shelf piece of learning – and following that, other training interventions; a face-to-face workshop; tailored handout or recommended off-the-shelf reading.

There are a lot of variables and considerations. At Lumesse we offer both options so are happy to help you work through these decisions and come to the best solution for your needs.

Sign up for our webinar on Wednesday 14 September 2016, 1pm BST, where we bring together top Lumesse experts in mobile learning and cover your main routes to providing engaging, effective learning for your people on mobile devices.

Comments 1

  1. Good afternoon,
    I am refreshing e-learning within my business, have some content (text) and would like to consider the options above for purchasing e-learning.

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