5 Keys to Hiring Freelance Learning & Development Talent

If you run an L&D team that creates content, then you know how tricky it can be to determine staffing needs. You may try to estimate demand annually or even monthly, but every month and year is different with unforeseen projects or last-minute delays making forecasts obsolete before they are completed. You may try to communicate to the business that you have a capacity constraint, but there’s always an urgent need that pushes the team beyond its capacity. This is the reason most L&D teams rely on contract or freelance talent to meet the demands of the business. You staff to the bottom of your demand curve then use contractors or freelancers to scale when needed.

Now is when the difficult part starts. Hiring full-time employees through a rigorous interviewing and screening process doesn’t guarantee you’ll find the right candidate. Now add the urgency of hiring a contractor and the flawed hiring process becomes even more suspect.  Take the five steps to ensure the best contract or freelance hire for your next project.

1. Be Clear About Your Needs

This may sound obvious, but setting clear expectation upfront is probably the most critical step toward finding the right partner. First thing to consider is the scope of work. In this article (Calculator), I layout all of the steps in the learning experience design process. You may be supplementing an internal team and only need someone with focused skills or you may be outsourcing the entire effort and need someone with a broad set of skills or who works with a team of peers to deliver services. It’s important to let any potential contractor know all of the deliverables and tasks for which you want them to be accountable. The second thing to consider is quantity of work of work. For focused support like create graphics for these 40 screens of content, that may be easy, but for a complete learning solution the length of the program can vary significantly and often isn’t determined until after negotiation between stakeholders, and SMEs. For this reason, you may want to start with an assumption about the length of a program but allow time and set expectations that after the design process this may need to be revisited. The final factor to consider is the “complexity” of the solution.  What I mean here is a mix of the effort, production values and approach. This topic deserves a blog of its own, but the following are some factors to keep in mind.

  1. The starting point for course content: You may have a ready-to-go script or be starting with a problem statement and access to SMEs or any of the many points in between. Try to be clear with a potential contractor about what you’re starting with and share examples when possible.
  2. Use of scenarios & branching: Whether you want to provide authentic practice or branch content to personalize the experience, scenarios can be an effective tool, but they do take more time to write and even more time for internal teams to review and edit. Let your contractor or freelancer know upfront if this is something you envision.
  3. Use of media: Video, animation, and audio all help to create a more engaging and effective learning experience, but they also take time and require investment. If you expect these to be part of your solution, make some assumptions upfront about what will be included and again be prepared to adjust based your freelancer’s input and suggestions.
  4. Graphic style: Are you ok with stock images or do you expect illustrations, avatars and infographics? Again, these all add value but require time and effort, so include the approach in y our upfront discussion and make some assumptions about what will be included.

2. Agree on Deliverables

One word I tend to overuse when it comes to the design and development of custom or bespoke learning solutions is expectations. When you set down the path of creating a solution from scratch, you’re in essence starting with vaporware and the danger is that all the stakeholders involved may have a different vision of how that vaporware looks, works and includes in their heads. Unfortunately, my experience is that no amount of upfront discussion will get all parties aligned – people often use the same words, but they have very different meaning to each person. The only way to manage expectations is through frequent collaborations and reviews. That’s where deliverables come in. Deliverables can be any documentation or in-progress element of a course. They are best used as in-project milestones that to gather feedback and make course corrections. The less you’ve worked with a contractor, the more deliverables, or milestones I recommend you include. If you’re meeting weekly or more frequently and looking at actual work product, you will significantly reduce the risk of misaligned expectations.

3. Establish a Communication Strategy

You’re probably getting the picture by now that contracting for a custom or bespoke learning solution can be a complicated adventure. You should expect change. Changes in scope, changes in timeline. And, yes, changes in price. Navigating these changes or choices to avoid these changes requires frequent and clear communication. I would recommend asking for a weekly written status report and insist that any potential changes in be flagged in writing before they are implemented. It may also be worth meeting weekly to quickly review the status report and to discussion any risks. If things are going smoothly, it’s easier to cancel a meeting.

4. Put a Change Process in Place

As noted above, change is inevitable, but it shouldn’t be unavoidable. A good freelancer, will flag anything that comes up in a project that introduces the risk of a change and once that change becomes inevitable, they will offer options. As part of your contracting process, it makes sense to establish a formal process for change that goes something like this:

  1. Agree with your contractor that no work will be done that changes the scope of work without formal approval.
  2. Contractor notifies you in writing if they perceive something will change the project scope as soon as they are aware of it.
  3. Contractor provides an assessment with potential impact on time, money, etc..
  4. Contractor proposes alternatives including one that will mitigate the risk entirely.
  5. The decision on how to proceed is formally documented.

5. Celebrate Your Successes

While your freelancer may not be an employee making them feel like one will help you build a deeper relationship. Good freelancers often have their choice of clients so making them feel valued and appreciated will help insure you’re their first choice the next time you need support.

This may all sound like a bit much but know that hundreds of thousands of custom or bespoke learning solution get designed, developed and deployed every year. Behind each of the successful ones is a team that works in partnership to create those solutions and used open and frequent communication to make it happen. This is true of internal teams as well as projects done through outside help. You will be successful too if you put the structure and process in place to keep you project on track. As you build trust and a shared vocabulary with a freelancer, the process gets easier and you can always pull back.