Procurement and software: alternate models for e-learning

And here’s the next bit of the Products component for chapter 2 of my thesis. The aim of this section is basically two argue that the LMS approach to e-learning embodies one view of how to procure software and one software model. I eventually aim to argue that both of these predominant models are essentially bad matches for the nature of e-learning within a university. The following is intended more to identify that there are alternatives than argue for the inappropriateness. That’s for later. But I doubt I’ve stopped it coming through.

This section focuses on procurement, I hope to have the product section up later today.

Procurement and software: alternate models for e-learning

As has been noted previously, within higher education the selection and purchase of an LMS has become the almost ubiquitous and unquestioned technical solution to the provision of e-learning. This singular approach can be said to embody a single approach to the procurement of software – “buy” – and a standard software model – the integrated, enterprise system. This section is based on the assumption that there are alternatives to both these models. There are different approaches to software procurement and different software product models that may be more appropriate for e-learning within universities, especially in light of recent changes within the broader information technology market place.

Procurement strategies for information systems

There is recognition that the choice of IS procurement strategy is critical for company operations and that different kinds of systems, require different kinds of resources and consequently different procurement strategies are applicable (Hallikainen and Chen 2005). Alignment between information technology and business is seen by scholars as an important principle for the success of IT deployment and implementation (Beukers, Versendaal et al. 2006). Saarinen and Vepsalainen (1994) propose the Procurement Principle as a prescriptive model for information systems investments. The principle is based on the assumption that optimal decisions about procurement are made when there is alignment between three choices: what type of system, what procurement strategy, and what type of organisational requirements (Wild and Sobernig 2007).

The Procurement Principle is based on transaction cost economics and draws on two inherent factors – specificity of system design and uncertainty of requirements – to develop three generic types of organisational requirements (Saarinen and Vepsalainen 1994):

  1. routine;
    Common to many or most organizations with stable requirements and low uncertainty.
  2. standard; and
    Common to a group of organizations, possibly within a given domain (Wild and Sobernig 2007), with some variety and uncertainty in requirements.
  3. speculative.
    Highly specific to one company and involve high uncertainty in terms of functionality, user interfaces and the competitiveness of the organisation.

In terms of the two inherent factors – specificity of design and requirements uncertainty – the above generic types represent systems on the diagonal. Saarinen and Vesalainen (1994) recognise other types of systems exist, suggest that they may be difficult to deal with and recommend solutions that modify requirements to fit with the three identified types or postponed.

Saarinen and Vesalainen (1994) identify generic types of developers that fit with these procurement strategies. The three types are:

  1. implementers;
    Employed by an external software development company these developers of high levels of product specific knowledge but only limited, common knowledge about the user organisation.
  2. analysts; and
    Commissioned by the client these staff are responsible for specifying user requirements and improving system solutions by drawing on their abilitiy to solve generic problems and specify complex integrated systems.
  3. innovators.
    Usually employed by the user organisation these developers have specialised knowledge about the user organisation, its users and information systems. They can communicate easily with the users and can specify and create new innovative solutions.

The appropriate matching of the type of requirements and the types of developer is now used to identify three efficient and generic procurement strategies. In large projects, the above three generic strategies will have to be combined and redefined in practice (Saarinen and Vepsalainen 1994). The three generic strategies are (Saarinen and Vepsalainen 1994):

  1. Routine systems can be best implemented by acquiring software packages from implementers.
  2. Standard applications require software contracting by analysts and possibly other outside resources for implementation.
  3. Speculative investments are best left for internal development by innovators.

These three generic strategies correspond to the three major approaches to information systems development: software product purchase, contractual customized development with outside vendors, and in-house development (Heiskanen, Newman et al. 2000). The selection and implementation of an LMS within a university represents software product purchase with some limited integration work. There is increasingly an absence of institutions adopting other approaches, either individually or in combination.

The over-emphasis on the software product purchase approach contributes to an increased in a techno-centric view. Due to the cost involved in modifying a complex software package most commercial systems require the institution to modify its practices to accommodate the system (Dodds 2007). So, rather than using IT to foster a culture of innovation by taking the point of view of the individual (Dodds 2007), or even the organisation, the focus is on the technology and its capabilities. As early as 1982 an alternate evolutionary approach, which appears much closer to in-house development, was recommended by Kerr and Hiltz (1982) for computer-mediated communication and found to be common with interactive systems which provide cognitive support. Kerr and Hiltz (1982) suggested that because the technology was so new, the possibilities for alternative functions and capabilities so numerous, and that users could not adequately understand what they might do with a new technology until they had an opportunity to experience it that an approach of feedback, evaluation and incremental implementation of new features was desirable.

The reasons identified by Kerr and Hiltz (1982) seem to fit two (requirements identity and requirements volatility) of the three categories of risks associated with requirements development identified by Tuunanen et al (2007) and shown in Table 2.2. If this observation remains appropriate for current practices around e-learning it would appear to question the alignment between the LMS procurement approach and the types of requirements that would make that approach the most efficient as identified by the Procurement Principle.

Table 2.2 – Requirements development risks (adapted from Tuunanen, Rossi et al. 2007)
Risks Definition
Requirements identity The availability of requirements; high identity risk indicates requirements are unknown or indistinguishable
Requirements volatility The stability of requirements; high volatility risk indicates requirements easily change as a result of environmental dynamics or individual learning
Requirements complexity The understandability of requirements; high complexity risk indicates requirements are difficult to understand, specify, and communicate

In addition, both the nature of the LMS and the procurement model assume that it is necessary that for the organisation to provide all of the components of the information system. In recent years the functionality and usability of technology available ot individuals has been outstripping that of technology provided centrally by institutions (Johnson and Liber 2008). Increasingly, university students and staff are using a collection of tools and systems they choose, rather than tools and systems selected, owned and maintained by the university (Jones 2008).


Beukers, M., J. Versendaal, et al. (2006). "The procurement alignment framework construction and application." Wirtschaftsinformatik 48(5): 323-330.

Hallikainen, P. and L. Chen (2005). "A holistic framework on information systems evaluation with a case analysis." The Electronic Journal Information Systems Evaluation 9(2): 57-64.

Johnson, M. and O. Liber (2008). "The Personal Learning Environment and the human condition: from theory to teaching practice." Interactive Learning Environments 16(1): 3-15.

Jones, D. (2008). PLES: framing one future for lifelong learning, e-learning and universities. Lifelong Learning: reflecting on successes and framing futures. Keynote and refereed papers from the 5th International Lifelong Learning Conference, Rockhampton, CQU Press.

Saarinen, T. and A. Vepsalainen (1994). "Procurement strategies for information systems." Journal of Management Information Systems 11(2): 187-208.

Wild, F. and S. Sobernig (2007). Learning tools in higher education: Products, characteristics, procurement. Second Conference on Technology Enhanced Learning. Crete, Greece.

2 thoughts on “Procurement and software: alternate models for e-learning

  1. Pingback: Phd Update #23 – Getting closer to the end of chapter 2 « The Weblog of (a) David Jones

  2. Pingback: The life and death of Webfuse: lessons for learning and leading into the future « The Weblog of (a) David Jones

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