Why Tesco chose open-source software

Jane Williams, head of e-learning at Tesco, explains the challenges of delivering an open-source system at the retailer

Whether you have an open-source system or a proprietary one, your original underlying requirement will be the same – as it was in the case of the learning management system we needed at Tesco. 

Open source wasn’t on the agenda early on, as it was not a route that had been taken often before. Historically we have always preferred to buy a product from a supplier and therefore have the comfort of knowing someone is accountable for its delivery. 

We piloted a proprietary system at the beginning of our journey and quite quickly realised that we would have to radically rethink our approach. It was at this point that open source became a contender.

When we started the discussions internally there were concerns from two main areas - our IT and purchasing departments. For IT, the concerns centred on how to support the system and whether we wanted to host it internally. For purchasing, the real debate was how to hold someone accountable for a system that isn’t owned by anyone. 

It became clear that open source was the only viable option from a cost perspective, so we dealt quickly with the concerns raised, by hosting externally and having a supplier look after the development, support and maintenance of our system.

The next challenge was whether it could meet the demands of a corporate environment. Some our requirements included the following:

  • One place to access all learning – helping learners to see what is available to them, whatever they do and wherever they work.
  • Create a great learning experience, not just a training database.
  • Hosting and tracking of all types of learning activities.
  • Automation of classroom course booking process.
  • Tracking of costs associated with classroom bookings.
  • System that supports a learner’s personal development.
  • Allowing managers to get involved in the learning of their direct reports and view their progress.
  • Tracking and reporting at various levels, summary and detail.

These are probably the standard requirements of any learning management system and could certainly be met by the open source tools that we looked at. In fact the "learner experience" that we could create was far better using open source than with any of the proprietary solutions we saw. We wanted the flexibility to deliver an experience that really worked for everyone in our business; from store staff through to CEO.

Open source can meet the demands of a corporate world, as long as everyone is prepared to roll up their sleeves and get stuck in

The real effort proved to be in making it work with the sheer scale and complexity of a large corporate. 

So why is it a challenge with open source? It’s because most open-source resources start life as a fix for a particular need in a specific sector and the difficulty is making that that package fit an entirely different environment.  

There is also a double-edged sword in that it is entirely flexible and can be made to do almost anything you want it to, but that brings the question of knowing where to start. Also, once you have started, how do you make sure that you are continuing to build a sustainable, simple and a sensible system?

So by now you’re probably asking, “does it work?” Well, I have been working with this for three years now and we are making it work for our business, across multiple countries.    

Has open source been the easiest option? No, if we were simply looking for ease then it would have been far easier to pay a supplier a large amount of money for their system and they would have done much of the work for us. But this option would have left us with an inflexible system and high yearly cost.  

To make open source deliver we needed a great development company working alongside us every step of the way, dealing with the support, maintenance and "system ownership" side of things. In-house we have a small and now highly skilled team with a vision of how this works across our global business. We’ve had to come up with workarounds when the package was clearly built to manage education and not business needs, but the beauty of the open-source approach is that we have been able to influence the core code in these areas and we now have a product that is fit for purpose.

In Tesco's experience, open-source resource can meet the demands of a corporate world, as long as everyone involved is prepared to roll up their sleeves and get stuck in.

Jane Williams (pictured) is head of e-learning at Tesco. She will deliver a seminar on Harnessing open resource with Steve Rayson, managing director of Kineo, at the forthcoming World of Learning Conference, taking place at NEC Birmingham on 2-3 October 2012. For more details about the event, visit www.learnevents.com.

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