Do you know of a free too to…? When was the last time you asked the question “Do you know of a free tool …?” Was this your first attempt at solving the problem or last resort? Are free tools really free or is the cost hidden? Do we really understand all the costs involved?
Many of our readers know that we are active in some of the HR and learning & Development online communities. Sometimes questions asked spark ideas and thoughts to share. This piece is one of them.
The article started:
“Does anyone have any suggestions of any free online test designers we could use?”
This could have been:
- Does anyone know of any free distance learning courses…
- Does anyone know of any free software for designing…
- Does anyone know of any free programs…
- Does anyone know of any free survey tools…
- Does anyone know of any free tools that would allow me to…
- Does anyone know any free software or web based tool that…
- Do you know of a free tool …?
Who is looking for free or low cost tools?
When you look on the internet there seems to be a few sectors that seem to be looking for free or low cost products. Of course the home user and students want to be able to do things without paying a lot for software. We get that.
Next on the list are IT or Information Technology teams. Often looking for free code or applications to do small tasks. This is curious. Often in most businesses, infrastructure software is the largest capital spend outside physical buildings. Why the chase for free tools? Tools that are often not supported when things go wrong?
Then comes the worlds of HR & Learning and Development. If you look in many of the online forums for these sectors. Barely a day goes by without someone asking for a copy of something, or where can they get a free tool to do…
What is it worth?
The question that sparked this article in full was:
“I need to design a short online test for our employees to complete. We would like the employees to be able to see their results immediately once they have completed, without requiring us having to administrate the test marking process.”
On its own there is nothing wrong with this request.
From the individuals’ point of view, this is a valid request. They have a problem. They have certain internal limitations. They reach out to their network for support. They are doing their best to meet the needs of their employer.
Do finance or marketing use “free tools”?
Taking the same problem, I have looked at many forums for other professionals. Whilst there is the occasional request for free training. There is not the same level of requests for free tools. With one exception – social media marketing. In particular for data analysis tools.
To some extent this is understandable. The ability to publish on social media, LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook etc is free. So why would anyone pay for tools to do this or to data analysis?
It is business critical so we must have a free tool
This is something I do not understand. When we have identified that something is business critical, why do we search for a free tool. Free tools are often more time consuming to implement. The format and functionality of what they do is rarely aligned to what we want. We need to spend time extracting what they provide to suit our purpose. There is a cost but it is hidden.
When we pay for a business tool it is allowable against the tax a business pays. Hiding the cost of a tool or business process in staff time is not honest or helpful to anyone. Indeed, it actually reduces the productivity of a team.
The cost of compliance
In the example above, the tool was needed to ensure employee compliance. If people are not “up to date” then the business cannot trade. This could be said to be a Key Performance Indicator (KPI). Or a Critical Success Factor (CSF) for the organisation.
If this is compliance, then the business cannot operate without complying. So what is the cost to the organisation of NOT having these people proven to be compliant?
That is what it is worth paying to have such a solution in place?
Why do we attempt to cut costs on what could be business critical factors?
When we get past free data capture and analysis tools, we next bump into the next largest “market” for free products. Learning.
Many claim that their “people are their greatest asset”. Yet when it comes to spending on training and developing them, many corners are cut.
Recently I have undertaken some research into commodity training. A series of article sharing my experiences will be written in time. But a summary is simple. Buy low cost, and expect a “check box” exercise. Do not expect competence, no matter what the certificate says!
And as for low cost elearning for safety compliance – lest not even go there!
Many trainers in organisations look for free content to train their staff with. Or they seek free online materials. Why? What is this telling employees. Are we saying you are important and we are investing in you. Or is it saying, we need to do this and it’s the cheapest way we could find?
Whilst there is a lot of low cost and free content on the web. Not all is good quality. Even if it is, is it fit for purpose?
FREE Employee Surveys
One area that is often asked for are tools to carry out employee surveys. There are lots of free survey tools, Indeed many IT departments have them available, but we don’t ask! there are many hidden costs with such tools. Robustness of the questions – do they get the answers we want? writing such questions is both a science and an art. What about data analysis. What is the time to analyise data in a spreadsheet. Who pays that cost? are you measuring the right things?
When a survey that cost just a $ or tow per person provides accurate data and quick analysis. How many hours or days did you spend designing that employee engagement survey and analysing that data? What was the COST to your employer/ 2000, 3000? More?
What was the cost of a credible external tool? More or less/ what additional value could you have got from using a commercial product? What is the tax liability you have created by using that “free” tool?
The race to the bottom
The reality is that once you have the mentality of free or low cost you stop looking for value. The only way is down. Last year we paid 100, this year we are looking to reduce costs, and want to pay only 80. The trend will only ever be down. So will quality and value returned. Changing from one free product to another comes with costs. Time to learn.
It is just not sustainable
The curious thing of course is that stock markets are looking for increased margins. So for every firm cutting costs, another is increasing its shareholder value. The cycle is not sustainable. I pity those poor firms that pay 100 in year 1, then 80 in year 2, then 70 then 50… then some time later will have to pay 500. This will be because all the low cost players have been driven out of the market! Is your budget ready for that big jump? what will you do when you cannot afford it? What will happen to the business?
Free tools have their place
Of course for a pilot or a small one off project free tools have a place. But whilst we chase the free tools, we lose the reality of the VALUE we need to deliver to our customers.
This site is arguably run on a free tool. WordPress. But, I pay a developer to maintain it. On their advice I only use premium plugins. Ones I pay for. the reason? It is simple, they are supported, and it is in the suppliers interest to fix any bugs that occur. There is no obligation with providers of free tools. use at your risk!
When was the last time you asked the question “Do you know of a free tool …?” Was this your first attempt at solving the problem or last resort?