This Learning ‘Project’ Is Not that Serious

All work isn’t project work.

Person working on a "project"For many learning and development organizations, the project model to get work done is pretty much the only model. It’s mostly fulfilling requests from business units and stakeholders. It’s also the basis for many vendor relationships.

From an instructional perspective, popular, if oversimplified, design models, such as ADDIE, tend to reinforce this default to treat all work as project work. The Project Management Institute defines a project as temporary, having a beginning and an end, as unique, in terms of its objective, and as having a defined scope and resource requirements.

If the work doesn’t have these characteristics, treating that effort as a formal project can result in unnecessary overhead, wasted effort, slow progress or less-than-optimum results. Such projects can last for years, discourage stakeholders, and require extensive workarounds and concessions. When learning leaders pair the project model with a linear instructional model, namely, ADDIE, the business consequences extend to ineffectual learning solutions.

Most of us have argued against one-and-done learning events with little or no follow-up, reinforcement or long-term ROI. To change best practices, redefine roles or create a sustainable solution requires a sustained effort that goes beyond the limited parameters of a project.

Of course, there are different types of project approaches. Agile project management, an extension of agile software development, allows for flexibility in timeline, scope and resources by focusing on smaller bursts or iterations that build progressively based on rapid feedback. This type of project management has been popular in learning and development because it allows for both speed and creativity. Neither traditional or agile project management, however, lends themselves well to routine work, smaller tasks or ongoing, permanent effort. Although many identified learning needs may indeed have a defined beginning and end, as with change management initiatives or the rollout of certain products, practitioners are often focused on the routine, the smaller behaviors, and the ongoing needs.

In addition to agile-style project management, here are four alternatives that lend themselves to work management that is more permanent, recurring, day-to-day, natively ad hoc, or that benefits from new processes, roles, organizational structures or tools.

  1. Extended teams: Establish a dedicated or extended team — either through an internal or external retainer agreement — to support stakeholders or business units whose needs reach beyond what is temporary or unique, defining characteristics for project work. Consider, for example, a business unit that brings on new team members every month. Treating this recurring need as a new-hire project doesn’t address the ongoing nature of the work. In this case, dedicating learning team members on a more permanent if partial allocation means they can build value over time as they work with the business unit.
  2. Subscriptions: Offering a subscription updates the concept of a service-level agreement to support an internal or external client. It defines the scope, resources and delivery expectations necessary to meet recurring needs. It provides a process-based solution in lieu of a project-based one.

In some cases, the specific context for the work may be unknown, and the agreement may define tiered levels of support and tools available to address ad hoc or day-to-day needs. Imagine basic and premium subscriptions available to business units with different needs and objectives. In cases like this, an LMS may be used to structure some aspects of the subscription, such as regular reporting.

  1. Packaged services: Another approach to manage work where the precise context or content may be difficult to forecast is to use packaged services. This model productizes the learning team’s value, essentially offering a prix fixe menu of options to meet common or recurring needs. Suppose a company has a business unit that needs very quick updates for its team members. If they develop a microlearning approach with a predefined scope and solution, learning leaders can meet the need for these small but timely updates without overhead for a project manager.
  2. Self-service: Some stakeholders and internal clients also may benefit from a self-service model where learning shares technology and resources but the client performs much of the production work. For example, a business unit may have subject-matter experts who need tools to run a community of practice. They may leverage the social platform offered through learning and development, but they provide the resources to sustain the strategy over the long term.

All of these models seek to replace project management costs, typically 15-20 percent of the overall project cost, with agreements, plans and technologies that can support a wider range of needs without the overhead. While it’s important to continue to provide professional-grade project management, it also can be valuable to recognize when best practices will be insufficient or inefficient to meet stakeholder needs. Thinking of other ways to manage work — and having a broader toolset to do so — better equips learning leaders to provide lasting value and solutions that do not work as well under the project umbrella.

Michael Noble is the chief learning officer and executive vice president for Allen Communication. Comment below or email