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By Lisa Toenniges
Is your organization taking project management seriously?
Strong project management must be an element of any mission-critical organizational change. The implementation of Six Sigma or an enterprise resource planning system (ERP), the launch of a new product, a merger or acquisition — these are all monumental corporate events. If there are learning initiatives that support these high-level corporate directives (and there should be), each warrants not just good project management, but the best project management.
The project manager is the one who is ultimately accountable for the success of the project. This means he or she is responsible for clarifying roles and responsibilities (Who’s sponsoring this? Who’s on the team, and what are their skills?), clearly defining the project goal (What exactly are we developing, and how will its success be measured?), conducting a solid project kickoff meeting, coordinating development activities, tracking the budget, maintaining and driving the schedule, and ensuring that the intended results are achieved.
It’s not enough to assign a training project to an instructional designer and provide a few course objectives and a due date. A project manager is required to manage the “Big 3”—quality, schedule, and budget—and balance the three as defined by the organization.
But whether you’re an instructional designer, a trainer, a project manager, or a learning leader, keep on reading… no matter your level of experience or responsibility, you can certainly benefit from some of the ideas presented in this article. You may be the one who can actually make it happen, or you may be able to offer suggestions to those around you. Don’t underestimate your ability to influence the actions and effectiveness of those you work with!
We’ve described what project management is, but why is it such a big deal with a training project?
First of all, with most complex learning initiatives, we are working with multiple audiences, multiple sponsors, and multiple locations. We must contend with unclear job roles, fuzzy performance requirements, and countless subject matter experts—and quite often, not enough time or budget to get it all done. The project manager needs to make sense of all this and manage the Big 3 effectively.
But project management is also important because learning initiatives must have a direct impact on the organization’s business goals. If training doesn’t improve productivity, increase customer satisfaction, reduce expenses, or have some similar positive effect, we have failed.
The only way we’re going to get through this unscathed is with the best project management.
The good news is that best practices have emerged for project management in designing, developing, and implementing learning programs. Successful training vendors use a systematic approach to project management (or else they probably wouldn’t be in business in the current marketplace). But internal training departments should be just as rigorous about staying on schedule, keeping within the budget, and producing deliverables at a level of quality defined by the organization.
So what is it that learning professionals need to consider with regard to project management? What is the best project management, really? What does it look like?
If we don’t get this first part right, our projects will be hampered from day one. We absolutely must select the right person for the role of project manager. This is an important point that many organizations miss: Not everyone is cut out to be a project manager. It is a profession with a defined set of competencies and personal characteristics. And these competencies include more than just the ability to create a full-color, detailed, 27-page schedule.
A successful project manager must wear a lot of hats. He or she must have highly developed skills in the areas of communication and interpersonal effectiveness, planning and organizing, financial management, customer focus, and on and on. But there are personal characteristics that come into play, too: Effective project managers must be energetic and flexible, have a high tolerance for ambiguity, exhibit a relentlessly positive attitude, and maintain a strong team orientation.
Let’s face it — an ERP implementation can easily cost $50 million. Because of this, companies generally assemble their brightest and most highly compensated individuals to spearhead these projects. The project manager for the learning aspect of the project should be just as competent as the other leaders on the project.
Most organizations know the basics of project management. But they need to take it one step further and establish a common process and create tools so that projects are managed consistently across the function or department. The last thing we want is project managers making things up as they go, creating custom tools, and designing the process in the middle of a project.
A relatively easy, yet important task for the learning function is to develop and document its project management practices. These should include a process that maps out the various phases of the typical learning project, such as research, design, development of materials, pilot, and so on, along with project inputs, outputs, and milestones.
Also important is creating tools such as templates, guidelines, and samples that support the key steps within your process. These might be agendas for common types of meetings, a master PowerPoint slide to provide a common look and feel, a basic project status report, or even boilerplate text for the standard sections of any facilitator guide. Other helpful tools might include a list of minimum requirements for what must be included in a project schedule, or an editorial style guide describing appropriate word usage, capitalization, andpunctuation.
These documents can then be stored online in a central location so they can be easily accessed by the team and updated as continuous improvements are made.
And all of this can, and should, be done with a broader perspective in mind than just one specific project. We already know that there are certain fundamental steps we must go through in order to have a successful learning project — so we should document those carefully and make sure we have the right tools and templates to make the job easier along the way.
While it may take some investment in time and resources up-front, setting standards and having the right tools in place will cost less in the long run. We will not be faced with the challenge of having to re-create the wheel for each discrete project. Moreover, both the project team members as well as our customers will come to expect, recognize, and appreciate the consistent materials and communications that we produce… and the positive results we generate.
But it can’t stop here. Now the right expectations need to be set with the team so that people are clear this is the way the group will operate. A series of project management workshops is often a good way to roll out these new practices. This will help to obtain buy-in, make refinements to the tools, and build skill and camaraderie among the staff.
The team members across the company will be grateful to have a strong project manager and a path to follow when it comes to training. This enables them to focus on the aspect of the project they were assigned to do and be confident that the learning aspect will come off flawlessly.
So can you see the difference now between good project management and the best project management? Many people can talk about it, but it is only the best project managers who engineer and actually do all of the things I’ve mentioned here… consistently and happily.