Assembling an Effective eLearning Project Team

Assembling an eLearning project teamGood project managers know that assembling an effective team is not a plug-and-play proposition.  Slotting available resources with specific technical expertise into the right roles is the easy part, but elements such as personality, communication skills, and professional priorities must also be considered. Even if team members can crank out eLearning courses in their sleep, if they are unable to fully understand what the client wants, then the deliverables will be unremarkable and limiting. To make your eLearning efforts remarkable and unlimited, take a few pointers from some seasoned eLearning project managers on assembling an effective eLearning project team.

Pre-project Planning

First, be prepared to do a certain amount of upfront legwork before assembling your team. The most important question you’ll need to answer when meeting with your client is “What problem needs to be solved?” To find that answer, you’ll need to ask some initial scoping questions. Listen to the client and ask any questions that help paint the whole picture.

  • Has the client encountered this problem before?
  • What was the solution and was it resolved successfully? Why or why not?
  • Is there existing training material to be reused?
  • Will the new eLearning require a specialized subject matter expert and/or developer (such as someone with expertise in developing a cockpit simulation for pilots)?
  • What is the intended goal of the eLearning – certification, on-demand context-sensitive help, hands-on learning?

The client may begin the conversation confident they know the problem, but through your facilitated discussion, discover that the problem is something else entirely. For example, is the client asking for a new curriculum of eLearning courses, when they really need a context-sensitive help menu for their new software application? As the project manager, your first task is to uncover the underlying need, even if the client does not see it, and then assemble the team best equipped to implement the solution.

Your client likely has expectations as to the kind of deliverable they want, but sometimes they want you to propose options. Rarely can this be resolved in a single meeting; instead, you should expect several sessions of questions and answers, intermixed with capabilities research. Q&A sessions should include questions regarding the client’s existing eLearning infrastructure (if they have one). For example:

  • Do they use an LMS? If so, which? If not, do they want recommendations on which one to use?
  • How will the learners access the eLearning materials (PC, mobile, printout, etc.)?
  • What are their particular software requirements and server limitations?
  • What type of metrics and data do their managers need to collect after the learners complete the training?

Once you have compiled the results of your Q&A meetings and your research, use this data to:

  1. Assess the client’s need.
  2. Determine if your company is capable of developing a solution and interested in taking on the project.
  3. Propose and gain acceptance of a deliverable(s).
  4. Assemble your project team.

Identify the Nature of the Project: Methodical vs. Innovative

With project pre-planning complete, you’re ready to take on the next stage in assembling your team. Based on the results, categorize your eLearning project as being either methodical or innovative in nature. A methodical project is a pre-defined, cookie-cutter project where the client dictates exactly what they want for the deliverable(s). This project lends itself well to assembling by-the-book team members who are experts in the required software, educated in the underlying methodologies, and have completed similar deliverables on other project teams. Choosing by-the-book members for your team enables a higher efficiency than selecting those with a more innovative mindset, resulting in a reduced cost and shorter delivery times.

Beware of how you select the team for a methodical eLearning project.  As Steven Loomis pointed out, “When building a team there is a natural tendency to want the brightest and most up-to-date players for each role… However, this can create a false sense of security; there is a significant danger when a team consists of these certified, credentialed individuals. Each of these specialists will tend to default to specific defined methods and processes. Such mechanisms make sense as they reduce risk, but in doing so, they may discourage innovation and personalization.”

At the other end of the spectrum, an innovative project is a unique challenge from the client perspective, i.e., where the client knows they have an existing problem, but they don’t know how to correct it. Consequently, the client leans heavily on the project team to not only deliver the solution, but to devise it as well. An innovative project requires team members to act as true consultants by considering client wants, analyzing system capabilities and limitations, and proposing customized or wholly original solutions. This project needs a team of creative thinkers with a broad range of experience. A creative thinking team is more likely to find solutions that methodical-minded team members would never consider, thus generating unique possibilities for service offerings to add to your business’ portfolio.

On the negative side, creative thinkers are more likely to experiment (i.e. trial and error), which increases project duration, costs, and often client frustration levels. When devising solutions, creative thinkers, especially those from disciplines outside of instructional design, may draw from personal experience instead of proven eLearning methods. Be certain that any solution is capable of producing measurable results (e.g. recorded scores from valid assessments or successful system task completion percentages).

As you assemble your team, you need to recognize which mindset your candidates are prone towards. Candidates are not one-dimensional; they exhibit traits of both categories, but through the interviewing process, you will recognize tendencies they demonstrate toward either the methodical or innovative mindset.

Interviewing Project Team Candidates

Regardless of any other qualifications the person has, avoid selecting team member candidates who do not share the strategic vision for the project. The strategic vision is the “why” and the “what,” not the “how.” Why is your team agreeing to take on the project? What is the overarching goal(s) beyond the deliverables? Is it to build a corporate relationship between your company and the client? Is it to develop junior team members? Aligning with the strategic vision requires commitment from the team members to work for the team, not strictly for their personal goals.

The next step is to filter the candidates by skillset and experience based on the specific project needs you and the client identified during pre-planning. In her article, Essential Skills for eLearning Developers, Jill Parman describes the variety of written and technical skills an eLearning Developer should possess. Does your project call for formal education on instructional design theory? Does it require advanced knowledge of the client’s business or specific business facet? Keep in mind that for medium- to large-scale projects, skill and experience are enablers. A team member having expertise in instructional design can aid those that do not. Having someone with prior experience working with the client can make the client feel more confident in your team. The table below lists potential candidate strengths and possible team roles that someone with those skills could fulfill.

Candidate Areas of Strength Potential Roles
Academic credentials Instructional designer, scenario writer
Core competencies (methods, languages, software) Technical architect, developer
Business area expertise SME, business analyst
Existing client relationship SPOC, coordinator
People management Team/group leader (for larger scale projects)

 

When it comes time to interview the candidates, watch for red flags during the interview process. Candidates that exhibit an over-inflated ego or appear to be closed to suggestions/critiques often create conflict amongst team members and with the client.  Under-qualified candidates are likely to struggle and to be seen as a burden by the team or themselves, unless you take preventative steps. If the strategic vision includes educating junior team members, ensure the more experienced team members are given specific roles in their development. Otherwise, exclude under-qualified candidates from consideration. In addition, remember that candidates who are already taxed by multiple projects will lack availability even if they are qualified and well-intentioned.

Play to Your Strengths and Foster Learning

It is up to you as project manager to decide how best to leverage all team member skillsets when executing the project. Encourage team members to extend themselves, but recognize their limitations and don’t set them up to fail. For example, someone possessing strong programming skills, but uncomfortable presenting to the client is better in a behind-the-scenes role. Someone with a likable, engaging personality, but lacking in technical expertise is better in a coordinator and/or client-facing role. Avoid putting your team members in a “sink or swim” position. If, as the project progresses, someone is struggling, evaluate if that person can switch roles with another team member or if you can provide resources to assist him/her.

Above all, think big picture. If this is a unique project, take steps to develop it as future service offering. Offer team workshops that enable members with different backgrounds a chance to gain valuable experience and insight into eLearning tools and methods. Set time aside in your schedule to mentor your team, especially the junior members. Identifying the project nature, required skill sets, and the strengths and weaknesses of your candidate pool comprise the essentials to drive your project toward success and pave the way for future business opportunities.

Sources:

http://www.learningsolutionsmag.com/articles/1148/build-a-dream-team-for-your-elearning-project

http://techwhirl.com/essential-skills-elearning-developers/

Chris Denman

Chris is an independent business education and management consultant. He worked his way through the ranks of IT consulting as a training developer, technical architect, team leader, and service delivery manager. His professional interests include the integration of process modeling and training, interactive learning, and change management. Outside of work, he is often seen sporting tech shirts, chasing his kids around the soccer field, and watching American Ninja Warrior. You can find him on Linkedin and follow him on Twitter.

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