Cross-functional Project Teams & eLearning for Business Acceptance

3D team standingProject management in most companies today follows, to some degree, a project methodology designed to keep the effort focused on the business objective and managing the resultant changes. As a project manager, you have critical milestones around business acceptance of those changes that must be met before delivery. Those milestones often impact multiple departments or business units throughout the company. eLearning plays a critical role in introducing stakeholders to changes to operations, processes, and routines, but too often companies remain mired in silo approaches where the individual departments are responsible for creating their own eLearning following the project’s conclusion when eLearning should be used to gain business acceptance. Creating a cross-functional team (CFT), comprised of key decision makers and top talent from across the organization, can integrate eLearning into your project where you can leverage it for business acceptance.

Why Establish a Cross-functional Team?

A CFT comprises individuals from multiple departments within a company who collaborate to achieve a unified goal, typically through a single project or a set of related projects. Businesses commonly establish a CFT when a corporate-based initiative shares touchpoints amongst those departments. For example, a major consumer goods manufacturer decides to redesign the packaging for its flagship laundry detergent. Among the internal groups that might be impacted by this event are Packaging Design, Shipping/Distribution, and Marketing. At the outset, it may appear that only Packaging Design would be affected, but departments within a company rarely exist autonomously. In reality, several departments would face work process changes.  Shipping/Distribution would have to adjust for modified package sizes, which affects how product will be stacked onto pallets, placed into delivery trucks, and received by stores. As another example, Marketing would look to complete graphic redesign with implications related to ordering different and additional dyes, generating modified label sizes, and advertising to highlight the new and improved package. These examples of potential cross-functional touchpoints within a project illustrate the need that a CFT fulfills. Think of the potential horrific and costly results if the Packaging Design team decided to change the shape of the detergent bottle without involving any other departments or teaching employees across the company about the changes. Existing equipment to fill the bottles may not work properly with the new design, causing lost product and damaged equipment; warehouse employees may not load the product properly, resulting in spills or injuries; and customers may not recognize the newly designed product on the shelves without exposure to advertising. Such consequences cost time, money, and resources, and are completely avoidable by establishing a CFT which recognizes the importance of delivering eLearning as part of the business acceptance process. Trained and engaged employees will be the first to let you know if your project deliverable works or not. If training for those employees fails or does not exist, then business acceptance can only happen at the 30,000 foot view. Unfortunately, that view alone can be shortsighted and utterly wrong from a practical standpoint. A CFT built to deliver well-planned eLearning earns business acceptance, and employees prepare for the changes affecting them before they occur, instead of after the fact.

Surviving the Cross-functional Team Culture

Identifying  the need for a CFT and appointing team members are only preliminary steps to CFT management. To enable a CFT to operate at its potential, you as the project manager face a unique set of challenges. These challenges can be categorized into three areas:

  1. Work balance and loyalty: Team members are most often tasked with joining a project-based CFT in addition to, not in place of, their existing duties. Issues of both loyalty to their own departments and resentment of additional workloads can cause them to place higher priority on their existing work, than on a cross-functional project which has less influence on their departments and their compensation.
  2. Personality conflicts: The personalities of CFT members are as diverse as the skillsets they bring to the project. Certain employees will assert themselves as leaders, while others will prefer to be removed from the decision-making process. Conflict regarding priorities and approach will almost certainly arise. The article Building a Cross-functional Team refers to these as employee vectors. “A vector is a force that pulls in a certain direction and every project team member will have their own, created by their individual beliefs, thoughts, and desires. Within a team, it can be disastrous if everyone’s vectors are all straining in different directions-and even one “anti-vector” or team member forcing the current a separate way will have an adverse effect.”
  3. Short-term access: CFTs are temporary by design. Companies establish CFT project teams with either a desired end-state or deliverable, which, once achieved, enables the CFT to dissolve quickly. Former CFT members will move onto other projects, and person-to-person access is difficult to establish or maintain.

CFT ChallengesThese CFT culture challenges tend to manifest most strongly when considering business acceptance and eLearning development. Traditional single-department projects often push training and knowledge management aside until project delivery, which is usually too late. This problem exacerbates in multi-departmental projects where training development is always “someone else’s responsibility.” Worse still, silo-created eLearning content focuses only on the work within the individual departments and not how multiple groups work together. Within the silo environment, risks arise from the possibility that every department gives business acceptance by looking only at how they operate independently, while a critical flaw where two or more departments need to work in conjunction gets overlooked.  As project manager, you must seek to identify the cross-functional touchpoints as you engage your CFT in project planning.

Project Planning for Cross-functional Projects

Cross-functional project planning is an iterative, yet dynamic process that always moves the project toward completion. Planning for cross-functional projects includes all the same elements as single department project planning, but with additional objectives and considerations:

  1. Align the decision-makers on the corporate strategic vision for the project.
  2. Generate a project plan, with clearly defined scope, timeline, tasks/work, and milestones, that includes every department touched.
  3. Establish a cross-functional communication network (identify each department’s single point of contact, subject matter experts for core competencies, alternate contacts, etc.).
  4. Identify cross-functional touchpoints (handoffs, joint tasks, and multi-department approvals)
  5. Identify risks, pain points, and expected bottlenecks when the process moves between groups.
  6. Define training (eLearning) requirements (audience, limitations, delivery method(s)).
  7. Plot how to integrate eLearning into multi-departmental business acceptance testing.
  8. Define post-project eLearning maintenance procedures (who maintains, how notified, how tested, how deployed).

Iterative PlanningTo avoid dooming a project to confusion and rejection, you must build knowledge collection and eLearning development into the cross-functional project plan upfront, assigning actual resources to those tasks. Remember, training is the principal method to obtain business acceptance amongst the impacted groups, so you should plan and nurture your eLearning as the project moves toward completion. Do not allow the team to relegate eLearning development and delivery to an afterthought—it then becomes a significant risk to the company. CFT members move onto other projects and learners suffer from eLearning that is rushed, incomplete, and written by individuals with limited knowledge. To counter this, your CFT should create and revisit training repeatedly as the project advances. You must define post-project maintenance procedures (step 8 above). CFT members agreeing to “remain available” after the completion of a project is not usually sufficient. eLearning developers assigned late-stage or after-the-fact will struggle with gaining access to CFT member expertise the further removed CFT members become from the project. Define a specific protocol for communicating change, capturing knowledge, and retraining your learners. Otherwise, critical knowledge not communicated or captured properly will be lost.

Post-project Completion: Benefits of Long-term Business Partnerships

The business’ processes continue to change after the cross-functional project ends. Your eLearning quickly becomes obsolete and discarded (or ignored) if you fail to establish an effective change management process. Soon, all of the effort, time, and expense that went into developing the eLearning will be wasted. Typically, a small group of assigned training developers handles training maintenance. Establishing long-term cross-functional business partnerships with a defined method to communicate with this group is ideal to ensure the eLearning content stays accurate and up to date. Like other aspects of a development project, implementing a system that manages training change requests keeps training content maintenance organized and efficient. Upon identifying a change, a single point of contact from  the source department processes a change request (e.g. completing an online form). An assigned  training developer receives notification of the change and applies it, then sends the updated eLearning module to the originating department for assurance testing before redeploying the module upon approval. Through establishing long-term partnerships and a change management process, you can feel confident that your project remains a success long after your CFT has disbanded. In addition, you lay the groundwork for future CFT projects by setting a precedent to use eLearning for business acceptance and not introducing it after delivery.

Sources:

Building a Cross-functional Team. Updated April 19, 2007, from http://www.cbsnews.com/news/building-a-cross-functional-team/

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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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