Project management in L&D

L&D is, fundamentally, about change.

Written by Mind Tools
Published 21 July 2016
Project management in L&D

Yet it's false logic to argue that, since change is inevitable, L&D will just automatically be successful. Successful L&D needs careful planning and management - and that brings it under the rules of project management.

Any project involves four main parties:
  • The client (in this case, the learner), who expects both benefits and change from the project.
  • Management, who makes demands on resources and time because of its expectation that the project will make a profit.
  • Other stakeholders, who may be drivers, inhibitors or neutral, depending on their viewpoints.
  • The project team (L&D), who needs understanding and motivation to succeed.

What tends to happen with generic projects is that a business case is made. If that's approved, a feasibility study (learning needs analysis) is completed. If that's OK, some development work takes place, a project team is formed and a project manager is selected. There's a trial of the product (a pilot training program) and then, if all is satisfactory, the product (program) is rolled out.

All projects need a 'champion', who could be the client (learner). Clients tend to believe that nothing is happening on the project until they see some results, yet most of the work on the project happens before the implementation stage. Many project teams get over this problem by producing a prototype (pilot program). Making the project (L&D) manager responsible for the project's implementation is dangerous.

There are a number of reasons for this, not least the potential conflict between delivering a product on time and within budget versus quality. In addition, the project manager may not know the project's history.
Project managers need to know about the early shaping of the project, because this justifies the project's funding and defines the expected benefits. The client establishes the project's objectives and forms expectations - although clients are unlikely to communicate these to the project manager! In time, a brief emerges but a great many things may be obscured by immediate concerns, inappropriate detail, and mistranslation.

Project management: Controls

After the initial phase of a project, project (L&D) managers should have three controls available to them: the schedule, the budget, and deliverables. However, your project will fail if you try to control all three before it is fully specified. For example, when you are operating on a fixed budget, reducing the time allowed for the project will result in reduced quality.

Project management: Resourcing

Moreover, beware of adding more people to a project that's already late. That will just make it even later. At some point, the size of your project team will make communication difficult and, eventually, you'll spend longer communicating than you do working on the project. This increases the project's cost considerably if you have a schedule that's too short for the job in hand. Among the proactive levers of project control are:
  • Value and risk. Controlling these keeps the project on track and, at the same time, monitors benefits and likely outcomes
  • Deliverables
  • Quality
  • Risks.

Some generic sources of risk include:
  • Poor or incomplete specifications
  • Changing specifications. Things change because the client's ideas and wants change, needs change, and, of course, we're in a fast-moving industry and market
  • Workers. People can become ill, or leave. They may be less experienced than you'd hoped, or they may be unwilling to embrace change
  • The need to integrate the project's results with the client's learning management system (or similar software). This may not be understood or specified closely, and, of course, not all systems are the same and/or compatible with other systems
  • There can be failure to agree the acceptance criteria. Suppliers can go into bankruptcy or fail to deliver on time, their key workers can become ill or leave their jobs, and there may be incompatible products from multiple suppliers
  • Other stakeholders in the project may have their own agendas. There may also be a lack of technical infrastructure; the operational process is ill-defined; the final product won't "scale" to meet demand; the Internet service provider lacks the necessary bandwidth to deliver the product, and so on.

So, you need to think broadly about risk management through all phases of the project. When you're considering risk planning, you need to bear in mind that people will be able to tolerate different levels of risk, and will tend to raise the risk on a project to their perceived highest acceptable level. You should rate each risk on a scale of one to 10, for the probability of it happening during the life of the project. Then rate each one, on the same scale, for its impact on the project. These two scores are multiplied, and any risk that scores more than 25 should be examined urgently. This is not a one-off process. A project's risk profile changes as the project progresses. So it's preferable to review risks regularly, perhaps even weekly.

Project management: Risk avoidance strategies

There are five basic risk reduction strategies:
  • Avoidance (Can I plan so that I eliminate the risk?)
  • Transfer (Can I outsource this risk to someone else? For example, taking out insurance.)
  • Reduction (Can I do things in another, less risky way?)
  • Acceptance with contingency (I can't avoid this risk but I have a plan to meet it when it happens.)
  • Acceptance with tolerance (I've allowed for this in my project budget and schedule.)

It's important that someone "owns" the risk register, but it's also important that everyone on the project team is aware of the risks. The next post on project management for L&D will look at such things as project delivery, quality and management. 

About the author

Mind Tools

Mind Tools

Mind Tools was started in 1996 to offer practical online learning to people in the workplace.

By the time they joined Emerald in March 2019, they had grown into the one of the world’s most comprehensive learning resources, with millions of individual learners in 50 countries worldwide.

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