ALC Education, Tokyo, Japan
Ian Cross and Yuko Shibata
PHOTOS BY KAORU FUJIMOTO
An education provider learns all about the project management payoff.
SOMETIMES STEALTHY is the way to go.
Rather than officially adopting project management, ALC Education allowed the practice to creep into its corporate culture.
And the payoff has been obvious.
Revenue has soared, employees have embraced new roles and responsibilities, and morale has improved, says Ian Cross, manager of the project management division of the business education provider.
The shift to project management began about two and a half years ago. Best known for its English-language business courses, ALC Education was looking to add global management programs on its home turf instead of having to send clients abroad.
To help get the program up and running, ALC Education turned to a team of consultants from the United States and the United Kingdom. The lineup included Kimberly Wiefling, principal of Wiefling Consulting in Redwood City, California, USA, and author of Scrappy Project Management: The 12 Predictable and Avoidable Pitfalls Every Project Faces [Scrappy About, 2007].
Ms. Wiefling first began working with ALC about five years ago, teaching the organization's courses to Japanese businesspeople sent to California for training. In 2006, the company asked her to come to Japan and lead an English-language business skills workshop.
A big proponent of project management, Ms. Wiefling “lives and breathes that approach to everything,” Mr. Cross says. “Everything is framed in terms of project management.”
Her philosophy resonated with managers at ALC. After sitting in on Ms. Wiefling's project management courses, executive director Yuko Shibata became a convert.
“Through the workshops I started paying attention to project management,” she says. “We could connect what she was talking about and see how to apply it to ALC.”
It was a huge departure for the organization.
from left, Ian Cross, Yuko Shibata, Kimberly Wiefling and members of the ALC Education team
Headquarters: Tokyo, Japan
Satellite offices: Fukouka, Nagoya and Osaka
Employees: about 180
ALC was a model of typical Japanese organizational culture, Mr. Cross says, in that everyone had a clearly defined task, with little overlap between teams and functions. If employees were swamped with work, they would simply soldier on. “You don't cast around and ask for help. It's seen as weakness,” he says. Conversely, if employees had down time, they wouldn't pitch in to assist anyone else, but would instead wait for the next task to come across their desk. “When people have nothing to do, they have nothing to do,” he explains. “Taking a project management approach meant that this was no longer the most efficient way to get things to done.”
And as ALC branched out into the on-site global management program, the corporate culture began to shift.
Rather than sales just selling, coordinators just coordinating, and administrators just administering, staff members began working together in project teams to perform tasks such as creating courses, recruiting instructors, booking venues and providing participant orientation. Today, about 20 of the approximately 180 people on staff are involved in project management in some form or fashion.
These days, the team goes in armed with a full arsenal of tools: spreadsheets, project scorecards, flowcharts and communication maps.
Each new client who signs up for a global management course is considered a “project,” and a team is assembled. Customer expectations are considered a top priority when planning how to implement a project. Team members look at who the stakeholders are, determine their measures of success, identify the overall goals of the project and develop a plan to accomplish things that initially appear to be unattainable.
Adopting project management practices “allows us to do more without constantly needing more people.” –Ian Cross
“This was the biggest benefit—being willing to say, ‘Let's think about this. It seems impossible, but what would make it possible?’” Mr. Cross says.
There's also a sense that everyone is in it together, so no one wants to drop the ball and let others on the team down.
Adopting project management practices “allows us to do more work without constantly needing more people,” Mr. Cross says.
And now project management has “sort of stealthily spread out as we get more people involved from different sectors,” he says.
For example, the organization plans to upgrade the English-language version of its website. In the past, Mr. Cross says, everyone would have talked about it, but no one would have stepped forward to take on the project. People would have said they were too busy or didn't know enough about web design.
But things have changed.
Executives assigned a program director for the website upgrade. And a team has been assembled, with representatives drawn from across the company, including admissions, sales and translation services.
There are also plans to expand the business to offer more services, including online business training, coaching and assessments.
Project management practices have most recently been introduced in the ALC Education unit that teaches business English to Japanese companies. In the past, the teachers seldom met together, and “there was outright hostility among people,” Ms. Wiefling says.
There had been little communication about organizational goals, and clarity of roles was lacking. So team members settled in for a daylong meeting where they discussed executive sponsors and goals, and put action plans into place.
The session helped to “break down barriers of ‘That's your division, that's your department, that's your job,’” Mr. Cross says. In the future, full-time instructors will take on a greater role in sales, delivery, development and feedback.
ON THE SLY
Mr. Cross says he thinks it helped that there were no grand announcements that ALC Education was adopting project management techniques. “I really wasn't aware what we were doing at the time,” he recalls.
If the organization had made a conscious decision to implement project management, Mr. Cross says, “it would not have happened so quickly and enthusiastically.”
But as it slinked its way into the corporate culture, team members began to notice the results.
Of course, they were pretty hard to miss.
Revenue generated by the executive training courses has soared. During the first year, the program brought in about $1 million. In the second year, it jumped to about $5 million. And this year, Mr. Cross expects to triple that amount.
Along with providing a nice little revenue boost, ALC Education's shift to project management has helped re-energize employees.
People were “stuck in a rut. They were doing the same thing all the time,” Mr. Cross explains. “Now they wear several different hats, depending on the program they're involved with.” —Susan Ladika
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