Becoming e-xperts in project management for knowledge management and online learning systems

Introduction

The world of eBusiness is experiencing a rate of growth and change that is unprecedented. Businesses in the business of providing web-based technology solutions are struggling to keep up with the technology changes, to say nothing of applying and enforcing project management best practices. As such, customers are suffering delays in timelines for their own initiatives or to meet critical deadlines they are being forced to use software products that are less robust than what their business requirements dictate. Speed-to-market and competitive differentiation are two of the most important factors driving web initiatives today. The challenge for project managers is to discover or develop a rapid web development methodology that will allow them to bring in their web development projects fast enough to keep pace with the industry.

One way to meet these driving factors is the convergence of a proven custom web-software development methodology and the PMI® methodology. These combined processes facilitate a deliverables driven model, support an iterative rapid application development process, and leverage strict project management principles to bring the project in on time and in budget—two of the most important customer satisfaction criteria.

The Xpedior Process, a five-phased methodology, assists the development team in designing and delivering a reliable, innovative eLearning and/or other Knowledge Management (KM), solution to meet the goals of the executive sponsor and their team. During phase one, the Imagine phase, it is important that eLearning and KM strategists and instructional designers, along with the executive sponsor of the system, work collaboratively to “imagine” new and exciting ways to either capture and share intellectual capital, course content and/or train learners in new ways on critical bodies of knowledge and/or skills.

For web solutions to be delivered effectively, timely and within budget it is important that a team consisting of an executive business sponsor, a project manager, strategic and business consultants, instructional designers, information architects, creative designers, and technology experts come together at different phases to collaborate and coordinate the design, development and delivery of eLearning and other Knowledge Management systems.

Phase 1. Imagine

Creating the Vision

During the Imagine phase the executive sponsor, strategic consultant(s), information architects, instructional designers, subject matter experts (SMEs), and the project manager come together to brainstorm and envision an eFuture that meets the criteria for initiating the eLearning/KM project. These interactive sessions may be informal or formal utilizing professional facilitators to set the project goals and strategic vision. Visualization techniques in the form of live-site reviews, user experience maps, and story-boards help speed the process and ensure a successful outcome.

At this phase, the project manager must “chunk” the various initiatives or applications into logical development units in order to manage client expectations at the onset of the phase. For example, a client who wants to develop an eLearning application for new employee training must “chunk” and prioritize the different levels, including orientation and job specific training. The client is then able to pick and choose which components are critical to their go-to-market strategy.

Phase 2. Define

During the Define phase the team including business analysts, instructional designers (for eLearning applications), information architects, creative designers, the project manager, and technical architects work together to analyze the target audience, identify the functionality and user-experience parameters requirements, set objectives, and select the best solution for the budget and speed-to-market requirements.

Exhibit 1. The Xpedior Process

The Xpedior Process

Exhibit 2. Project Roles

Project Roles

Source:Robert Egert, Epedior

Requirements Definition

Depending on the size of the team and the importance of reaching consensus on the requirements definition, this phase may either be accomplished using informal facilitated meetings or formal Joint Application Design (JAD) sessions. Often before the team gathers, the business analyst will develop a “straw man” for the requirements definition, through a series of interviews, observations, existing documentation and/or existing systems reviews, and a through review of the strategy document from the Imagine phase. Included in the “straw man” will be a definition of the current business environment, goals and measurable performance objectives for the new system, detailed target audience profiles, definitions of what the different classes of users will or will not be able to do using the system, entry behavior characteristics of the users, and how will acceptable user and system performance be measured.

Following the requirements gathering activities, a Business and Functional Requirements Document is drafted and the team meets again to prioritize requirements and if necessary break them into phases for development. In scenarios where consensus across functional groups is required, a ratification meeting where all groups approve and sign-off on the requirements and the prioritization can be beneficial to satisfaction on the final development effort. These efforts are a critical step in defining the project scope for the remainder of the engagement.

High Level Design

Following the requirements gathering the team will work together to develop a High Level Solution Design Recommendation. To accomplish this the team will need access to the existing site, branding and/or content materials that are currently available as well as access to a pilot group of users, existing style guidelines as well as access to infrastructure planning groups to discuss any short-term or long-term technical platform strategies that may impact the application.

Exhibit 3. User Experience Maps

User Experience Maps

Source: Robert Egert, Xpedior

Key activities include creation of user case scenarios, review of existing branding and style guidelines, describing all business process and workflows as well as mapping all data flows. Resulting outputs can include user-experience maps that will preview how a user will experience an application, workflow diagrams describing the interaction between users and the system under development as well as with other systems, a proposed high-level site map, initial creative design concepts.

Instructional Strategy

For eLearning applications this is the time when the instructional strategy will be developed by the instructional designer in collaboration with the information architect. The instructional strategy will include pre-course activities, student motivation, information presentation, instructional sequence, student participation, testing, and follow-through.

Pre-course activities will include ways to help the learner, measurable learning objectives, prerequisite skills, course description, length of training, suggested learning sequence and any pre-work required in preparation for the learning. Student motivation is key to successful learning. The less motivated the learner, the more time will need to be spent on making the learning exciting and fun. When training adults it is particularly important to let them know what they need to know prior to taking the course and what the objectives are for the learning experience.

eLearning often requires new ways of information presentation and instructional strategies than from other more traditional methods of delivery. Most other types of media demand that the instructional designer sequence the curriculum in a logical order: first step to last, left to right, top to bottom. Since the web most often puts the decision on what to do when in the hands of the user, instructional designers must rethink traditional methods of logical sequencing. Thought should be given to designing an instructional strategy that allows the learner to learn what they want when they want to learn it. eLearning focuses on training that is “just in time, just enough, and just for me.” Recommendations for a specific learning sequence should be available to the learner, but preferably not forced upon them. This is particularly important when the subject matter being presented is for the adult learner. Care and thought must be given to the size of the curriculum unit, the content being presented and what types of examples and samples will be displayed.

Student participation is key to successful eLearning strategies. Activities should be consistent with accomplishing the learning objectives and feedback should be provided. Both practice and feedback should be encouraged.

Exhibit 4. Workflow Diagram

Workflow Diagram

Source: Robert Egert, Xpedior

Testing can occur on several levels, prior to commencing the learning, embedded tests throughout the learning units and final tests at the end of a learning unit or upon completion of the course. Post-course activities in the form of reviews and/or enrichment should be made also available.

Phase 3. Architect

Environmental Review and Package Selection

The Architect phase involves an in-depth, comprehensive assessment and environmental review of the existing technical architecture, along with any required evaluation of any existing third-party software. Review is made of the current technical and operational environment, current site and application (if applicable), corporate identity standards (if applicable) and any corporate operating system, platform or browser standards (if applicable). During a package selection phase, products will be analyzed by features and functions and weights applied to determine which product best meets the objectives.

Content Analysis and Online Learning/KM Environment Selection

At this time, content is thoroughly analyzed. For eLearning applications and many KM applications this is the time where the media and materials are selected and identified. What will be the nature of the online learning/KM environment. Choices include self-paced, asynchronous collaborative learning, and synchronous collaborative learning. In making these choices, care has to be taken as to whether the curriculum should be delivered solely self-paced, instructor-led/facilitated or a combination of both.

Self-paced online learning closely resembles other self-paced media. Online materials can be print-based, video, audio, context sensitive help or feedback, computer based training (CBT), or electronic performance support systems (EPSS). The learner takes the training on demand, when and how they want.

Exhibit 5. Tool Selection Matrix

Tool Selection Matrix

Asynchronous collaborative learning is characterized by variable time access, collaboration, and facilitation. The facilitator can be located at any distance from the learners and collaboration takes place using techniques like discussion databases, message boards, and e-mail. Asynchronous collaborative learning allows for posting lessons, course materials, and exams. Facilitators and instructors can grade assignments, monitor assessments and collaborative exercises, provide private and group feedback, support team collaboration and exercises, and make strategic use of SMEs.

Synchronous collaborative learning provides the online environment with a “virtual classroom,” and “face-to-face” contact. The facilitator or instructor is available at the same time as the students, collaboration is live and the learning becomes a structured event. Synchronous collaborative learning provides collaboration at the desktop, audio and video conferencing, electronic whiteboards, application sharing, private conversations, and chat rooms.

Once the required content is identified and existing content examined by the instructional designer decisions need to be made as to whether existing content can be modified for web use or whether new content must be designed or a combination of the two. Often it is difficult to ascertain where content might be in an organization, who owns it and what the process will be to edit content and maintain it going forward.

What type of training will be used to accomplish each content area's learning objectives: lecture/presentation, demonstration, simulation, games. Plan a standard format or curriculum design pattern for each learning unit. Determine what type of training media will be used: text, voice, voice over, video, animation, graphics, etc.

Project Plan

Now that strategy, goals, and objectives are set, requirements defined, a high-level design and instructional strategy in place, packages/tools have been selected and if applicable the online learning environment chosen, it is time to develop the detailed Project Plan for the Build Phase. Included in the Project Plan is a detailed work breakdown schedule, project critical success factors, server installation and preparation, client and network distribution and installation, data migration, content modification and/or development, testing plan, training plan, documentation plan, pilot, and roll-out plan. Required resources are identified and a project budget for the Build phase is established.

A critical success factor during this stage is identifying the content owners and evaluating when content can be ported to the application. In our information rich world of web applications, content has become very complex, and very underestimated.

The project manager plays a critical role in this phase. Here, the technical specifications are being developed for the application, as defined by the requirements gathered in the previous phase. This specification document incorporates all the business logic, information architecture, design work, brand extension to the web and technical architecture from which the developers will begin coding the application. Before entering the Build phase, these specifications must be reviewed carefully to ensure that the executive sponsor's expectations are being met before development begins.

Content Standards and Guidelines

A critical success factor in eLearning projects is to design and develop easy to follow standards and guidelines for SMEs to translate their knowledge and experience into course content for the web. SMEs are highly knowledgeable about their own fields of expertise, but not usually very knowledgeable about the learning process. They need to be guided through this process to extract the deep knowledge they hold.

One of the difficulties SMEs experience is in assuming that what they know is common knowledge. In fact, it's uncommon knowledge. It's what makes them the expert. This information is a part of their everyday professional life and it's easy to lose sight of the fact that it is usually new information for the audience. The SME and the instructional designer need to constantly ask “Does the audience already know this?” In fact, the first audience for this content will be the instructional designer. The instructional designer has to know the needs of the target audience and be ready to “push back” when assumptions are made about what the audience knows or needs to know. The SME needs to be tolerant of this process that can prove frustrating at times as the instructional designer repeatedly asks “What does that mean?”

Here are some general guidelines for content development regardless of the project:

1. Use the active voice when you want someone to do something.

Change: These steps should be used to identify all possible problems.

To: Use these steps to identify all possible problems.

2. Try to assume a positive rather than a negative tone.

Change: If you do not consider all possibilities, you could end up having missed an important measurement.

To: Be sure to consider all possibilities so you will not miss an important measurement.

3. To personalize your script and engage the user, write your instructions in the second person (you).

Change: When it is necessary to create a more orderly display of relationships…

To: When you need to create a more orderly display of relationships

4. Use a supportive rather than an authoritarian tone.

Change: Useful steps when trying to identify problems are as follows:

To: Here are some useful steps to follow when identifying problems.

5. Vary the length of your sentences to maintain the user's interest. You should use short sentences to introduce a concept and longer sentences to develop a point. Try to keep your longer sentences to no more than 25 words for ease of on-screen reading.

6. If you use an acronym, spell it out once when you first use it. For example, Subject Matter Expert was spelled out first and has appeared as SME since in this white paper.

7. Avoid the use of slang terms, non-English expressions and Latin abbreviations.

Phase 4. Build

Unlike many development models that rely exclusively on written specification, the Xpedior Process Build phase is directed through interactive workshops and visualization techniques such as storyboards, prototypes, user-experience maps, site maps, navigation schema, initial design sketches, workflow diagrams, schematic page layouts, and sketches of interactive components (pull-down menus, radio buttons, etc.). During this phase an interactive, iterative development model is followed using the documents delivered in Imagine, Define, and Architect phases as a guide to build all components. All members of the team work side by side so that the iterative development process can proceed at web speed. User interfaces are built, all functionality is built, test data and scenarios are constructed for quality testing, all components undergo unit test and regression tests follow on all systems. During this phase the creative design and instructional design are implemented and undergo formative evaluation and revision using a sample of the end-user population. The code is written, content is created or modified and then populated on the site. The completed system is tested.

Although the project manager is reviewing milestones with the executive sponsor, an iterative development approach can often lead to “scope creep.” Here, the client is beginning to see all of the plans come together and an application is evolving. The project manager must focus on managing the iterations and approval cycles to ensure that work is not continuously being edited to the point of slowing down the timeline for targeted delivery. Formal change control procedures need to be developed and adhered to strictly.

Phase 5. Deliver

During the Deliver phase, the solution is implemented, administrators are trained, and the system rollouts to the user or learner community. Finally, the system is transitioned to the ongoing support operation and maintenance team. The process does not end here. Summative evaluation should be performed to be certain that the target objectives have been met. A data collection plan is created and implemented and the data analyzed using the metrics established with the executive sponsor to determine if any gaps exist between the specified solution and what is delivered. This step is too often ignored even though it benefits both the executive sponsor and the project manager. The executive sponsor will receive hard data showing that they got what they specified. The project manager will be able to identify any gaps in their own processes as well as where they excelled in their processes. This data will be invaluable for future iterations of the solution.

Although this process has provided a firm structure for the successful development and delivery of web applications, the seamless integration of the PMI® methodology is key to controlling scope, budget, and ultimately, client satisfaction. As in all good project management, a thorough project plan with a detailed work breakdown schedule, scope control, accurate estimating, project change management and communication to the team and the executive sponsor are key to being an e-Xpert.

Credits

Exhibit 1: Xpedior

Exhibits 2, 3, 4: Robert Egert, Senior Information Architect, Xpedior

Exhibit 5: Xpedior

Contributing Editors: Paula Majerowicz, Senior Director Project Management, Xpedior, David Discenza, Managing Consultant eLearning, Xpedior

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI or any listed author.

Proceedings of the Project Management Institute Annual Seminars & Symposium
September 7–16, 2000 • Houston, Texas, USA

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