Leveraging models and techniques from other disciplines to energize the project team

Introduction

Models guide project managers as they work with their teams to deliver project results focused, in the current competitive environment, on delivering business results. The models, which are a representation of reality, provide structure to the project's organization, strategies, and deliverables. They help the project manager to visualize the problem, to break it down into discrete, manageable units. Techniques provide the same benefits as models in equipping the project manager to direct the project team to implement a successful project. This paper provides the reader with models and techniques from other disciplines to leverage the wealth of knowledge in these other areas to deliver project and business results. As the complexity of projects continues to increase and time-to-market becomes a key business driver, the project manager needs a flexible toolkit that includes training the project team. Consider the following scenario where the project manager is responsible for implementing a new website and each team member does not have a background in technology or web concepts and there is not a training department to turn to for help in training the team. The project manager can utilize the information contained in this paper as a foundation upon which to develop training for the project team—starting with an understanding of how adults learn.

Background

Harold Kerzner (1998) outlines the core competencies of project management as team building, leadership, conflict resolution, technical expertise, planning, organization, entrepreneurship, administration, management support, and resource allocation. By using models and techniques from other disciplines, the project manager can leverage his or her effectiveness in these core competencies. In addition, by applying concepts such as system thinking, the project manager can capitalize on the knowledge of the project team increasing the probability of a successful project.

Change is part of the corporate landscape and the project manager is the architect of many of the changes. To drive these changes, understanding how adults learn and process knowledge can be the difference between a successful project and one that does not deliver the project's charter as companies move from training processes to learning process to knowledge management. Each project manager is a key in the team's ability to learn what is required to implement a project. For example, a web implementation project involves learning new software, working with/creating new processes as well as managing the team's knowledge acquisition.

Instructional Technology (IT)

The field of instructional technology (IT) offers a systematic process, based on research in human learning and communications, to design, train, and evaluate the total process of learning and teaching in terms of specific objectives and instructional design. Skills of the professional instructional designer include: conducts needs analysis; assesses the relevant characteristics of trainees; analyzes the characteristics of the organization's environment; performs task/content/job analyses; writes statements of performance objectives; develops and sequences performance measurements; specifies the instructional strategies; designs the instructional materials; and evaluates the training (Anglin, 1991, p. 364). The skills needed for an instructional designer in the IT field can help the project manager outline the types of activities, as well as assistance, that can be applied to enhance project learning.

The project manager can leverage IT theories and models to prepare the project team for success. Not only will the paper provide a background on how adults learn, but also outline the instructional process. Just as a project manager creates a project plan for task completion a plan for project team learning can also be created. This plan could be related to the project start-up activities including scope planning and activity definition. One of the key activities that the project manager performs is to determine what skills and knowledge the project team requires, most likely gathering this information from conducting a short needs analysis (the following website provides an excellent overview of how a needs analysis could be conducted: http://www.nwlink.com/~donclark/hrd/needsalt.html). There are various tools and techniques in the Instructional Technology field that you can explore to help not only in your training activities but also with general project tasks such as organizational learning and knowledge management. An excellent source for information is the University of Colorado at Denver School of Education site: http://carbon.cudenver.edu/~mryder/itcon.html.

Exhibit 1

Exhibit 1

Task Analysis and Instructional System Design (ISD) Methodologies

There are many project management methodologies that companies create and follow to address the specific needs of the organization. The training field likewise has developed a number of methodologies to address the development, implementation, and evaluation of performance attainment. These methodologies are referred to as Instructional System Design (ISD) Methodologies and the models represent a set of sequential steps where information gathered at one stage is used in other steps. The main steps in the various models include: analysis, design, development and evaluation. During the analysis step the learning goals are identified; the design step identifies the necessary skills and knowledge needed to accomplish the goals; the development considers learning theory and the principles of instruction; and the evaluation step includes evaluating the outcomes of instruction for possible further revision.

One of the models that outlines project management activities is that developed by Jerrold Kemp, Gary Morrison and Steve Ross (1994). This model includes nine procedures (instructional problem, learner characteristics, task analysis, instructional objectives, content sequencing, instructional strategies, instructional delivery, evaluation instruments, instructional resources) that are completed sequentially. Procedures performed simultaneously include revision and formative evaluation as well as planning, summative evaluation, project management and support services. An overview of the traditional ISD models is contained in the following article: Edmonds, G. S., Branch, R. C., & Mukherjee, P. (1994). A conceptual framework for comparing instructional design models, Educational Technology Research and Development, 42 (4), pp. 55–72.

A key process completed in the instructional systems design methodologies includes a task analysis after the problem has been clearly defined as a training problem. Anglin (1991) defines 30 task analysis methodologies and regards task analysis as probably the most integral part of the instructional development process. The Means and Gott cognitive task analysis includes capturing the underlying knowledge and skills used by experts in problem solving tasks. The technique includes: specifying and categorizing the major types of problems, having experts generate representative problems, working with experts to identify knowledge and skills required to resolve the problem, description of faults by the expert as well as how the expert would address each fault (Gordon, 1994, p. 98). After the task analysis the selection of tasks for training is completed for the intended population. Just as in a typical project the planning must accommodate the constraints of personnel, time, resources, budget, and environment.

How Adults Learn

The instructional system design methodology is based on a foundation of learning theories. Below are characteristics of the adult learner that will help in determining how to present the information. The characteristics of adult learners include: having “a deep need to be self-directing, but they have to be helped to overcome their conditioning from previous experience, that trainees are dependent on teachers; they usually bring into any learning situation previous experience and training that provide a rich resource for helping each other learn; they tend to be task-centered, problemcentered, and life-centered (rather than subject-centered) in their orientation to learning; they are primary intrinsically (rather than extrinsically) motivated to learn, given the right conditions and support” (Smith, 1990, p. 129). In addition, the adult learner:

•   Works best in a democratic, participatory, and collaborative environment and prefers to be actively involved in determining how and what he or she will learn.

•   Likes an active rather than passive learning experience working at his or her own pace.

•   Needs concrete examples and tends to be impatient with long discourses on theory and likes to see theory applied to practical problems or tasks.

•   Believes that learning is not complete until it is expressed in appropriate action.

•   Enjoys having his or her talents and information made use of in a teaching situation bringing his or her own experiences and knowledge into the classroom.

•   Is motivated by internal incentives and curiosity, rather than external rewards.

•   Learns better when material is related to his or her own needs and interests.

Based on the characteristics of the adult learner, and theories on learning, a typical learning experience should include the following:

•   Begin each session by motivating learners, expressing positive expectations, and outlining specific objectives.

•   Vary methods of instruction.

•   Define technical terms when using them—don't start with a laundry list of terms.

•   Present and illustrate content concisely in the simplest way possible—include having the learner do activities.

•   Give trainees the opportunity to ask questions during any presentation.

•   End each session with a conclusion that connects the learning with what was covered and will be covered as well as how it will be applied on the job.

•   Be guided by learners, always observing their reactions, acknowledging their concerns, and modifying the training when indicated (Gibbs, G. & Habeshaw, T., 1989; Kemp, J.E. & Smellie, D.C., 1994).

An excellent overview of the training process is provided by Gagné (1988) in his nine events of instruction (outlined in Exhibit 1) and the five types of learning which are: (1) psychomotor skills, (2) verbal information, (3) intellectual skills, (4) cognitive strategies, and (5) attitudes. Gagné believes that human performance needs to deal with multiple, rather than serial, learning objectives that should be linked to instructional goals.

The nine events of instruction are completed for each learning objective and are dependent on how information is processed and can be summarized as follows: (1) Attention determines the extent and nature of reception of incoming stimulation. (2) Selective perception, or pattern recognition, transforms this stimulation into the form of object-features for short-term memory storage. (3) Rehearsal maintains and reviews the items stored in short-term memory. (4) Semantic encoding prepares information for long-term memory storage. (5) Retrieval returns stored information to the working memory. (6) Response organization selects and organizes performance. (7) Feedback provides the learner with information about performance and sets in motion the process of reinforcement. (8) Executive control processes select and activate cognitive strategies (Gagné, p. 181).

Putting these theories into practice can mean the difference between knowledgeable team members that can execute on the project goals. Using the above adult learner characteristics and other topics covered in this paper. The highlights of your training plan and training should include:

•   Review the purpose of the project and why you believe training is needed. Conduct a needs assessment to determine if a gap exists between what knowledge is known and what is needed for project success.

•   Conduct a task analysis including how the software product will be utilized including what skills will be needed to work with the software; for example, is knowledge of a computer operating system required.

•   Analyze content that is to be learned.

•   Conduct learner analysis identifying the entry behaviors and characteristics of the learner.

•   Write performance objectives that include under what conditions the task will be performed including the standards for task performance.

•   Determine instructional, training, and learning strategies.

•   Develop a motivational plan, perhaps using the ARCS model of model of motivational design (Keller, 1987).

•   Develop the instructional plan considering the following points in the design of the training: (1) Gain the trainees’ attention by relating the topic to the their job. (2) Relate prior learning to tasks to be learned. (3) Cover the highpoints in a visual format remembering that people learn in multiple ways. (4) Present information in a logical sequence going from simple to complex when presenting new material. (5) Show trainee how to categorize (chunk) related information presenting information in categories. (6) Teach both inductive reasoning using examples and experience as well as deductive reasoning. (7) Provide opportunities for trainees to elaborate on new information connecting to prior knowledge. (8) Identify relevant and irrelevant attributes. (9) Provide for repetition of learning stating important principles several times in different ways giving examples and non-examples.

•   Instructional strategies should be planned and the following website provides an excellent resource: http://www.nwlink.com/~donclark/hrd/strategy.html.

•   Develop the implementation plan.

•   Conduct formative evaluation based on objectives as well as summative evaluation of learning.

•   Complete revisions as required.

An example of applying current thinking on how adults learn to instructional design is provided on the following website: http://www.prainbow.com/cld/clds.html http://www.prainbow.com/cld/clds.html. The site reviews the key elements (situation, groupings, bridge, questions, exhibit, and reflections) of designing active learning events. Using this example as a model the project manager can help to create a safe atmosphere for risk taking and sharing that reinforces the construction of knowledge by reinforcing that: (1) “Knowledge is physically constructed by learners who are involved in active learning; (2) Knowledge is symbolically constructed by learners who are making their own representations of action; (3) Knowledge is socially constructed by learners who convey their meaning making to others; and (4) Knowledge is theoretically constructed by learners who try to explain things they don't completely understand.”

Cognitive Flexibility

The design of instruction can also be enhanced by the use of collaborative learning environments to affect project results. A benefit of encouraging a collaborative learning environment is that characteristics necessary for more successful learning of complex material are potentially present in the interaction of individuals within working groups. Groups tend to bring different perspectives to a problem-solving situation and working through a problem together can also enhance team building.

As projects become more complex and ill defined, as well as innovation being the key to market value, the theories behind cognitive flexibility can offer the project manager ideas to improve the probability of project success. In addition, many projects require moving individuals at the novice level to expert level in ill-structured domain. Cognitive Flexibility Theory focuses on the nature of learning in complex and ill-structured domains. Spiro and Jehng define this theory as: “the ability to spontaneously restructure one's knowledge, in many ways, in adaptive response to radically changing situational demands…This is a function of both the way knowledge is represented (e.g., along multiple rather single conceptual dimensions) and the processes that operate on those mental representations (e.g., processes of schema assembly rather than intact schema retrieval)” (1990, p. 165). Jacobson and Spiro cite research indicating that methods that introduce subject matter and are appropriate for introductory knowledge for a topic are often ill suited and too simplistic for more complex learning. They outline five main points to be used in situations where very complex interrelated knowledge is to be learned: (1) Use multiple conceptual representations of knowledge, presenting a concept using many examples from different views. (2) Link and tailor abstract concepts to different case examples having a series of examples which illustrate abstract (and interrelated) concepts from many diverse points of view. (3) Introduce domain complexity early rather than breaking a complex topic into very small discrete parts, rather show the inherent complexity in a coherent manner so that the learner understands that complexity is a part of the concept. (4) Stress the interrelated and web like nature of knowledge demonstrating the matrix of interconnected and flexible links and encouraging knowledge assembly. Construction of the trainee's own schema on the complex subject should be encouraged rather than learning a standardized schema, which is usually learned by rote memorization (Jacobson & Spiro, 1995).

Systems Thinking

Systems Thinking is the study of interrelationships between seemingly unassociated parts of an organization and examining the patterns of interrelationships (Senge, 1994). Systems theory takes the holistic approach of examining how actions in one part of an organization can have consequences in another part. The system thinker is a person that sees four levels operating simultaneously: events, patterns of behavior, systems and mental models. Betty Cooper from the Center for the Study of Work Teams, University of North Texas believes that systems thinking is a requirement for all employees: “No longer can a person feel the safety and comfort of merely doing a day's work for a day's pay. Neither can an employee quietly pursue his or her job, unconcerned about what the other person is doing…Combine the increased complexity of jobs with almost insurmountable global competition, advancing technology, and the never ending need to improve performance, and this adds up to a need for change. This is not just change in the way things have always been done, but change in the way things are thought about and viewed. Now more than ever before, systems thinking is crucial for the entire work population…comprehension of the basic concepts, processes, tools, and benefits. As employees begin to see the enormous complexity of their organizations as a system and how systems thinking can diagnose problems, identify consequences, and reveal needed changes, it will emerge as relevant learning that produces greater efficiency.” The following website can provide the project manager an excellent tool to work issues by using causal loop diagrams to analyze qualitative data: http://www.sol-ne.org/pra/tool/loops.html.

Action Science

Argyris developed the practice of action science (a method for reflection and inquiry on the reasoning that underlies people's actions), double-loop learning, and feedback systems. Argyris coined the term “skilled incompetence” to explain how defensive behavior and the fear of collective inquiry by management may protect us from threat or embarrassment but also may block learning. His theories of organizational inquiry demonstrated ways to solve problems, enhance human development and learning, and promote individual, organizational, and social change. The following website (http://www.onepine.demon.co.uk/pargy.htm) is an excellent source to assist the project manager in applying the following theories into action: double loop learning, ladder of inference, theory in use v. espoused theory, defensive routines, and dialogue and organizational learning. The following points are outlined on the website that can assist the project manager in the role of facilitator: (1) Learning, as a group, to talk honestly and openly about what really is at hand. “The most fundamental assumption of the underground managerial world is that truth is a good idea when it is not embarrassing or threatening—the very conditions under which truth is especially needed.” (2) Learn to look beyond the symptoms of the problem to the dynamics underlying them. (double loop learning). Never stop asking the question “why?” (3) Approaches to learning must assist people to examine their existing mental models, identify their shortcomings, and construct more useful mental models. (4) Be concrete, not abstract, about solutions to problems, work at improving communications that will reduce the number of assumptions people make in interpreting directions and actions. Work at enabling people to really understand each other.

Information Processing Model

How a person processes information impacts their ability to assimilate—turning the information into knowledge. The Information Processing Model provides an approach based on the storage and retrieval of information, called the “stage theory” based on the work of Atkinson and Shriffin (1968). The model describes how information is processed and stored in three stages: (1) input or sensory registry, (2) short-term memory, and (3) long-term memory. The following website provides an overview of the model: www.coe.missouri.edu/~t377/IPTheorists.html#A. The site outlines points related to training that the project manager could apply in the design of a learning activity. Highlights include: Factors affecting Rote Learning: Highly meaningful words are easier to learn and remember than less meaningful words. This is true whether meaningful is measured by the number of associations the learner has for the word; by frequency of the word; by familiarity with the sequential order of letters; or the tendency of the work to elicit clear images. An implication is that retention will be improved to the extent the user can make meaning of the material. Practice effects: Active practice or rehearsal improves retention, and distributed practice is usually more effective than massed practice. The advantage to distributed practice is especially noticeable for lists, fast presentation rates or unfamiliar stimulus material. The advantage to distributed practice apparently occurs because massed practice allows the learner to associate a word with only a single context, but distributed practice allows association with many different contexts. Transfer effects: Transfer effects are effects of prior learning on the leaning of new material. Positive transfer occurs when previous learning makes new learning easier. Negative transfer occurs when it makes the new learning more difficult. The more that two tasks have in common, the more likely that transfer effects occur. Organization effects: Organization effects occur when learners chunk or categorize the input. Free recall of lists is better when learners organize the items into categories rather than attempt to memorize the list in serial order. Levels-of-Processing effects: The more deeply a word is processed, the better it will be remembered. Semantic encoding of content is likely to lead to better memory. Elaborative encoding, improves memory by making sentences more meaningful. State-Dependent effects State- or Context-dependent effects occur because learning takes place within a specific context that must be accessible later, at least initially, within the same context. For example, lists are more easily remembered when the test situation more closely resembles the leaning situation, apparently due to contextual cues available to aid in information retrieval. Inference effects Inference effects occur when learners use schemas or other prior knowledge to make inferences about intended meanings that go beyond what is explicitly stated in the text. Three kinds of inferences are case grammar pre-suppositions, conceptual dependency inferences, and logical deductions.

Balanced Scorecard

The work of Kaplan and Norton (1996) is expanding the role of measurement beyond financial metrics to directly tie to business results. Remember what gets measured gets done is a powerful tool of the project manager and borrowing from Kaplan and Norton can enhance the skill and results of any project. Their model measures organizational performance across the following perspectives: financial, customers, internal business processes, and learning. These measures not only address past history (financial) but also future value. The project manager could create a project scorecard to focus the team on the metrics that are important for project success.

Human Competence

Thomas Gilbert’ is considered the “father of performance improvement,” establishing a performance-based metric in his book Human Competence: Engineering Worthy Performance. According to Dr. Gilbert there are essentially two elements to measuring performance. First, establish a goal and second, determine how the employee measures up to it. His belief is that you should start with the end product and work backward—with a clear vision of the end result it is possible to identify the relevant performance, corresponding behaviors, and requisite skills and knowledge required to achieve the end result. Gilbert created the Behavior Engineering Model. This model questions the need for training to solve all performance problems, and it challenges the notion that people aren't performing because they “can't do the job” or “aren't motivated to perform.” The focus should be on process outputs or accomplishments. This accomplishment focus provides a clear and measurable link between what people do and the value they add to the organization. It is not what people do that matters but what they produce. He also outlines the following points: “at least three-quarters of all performance problems are caused by a failure to communicate clear and relevant job expectations; problems are related to a lack of providing employees with timely feedback; often employees do not have the tools and resources to do their jobs well; employees do not have good reasons (incentives) for doing the jobs in the first place. He also believes that it is important to measure all that we do.”

Conclusion

By leveraging the best practices from multiple disciplines, such as Instructional Technology and System Thinking, the project manager can increase their likelihood of delivering the project goals as well as increase the market value of the company. Every project starts with people, and people are influenced by their past knowledge and experience. In addition, people add to the their value and their contribution to the company by learning additional skills. As companies move away from a capital goods orientation to one of intellectual capital the role of the project manager becomes one of knowledge management. The tools in this paper can be the catalyst in driving business results toward management projects more effectively and managing knowledge—the capital of the future.

References

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Proceedings of the Project Management Institute Annual Seminars & Symposium
October 3–10, 2002 • San Antonio, Texas, USA

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