Ten issues in managing education projects


For the past five years I have had the official title of Education Consultant at Sun Microsystems. During that time I have managed roughly 50 projects a year aimed at creating customized training for companies and government agencies of all sizes and purposes. The training has not always been on Sun products. Sometimes it has been for generic technologies that Sun, among others, uses. For instance, TCP/IP is not a Sun product, but it is a key technology in Sun's business. One of the challenges in teaching a subject like this is that it requires a balance between being a neutral educator at the same time as you are a proponent of your own company's value.

This relatively frequent tension between roles prompted me to think about other areas where the role of educator and the role of company spokesperson required balancing. This led me to consider the fact that managing an education project in a business environment entailed certain unique challenges, tensions that require constant balancing in order to be successful. Ten of these challenges are presented here. They are not meant to be exhaustive. They are typical, however, and illustrate the kind of skills a project manager must bring to the job of managing an education project. The ten challenges to be considered are:

•  Accurately measuring the needs of the end-student

•  Balancing the expectations of the classroom with those of the boardroom

•  Measuring success according to more than one criterion

•  Providing the different delivery resources the tools they each need for success

•  Correctly defining the nature of the education project

•  Evaluating multiple delivery media

•  Choosing an appropriate delivery venue

•  Overcoming a general lack of confidence in the value of education

•  Imposing the disciplines of hard science on a soft one

•  Overcoming a general lack of understanding around the nature of education.

Accurately Measuring the Needs of the End-Student

Access to the end-user, the classroom student, is difficult. In an education project, the task of accurately determining the real needs of the classroom student often falls to the project manager. Projects are frequently sold and initially defined by people in Sales positions or by consultants acting as Sales Support. They have spoken with training managers or other forms of management who have explained their visions of what needs to be taught. Sometimes such management will say they want to establish a “baseline” of knowledge for their people. For instance, perhaps everyone should know TCP/IP. So part of the training project is to develop TCP/IP training. When class begins, however, the teacher finds that one student knows TCP/IP and wants to know how it is implemented on an MS Windows system. Another student only wants to know how to mix IPv4 and IPv6 networks. Another student wants to know how TCP/IP fits into the OSI model. And another asks, “What is a protocol?”

At Sun, we offer skills analysis services to help measure student expertise levels. Such analyses help define the training need before developing the training. Unfortunately, people tend to dismiss such services saying, “I know what my people need.”

The problem, of course, is that while a manager may know his or her people need certain knowledge, that same manager often has little idea of what knowledge the people already have.

Knowing this situation exists will prompt the project manager of an education project to begin the project with some form of reex-amination. He or she, either formally or informally, will find a way to allow the project's architect to meet prospective students, to measure their real needs, and consider these needs in designing the final training. The project manager will be sure there is time and money (if possible) in the project schedule allow for this reexam-ination of project goals.

Balancing the Expectations of the Classroom With Those of the Boardroom

Success is measured by student reaction to material designed to meet management's description of student need. Knowing that a training event has probably been designed by someone who will not be one of the students not only means the project manager must allow time and resources to define the real student's need, but it also means designing tools to measure success that take this disjointed set of expectations into account.

The student needs to learn something if he or she is going to give the training a favorable review. Management needs to feel it has gotten what it paid for. My experience is that the students are generally easier to deal with on this issue. One particular event comes to mind.

I had finished, I thought, a project to design and deliver training to help experienced HP-UX system administrators transition to using and administering Sun's Solaris systems. Class was in process and I was finishing the closeout work when the training manager called. He told me his teacher was unqualified to teach what the students expected and the materials were totally inappropriate as well. I immediately took the train from Washington, D.C. to New York City. I met with the class, prepared to support my teacher by taking responsibility for any misunderstandings and offering everyone their money back. First, however, I asked the students what the problems were. In 30 minutes of first heated, then more restrained, and finally apologetic conversation we discovered that management had not made clear to the students what the class was supposed to do. Students did not even know the class had been specially designed for them. They thought they'd been told to come to a standard catalog class that each one thought was going to fit whatever need he or she had. Once the students understood that the material was chosen by their management, all hostility melted. They apologized profusely to the instructor for giving him trouble. Thirty minutes more allowed us to develop some slight modifications that better fit the needs of the most vocal students and the teacher resumed his place in the room.

Part of the project manager's job is to help students understand the tensions that exist. Generally you can do this with an introduction in one of the classroom texts, but sometimes direct involvement is the only effective approach.

Measuring Success According to More Than One Criteria

There are at least four levels at which one measures the success of an education project (Alan Woods, “Measuring the ROI of training,” in Feb. 15, 2001 issue of CIO Magazine).

1. There needs to be a test to show that the student actually learned something. At a very elementary level this might be a self-evaluation by the student. The student could be given a short test at the start of class that might contain items like this: “True or False—I feel comfortable using the ‘tar’ command.” At the end of class, the student would be given the same test. The items could be more objective, reading something like this: “True of False—The following is the proper syntax of a ‘tar’ command …”

2. There needs to be a test to show the student can do something at work that management wants done and that could not be done before. This requires more up-front analysis and is more difficult.

3. There needs to be a test to show that work in general has improved in some quantifiable fashion as a direct result of the training. Perhaps backups are now done in half the hours they were before training occurred. It will be important to choose a relevant measurement. Since the training may have accompanied new equipment, there needs to be a way to separate the value of the training from the improvements inherent in the use of newer technology.

4. And finally, there must be a test that translates improved operations into measurable monetary returns.

The third and fourth forms of testing are clearly more difficult and more expensive. Not everyone will be willing to pay for them, but more and more people are. What they illustrate particularly from the project management perspective is the importance of engaging the project manager early and assuming a continuing role well after the project might seem to have ended. An education project does not begin with design of courseware and it does not end with delivery of training. Neither does the project manager's role.

Providing the Different Delivery Resources the Tools They Each Need for Success

An important task of managing an education project is balancing the needs of the various players. The teacher of a class needs student approval. There will be an evaluation at the end of an instructor-led training event and the instructor is the one closest to the students and most immediately capable of influencing the results of that evaluation. If the instructor does not feel a sense of ownership for the entire project, he or she may feel forced to ask students to draw a distinction in their evaluations between his or her performance and the quality of the course. The project manager needs to involve the instructor in all aspects of the design, making the instructor feel ownership for all aspects of the training.

The course developer needs a clear statement of subject and learning goals. Frequently these are not truly defined until the project is well under way. The project manager needs to facilitate the kind of customer contact the developer needs in order to determine useful and relevant training.

Sales Needs Revenue

The project manager needs to recognize that profit is often his or her responsibility. A project may have been sold with little regard to anything but revenue. I have worked on projects worth over $20 million that lost money. I have also worked on profitable ones. The profitable ones had managers who were rigorous in explaining costs and effort attached to each feature a customer requested. Few customers are so naïve as to think you should lose money. If the project manager is clear and honest enough, features can be negotiated to provide the customer a reasonable product at a legitimate profit. The project manager acts as a balance to Sales, injecting practical schedules and costs into an equation that often begins as a one-sided, single-moment-in-time recognition of revenue.

To conclude this point, the project manager needs to consider the needs of those who manage instructional resources. Whether the resource is a facility, a physical plant, or a teacher, resource managers will be concerned with utilization. A project that results in a one-day class is never going to see delivery unless the class can be taught five days in succession. The instructor needs to be utilized. There is no point in designing a class that no one will be allowed to teach.

The project manager of an education project must balance the needs of:

•  The teacher—for student approval

•  The developer—for clear sense of purpose

•  Sales—for revenue

•  Management—for profitable utilization of resources.

Correctly Defining the Nature of the Education Project

One of the most important things a project manager must do for an education project is clearly define the nature of the project. Until the project manager is engaged, it is very likely that people have used the term “education” very loosely. Sales never likes to say “no” and always hopes things will work out. Teachers want to teach. Resource managers want to see their resources used. The project manager must balance all these needs while injecting a hard voice of reason.

If the project is to deliver spot training to fill a specific gap, the project manager will locate the necessary resources, set up a billing mechanism, and leave for the next project.

If the project is to develop training for something that has not existed till now, the project manager will set up a design and development team, design a statement of work, publish a work breakdown structure, and establish exit criteria.

If the project is to design and manage an entire curriculum, the project manager will change his or her title to Training Manager and begin a small HR department.

Too often people try to sell spot training as if it were an “investment” in developing a curriculum management “opportunity.” Conversely they sell a development project as if it were the solution to a spot need. Neither of these results in profit and the project manager assigned to such things must immediately choose sides. He or she either must go along and hope it all works out or point out that the king has no clothes and hope that everything works out.

Evaluating Multiple Delivery Media

Two principal means of delivering training are:

1 Instructor-led

2 Self-paced

There may be combinations of the two. Frequently training will be sold under the assumption that one media will be used, but only when development begins does it become clear that the other would be better. The project manager is the one who must assess the situation and initiate the change orders.

Choosing an Appropriate Delivery Venue

As with media, instructor-led vs. self-paced, venue type is often something the education project manager must assess early on. Sometimes a centralized kind of venue, a group location, such as a classroom, is the most profitable way to deliver training. Other times a decentralized one, such as a Web course, will make more sense. It is important to note that the centralized classroom might be a training center full of self-paced CBT materials. Similarly the decentralized Web delivery might be through some group conferencing tool, instructor-led and moderated.

People too quickly equate instructor and classroom, Web and self-paced. The project manager is the one who is invested in neither approach, who has the closest understanding of the customer's needs and the training teams’ ability to deliver. Balancing need against ability, desire against logic, these are the skills unique to the project manager, particularly useful in such amorphous and loosely defined projects as education ones tend to be.

Overcoming a General Lack of Confidence in the Value of Education

A primary obligation of the education project manager is to rigorously defend the value of his or her product or service. The value of education is something we notoriously pay lip service and just as notoriously refuse to pay for. In the elementary through college classrooms, we get away with this double standard because we find people who believe in their work enough to do it for little money. John Kenneth Galbraith once wrote of the “convenient social virtue.” Society, he argued, depends on its ability to convince certain groups of people to accept lower wages in exchange for “virtuous” work. Mothers and wives, for instance, are necessary for society to function, but to save money, we convince them that their roles are reward enough.

In business education, however, you get what you pay for. Failing to spend the money to analyze need results in a useless piece of training and a waste of the money spent. Five dollars spent on garbage is a bigger expense than a million spent on gold.

One of the first “expenses” to be jettisoned from an education project is often project management. Only this year I had a Sales person suggest we let a lead developer handle the project management in order to lower the price of an effort. This was for a training program to launch and maintain communication satellites. In the customer's office I recall a poster that read, “Ready, Fire, Aim.” It was of a gun pointed at a foot. Fortunately the customer believed in my product even though my own Sales person did not.

People fail to price for services they don't really believe in and the project manager must carefully defend the value of the product and services he or she manages.

Imposing the Disciplines of Hard Science on a Soft One

The value a project manager brings to an education project is itself one of the things to be balanced. Education, for all the discipline required, remains essentially “soft science.” The people attached to it are often good because they don't stick to rules and formulaic activities. There is an element of chaos that supports creativity. Yet there comes a point where nothing is created without a harder discipline and adherence to rules. If you want a class with a teacher and a book on August 6, you need to schedule the room, locate the teacher, and publish the book BEFORE August 6. The project manager knows this and enforcing this intellectual discipline is the value he or she contributes to the project.

Overcoming a General Lack of Understanding Around the Nature of Education

The final point of this paper is one that summarizes many of the others. The roles the project manager must assume in an education project are numerous. They range from bookkeeper to architect to proselytizer. The balancing act the project manager performs keeping people and processes in synchronization can make one feel more like a priest-confessor than a business person. Ultimately, the project manager of an education project must be one who does understand the nature of education, believes in its value, and is willing to exercise the discipline needed to bring order to the creative chaos.

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
October 3–10, 2002 • San Antonio, Texas, USA



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