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Top tips for managing large-scale learning programmes

This blog first appeared on the LINE website on May 7th 2010

As technology-supported learning loses its air of novelty and becomes business-as-usual for many large organisations, the scale and complexity of the individual programmes that companies in our industry are being called upon to address is increasing.

This scale hike can put serious strain on boutique operations used to dealing with rather limited programmes of e-learning content production. Larger programmes are almost always blended, involve dispersed and sometimes very diverse audiences, and typically last over a much longer period. They can take years rather than months. As a company that has tended to be awarded some of the larger programmes, LINE is uniquely placed to comment on the differences involved in servicing these larger-scale requirements.

So what are the important considerations in dealing with learning and communications at scale? What are the most common challenges in undertaking a large project or programme of work, and how should these be dealt with?

The ‘people’ factor

The issues in managing large-scale learning programmes can be addressed under the headings of People, Technology and Process. In this post, I’d like to concentrate on the first of these headings, People.

Perhaps the most important aspect of setting up and running a large-scale programme is how the team is structured in terms of skills and numbers to get the right quality and productivity in place.

The first thing to say is that there has been a trend in recent years towards using agile teams to resource the development of learning projects. A very healthy trend. Unfortunately, agile teams don’t work as a governing modus operandi in large programmes, which above all must have a core of permanence in the People element. Small projects can be serviced perfectly well by an agile team moving between projects and getting the work done on a rota, but on larger and longer-living programmes it is important to maintain the knowledge and understanding built up over the lifespan of the project, to make sure it runs smoothly and efficiently.

Large programmes can be bitty and complex: someone needs to see the whole picture in order to keep them delivering against their top-level aims. This involves putting together a core team from the outset that, as far as possible, stays with the project all the way through. The team can immerse itself in the client’s needs, and consult throughout to get the best results for all. It also allows a common language to be built up.

Building a common language

This apparently small point is actually of paramount importance, especially with complex subjects. Communication is important in all projects, but on large-scale programmes the effect of miscommunication can be magnified exponentially, with potentially disastrous and costly results.

We are in an industry where people often use the same term to mean completely different things (something which often bedevils requirements capture, for example). On the client side nomenclature can vary widely too – between different industry sectors, for example; and even from organisation to organisation. The defence sector is particularly afflicted by acronyms: it can take quite a while for a newcomer to the sector to take in and understand all of these usages. Just imagine the potential chaos on a large programme where personnel are constantly changing and each new arrival has to learn the language afresh. Continuity in the core team is therefore very important for maintaining good communication.

Balancing stability and flexibility

With continuity in the core team, people can be added in an agile manner as and when needed, to get through peaks of work and to provide specialised skills in different areas. What is aimed at is the correct balance of stability and flexibility.

Larger programmes often go through concurrent, discreet phases during which different specialist knowledge and skills are needed. In the case of a large and complex blended programme which LINE implemented on behalf of a major defence contractor, for example, this called for the provision of multiple services and products, from face-to-face training, learning consultation, trainers’ notes, e-learning for various platforms and implementation strategies – to LMS and other technical application work.

The design, development and delivery of these different streams, each with its own characteristic dynamic and lead time, meant that at any given time period within the critical path, work on the programme might have a very different character; dominated in one phase by the needs of face to face trainers, and in another by a deadline for delivery of a particular technology development, such as an online learning platform.

Having an agile element to the team structure allows for focusing the right people on the right area, with the programme manager and core team giving the continuity needed to make this particular element of the work deliver successfully against the wider programme goals and aims.

Working with distributed teams

With most larger programmes of work we have done at LINE a distributed team has been required. Having people work on site, on client premises, with dedicated desks or even whole offices, has many advantages. Nothing can beat getting together for those all-important team meetings. On one programme where all personnel had to be client cleared it was absolutely essential for us to work in this way, so as to be on hand to attend important development meetings, which might need to be organised on an ad hoc basis at short notice.

Having ‘embedded’ team members like this provides close connection with the client, but it is important to establish the co-ordination of work and common practices efficiently – with the right communication and technologies in place – to manage the distributed teams so as to allow efficient work flow and create the right synergies.

Knowing what you are doing and where it fits in, your role and responsibility within that team structure gives the confidence that the quality and productivity will be covered in all areas. This is provided by effective programme leadership.

Integrating the two teams

On the occasional large programme, the integration between LINE and its client has become so close that our role takes on something of the character of an outsourcing relationship.

One change programme we worked on called for our team to learn so thoroughly a set of new systems and processes the client was putting in place that we became more knowledgeable about them than the client’s in house L&D department. It then fell to us to suggest the best approaches for training in and communicating the new procedures – and to commission the work. Eventually we were acting as the main point of contact and became, effectively, the company’s L&D team for that programme. Rather than responding to a training brief, we were given a timeline and results we had to produce, and operated with a degree of autonomy in how we fulfilled the objectives. Clearly this level of accountability calls for some high level skills within the supplier organisation.

Extending the Design Horizon

Small projects often tend to be closely ringfenced in terms of scope of work and expectations for delivery – a single hour of learning, a workshop or an awareness ‘teaser’ for instance. As projects grow, however, our involvement in the bigger picture often grows too, and we become partners in the whole life of the learning programme – from awareness campaigns and communication pre-learning, through delivery, and on to application, informal strategies for ongoing support and learning extension – and on to measurement and evaluation. It is these kinds of partnerships that become the most powerful in terms of long term effectiveness – and benefit all involved. For LINE, we are able to truly engage with the full learning process with our client and feed our own learning back into the ongoing success of the programmes we develop with them.

Economies of scale

Lastly, large programmes need to benefit from economies of scale if their costs are not to run out of control. This calls for efficient deployment of resources, and a close eye on the overall programme budget. Once again, having continuity in personnel is useful here. Apart from the other benefits mentioned earlier, this continuity provides certain efficiencies in admin. If the team needs to be security cleared, for instance, which is often the case in government and defence work, low churn in the team that works on the project helps to reduce the costs associated with getting new people on board, which can be considerable.

Conclusion

To sum up, large programmes have their own characteristic challenges and are not simply normal projects that go on for longer and cost more. In responding to these distinct challenges, a learning and communications provider cannot simply multiply their existing people resources by ten. Different management skills, different knowledge and awareness are needed to provide the necessary continuity and leadership focus on which they call. Perhaps even a different culture. As our industry grows in size, the development of all these skills and capabilities will become more and more essential for those who wish to grow with it.