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Managing Instructional Designers: Tips and Traps

Managing Instructional Designers: Tips and Traps

There is a strong trend to self-directed learning, especially for younger people.  For example, we were recently trying to relocate to a park for our 4-year old grandson when this frustrated little voice from the back seat piped up, “Just Google it!”

Educators have the responsibility to make self-directed and blended learning effective.  While we engage Instructional Designers to do this, we still need to ensure that they are well managed, the program is utilised and is cost effective.

As Consultant Brokers who have provided many instructional designers to clients, we have seen some useful and less optimal practices from our position between the two parties.

Whilst we declare the cavate that we do not manage Instructional Designers (I speak with all the confidence as an observer, in contrast to those who do the job……), following are some of our insights:

Who Should Do the Design?
The appropriate Instructional Designer normally has experience in the subject area, or industry.   One can be flexible on this because some designers are very good in learning new content and understanding different businesses.  It is a similar issue with software; if they know a few ID software packages they are likely to pick up new ones quickly.  However, if they have not used any ID software, they are not your best bet if design software is required.

Internal or External Expertise?
Clients need to consider where to source Instructional Designer expertise:  Internal employees, totally outsourced instructional design firm, or individual contractors.  Each option has its merits. (Polson Nexus source both permanent or contract resources for clients, so we are agnostic in our recommendation).  
Here are some issues to consider.

Internal permanent team:  They understand the organisation and are a known entity.   They may however not have the expertise nor time to do some design work.  In many cases, organisations may not want to carry a permanent over-head.  External resources may then be brought in to supplement the team.  Some learning managers believe that external professionals may be faster because they are hungrier and getting their next assignment largely depends on how well they did their last one.

Project managers need to ensure that counter-productive rivalry does not occur between internal and external resources.  Managed well, an internal/external team has the advantage of drawing on internal company knowledge as well as different expertise learned from other organisations.

No matter how one sources instructional design expertise, the project and people still need to be managed.  i.e. Just outsourcing the design does not necessarily give a better result.

External consulting firm:  This option has the advantage of having one party accountable for the delivery.  They supply their own team members, or to be more accurate, their own sub-contractors.  (They also want to avoid the risk of carrying permanent team members…..)  They source their contractors from their existing data-bases, or from a third party such as a training broker.  (The majority of our clients are now other consulting groups.)  An advantage of a consulting firm or consultant broker is that they are likely to have worked with the contractor or consultant before and have an insight into not only their skills, but also their personality.

Individual contractor or consultant:  The two main benefits of engaging these are that without the overheads, it could be the cheapest option and one is talking directly with the person who will be doing the work, thus shortening the line of communication.

A challenge is selecting the appropriate contractor/consultant.  Everyone on LinkedIn looks good, but how confident can we be about them matching an assignment?  The very contractor who delights one client, may irritate and disappoint another.

The safest practice is to hire someone you know, or, consider a recommendation from an informed professional you know and who knows your learning needs.

No matter how you resource the assignment, it will be diminished if you do not define the brief and check that milestones are being reached.  You cannot abdicate this.

Some Logistical Issues to Consider with Contractors
Here are some issues to consider when hiring a contractor:

  • Work on site or from home?
  • Access to your IT systems
  • Their equipment or yours?
  • Who supplies the software?
  • Intellectual property?
  • Who is the project manager?
  • Who are the SMEs?
  • Who are the stake-holders?
  • Who are the team-members?

Agreeing on the Statement of Work
I suggest you concentrate on outcomes in contrast to how they are to be achieved.  Let the expert come up with the innovative and elegant solutions.  This of course happens within the organisation’s parameters such as IT platform and Learning Management System.

Here are some of the things to be considered, especially for external providers:

Learning outcomes:  What do the learners need to know or do?  I suggest you concentrate on outcomes and assessments in contrast to how these are to be achieved.  Give the expert latitude to come up with the innovative and elegant solutions.

Operational parameters:  One must operate within the organisation’s parameters such as IT platform and Learning Management System.

Remuneration model – Fixed price or time based:  Are you going to pay the contractor for the completion of the whole assignment, knowing they will have to build in some leeway to cater for scope creep?  Or are you going to pay the consultant for the actual hours they are working for you?  In this case, it is prudent to monitor progress against agreed stages.  Weekly time-sheets and reporting ensure the consultant is on track.  No point in telling them after the budget has been used up that they should have been much further along.  This is like telling a person who has just missed a bus that they should have left earlier.  We need to know earlier if we are on schedule.

Budget:  It is challenging to estimate how long it will take to develop a program, or what resources will be required.  We all work within available resources.  Experienced designers can give a fairly accurate estimate, so be guided by them.  If the estimate is way over the budget available one can pare back the design, get another estimate, or postpone the project.

Testing and revision time: Ensure that there is ample time allocated in the project for testing and implementing any fixes that are required.  This might also include a continuous improvement strategy.

Who is managing the assignment:  This needs to be clear so that conflicting requests from internal stake holders and be resolved within the organisation.  The Project Manager is also responsible for finding and managing the Subject Management Experts.

Monitoring progress:  It is critical to monitor the implementation against milestones so if the budgeting has been inaccurate, one has early notice and can make appropriated decisions.  It is reassuring to know that the design is on track.  Early identification of a lag gives the Project Manager the opportunity to assign additional resources, get a different designer, work longer hours per day, or reduce the standard to a lower, but still acceptable level.  (Instructional designers hate doing this and will sometimes exclude themselves from the design or insist that their name not be associated with the finished product.)

It is good practice to document why changes were made.

Subject Matter Experts
SMEs can be a challenge.  The Instructional Designer cannot easily work without them.  Expecting an instructional designer to design a program in an area where they have little personal knowledge with access only to dated manuals leads to boring and potentially programs with inaccurate information.

Can’t find one:  I suggest you do not proceed till you do, or, find an ID competent with the content.

Can’t afford a real expert:  Try to get one to help by offering them something else in return.  Build the cost of an external one into your next project…….

The SME is too busy to help:  Management needs to give the SME the support they need to do this.  A combination of respectful pressure from the project manager and charm from the ID normally gets the collaboration needed.

It is not in the interest of the SME to help:  It is hard to persuade someone to hand over their knowledge so that the organisation can do without them…….. e.g. The lecturer who simply pontificates from the front of the lecture theatre can readily be replaced by a more cost effective online program.

Management needs to make tough decisions in this area.  Some people who are not prepared to adopt more progressive approaches such as blended learning may sadly be surplus to the organisation’s needs.  Others will however enjoy introducing innovative solutions.  e.g. Get the knowledge component online thereby leaving more time to work with the learners in applying the knowledge.

The SME wants everything they know to be in the program:  An enthusiastic SME wants the learner to know everything there is to know about the subject.  The Instructional Designer can guide the SME using the learning outcomes as the criteria.  “These are the things the learner must know or be able to do at the end of the program.  We can include that rich background you have in references for those who want to gain the extra knowledge.”  The “Information Mapping” process is very good at helping differentiate between actionable content and information content.

Content Validation
This step is often skipped because of time and or budgetary issues.  It is prudent for someone other than the SME or Project Manager to validate the content.   The validation process ensures currency and accuracy of the content and is a compliance requirement for vocational programs.

Sustainability of the educational design
The design normally needs to be compatible with other programs in the organisation.  Consistent design and style removes the need for learners to relearn the course navigation, which can be very frustrating.  Material may also need to be edited for deployment to future cohorts or scavenged for other programs.  You don’t want to be held captive by the original designer.

Interpersonal skills of the Instructional Designer
I used to joke that the sharp rise in self-directed learning has given introverted learning professionals time to shine.  But just because ID’s generally have less need for the buzz that comes from facilitating, teaching or public speaking, does not mean they shouldn’t have well-developed interpersonal skills.  The ID needs to effectively contribute to most of the challenges outlined above, from negotiating the learning outcomes and financial elements, to working with stake-holders, SMEs, team members and project managers.

It is important to select Instruction Designers with good design and interpersonal skills and to respectfully manage any of their shortcomings in these areas.

Reg Polson
Consultant Broker

We acknowledge Neil Goudge for his feedback and suggested inclusions.  We welcome feedback from other readers, so we can improve these guidelines and add a checklist for Learning Managers.







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