Thursday, March 31, 2011

Estimating Costs and Allocating Resources

Instructional designers are often asked to estimate the cost of training projects, whether through a formal bidding process or a casual discussion. As a newer designer, it can be pretty intimidating to try to assess the cost of the instructional design methods we've learned. Here are some resources to help:

Greer, M. (2009). Estimating instructional development (ID) time. Retrieved from .
Greer's excellent Project Management Minimalist book is one of the texts for our class, and I've found his writing to be clear and thought-provoking. This page is one of many from Greer's site, and two pieces of advice stuck out for me:
  1. Be careful with rules of thumb. It's common to hear shorthand rules like 300:1 or 15:1 for development time, usually representing the idea that it takes 300 hours of development to produce 1 hour of a particular kind of instruction. Greer feels that rules of thumb aren't especially useful because they're so variable as to produce meaningless estimates.
  2. Pay close attention to the "non-writing" portions of the project. Most of us became instructional designers because we're interested in developing instruction, so we leap right toward estimating the costs of the instructional design time. In our excited rush, we may miss the huge amount of time spent in communications, document preparation, etc., and vastly underestimate the total cost of the project.
Clark, D. (2010). Estimating costs and time in instructional design. Retrieved from . 
I've often returned to Don Clark's website during my ID program. His writing is direct but also comfortable, as if I'm an apprentice learning from an experienced master. He has an excellent page about estimating costs that provides a variety of ballpark estimates for different instructional design tasks, which gives a useful baseline for estimation. While his approach does use ratios, he qualifies them heavily to make it clear which ratios are likely to be appropriate. Clark also includes links to a bunch of other resources like free stock photos and cost estimation spreadsheets.

Cook, J. (2010). How to estimate training time and costs. Retrieved from .
I wasn't familiar with Jenice Cook's writing until this assignment, and I've now added it to my collection of RSS feeds. Her post stands as an excellent annotated bibliography of ID cost estimation writing from some prominent members of the field. She also advocates a slightly different approach with first-time clients: working on an hourly rate as the project progresses, so that everyone has a constant sense of where things stand.

Defelice, R., & Kapp, K. (2009). Time to develop one hour of training. Retrieved from
If nothing else, the fact that this is published by ASTD should draw our attention. Defelice & Kapp surveyed a number of experienced IDs to find out how much time it takes to build training programs in a variety of different categories. The report also contrasts 2009 data with data from 2003. This provides a really valuable look at how expectations within the ID field are changing, and it's a strong data source for discussion with clients. In addition, the authors include several recommendations for increasing the speed of projects and keeping them from getting bogged down.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Communication modalities

(This post is for a Walden assignment: to consider a particular set of words sequentially as written text, as audio, and as video, and to reflect on the different perceptions I had of the text each time. The text is not available outside our course site, however--sorry for those who are reading from outside Walden)

  • How did your interpretation of the message change from one modality to the next?
  • What factors influenced how you perceived the message?
  • Which form of communication best conveyed the true meaning and intent of the message?
  • What are the implications of what you learned from this exercise for communicating effectively with members of a project team?
Text only:
This seems like a brief, fairly businesslike email from an antsy co-worker who's asking for data. She follows a fairly standard metaphorical template for acknowledging the reasons why Mark may not have been able to get the work done, but it doesn't sound sincere--and it's overshadowed by the rest of her communication. Jane (the writer) uses an informal tone in her email, with some grammatical errors that catch my eye.

From a text design perspective, her email has a single very long paragraph followed by a one-line paragraph, which makes it look unbalanced and rushed. Her closing "I really appreciate your help" feels insincere, too.

I think we've all gotten emails like this; in my experience, without knowing the person, it's hard to know whether it's an urgent plea or a simple reminder.

Jane's voice sounds a little bit strained to me, but that could be projection. Her affect is relatively flat in the recorded voicemail, which leads me to believe that she's fairly frustrated--most people I know tend to have more animated inflection when they're having a non-frustrated conversation.

(Clearly Jane-in-the-video is not the same person as Jane-in-the-voicemail). Jane's posture and demeanor seem relaxed here, and the fact that she's leaning over a cubicle wall (with arms crossed atop it) rather than entering the cubicle lends credence to the idea that this she's making a request, not expressing frustration or serious urgency. She blinks an awful lot at the beginning of the video (while expressing compassion for Mark's tribulations), which makes me question her sincerity again.

One of the discussion questions asks which form of communication best conveyed the true meaning and intent of the message. I'm going to go out on a limb here and say "I don't know". I think all forms of communication leave their marks and shadings on the message, and since I'm not Jane, I'm not sure quite what the "true" meaning and intent was. I definitely took somewhat different messages from each form of communication, and that has relevance for us in the project management context.

I think it's worth considering the order of messages, too. I think I would take a different sense of Jane's meaning if I first saw the video (relaxed, fairly friendly, focused) and then read the email (which would then confirm the specific things she needs) rather than in the opposite order (where the email sets an urgent, somewhat snippy tone and then the video undercuts that message). My own sense as a supervisor is that when you have problems with coworkers or employees, it's best to convey that information in a face-to-face meeting whenever possible--following up with written documentation. Otherwise, people frequently mistake the seriousness of the incident or infer things that aren't true. Portny et al (2008) might call this the distinction between formal and informal communications.

Part of the point of this exercise is to talk about the strengths of different kinds of communication. We tend to use a lot of email and text these days, and one of the strengths of written communication is that it's fast, it's efficient, it's clear, and it's permanent. We can share a lot of data pretty quickly, and it's easy to skim or scan to find what we're looking for. The downside of skimming is that people often skim right over the important bits--and, although it's easy to convey data through text, it's much harder to convey emotion and tone. If it were easier to write emotions convincingly, novels would cost a lot less!

Voice communication is cheap these days, and it has the benefit of being synchronous. When there are misunderstandings, both parties are free to clarify things immediately. It's also much easier to convey non-verbal things like tone and certainty through voice. A drawn-out pause means a lot in a phone conversation; in an email, it doesn't register. Voice communication is slow, though, and it isn't possible to skim. With voicemail and other vocal recording technologies, voice communication can create a permanent record, which is useful.

Face-to-face contact is the gold standard for clear communication about emotions. It's often less efficient for data-driven communication, but it has clear benefits for interpersonal relations. It's often more satisfying to be in the same room than to be on the phone or exchanging email, but there are costs to arranging face-to-face time (says the guy who's driving for three hours to see his girlfriend every other weekend). Without video cameras, face-to-face communications don't usually have permanent records, which means that we want to document conversations in written form.

I think we need to look at what we're trying to convey before we can really choose the best medium. If the message is intended to specify requirements, an email is great. If it's supposed to convey urgency or an emotional appeal, voice or face-to-face may be better. For delivering hard news or discipline, I think face-to-face communication is the way to go.


Portny, S. E., Mantel, S. J., Meredith, J. R., Shafer, S. M., Sutton, M. M., & Kramer, B. E. (2008). Project management: Planning, scheduling, and controlling projects. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Learning From A Project "Post-Mortem"

(this is a required post for my MS at Walden University. We were asked to reflect on a project from our personal or professional history that was unsuccessful or didn't reach the desired outcomes and, after reflecting, analyze the project's success or failure and discuss how project management could have helped.)

Since this is a public blog, I am uncomfortable talking about the failure of past projects--it seems like a good way to expose myself to liability. I don't really want to start my career as an instructional designer by being indiscreet! But since the assignment is a mandatory one, I've chosen a project from my personal life that, while not a failure, did not achieve my desired ends. There are other examples of projects that went poorly, but none that I feel it's appropriate to discuss in public.

Setting the stage
I live in a somewhat isolated rural community near the Canadian border in New York. I grew up here and, like most of the smart young people raised here, I moved away. I moved back after my post-college year in Scotland (studying bagpipes on a prestigious Watson Fellowship) because it wasn't possible to apply for jobs from Glasgow, and I needed some temporary work while I was figuring out where to go for my Ph. D. in Robotics and Machine Learning. As such, I'm in the real minority of local young people who had the opportunity to "get out"... and didn't.

Potsdam has four universities within eleven miles, so it's hardly a provincial backwater, but most of the young folks graduate and move immediately away, diplomas and brain cells in tow. There aren't too many jobs available here; there's also a strong perception that this is a bad place to be a young professional person. No youth culture, no dating scene, no social life, no nothing. Ain't nothin' here but the bars and the churches. (As with most broad-brush statements, this one is inaccurate... but widely held.) It seemed like there was a real desire to have a wider menu of social opportunities for smart, educated young people.

A few years ago, a number of us decided to do something about it, and we created an organization for young professionals. We collaborated with the county's chamber of commerce and a variety of other employers, we worked together to find interested stakeholders, and there were some meetings about what needed to happen. We planned our first real "meetings" to happen as "happy hour mixers" at local restaurants and taverns, and sketched a plan that involved slowly accumulating members and gaining critical mass as time went on.

The issues
We did a great job at achieving our main objectives: we got lots of young professionals to come out to the mixers. The organization stands, today, in pretty good shape: the monthly get-togethers are well attended, and there's a central core of people who keep the ball rolling. In summer months, there's often a potluck picnic with beer and wine, or a cocktail hour on the porch of a local restaurant, or similar events.

But for me, the project was a failure, and I no longer participate--or even really consider myself a member. I think project management habits of mind would have really helped here, because we would have clarified everyone's expectations at the beginning of the process. We did a great job of working together to create something, but it turned out that the "something" wasn't what I had been looking for. You see, we created an organization that primarily succeeds at getting interesting young people to hang out with each other at bars. That's great, and many people love it--because going to bars is something they enjoy. They viewed the role of the organization as helping them to find more people to hang out with at the bars, with some light professional networking on the side... so for them, the project was successful.

My take is different. I wanted an alternative to the alcohol-centered social scene, and it never really materialized--and after a while, it became clear that most people simply weren't interested in that. I thought we had been working together on the same project, but it turned out that some important assumptions about the goal had been left without clarification, and that meant the project failed for me.

How could project management have helped?
I think there's real value in the kind of focusing discussion that happens in the planning and evaluation phases of project management. If we had been thinking in those terms, we might have thought to talk about what everyone's real goals were--and how we would know when we had reached them. That would have helped us to make clearer plans about who would do what, which would have prevented a lot of frustration. I think those discussions would have also helped us all to talk about our frustrations with the way work and decisions were happening, and clearing the air would have made it a lot easier for us to work together. While this wasn't really a formal project, I think it could have profited from project management.

As it was, I felt like we made tremendous progress as a team on "building a road through the jungle"... only, at the end of the project, I learned that we had been building in the wrong jungle. Our road didn't lead anywhere I wanted to go.