When you’re considering a new elearning project, how much thought do you give to the size of the instructional design shop that you’re engaging for elearning development?
One Person or a Team?
There are several questions when designing learning—do I do this in-house or should I outsource? Should our training be instructor-led or self-guided online? Something else?
The question of team size—an individual or a group—often gets overlooked. It shouldn’t.
I’ve talked with people who really wanted to deal with a small, single-person, local shop. Other the other hand, I’ve also talked with some who want a shop that’s large enough to handle a lot of large, complex projects.
I’ve worked as a single-person provider. Currently, I work as part of a team. Broadly speaking, as an instructional designer (ID), I work with subject matter experts to create content; that content usually ends up in a storyboard. I hand off the storyboard to a developer, who works with separate graphic artists, photographers, voice-over talent, learning management systems administrators, and a project manager who keeps us all on task. There are times, especially with larger elearning development projects, where I work with a senior (or lead) ID, whose main function is to make sure that all of the pieces work together well.
Which is better? The single-person approach, or the team approach?
The single-person approach has a lot of advantages. There’s only one person to deal with. They know everything—ask a question and you’ll get an answer (instead of “let me check with x, and get back to you”). The training, when finished, is a single, coherent whole.
The single person approach has its problems. There’s the “jack-of-all-trades” problem (master of none). There’s the “single-point-of-failure” problem (what happens when they get sick? Or take a vacation?). There’s the capacity problem (even if you have three SMEs for your six modules, a single person can only work on one individual thing at a time).
I’ve worked with several independent elearning providers that confront and surmount these issues. They are always up front about their schedule. If they’re planning a vacation, you know about it far ahead of time. If there’s an area that’s not a strength, they’ll contract it out. They’re transparent about timelines—if it will take a long time, they’ll let you know; if they need to partner with someone else to carry the load, they’ll let you know that, too.
A team approach, where elearning development tasks are parceled out to different team members, offers different advantages and challenges.
It’s rare that a single person—whether you call them an instructional designer, elearning developer, or something else—can master the complex set of skills that are needed to design effective elearning.
When an instructional designer is a member of a team, they have the time and focus to keep up with the latest trends in design, whether in game-based approaches, cognitive learning theories, or visual design. The instructional designer can create in Word or PowerPoint (or Branchtrack, Twine, Celtx, or Storyboard That).
The developer can refine their skills in Lectora, Storyline, Captivate—whichever elearning development tool is needed. Time not spent learning how to write effective multiple-choice questions can be dedicated to developing elegant programming solutions for activities that the instructional designer proposes.
A graphic designer can not only master principles of design, but also become skilled in image editing and creation tools like Photoshop and Illustrator.
A project manager can work with the client to schedule meetings, follow up on due dates, and note where the pieces are and how they fit into the overall picture. (When I worked as a single-person shop, I never realized how much of my time was spent just setting up meetings—making sure that everyone was available, requesting rooms, setting up conferencing technologies—until I was able to work with a project manager.)
Expertise among the team members allows for a certain level of inter-dependability. If one developer needs a sick day or has a vacation, the work doesn’t need to stop—it can be handed off to another.
To be inter-dependent doesn’t necessarily mean fully interchangeable. Whenever a project moves to a different person, there’s time lost in bringing the new person up to speed. And each person has their own style. An instructional designer picking up another’s work will have to work within the first designer’s approach. A developer will have to figure out and replicate the programming techniques that were used in earlier modules.
These challenges can be tempered. Project-based style guides can help maintain consistency in imagery and tone. And development tool templates can help maintain a consistent approach to programming.
The more people you have, the more you can get done (generally speaking—there are upper limits). People aren’t multi-taskers. We don’t do more than one thing at a time.
If you have a nine-module course, two IDs can get the work done more quickly. If you add in two developers who can start programming the earlier storyboards while the IDs work on the later storyboards, you can bring the project to a conclusion sooner.
Are there disadvantages to a team approach? You bet.
This is a big one. To get all the advantages—deeper expertise, depth, breadth, faster completion—you need people. And people cost money. Looking at it from this perspective, one person working sequentially over a longer period of time will almost certainly cost less than mobilizing all the resources needed for a team approach.
Like all disadvantages, this has to be weighed against the benefits. Are the benefits of a team approach worth the extra cost?
This is another big one. To take one aspect, for a single-person shop, moving from a storyboard to a functional online module can be pretty straightforward. The ID knows what the course is supposed to do—they don’t need to document each facet of the interaction. (What happens when the user hovers over that button? What if the location of that heading needs to be tweaked? What if audio should play on that page the first visit, but not on the second visit?)
But how does the developer know, unless the ID delves into their assumptions and makes them explicit? The ID knows how to pronounce people’s names, chemicals, and everything else. Does the voice talent? The graphic on the storyboard was just a guideline—does the graphic designer know that it needs to be redrawn, that it should pick up the overall theme approach and colors?
Each individual moving piece is an opportunity for communication to break down. Poor communication can cause all of the advantages of a team approach to evaporate. When considering a team approach, it helps to consider how well the team communicates with each other. How many projects have they done together? What’s their internal communication strategy?
Bringing It All Together
So what’s the answer? One person or a team?
If it’s a small project, or cost is paramount, or the timeline isn’t essential, then a single-person shop might be the best approach. I’ve met single-person shops who can hit home runs every time they undertake a project.
If it’s needed quickly, if the project is large, if it’s complicated, then a team approach might be the best way to go. Expertise, depth, and breadth can all combine offer a solution that’s both stable and scalable.
Learning Development Resources
- Training ROI: Use of Return on Investment for Training Programs
- Learning Fundamentals: Which Training Methods Work Best?
- Kevin Gumienny: What Does An Instructional Designer Do? [Video]
- Kelly Rossi: What Does an Elearning Project Manager Do? [Video]