Managing the Unforeseen: An Interview With Abigail Wheeler

By Jeannette Campos / April 2012

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In the last installment of this four-part series of interviews with eLearning experts, Jeannette Campos sits down with Abigail Wheeler, who manages sales training curriculum at IDEXX Laboratories, Inc. She began her career at a small consulting company in New England, designing and developing training experiences for government and nonprofit employees focused on social service solutions. She advanced to leading teams and individual contributors in the development of eLearning, webinars, face-to-face instruction, and blended learning opportunities. In her current role, Wheeler manages curriculum serving a nationwide audience of field and inside sales consultants in the veterinary diagnostic industry.

Jeannette Campos: Abigail, thanks for talking with us. To start things off, when you think about planning for an eLearning project, what's the first thing you do?

Abigail Wheeler: I start with assessing my resources. What is the goal (for example, launch "x learning product" by "y date") and what do I have at my disposal to get it done? This includes people, tools, and time. Then I confirm the process. What are the steps we're going to take to accomplish this goal? Over time, these steps usually become standardized within an organization and ideally the process is highly repeatable, with some customization for things specific to the project. I recently started a new job as a training curriculum manager, so I'm in the very early stages of learning or establishing these things in my new role.

JC: What are the lessons about project management that you have learned the hard way?

AW: I have learned oh-so-many things the hard way! I've learned a lot from situations in which project plans fell off the rails and things went anything but "as planned." To me, project planning is really about planning for re-planning. Now, as I start lining up resources, I always try to look at the steps in the process and think about potential disasters and worst-case scenarios. What simply can't be negotiated? What dates or steps are absolutely firm? What can't be fast-tracked or done in an alternate order? I try to take a risk management approach to project planning; I always assume that things simply aren't going to go as planned and start lining up safety nets. I try to think about ways to make the project as nimble as possible to make sure the team is equipped to course-correct when the unforeseen happens, which it will. You can always count on the unforseen—you just don't know exactly what it is until it's right in front of you.

JC: What successes have you learned?

AW: Project planning often relies on quite a bit of coalition building. eLearning projects, in particular, may include more partners than other learning projects—not only the usual suspects, like stakeholders, subject matter experts, and writers, but also multimedia developers and other technology partners. When you build and coordinate a strong coalition of partners, I think you're likelier to embed flexibility and commitment into a plan that's going to lead to the best possible eLearning experience for your learners.

I also think it's key to consider the culture of your organization when building any project plan. What works where you work? How are people accustomed to communicating? How are resources negotiated and shared? What's the current tolerance for change, if you think your project requires new processes to be implemented? I've found that being sensitive to the culture of an organization—and learning as much as you can about the organization as you begin the work—can go a long way toward making everyone more comfortable, especially if moving into eLearning production is a new experience for many involved. [Editor's Note: Cammy Bean shared her insights into the importance of trusting working relationship and the business of eLearning in her interview published in this series last month.]

JC: What project management challenges do you think are unique to eLearning?

AW: One of the things, in general, that I consider unique to eLearning is that the output is in completely unmediated contact with the learner. In face-to-face and webinar instruction—even in facilitated online learning models—there's always a trainer or instructor involved, standing between developed content and the learner. I've been in situations in which the content we've managed to document might be a bit light or have some gaps, but, in a pinch, you might be able to say, "Well, a skilled trainer will really be able to make this sing." With eLearning, the content—and its quality—comes smack up against the learner, nothing in between. In this situation, the quality of the content received from subject matter experts is paramount!

What does this have to do with project management? It's all part of the risk mitigation strategy. If you receive less-than-desirable content from an SME, it can have disastrous results. Either you stick to your project plan and plow on—which might yield a less rich, less accurate, or less impactful eLearning product—or you stop the presses to go back to the expert and ask for more or different material, but deliver the product off schedule. Faced with just this problematic choice too many times, I turned to "The E-Learning Coach," Connie Malamed to see if she had any tools in her toolbox to combat this problem. She didn't have anything in stock, but invited me to share anything I developed that addressed this issue. I ended up creating an easy template for gathering information that aligns learning objectives with a know/do model and includes space for the experts to weigh in with ideas for images, interactivities, stories, metaphors, and additional resources. Connie shared this template on her website last April.

I've used it by asking an expert to fill it out herself and return it, if she's comfortable with writing, and I've also used it as an interview guide with experts who are more comfortable sharing what they know that way. It's improved the quality of content on a first pass and has helped maintain my timelines on more than a few projects now.

JC: When we began this series, Cammy Bean talked to us about the four quadrants of the eLearning pie. How have these quadrants played out in your career?

AW: I love that metaphor. It's a great—and delicious!—reminder to keep developing myself, while working every day on building tools to aid in the professional development of others. I usually feel fairly solid on the "learning and pedagogy" and "business" slices. I started my career in an organization that took those very seriously, so they're pretty deeply embedded in how I think about any project. But I think that "creativity" and "technology" are persistent challenges. Creativity is about reinvention, always improving and creating more engaging experiences. What looked creative yesterday may look ho-hum tomorrow. Technology presents a similar challenge—things change so quickly that keeping up can be overwhelming. I'm always trying to spice up these slices in my professional life a bit. But that's one of the great things about the eLearning project management role, part of the fun is assembling a team that creates the best possible pie together.

JC: Thanks again for joining us, Abigail.

About the Author

Jeannette Campos is currently an Instructional Design Project Manager at the Central Intelligence Agency. Prior to joining the CIA, Campos owned and operated a service-disabled veteran-owned small business. She also served as a Project Manager and Senior Instructional Designer to multiple contracts awarded by the United States Department of Defense and Department of Labor. She is a graduate professor of Instructional Systems Design at UMBC and held an adjunct faculty appointment at The National Labor College. Campos teaches ISD for Project Managers to other organizations within the United States intelligence community.

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DOI: 10.1145/2181207.2185631



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ADDITIONAL READING

In this series, eLearn magazine talks with experts about four different aspects of instructional design for eLearning. Through four interviews, these experts share the advice they have learned through years of experience in the design, development, delivery, and management of world-class eLearning solutions.