Digital thinking for L&D 101: Getting things done

Posted by on 25 May 2017

Digital thinking 101 agile learning

Software and hardware development have given us a series of powerful ways of operating, especially around project management, that would be useful for learning and development to adopt.

There used to be a time when most software development projects were late, over budget and didn’t meet user expectations. The software developers have learn to really focus on project management, and in doing so developed new ways of working that solved the challenges of software development and other digital projects. The most common method has become ‘agile’ project management. There are other methods, such as extreme programming, though agile methods have been around for the longest and are talked about the most. There are variations of agile like Minimum Viable Project, which focuses on breaking larger projects or products into small components and getting them into the hands of customers and users as soon as possible for feedback.

Agile is an extremely overused piece of jargon in our workplaces at the moment. It’s often talked about when an organisation needs to change practices faster. While agile in software development allows for rapid change, it doesn’t always mean that everything gets done faster. It’s typically a process of build, test with user, change, test with user. This iterative process can actually be slower. But it means that the right solution is being built and effective change can be factored in. A classic piece of project management advice is that ‘change is the killer of projects’; agile practices accept that change is going to happen and this iterative way of working enables this.

What exactly is agile development?

Agile development is many things. The Manifesto for Agile Software Development lists 12 principles behind agile project management.

Following are some useful practices for learning and development.

Focus on a working product, not documentation

Learning projects often begin with building a curriculum and complex competency frameworks. What happens is, as the project is being built the needs change or the learning experience doesn’t exactly provide what is needed. Agile practice focuses on building prototypes and working versions of products or learning experiences, which means it can be tested earlier and feedback can be gained quickly. It’s a process that has built-in flexibility.

The process of storyboarding in eLearning development is a perfect example of focusing on documentation, not a working product. Another approach is to storyboard directly in your eLearning development software. Instead of writing in a Word document about how a quiz should work, just build the quiz. This way, subject matter experts and reviewers can actually see how the quiz works. It’s a working version of the final product, not documentation about how it should work. This process does take the instructional designer a bit more time but it reduces the number of changes that are inevitably made.

Increasing collaboration

Daily standups are a great example of an agile practice that increases collaboration. The practice involves a standing meeting, where everyone says what they working on, what’s next for them, and what is getting in their way. Often this involves everyone in team. Daily or weekly standups are a quick way to increase the visibility of work that is being done. It’s an easy practice for learning and development to adopt. Standups can be organised around teams or projects.

Increasing collaborations often means sharing work in progress. In digital learning projects this means SMEs seeing early drafts of storyboards and clients having access to resources as they are being built. Too often, subject matter experts see their role as being about reviewing and giving feedback, but collaboration means that everyone takes ownership of the quality of the learning experiences and reviewers become involved a lot earlier.


In agile projects, work is organised around sprints – which sounds like things are done quickly – but sprints are actually more about breaking down projects into smaller parts that can be finished in a week or two. What goes into a sprint is determined by what adds the most value to the user. It means that the important work is done first, and because the focuses can be constantly reorganised this also allows for more rapid change. It’s an iterative approach where something is built and then refined.

A buzz terms in business is the ‘need to be more agile’, which usually means being able to respond and change quicker. Breaking learning projects down into smaller chunks is one way to achieve this.

Continuous deployment

Continuous deployment is something that often goes along with agile software development. It’s a process where small changes are constantly being made, automatically tested, and then released to users.

Micro learning as continuous deployment
Micro learning approaches are seen as being a support for how employees want to learn, i.e. just in time and quickly. Micro learning is also a good example of agile project approaches being applied to learning. Smaller chunks of learning can be produced in sprints and enable the same continuous deployment.

The downsides of agile project approaches

A downside to agile development is that in the early stages, stakeholders feel like they are never going to see a finished product. The iterative way of working can be frustrating. It’s often hard to scope an agile project because its exact scope might change. The approach should then be to scope each sprint or series of sprints.

Questions and ideas to explore around agile project management

  1. How could you continuously deploy new learning, or refine it? What are the barriers in your organisation to this?

  2. How could these barriers be removed?

  3. How could your team adopt standups?

  4. How could you increase collaboration between everyone involved in your learning projects?

  5. Could L&D activity be reorganised around sprints?

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