The term Agile is often described as a systems engineering method. Yet when we dig deeper we find Agile to be an overarching collection of practices influenced by many disciplines.
- From software engineering, Agile inherits Extreme Programming and its practices enabling business leaders and software developers to work together to determine and attain shared, realistic goals.
- From both systems and software engineering, Agile borrows the Rational Unified Process and its iterative development methodology, which delivers useful output every few weeks.
- From manufacturing, Agile gains Lean’s emphasis on the elimination of waste.
- From product development, Agile inherits short, daily “scrum” update meetings that facilitate collaboration and keep teams focused on their incremental deliverables.
You may be asking how this might be applied to learning design. At IBM, Agile adapts well to additional domains, including that of corporate learning. Currently, Agile is used by IBM instructional design teams to:
- enable us to adapt to changing requirements
- reduce risk to our projects
- increase visibility of our projects’ progress
- involve stakeholders and learners from the beginning of the project onward
- accelerate the value we bring to our business.
If you are interested in pursuing Agile Learning Design, you will want to follow one or more of these Agile key practices, described here through an instructional design lens.
Emphasize individuals and interactions over processes and tools. With Agile, the team is all important. It is self-directed and regularly examines its own performance and seeks opportunities to streamline. Short, daily scrum meetings enable team members to share status and assist each other in timely fashion. IBM has found that scrum meetings significantly decreased time to delivery for our leadership development programs.
Process is regarded with a healthy degree of suspicion because it is associated with overhead and project bloat. At IBM, project managers and team leaders are provided with an Agile learning curriculum as part of their certification requirements so they can help accelerate adoption of Lean methodology rather than retard it.
Tools that are intuitive and quickly deployed are generally preferred. Rapid prototyping finds itself right at home with Agile. When we were tasked with creating a common design for multiple interactive websites, each on a different topic related to software products and services, we found rapid prototyping to be indispensable because it enabled us to lead discussion within an unusually large and diverse group of stakeholders. Tools used in rapid prototyping need not be expensive or difficult to master; even PowerPoint and Microsoft Paint can be used effectively.
Emphasize usable deliverables over comprehensive documentation. In the past, every day spent designing and developing learning was a day that employees went without the benefit of that learning. With Agile, our emphasis is on enabling employees to learn immediately and leveraging their experiences to drive improvements into the continuously improving overall learning experience. Rather than developing module after module of formal self-paced instruction, we emphasize providing access to content and designing learning experiences that use wikis, blogs, forums, surveys, and dashboards.
Iterative development, an Agile hallmark, helps learning teams begin to drive organizational change right away. Iterations usually last between two and four weeks apiece. By definition, each iteration finishes on schedule and results in the completion of a usable deliverable. Emphasis is on deliverables that are used by the learners themselves. Iteration has been indispensable in the Succeeding@IBM program for new employees because it has allowed us to enable our workforce amidst the constant churn of new hiring and acquisitions.
Documents and other artifacts are kept small in number and in size. Most are either of a throwaway nature, as is the case with rapid prototyping, or are living documents, as is the case of backlogs (high-level prioritized requirements lists) and “burndown” charts (lists of tasks completed each day).
Emphasize collaboration over negotiation. Agile brings stakeholders into the project as fully embedded team members, ensuring they have continuous input in the project as well as in-depth knowledge of its progress. The media specialists, programmers, and educational specialists comprising the learning design team meet regularly with stakeholders from the earliest design discussions and prototypes. Negotiation over “how it should be” versus “how this functions today” is considered waste.
The learners themselves are viewed as stakeholders. The use-of-user stories (sometimes positioned as “use cases”) enable a team to view the entire project from the point of view of a typical learner right from the start. Throughout the project, iterative releases combined with feedback avenues enable a trial-and-error approach. As we found with our Cloud Solution Workshop, the result is a significant reduction in risk to the project.
Emphasize responding to change over adhering to a plan. Those new to Agile often are surprised that changing requirements are welcomed, even late in a project. Rather than rein in change, Agile projects harness it to competitive advantage. Short iterations; lightweight processes, tooling, and documentation; and early and continuous feedback from business leaders and learners all work together to ensure that learning teams don’t fall behind the change curve.
Problems that no longer exist or are no longer important are easily tossed aside. Learners become confident that returning to our sites will expose them to fresh content and an improved learning experience. Perhaps most surprisingly, learning designers and developers find that they are able to maintain a comfortable, constant pace because they are not tethered to long release cycles and unexpected demands. Quick response to changing conditions is at the heart of Agile.