At Vanguard University, partnering with clients and stakeholders throughout the design process has resulted in greater client satisfaction, less rework, and increased speed to market.

As is the case with most internal service providers in the learning and development field, Vanguard University confronts the challenges of balancing client demand with the need for high levels of creativity, while ensuring that the highest level of learning is achieved.

In our research, we studied best-in-class learning organizations and found that they also faced similar challenges. And while several had made notable progress, to our surprise, the ideal solution appeared in the IT industry in the Agile methodology.

Agile emphasizes individuals and interactions over processes and tools; working software over comprehensive documentation; customer collaboration over contract negotiation; and responding to change over following a plan. Intrigued, we continued to study Agile, launched a pilot at Vanguard University, and ultimately chose to implement Agile as the standard methodology to develop and maintain learning solutions.

We applied the methodology to a number of different learning solutions, including traditional classroom training courses, e-learning, videos, self-provisioning programs, and blended learning programs.

Why it works

The Agile methodology allows an organization to focus on delivering the highest business value in the shortest time by incorporating in-process continuous inspection of the product and focusing on a team approach to the development of the solution.

A planning session launches each project. The client shares the business goals, and the learning consultant shares the learning strategy and timelines. Armed with the business strategy and learning goals, a "scrum" team, comprising five to nine cross-functional individuals, including instructional designers, developers, operations, and trainers, determines the best approach for accomplishing the project's goals.

Working sessions allow the team to partner with the client to design the deliverables, rather than the team first designing the content and then sending it to the client for review.


Sprints and team structure are two key components of the process.

Sprints. Projects are broken down into short segments called sprints. Each sprint lasts two to four weeks, set at the team's discretion, and begins with a planning session at which time the team, including the client, determines the goals and the tasks required for the sprint. Throughout the sprint, the client partners closely with the team by providing iterative feedback, enabling in-process adjustments and eliminating rework.


To ensure each sprint stays on track, daily 15-minute scrum team meetings serve as check-ins to gauge the team's progress toward completing the agreed-upon goals. Each team member answers three questions: What have I done since the last scrum meeting? What will I work on between this meeting and the next? Are there any impediments hindering me from completing my tasks and thereby jeopardizing the sprint goal?

Each sprint concludes with a final review of the sprint goals, final review of the deliverables, and a review of the process. This ensures that the learning solution is on track, as well as the teamwork and partnership between all stakeholders. The team approach helps to ensure a balanced workload and provides for continuous momentum.

Team structure. The structure of the team is the other key component to success. The scrum master serves as the project administrator, ensures scrum values and practices are used, removes obstacles, ensures the team is functional and productive, enables collaboration across all roles, and shields the team from external interferences.

Teams are formed with the intent that they stay intact for 12 to 18 months to ensure the highest level of collaboration rather than for the duration of a single project. Intact scrum teams eliminate the need for handoff and reduce missed or cross-communication.

The product owner, equivalent to the client, defines the business requirements, prioritizes project-level deliverables, adjusts the priority of every sprint as needed, and approves the work results.

One of the projects created using the Agile methodology was an onboarding program designed to help new employees hired all over the world to learn about how Vanguard serves clients and about corporate culture. The instructional designers partnered with the product owner and sponsors to identify and recommend the most appropriate learning solution. Once approved by the sponsors, the product owner, designers, and developers determined the learning content, messaging, image strategy, and execution of each deliverable. The sponsors saw each iteration of the deliverables—rather than just a final product—and were able to give immediate feedback.


The proof is in the results. In the pilot phase, we realized not only increased speed to market, but our team members expressed significantly higher levels of job satisfaction. They stated that they preferred this highly collaborative approach over traditional waterfall methodology, which requires that a deliverable is fully developed, sent for review to the client or sponsor, edited by the team, sent out for final review, and then elevated. With the Agile process, the team works side-by-side with the client or product owner (who represents the client), so handoffs are eliminated.

Additionally, team members, now exposed to and having the opportunity to work closely with individuals in a variety of roles, realized a high level of cross education. This added to their satisfaction with their roles and with potential career progression. Client satisfaction increased significantly, as they were pleased not only with the work being produced, but also with the opportunity to play a more active role in the process.

At the conclusion of the pilot phase, the client satisfaction rate, expressed in Net Promoter Score, was 100 percent. Armed with these results, Vanguard University is now implementing Agile throughout the learning and development organization. Full implementation is expected to be complete in the first quarter of 2012.