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Rapid Prototyping at HBSP

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Sun Oct 15 2006

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Rapid prototyping saves time and money at Harvard Business School Publishing.

Problem: Learning and development professionals face continual pressures to develop learning programs quickly. The challenge is to deliver effective, high quality material and programs, often within extremely tight timeframes.

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Solution: Harvard Business School Publishing, a leading supplier of leadership and management courseware, employs rapid prototyping and other internal techniques to dramatically shorten the amount of development time required for certain types of learning content.

"Our customers tell us that the pressures from the business units they serve drive the need for rapid-e-learning," says Sarah Porter-Braun, director of corporate learning marketing and portfolio management at Harvard Business School Publishing. "They are getting less and less lead time to develop offerings for their constituents." She says some of this reflects the increased rate of business, but many customers cite the mistaken belief within their business units that e-learning takes less time to develop than it actually does.

At Harvard Business School Publishing, a growing part of the business is courseware development for soft skills and leadership training. Like many content developers, its fast-growing corporate learning unit employs whenever appropriate new rapid e-learning techniques including prototyping, templating, and SCORM-compliant reusable learning objects.

Harvard Business School Publishing develops a wide range of training content, starting with a flagship product called Harvard ManageMentor that consists of 43 topics or courses. Other product types include eight-module leadership development programs for implementation by companies over a two-month period, and two-hour courses for rapid delivery to clients. Clients also can select a tailored collection of Harvard Business School Publishing online programs and other content to deliver learning closely aligned with their organization's strategic business objectives.

Porter-Braun says the publishing house's deep well of content enables customers to create programs and publish content to meet their rapid learning demands. "This holds true with all rapid learning. We see a demand for rapid learning for various modes of delivery, e-learning and otherwise."

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An increasing portion of the mix involves rapid prototyping, the specialized process used to quickly, and inexpensively, create realistic, disposable models of interactions online, rather than through specs and storyboards. Prototypes provide better visualization of the final design in order to more quickly consider alternatives and to gain consensus, says ASTD.

These assignments for clients typically include recurring programs such as elements of new employee on-boarding, or targeted programs with deadlines such as compliance training. Depending on certain variables such as the length of the program and whether Harvard Business School Publishing has developed similar content before, it can produce material for a classroom course within a week, says Porter-Braun.

Blended learning content such as a webinar drawn on existing e-learning products are among the most quickly produced. "Taking a modular approach using pre-existing templates, these programs often only need minor updates to existing content each time they are delivered," she says.

"For an entirely new product, with a new approach or design, we take considerable time up front for the initial design," says executive producer Sara Cummins. "While that design phase is never compressed or rushed, its speed can still be enhanced with rapid prototyping." The repeatable process involves developing a prototype, circulating it for comment, and determining its usability, adds Cummins.

E-learning products can take longer to develop since they are typically new material developed with expert input. But complex products using expensive high-end media don't lend themselves to rapid development, she warns.

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"Creating media is expensive and you want to make sure you don't shoot video or record audio until you are sure it's right," says Cummins. In addition, programs that require pulling from numerous different talents take more time to create, she says. The software development model for media development is essentially the film model, using a mixture of talents: writers, editors, instructional designers, graphic artists, programmers, and especially good project managers, to pull the whole thing together.

For new products that are based on existing designs and for which a template already exists, the task is to develop the content and pour it into templates that are leveraged for multiple uses. For example, says Cummins, each of the ManageMentor product's 43 topics is templated into content types, such as steps, tips, tools and interactivity.

Using this model, her team recently created three two-hour classroom courses for a client within a very short time. For another client, it developed eight webinars from a single template and will ultimately turn the custom offering into a generic one.

In addition to drawing from existing content, Cummins and company have developed an internal database of assets for specific topic areas. Individuals can go to that application and create a collection of appropriate assets, and then select from the content within them.

Development of a custom learning program for a client, such as a one or two-hour webinar or a blended learning project, typically begins with a request from sales or implementation departments. Product management representatives then talk with the client, discuss the request with product development, and appoint a facilitator. A conference call is usually held among representatives from each function to finalize the client's training needs. Product development then creates a program, drawing from existing assets, and submits it to a review process involving both the client and the facilitator.

What role do authors have in the development of Harvard Business School Publishing learning programs? "Usually, our authors and other experts review our original content and programs. Then we draw from those existing programs when creating content rapidly," says Cummins. She says it is often difficult because of busy schedules to involve authors in projects requiring quick turn-around. Fortunately, the unit has access to a cadre of HR learning professionals who can help with the development of programs and courses where fast turnaround is paramount.

Subject matter experts include authors, Harvard Business School faculty, and leading practitioners. Among them is Harvard Business School's Dr. Robert Kaplan, who co-developed the Balanced Scorecard strategic management approach in the early 1990s, and Michael Watkins, a prominent expert on leadership transitions who helped design a popular course on the subject.

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