Instructional Designer Vs Project Manager – 5 Tips To Manage This Crucial Relationship

All projects have team members with overlapping roles. Just the right amount of overlap is necessary to ensure a smooth handover of information and tasks from one team member to another. If there is too little overlap things could fall through the cracks. Conversely, if there is too much overlap it could result in unwanted friction. It’s this latter situation which we are going to look at in this post.

As I discussed in my previous post “How the lack of an Instructional Designer could hurt the learning experience“, a typical eLearning team consists of a Project Manager, a Graphic Designer, an Instructional Designer, an eLearning Developer and a Tester. Naturally for larger projects or projects with tight deadlines you may see multiple individuals in each position but basically these are the skills which are needed.

In such a team, the biggest possibility of friction exists between the Instructional Designer and the Project Manager because their roles have the greatest chance of overlap. Let’s look to see how and why this might happen.

The primary role of the Instructional Designer is to absorb the domain knowledge from the client SME, envision the most optimal way of transforming that knowledge into a delivery medium (video, interactive graphic, click and reveal interactivity, a game, etc.) and visualize how it should look on an eLearning / Web Based Training Page. (This last step should be done together with the Graphic Designer).

An Instructional Designer is most effective when he or she has direct physical access to the client. It makes it easier to have discussions, visit factories, interview other employees to gain knowledge, understand the culture of the client’s organization, etc. all things needed to deliver a high quality eLearning experience.

On the other hand, the primary role of the Project Manager is to “herd cats”, get things done and accordingly report progress to the client. Consequently, it is more important that the Project Manager is close to the team rather than close to the client. So the Project Manager may or may not have physical access to the client. It is also possible that the entire eLearning team – including the Project Manager – is based at a location remote from the client in which case the Project Manager may never get to even see the client.

So what could result from such a dynamic?

Because the Instructional Designer has a more visible profile than the Project Manager, in the eyes of the client the Instructional Designer may seem to be have more power or influence within the team. So the client may always have the instinct to go to the Instructional Designer with any problem about the project even though it may have nothing to do with the ID process.

Being bypassed in this way and overshadowed by the Instructional Designer could grate on the sensibilities of the Project Manager who is diligently working “under the hood”, managing the team and getting things done.

And this is what could lead to friction.

A situation like this is nobody’s fault. The client is simply going to the person from the eLearning team who is closest to him/her. The Instructional Designer wants to please the client and so becomes the direct conduit of information for the client. Yet, such a situation can be dangerous as it could lead to fractures within the team and therefore should be dealt with pro-actively.

Here are some tips to avoid this kind of friction in your eLearning team:

1. Clearly Defined Roles

Be sure the role of the Instructional Designer and the Project Manager are clearly defined, documented and communicated not just to the team but also to the client. Let the client know that if he/she has questions related to the project in general the contact is the Project Manager and not the Instructional Designer.

2. Compatibility

Find an Instructional Designer and a Project Manager who are compatible with each other. If they have worked together in the past and have worked well,put them in the same team.

3. Respect For Boundaries

Both the Instructional Designer and the Project Manager need to understand each other’s boundaries and respect them. So if the client comes to the Instructional Designer with a question which is clearly out of the ID scope, the Instructional Designer should ask the client to check with the Project Manager.

4. Structured Communication

Especially when the Instructional Designer and the Project Manager are remote from each other, a formal communication structure should be built and implemented between them. These could be weekly meetings or monthly meetings specifically to discuss topics which could cause friction down the road. These meetings should be in addition to general project meetings, team meetings or other ad hoc communication.

5. Mutual Deference

Linking together the clear definition of roles and the respect for boundaries is Mutual Deference. This is especially required of the Instructional Designer so that when the client comes to him or her with an issue which is clearly a Project Management issue, the ID needs to resist the temptation to take care of it himself/herself and defers to the Project Manager.

To conclude, the relationship between an Instructional Designer and a Project Manager – like most relationships – needs to be managed carefully. It is a relationship of equals which with open communication, mutual respect and the putting of client satisfaction above all else, can be a force for good for all sides.

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