Lights, Camera, eLearning: What Project Managers and Hollywood Directors Have in Common

eLearning Course Development Director

I recently watched a sci-fi movie with tons of special effects. I’m always amazed at how these massive productions begin with someone’s imagination and evolve into the magnificent movies we see on screen. While watching the film, it occurred to me that there are a lot of similarities between producing a movie and producing an eLearning project. In both cases, there are various types of people doing different tasks, all working towards a common goal. But there’s usually one person who’s “driving”…who knows how to get the project from point A to point B. In a movie production, that person would be the director; in an eLearning project, it’s the project manager.

If you’ve never managed a project before, the thought of having to do it could be pretty scary, but it doesn’t have to be. You don’t have to have a special certification or proficiency in Microsoft Project to manage a project successfully, although both are valuable credentials. But if you’re new to project management, there are several critical things to consider that can help you succeed, regardless of whether you’re making a movie or developing an eLearning course.  In this post, we’ll address several of them.

 

Organization

Good organization is the foundation for successful project management. It begins with a well-documented, step-by-step process for getting from point A to point B and systems to support the process. At Digitec, we use a variation of the ADDIE model to guide our eLearning development process, along with systems to help us organize our time, our files, and our communications. The systems do not have to be complex or expensive; for instance, a spreadsheet can be used to track project assets. Setting up a standard project folder structure with sub-folders for project documents, assets, and programming files along with setting up file naming conventions are just two examples of good organization techniques that can make managing a project easier and more efficient.

 

Project Plan and Schedule

When filming a movie, the movie director knows the goal of each scene before the cameras ever start rolling. Likewise, a project manager must know the goal of the project—what will be produced—before the eLearning project gets started. This goal is defined in the project plan. The project plan also identifies the key stakeholders and the project team, and documents the expected deliverables. The project plan needs to be as specific as possible in defining the project scope. It’s important to gain agreement on the project plan from all stakeholders before the project begins.

The project plan may also include the project schedule, which like a roadmap, guides the team from one milestone to the next along the path to project completion. It shows all of the tasks needed to complete a project, when they are scheduled to start and end, who is responsible for completing them, and the resulting deliverable, if any. In addition to helping you keep the project on track and moving forward, the project schedule can help you spot potential trouble before it occurs so you can make contingency plans and not be caught off guard. For instance, if the eLearning course will include photos, one of the tasks might be a photo shoot. A potential trouble spot would be the start date for media production, because media production depends on having the photos to work with. Media production cannot begin until the photo shoot has taken place. If the photo shoot is delayed, then media production must be delayed.

Just like everyone in a movie production needs to know when to be on set to start filming for the day, everyone on an eLearning project team needs to know when their tasks are scheduled to start. They also need to know what the dependencies are and how long they have to complete their tasks. For this reason, it’s important for the project manager to keep the project plan updated and notify team members when changes have been made.

There are lots of tools you can use to create your project plan, from a simple spreadsheet to web-based collaborative management systems. The key is to find one that works for you and then use it regularly to keep the team, and yourself, informed as the plan changes.

 

Workflow and Communication

Amid all of the lights, action, and explosions on a movie set, the director needs to establish a clear workflow and maintain constant communication with the actors and crew. Workflow and communication go hand-in-hand in an eLearning project, too, so it’s important to think through and document how you want these processes to work, so that everyone on the team has the information they need, when they need it.

Concerning workflow:

• You know what the project deliverables are, but do you know who needs to review and sign-off on each one?
• Is there an order of reviewers that should be followed, or should documents be distributed to everyone at the same time?
• Will the client provide someone to serve as a single point-of-contact, or will each reviewer provide feedback individually?
• How many “rounds” of review will there be, and are the reviewers the same for every round?

Concerning communication:

• Will you have project team meetings, and if so, how often and who will participate?
• How will meetings be held, in person or by phone or web conference? How you communicate will be somewhat determined by the locations of the team members.
• Will there be a protocol for communications; for instance, all team members may communicate freely or only through a single point-of-contact.
• What are the acceptable forms of communication; for instance, email, phone, instant message, in person?

 

Budget

Whether you’re working on a blockbuster movie or an eLearning course, you’ll probably have a budget to work with, even if it’s just a matter of accounting between departments. The budget will help to define the project scope. For instance, if you’re working with a relatively small budget, you may need to ask your instructional designer to rethink those 3D animations they were planning to use.

Budget is one of the three elements that constrain a project. The other two are time, and quality. As the project manager, you will likely be faced with having to make trade-offs between these areas. In the example above, to meet the budget, you must make a trade-off in quality by replacing the 3D animations with less expensive static images and captions.

As with project planning, there are a variety of budgeting tools, from a simple spreadsheet to comprehensive accounting software. Whichever tool you use, it’s important to keep close track of the budget so you can be prepared to make adjustments when needed.

 

Regardless of whether you’re managing the production of a movie or an eLearning course, there’s a lot to consider, and we’ve just scratched the surface here. The point is that project management does not have to be complicated to be effective. What tips would you give to other project managers working on a new eLearning project?

 

avatar

Pam Kelly

Instructional Design Director at Digitec Interactive

Dr. Pam is a serial student, having earned more degrees than everyone at Digitec, combined. She holds a Ph.D. from the University of Miami, an M.B.A. from the Crummer Graduate School of Rollins College (go Tars!), an MME from Winthrop University, a B.A. from Pfeiffer University and engaged in post graduate studies at the University of Central Florida for good measure. Pam also served her time on the other end of the classroom, having taught K-12 and at the university level prior to joining Digitec in 2003. In her 10 year tenure as Digitec's Instructional Design Director, Pam has designed dozens of eLearning courses for organizations including The Walt Disney Company, Yum! Brands, FINRA, Council for Economic Education, and the North Carolina Community College BioNetwork.

Spirit animal: Dog
Diet-breaker: Hand-cut fries
Comfort object: iPad mini
Personal vice: Reality TV
Useless talent: Can flip eyelids inside out
Unreasonable paranoia: Anything that slithers
Wishes more people cared about: em dashes

  • A

    Hello,

    While the article is well written and mentions key points, the similie needs correction. Rather then the director, it is the producer who most resembles a project manager.

    The director needs to be constantly reminded of deadlines and budget restrictions by the production team. The director’s main role is to oversee the artistic aspects of the film, guiding the actors in their interpretations of their roles and determining the the look and feel of the film, eg lighting, pacing in editing etc. The producer on the other hand organizes the shooting and editing schedule, manages the crew’s time, and makes sure that scenes are meeting deadlines etc.

    Regards

    • Pam Kelly

      Hi, very glad you appreciated the blog! We feel the project manager for eLearning is a combination of the producer and director role. We chose to use the Hollywood Director analogy though, because we felt it was a more familiar one for our audience. Thanks again for reading and commenting!

  • Fredrick

    My colleagues and I absolutely love your blog and find nearly all of your post’s to be right on. Would you offer guest writers to write content for you? I wouldn’t mind composing a post or elaborating on one of the topics you write about. Again, awesome site!

    • Pam Kelly

      Frederick, absolutely, we always welcome guest authors. I’ll have our community manager, Sarah Lugo send you information on how to contribute. Thanks for your interest!

  • Jillian B

    Thanks for your personal marvelous posting! I definitely enjoyed reading it, great insights. I will make certain to bookmark your blog and look forward to your future posts. I want to encourage one to continue your great eLearning posts, have a nice morning!

  • Quentin

    I’m amazed, I must say. Seldom do I come across a blog that’s equally educative and interesting, and without a doubt, you have hit the nail on the head.

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  • http://www.warrior-women.net Donna

    Good article. Having both a production and administrative background, I liked ( and get) the analogy. Unrelated question: How do you find out what your “spirit animal”is? I think I know what mine is but it is just going on intuition and would love to confirm it.

    • Pam Kelly

      Hi Donna, thank you! Haha! I just made my spirit animal up, based on the skills and traits I feel I possess. So I think you’d be good just following your intuition! There is also this cute little quiz that is supposed to help you determine your “spirit animal.” http://www.jerismithready.com/quiz/

  • Sarah Lugo

    Great post Pam!

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