It's never just an IT Project by Larry Cooper

It's never just an IT Project by Larry Cooper

Lawrence Cooper

May 31, 2018


Procure and implement a learning management system (LMS). Another similar organization had just done the same, so just grab their RFP (all 246 pages of it), make some modifications to suit your context, and off you go. Seems easy enough.

One caveat.

You must use Scrum to run the procurement process. That sounds easy enough as well. Except…no one on the team has experience using Scrum as part of a procurement. And the response of the Scrum coaches when asked to help is…it can’t be done.

Here’s an idea. Let’s start with WHY…WHY are you doing this? WHY now? Who else’s WHY might matter?

This is the story of an LMS procurement for a Crown Corporation in Canada that struggled with staying within the confines of traditional policies and rules governing procurement, while at the same time trying to use this thing called Scrum to run a procurement.

Hint. It’s not about Scrum. Oh, and the LMS wasn’t the only procurement that was necessary.

Case Study

COMPANY NAME: Major Crown Corporation, Canada

A major crown corporation in Canada was looking to procure and implement a Learning Management System. The project was positioned as an “IT project” – gather the requirements, procure a product through an RFP, install it and migrate the data from the existing system. They hired me to lead both the IT and business-side teams.

This case study captures the story of how an “IT Project” was transformed into an outcomes-driven business initiative that delivered substantially more value than planned, all within its original time and budget allocations.

I led both teams in combining business and IT frameworks, methods and practices in a non-dogmatic manner to create clarity around the WHY for the project. The process of discovery enabled the business to re-design the problem to be solved in business terms, rather than in technical IT ones.

I introduced the business and IT teams to outcomes management, a modified version of the Business Model Canvas to define, design and build the business services on offer, a Services Catalogue modeled after the ITSM space, as well as Scrum and other agile approaches to run an Agile procurement, as well as introducing agile approaches to designing, developing, and deploying learning content and for business processes.

The Problems

The corporation had recently made a decision to place staff in Canadian embassies and missions around the world. All of its existing training relating to its products and services were classroom-based. With the increasing geographic dispersion of its people, continued use of classroom-only training was deemed to be cost-prohibitive, as well causing undue delays in the roll-out of new products and services.

The project had a fixed time of eighteen months and a $2.5M budget. The original project definition was to simply procure and implement a Learning Management System (LMS) in the way that most IT projects are defined in traditional settings. The IT team already had a product in mind for the LMS that would cost $1M.

When I arrived I was given a copy of an RFP that a similar Crown corporation had used to procure an LMS; it was 246 pages long. The corporation had a number of Scrum coaches on-site who delivered a one-day introduction to Scrum for everyone on the cross-functional team. However, having to use Scrum for a procurement project had not been done before, and the coaches indicated it would not be a good fit. The teams and I were not given a choice by the executive – Scrum had to be used. Coupled with a sample RFP for an LMS, and having IT already focused on a specific product, these were major challenges to overcome. As well, the Learning and Development (L&D) group within HR also had little to no experience with developing learning content for online delivery.

The Solution

The Learning and Development (L&D) group, along with the Program Management Office within IT, felt that a cross-functional team of business and IT people, augmented with contracted people, would be necessary. They also wanted the entire effort to use Scrum – including for the Procurement of the LMS.

I was hired by the IT Program Management Office (PMO) to lead the cross-functional team with reporting lines into both the business and IT. The Program Manager and the L&D Director provided clear-the-path leadership for their respective groups. Where necessary, they were able to escalate to their respective VPs who were also very supportive of the approach.

During the first three to four months, I asked a lot of WHY questions as I introduced the team to a series of approaches to help them plan out an iterative and incremental approach to the work:

  • An outcomes-driven approach that used a back-casting approach to define the ultimate, intermediate and immediate outcomes
  • The resulting Outcomes Map (see Figure 1) identified the required portfolio of initiatives that would have to be undertaken and what each initiative would need to accomplish, as well as the order in which they would be executed
  • Each initiative was purpose-defined to deliver a specific portion of the strategic intent (i.e., the immediate, intermediate and ultimate business outcomes to which they would contribute)
  • A modified version of the Business Model Canvas was created, called the Service Canvas. It helped the L&D team to capture their current services and define the new ones that would be needed (see Figure 2). The red text depicts the new additions
  • Required business capabilities that would be needed were identified and updated based on the Outcomes Map and the Service Canvas
  • A technique for prioritizing business value that proved instrumental in saving 98.5% of the originally forecasted budget of $1M for purchasing the LMS license (this saved the corporation over $200,000 each year thereafter in software maintenance costs)
  • The $975,000 in procurement savings was re-deployed to the creation of the new services as well as the processes and supports necessary for creating learning content for the new LMS

I had previously implemented two other Learning Management Systems, one for a private client and the other for a public sector client. While the first one was done without an outcomes map, it was a similar situation of the project being viewed as an “IT project”. I managed to get the business and IT to agree to take a business process perspective of what had to be done, as it was a commercial training delivery organization that had previously been writing off 18% of their annual revenues due to bad process. Within three months after that one was implemented every penny was accounted for and there were no transactions in error. Within six months they had an ISO certification on their processes.

The public sector one was done using outcomes mapping from the outset. These experiences were leveraged to persuade the L&D group and the Program Office to give the recommended approach a try.

While the original plan had only called for the procurement and installation of the LMS along with data migration, the creation of an Outcomes Map identified a considerably richer and detailed set of strategic initiatives that would be necessary to realize success at a business level, as can be seen in Figure 1 and Table 1 below. Initiatives are depicted as boxes, assumptions as triangles, and outcomes as circles. The “clouds” are used to represent value stream areas – note the overlaps.

Learning Management Initiative Outcomes Map
Figure 1 - Outcomes Map
L&D Business Services
Figure 2 - L&D Business Services Canvas


The Implementation

To achieve these outcomes, five value streams were identified along with nine purpose-defined Initiatives and related Immediate (secondary bullets) and Intermediate (main bullets) Outcomes as shown in Table 1.

Table 1: Value Streams, Purpose-defined Initiatives, and Outcomes contributed to:

Value Stream Purpose-defined Initiatives Outcomes contribution
L&D Governance Develop and Implement Learning Governance Model
  • Learning Governance Model Implemented
    • Organizational Accountability for Learning is Defined
    • L&D Role in Talent Management is Defined
    • LOB/CoE Roles/Responsibilities are Clear
    • L&D/LoB/CoE Engagement Model is Ready for Use
Develop and Implement a Learning Shared Services Model
  • Learning Shared Services Model Ready for Use
    • Revised Measurement Model is Ready for Use
    • Consistent Intake, Assessment, Development, and Delivery Processes are Ready for Use
    • Performance Consultant Processes are Standardized
    • L&D Roles are Redefined
Learning Content Design and Development Develop and Implement Learning Content Design, Development and Management Processes
  • Courseware Design and Development Processes being Managed through Workflow
  • Learning Content Design and Management Processes are Implemented
    • Learning Architecture is Defined
    • Learning Content Design, Development and Management Processes are Standardized
Learning Content Management Establish Learning Content Hosting in a Single Repository
  • Consistent Learning Achieved
  • Collaboration among Learning Content Developers is Occurring
    • Learning Content is managed using a Single Repository
    • Learning Content is easier to find for Reuse
    • Learners can locate Learning Content Creators
Learning Management and Delivery Select and Implement an LMS
  • Learning Content Dynamically delivered
  • Integration with Required Systems is Achieved
  • LMS is Implemented
    • LMS is Installed
Establish relationships with External L&D Service Providers (Learning Content, Knowledge Management)
  • Organizational Knowledge is Increased
  • Consistent Learning is Achieved
Enhanced Learning Environment Develop and Implement Distributed Learning Channels
  • Distributed Learning Channels Being Used
    • Marketing Intelligence is Incorporated in Learning
    • Social Networking is Incorporated in Learning
    • Forums are being used for Knowledge Sharing and Capturing Learning Needs
    • Structured, Field-based Coaching is Implemented
    • Knowledge Transfer between Sector Teams and Business is Facilitated
HR Analytics Integration
  • HR Competency Decisions Supported
Develop and Implement Integrated Talent Management
  • "Customer Centricity" Supported
  • Risk Reduction Achieved
  • Sales and Revenue Increased
  • Compliance Achieved

The original project plan saw this as one single project. The outcomes-driven approach made visible a portfolio of nine separate business initiatives, each with specific contributions to the overall strategic intent. Notable is that eight of the nine initiatives would never have been done, or at the least not with the same degree of clarity around their purpose, nor within the original timeline and budget, had I not introduced the teams to new-to-them business and IT frameworks, methods, and practices.

Backlogs were created for each initiative and delivered in two-week time-boxes. VersionOne was used to manage initiative backlogs. As the PMO was using MS Project Server for tracking and reporting of financials and overall delivery timelines, an agreement was obtained to only show the Sprints under each initiative with a comment to each indicating what was intended to be delivered as well as a link to the VersionOne backlog. This enabled the PMO to collect the financial data they needed to report on while enabling the project team to do the work in an agile way with a clear focus on business value.

We held daily stand-ups in the same physical area each day at the same time. A team room was secured and used extensively throughout the eighteen months of the project. The Outcomes Map and Services Canvas were printed out on 36x48-inch sheets and posted in the common area of the office with stickies and pens for people to add their comments. This approach led to numerous discussions by people as they stood and looked at each canvas which significantly enhanced shared understanding as well as the completeness of our vision. We would collect the stickies once a week and update both posters. We also held numerous workshops with different parts of the business across Canada to clarify our strategic intent.

To better understand what the LMS needed to be able to do for the business, I facilitated a series of workshops over a two-month period. During each workshop, we helped the team identify required business capabilities along with more detailed statements for each capability area. When they felt they had a complete enough picture of what they needed from an LMS we had them rank each statement in each capability area on a 5-level scale as shown in Table 2.

Table 2: Business Value Ranking

Scale Business Value Meaning
1 Very Low
2 Low
3 Medium
4 High
5 Very High

Once all statements were ranked I then had them do pair-wise comparisons of like-ranked statements starting with the 5s. For each pairwise combination, they would be asked, “if you only had $1, and you could only buy one of these, which one would it be”. If they answered:

  • “this one” – the other one was given the next lowest number (i.e. a 4 if it had been a 5)
  • “then I guess I don’t have enough money, as they are both equal” – then both remained at the current ranking

When all statements had been evaluated and re-ranked as necessary, I then asked the L&D leaders and their team members the following:

“For those ranked 1 or 2, you are saying that they are of low or very low business value to you. Do you still want to include them, which will add a lot more complexity to the bid responses as well as potentially skew the vendor rankings, or would you like to drop them?”

The choice was made to drop the items that were deemed to be of Low or Very Low business value. The meant the resulting RFP was ten pages (not 246) and mostly explained the process to be used for evaluation. All vendors were required to submit electronic-only responses to the bid.

The evaluation team was able to complete the evaluation process in a single day. The top three vendors were invited to a boardroom demo in front of key business users. Following these sessions the number one and two vendors swapped positions due to vendor two having a much better user experience; this likelihood was made clear in the RFP as the users have to be able to use the LMS to support the required business capabilities. This means there was no room for bid challenges based on the process. From bid-response receipt to a decision on the winning vendor was five business days.

We also made the Agile way of working part of the Vendor evaluation - we wanted to make sure the vendor we chose could work the way we were. The winning vendor did.

The overall RFP process was completed in less than six weeks leading up to vendor award.

The Challenges

The biggest challenges were with the IT support staff and with the IT architecture team. The IT support staff wanted a specific product, which is where the original $1M budget number had originated. They made several attempts throughout the project to have their preferred tool selected.

The architecture team, upon finding out that the selected product ran on Windows instead of their preferred Unix (the IT support team’s product was Unix-based), engaged in a formal challenge of the procurement decision which resulted in a two-month delay in the final contract award.

Throughout both sets of challenges, the Program Manager and the L&D Director remained steadfast behind the decisions of the team. Once the architecture challenge was overcome, the IT Support team dropped their challenge.

The third challenge was with the L&D team that developed the course materials. They had to move from developing classroom-only materials to developing content for online delivery.  This meant:

  • Identifying new roles and processes relating to content design, development, and deployment
  • Using a more iterative and incremental approach to content design, development, and deployment
  • Having to procure and learn new content development tools and new practices
  • Adding a content management system to the solution

This is what led to the Learning Content Design and Development and Learning Content Management value streams.

The final challenge came from an unlikely source. While the work was underway, another team was looking at Lean process design. The approach used led to a challenge for the L&D team that was developing the new processes, primarily for the Learning Content Design and Development and Learning Content Management value streams. The L&D team were told they had to develop the “as-is” before creating the “to-be” processes and were told to do that for the developing content for online delivery – except they had never developed content for online delivery before. This created unnecessary work and tension between the teams, though it was eventually resolved prior to go-live.

The Outcomes

Some of the direct additional benefits for the organization from the approach used included:

  • Clarity around what L&D did and the service commitments they would uphold for their business clients as documented in a Service Catalogue (no such catalogue existed previously)
  • On-line and Blended-learning delivery were supported, whereas only classroom delivery was previously done
  • New processes were created for learning content design, development, deployment and management that were not part of the original plan
  • Contributions to initiating talent management were achieved which were also not part of the original plan
  • An Agile Procurement was conducted, which saved $975,000 in the LMS purchase and over $200,000 in annual LMS licensing
  • The $975,000 was redeployed to deliver business value that had not been identified as part of the original project

These benefits were all achieved within the original budget and schedule, which were estimated based on only procuring and implementing an LMS along with the migration of data from their existing learning administration system.

While the defined outcomes from the Outcomes Map were used to guide decision-making throughout the various initiatives that were executed as part of the portfolio of work, the outcomes that would be relevant to any organization that used similar approaches include:

  • Outcomes mapping (or similar ones that focus on business value) enables teams to clarify strategic intent and establish the WHY before focusing on the WHAT, HOW, WHO, WHERE, and WHEN – you get to design the problem you want to solve without needing a lot of the details to be known before you start
  • Enables teams to think big picture while they work in the small on purpose-defined initiatives
  • A service focus connects the WHY to the WHO, which in turn provides even greater clarity on the WHAT, HOW, WHERE and WHEN
  • The use of maps and canvases provides big picture visibility while enabling constant validation and adjustment throughout delivery, leading to greater shared understanding and completeness of vision

At the end of the eighteen-month engagement, I was asked to deliver a series of presentations to the Program and Project Managers as well as the Business Analysts on the approaches used.

Larry Cooper

Larry Cooper

CoFounder @ AdaptiveOrg

I am a co-founder of AdaptiveOrg Inc., a boutique consultancy firm focusing on the role of strategic leadership to drive organizational resilience and sustainability. AdaptiveOrg believes that adaptability is the behavior, agility is the consequence.

I spent seventeen years in the public sector and the past twenty-three in the private sector in Canada and the USA providing strategic advisory in adaptability and agility for government, not-for-profit, and private sector clients. I hold more than twenty industry certifications in agile, project management, and IT Service Management. And I regret that certifications now seem to be valued more than education.

I delivered what was probably the first public course in Business Value Management at BA*World Toronto in 2010 and am a recognized leader in the space.

I have been behaving in an agile way for more than twenty-five years, having cut my teeth in Object-Orientation and Service-Oriented Architecture in the early 1990s, followed by JRP-JAD-RAD in the late 1990’s.

I am a proponent of no agile single framework, method, practice or technique, yet a user of most. I believe that when you start with questions, you’re far more likely to design the problem you want to solve before you design the solution.

My book, Agile Value Delivery: Beyond the Numbers provides an in-depth discussion on Outcomes Management

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