Instructional Designer, Project Manager, or Both?

One of the topics of debate in my workplace is the concept of having the instructional designer also serve as the project manager for their own projects.  The rationale is that they are intimately involved in the project from design through implementation and are conveying information over to any project-level resources and establishing the deliverables.

This proposal raises some interesting issues.; PMs are normally positions of some level of authority and can request and assign resources, etc. So, if the PM did not have the authority PMs are also experts in the management and administration of projects, and all the mysterious things that go into them.  They are also not necessarily resources for the project, but they have a degree of responsibility to the project sponsor and the customer for the outcomes.

I’m going to try not to salt the waters too much, but I wonder what people think.  If you are an ID are you also your own project manager?


About Mark L. Sheppard

learning geek, lifelong learner, terminally curious, recovering blogger and Ed Tech explorer.

Posted on April 30, 2012, in commentary, Instructional Design, PLN, PPN, Project Management, questions, reflection and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. Hi, Mark

    I have seen this one debated in other places, so it is a topic of concern.

    My experience has been much as a one-man shop, so I am well familiar with doing it all. I know that the person who designs the learning experience can also be the one who makes it all happen. In many smaller organizations, no other option exists.

    That said, I do have some observations and a caution:

    1) Nobody knows that project like the one who built it from the ground up. The designer clearly has a lock on knowledge about the workings of the learning instrument.

    It’s their baby:)

    2) Everyone thinks their baby is perfect and beautiful and cute …

    3) Design and Project Management are two different functions, albeit with a nice and definitive overlap, especially when the discussion about the relationship between design and management is ongoing. (see for an example)

    4) When we have a vested interest in something through designing or creating it, we tend to be a tad protective, a little biased, and are not always the best person to deal with the more mundane aspects of making vision into reality.

    As you might guess, I’m making a slight case for separating the functions. However, this does not mean I am in favor of surrendering all authority and power to the PM … but that’s fodder for another post at another time:)


  2. Hi Mark,

    You bring a point “Project managers have some level of authority” – this is wrong. Project managers do not have any authority in their organization. In fact, all the authority lies in the hands of line/functional managers especially in traditional organizations. See this post.

    • Thanks for the comment. The article in question outlines excellent practices and considerations, and you’re right that the authority should indeed be earned. I would observe, however, in a number of organizations where I have worked, the PMs have been placed a little higher on the corporate food chain than the average worker bee. It would seem that some orgs pay closer attention to PMBoK than others. Thx again. 🙂

  3. Most of my working life I have been in one-man shops and smaller organizations where of necessity I did all functions. Once I shifted to higher education (11 years ago – all in distance, continuing, & online education), I have often functioned in a dual role as both instructional designer (ID) and project manager (PM), and in private organizational corollary roles, sometimes even functioning as subject matter expert (SME), too. It is both exhilarating and frustrating.

    I think John Smith has really nailed it on the four main issues. Intimate knowledge about purpose & function (#1) is one of the top reasons I do it, the “nice overlap” between design and PM (#3) is a major plus, and vested interest (#4) is one of the main reasons I stick with that arrangement even if someone else might be able to help differentiate roles.

    However, “perfect baby” syndrome (#2) and the downsides of vested interest (#4) are major reasons why many of my projects take way too long and either have to be reworked and tweaked over time a bit or don’t achieve the market influence that I envision. Many, many times I have wished the organization were large enough or the budget were sufficient enough to have others on board so we could differentiate roles. I have often envied the colleagues I know who have multiple staff members on their teams and can do so!

    So, all that being said, I guess the crux of the issue is that it depends on the size of the organization and the scope of the project. I think it is better to have the PM not be the ID (and better when the ID is not the SME), as the end product ends up better the first time and takes far less time to achieve excellence. I even earned a Masters in Instructional Design & Technology from a university that puts out top-notch educators and I know we were taught the “right” way was separate ID, SME, and PM. I agree in concept.

    But that is simply not the reality of the organizations I usually serve. A “next best” scenario is to have other people in the organization (VP’s, supervisors, directors, etc.) who can drive and check the progress as well as those who can give feedback on the developing educational product. It takes longer, but with those outside voices keeping it moving and keeping it quality, it can still turn out great!

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