Adopting Agile proved a game-changer for the Education team in Simplilearn, a leading digital education provider. One of the key challenges that e-learning companies face is delivering relevant and updated content in a short period of time to meet learners' diverse learning needs. We turned to Agile methodology to address this challenge. When we adopted Agile for developing content, we expected an improvement in productivity, efficiency, and quality. However, what we didn't expect was the quantum leap in speed of development, number of courses released every quarter, and course quality. 

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What is Agile Learning?

Agile Learning is a continuous and incremental learning process to help employees adapt to changes faster in an agile environment. Agile learning is mainly flexible. The learning process in agile is incremental, and it helps employees achieve objectives like the design-build-test cycle faster. This makes Agile learning more flexible.

Why is an Agile Learning Culture Essential?  

An agile learning culture is essential for various reasons. Some of these are mentioned below:

  1. Improved visibility - Faster results always ensure better visibility. Unlike other learning techniques, results while learning through agile are faster, enhancing the visibility of those learning through Agile learning. 
  2. Improved efficiency - While a classic way of learning things provides results at a much later stage, the level of understanding an employee receives is still a question. Agile learning's incremental methodology ensures that understanding aligns with the knowledge imparted. 
  3. Improved collaboration - It is always essential to coordinate while we learn something. Greater collaboration better results. An incremental technique employed in agile learning requires collaborating continuously to ensure the short-term goals set by agile learning are met.  

Who is Responsible for Implementing Agile Learning Inside the Team?

The answer to this question is very simple. Everyone is responsible for implementing agile learning inside the team. This is because agile learning requires collaboration among the team to evaluate individuals' understanding. From the product owners to the developers' everyone needs to collaborate and ensure that agile learning is implemented, and thus every team member is responsible for implementing agile learning.

What Traits Are Helping in the Agile Learning Process?

Let us understand in detail what traits help agile learning:

  1. A curious person would always strive to learn new topics and add them to his or her knowledge base. This trait helps in grasping knowledge faster. 
  2. A strong determination to learn something new is a trait that helps gain new concepts and knowledge faster. 
  3. The incremental learning process is the core concept of agile learning. Organized thinking would comprise performing research, data collection, experimenting, documenting, analyzing the results, drawing conclusions, and sharing knowledge on all the learning with fellow team members. 
  4. Incremental learning and continuous knowledge additions are the foundation of agile learning. Employees trying to take up agile learning has to be committed to this format of learning to ensure better results

How to Organize Agile Learning?

A just-in-time format of the learning system ensures that access to training is provided only when it is needed. Objectives have to be set by product owners in order to ensure a continuous learning process. This can be done by providing visibility on sprint backlogs and creating dedicated learning items. This organizes the learning process.  

What are the Topics Covered by the Agile Learning Process?

Topics covered in agile learning can be decided based on a need basis. The flexibility of agile learning enables employees to add topics of their own choice. Product owners can sometimes choose topics to scale up employees on specific modules or topics on a need basis.

How to Create an Agile Learning Culture?

Answers to questions of what agile learning is and why agile learning is important are now answered, so it is now important to understand how to create an agile learning culture. The below points will help answer this question

Get Company Buy-in

Before creating an agile learning culture inside any organization, the people in the company must understand its importance. Importance is communicated properly when a vision of the culture is established properly. Once the vision is established, it is important to win the favor of all stakeholders ensuring all departments are aware of this vision.

Shift your processes

Timely collection of feedback through the courses will facilitate the evaluation of changes. This evaluation would help in building an efficient process.

Create Micro-Courses

Micro courses enable knowledge retention and help in understanding large courses more effectively. Engagement will be improved because of this.

Open up the Power to Author Courses

Creating courses is fun. When power-to-author courses are provided, it will allow enthusiastic learners to impart their knowledge by creating new courses. To ensure that this will be accomplished by all learners, individual goals must be set up for all learners. Progress needs to be checked, and the entire process needs to be flexible.

Publicly Celebrate Learning Accomplishments

Tracking the progress of individual learners is the key to rewarding them for the accomplishment of goals. Celebrating such achievements publicly encourage learners to learn more and more.

5 Tips for Building an Agile Learning Culture

Make Communication a Two-Way Street

It is important to listen to your workforce. Listening to them and taking them seriously would encourage them. This would make them feel appreciated.

Make Learning Continuous 

Continuous and incremental learning is the foundation on which agile learning is built. Once the learning is continuous, it expands the knowledge base and thus enhances individual capabilities

Make Training Micro!

The agile development concept runs on the principle of breaking down a large amount of work into small chunks, thus ensuring that deliverables are delivered on time and tracked on time. Along similar lines agile learning also is built on learning things in small chunks. 

Involve Subject Matter Experts

Studying a subject under someone who knows it is always helpful. A subject matter expert is someone with immense knowledge on a subject that he is assigned to. Getting subject matter experts to share their expertise helps employees understand the specific topic more detailedly.

Go Mobile!

It is important to implement a mobile-friendly learning environment in order to facilitate learning anywhere and everywhere.

Our Agile Journey

Simplilearn ensures that the latest developments in the existing and emerging technology, business, and marketing domains are made available to learners across 150+ countries across the globe in the form of highly engaging courses. Here's where the Education team at Simplilearn comes in. The team creates online course content that's consumed by learners through a blended learning model, including online self-paced learning videos, instructor-led live virtual classes, hands-on activities, and projects. The courses cover a spectrum of domains ranging from technology, Data, and AI, digital business, and digital operations. 

Until late 2017, traditional methods such as Waterfall were used to develop the courses.  This posed several challenges during the course development as the speed of development could not keep up with the demand. For starters, it took nearly three months to develop a single course, and if quality issues were detected in the testing phase post-course development, it often led to rework and delay in course release. As a result, there were frequent timeline slip-ups too. Moreover, the communication between team members wasn’t optimal, with blockers or potential risks not getting highlighted on time. Sometimes, the teams had to even work on weekends to meet delivery dates. This led to immense pressure, and a drastic hit to the team morale. Although the courses were doing well in terms of revenue and ratings, there was an urgent need to enhance the learner experience and make the courses highly engaging. 

To tackle these challenges, the team switched to the Agile way of course development, which proved to be the beginning of a transformational journey for the Education team as individuals were no longer working in silos but as part of a high-performing, cross-functional, and self-reliant team. 

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Mapping Our Agile Journey To the Agile Maturity Levels

In general, the maturity of an Agile team is assessed at five levels. The first level defines the initial stage where a team begins working in an agile way and slowly learns the fundamentals of the approach. The second level is where the team aligns well with the Agile methodology and starts to  deliver positive outcomes consistently. The third level of maturity happens when the team begins to step up and completes the planned work in a role-agnostic way - a developer does testing, and a tester contributes to development, and so on. The fourth level focuses on automating repetitive processes to enhance accuracy and efficiency. The fifth and final level is scaled Agile, which focuses on agility at scale—at the enterprise level. 

Currently, the Education team at Simplilearn is at level four of Agile maturity as we integrate DevOps into our processes. Some areas of the function have progressed to level five or scaled Agile involving cross-functional teams in the organization. 

Let me trace our Agile journey and the many lessons we learned along the way to show how we maximized the outcomes by reimagining Agile in developing courses:

Starting With Agile

As the saying goes: "A journey of a thousand steps begins with a small step."

When we started with Agile, there were many questions such as "How can we develop a topic in one Sprint? Will the speed compromise quality? How can anyone quantify a creative process such as course creation? It takes time to visualize and develop storyboards, etc." It took us a while to understand the Agile values and principles.

We followed the Scrum method and formed Scrum teams. The teams slowly started getting familiar with the Scrum ceremonies like Sprint grooming, retrospectives, sprint planning. We started using tools to improve collaboration. The key challenge was to effect a change of mindset and get the team to be enthusiastic about the change. 

Practicing Agile

Our tottering, small steps in the Agile journey slowly turned to confident strides. But, this did not come easy. There were times when we released courses early, but on the other hand, we also had delays. There were roadblocks due to poor planning, inconsistent outputs, and times when the team wanted to give up. However, we persisted until we started seeing consistent outcomes. This is a crucial phase in Agile maturity as teams could lose morale and tend to give up when they don't see the expected results. From our experience, we learned that we must not quit at this stage. Sooner rather than later, you will get consistent results. 

We started achieving the planned Sprint stories that ultimately helped release courses on time. The Daily Stand up meeting helped the team identify challenges and resolve blockers. Productivity increased as the team started achieving consistent velocity. More courses were getting developed. The quality started improving as the defects reduced by 25% each quarter. 

A defining factor in the success of Agile is the servant leadership culture in our team. It's definitely people over process! I'm not exaggerating when I say the Retrospective is the most important meeting in the Education team. The Retrospective meeting is a great forum for discussing lessons learned and implementing those learnings as part of continuous improvement. The leaders and functional managers have formed an Agile Steering committee that works on the feedback and concerns raised by the team, thus enabling the team to perform better. 

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Becoming "Pure Agile"

We have been transforming into a truly self-reliant agile team in leaps and bounds. The scrum teams notched up their productivity and efficiency with a 25% increase in velocity each quarter. And all of these without working on weekends or putting in long hours!

What did we do differently? We attempted to reimagine Agile: We went "pure Agile" - a term that we coined to describe a method of Agile content development where there are no restrictions of roles such as developers and testers to complete the stories. A QA would pitch in with the developer for creating instructor-led live virtual class content, storyboards, or even videos. On the other hand, the developer would take up the quality check of the developed content if there's a QA bottleneck. This helped in faster completion of courses where the team worked in a truly cross-functional manner. 

Another significant change was that the entire team focused on a single course and completed it before moving on to the next one. As a result, planning became better. This helped the team release some of the courses even before the release date. Earlier, a scrum team used to work on more than three courses simultaneously, which sometimes led to a timeline breach.

The combined velocity of the scrum teams increased by 23% after we implemented the "Pure Agile" process. However, we had some learnings here too! We realized continuous testing was the key to a quality product. In addition to the QA review, we introduced peer review by developers to ensure content accuracy and audit by the Operations team to check if all course components are uploaded to the Learning Management System (LMS) correctly. This helped immensely with quality assurance.

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Integrating DevOps

 "DevOps is a mindset, a culture, and a set of technical practices." 

The way forward in our Agile journey is automating the steps in the development and deployment phases of course creation. By integrating DevOps with Agile, we are looking at streamlining and simplifying our content development and operation process. This helped foster a spirit of innovation. What we saw were some amazing ideas from the team members, and some of the outcomes were the creation of a digital library of graphics and images, audio syncing automation and AI-powered voice over, content development using Jupyter notebook, etc. These innovations have helped accelerate the speed of course development.

Following the Agile principles of continuous improvement, we are constantly looking at refining processes and innovating to optimize our course development strategies. 

Toward Scaled Agile

We aspire to provide the best learning experience to our learners. With this goal, we are engaged in the end-to-end process of course creation and delivery. We already made some headway in the direction of scaled Agile to collaborate effectively with other teams, such as product management, customer experience team, marketing, and sales, etc., to deliver sustained value to our learners. The first step was to create a process framework that allowed some of these non-agile teams to work with a highly agile-oriented team to bring in business agility. As a result of this scaled Agile environment, we expect even bigger customer experience outcomes.

Switching to Agile not only brought a paradigm shift in the way we developed online digital learning content but also helped us achieve 4x the outcomes in course development. Our Agile transformative journey has helped in fostering a culture of servant leadership where the focus is on enabling people, bringing in resilience and collaboration, adapting to change, instilling a spirit of customer-centricity, nurturing a spirit of innovation and continuous improvement, exploring automation and DevOps. Consequently, innovations are at a peak; the team morale is at an all-time high as each team member feels empowered to contribute their ideas to improve process and quality. With such an inspired and motivated team, we are able to consistently meet our ultimate goal of enhancing learner experience and faster time to market. 

This article has been co-authored by Anjana Lalitha, Quality manager, Education team, Simplilearn and Anand Narayanan, Chief Product Officer, Simplilearn.