Achieving 4x Outcomes Through Agile: Digital Learning Re-Imagined at Simplilearn

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. Looking at the data for 2019-2020;

  • There has been a 2x increase in the number of courses released 
  • The team velocity increased by 80% 
  • The number of hours of content developed saw a whopping 18x increase while the cost per hour of production came down by 10x
  • The customer rating of courses went up by 12%, which testifies to improvement in the quality.

Next, take a look at the Agile journey before learning more about the Agile methodology.

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. 

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.

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. 

About the Author

Anjana LalithaAnjana Lalitha

Anjana Lalitha works as the Quality manager in the Education team at Simplilearn. An Agile enthusiast, she is actively involved in the Agile way of content development at Simplilearn.

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