Review by Fiona Austin. I am an Office Manager to a small and growing charity and a keen volunteer in my own community. Updating my skills and knowledge helps me in both these ventures which is why I’m a keen online learner. I live just outside Bristol, UK and highly recommend it.
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I have been in and around projects all my working life but never really got to grips with the tools of Project Management. How does a Gannt Chart relate to an Issues log? I felt like the project lifecycle was like a merry go round, never stopping long enough for me to leap aboard and join in. I was already a big fan of MOOC’s (Massive Open Online Courses) where I could learn new skills and have the freedom to study around other commitments. I knew from experience to be discerning too as many free online were frankly not worth my time . So, when I spotted the Project Management course as part of the Open University’s Business Fundamentals Program, I signed up for this short four week course.
To make good use of the learning, I knew I needed a good project in mind so that I could apply the techniques straight away. A project plan for reorganising my garage was fun but not going to cut it. I’d probably get bored. No, rather I was part of a team who started a local community festival from scratch, building everything we needed from the ground up. We’d gone from scribbled notes on the back of an envelope to running a day long event that attracted over 1,000 people, needing a rota of 50 volunteers and 30 plus performers. It was good, we had all the plans and licences we needed but I’d still wake up in the middle of the night with four more things for the “to do”. Our last event came together really well but we gave ourselves a kick afterwards. We took days to dismantle the site, double handling equipment as our team of already exhausted volunteers dwindled whilst jobs to do increased. Would Project Management give me the tools I hoped for to iron out the creases
The project life cycle, as I soon discovered, covers four phases: project initiation, project planning, project execution, and project closure. So it was pretty much one phase for each week of the MOOC. I would receive a welcoming email each Monday, outlining what to expect that week, and then I could log on at my convenience to complete the learning. Sometimes I’d do one week’s learning in one go, and other times I’d read a few pieces per day on my phone on the way to work. Flexible learning meant it always felt achievable.
The learning was bite-size — twenty or so separate pieces of learning for each week. There were short films to watch, discussions to participate in, and tasks to do using the simple tools provided. The course was led by Giacomo Carli, a lecturer specializing in strategic management at the Open University Business School (OUBS).
You can follow the lead educator and other learners on the course, and I received some very encouraging feedback this way. I even got some answers to questions I posed, which was brilliant. I never felt I was learning alone.
Not all projects happen in office workplaces. There are events, crowdfunded projects, and community activities too. Helpfully, the course included a number of vlogs from people in different scenarios who had all used these project management tools, including a community shop staffed by local people. So I felt confident that this course had been developed with more than one use case in mind.
Week 1: Start Your Project Journey
The learning in this week was about getting to grips with what a project is (and isn’t). It’s easy to confuse a project with an ongoing process, or to set off without defining what you want this piece of work to achieve and when. I finished the week with a 50 word paragraph setting out the aim of our day long community event and a list of all the tasks involved, or WBS (work breakdown structure). I already felt like I was making progress.
Week 2: Practicing with Project Management
In this week we covered many of the individual processes for project management, such as setting tasks in a time frame using a Gantt chart, setting budgets, assessing risks, and identifying key milestones which, if missed, could delay the completion date.
You could choose between using template Excel sheets or using some of the free software available online. I chose the Excel sheet, because I knew our team would be familiar with it so it was great to have the option to use it. The course also looked at team dynamics; and how to get the right skills in the team to deliver the project.
Week 3: Executing the Plan
I had to be a bit more creative for this week because my project, the community festival, was several months away. I think the course team had anticipated this, because the tasks had examples for learners to use. The really good learning here was how to manage the project team and how to deal with unforeseen problems in the project plan. I used some of the recommended tools to spot gaps in our existing team; I hope that we can now recruit to fill the gaps.
Week 4: Evaluate your Project
This was the most technical of all the weeks in the course. The evaluation tools in this week included analyzing the earned value of a project to understand whether your project is on plan in terms of progress and costs. Sometimes you just need to be able to see progress in black and white terms, so I could see such evaluations being valuable to help make key decisions. It was also useful to learn how to conclude a project well; after all, you may want to work with the people in your team again (and avoid repeating the same mistakes).
It was 12 hours really well spent. I now have a number of practical tools I can use on my event project that I think will really help us work as a team and focus on delivering another successful community day in a more organised way. We’ve already identified gaps in our team using Belbin team roles. I have some ideas from the vlogs about how project management can help. On completion of the course, I have to say that it met my expectations completely so I have purchased the optional Certificate of Achievement so I can add it to my CV. It has given me the confidence to learn more too; apparently if I complete the whole program, it can count towards a BA in Business Management, again through the Open University. Wow! And all I wanted to do was get on the “merry go-round”.
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