When you present a proposal for a new eLearning project, do you include an assessment of risks involved and a plan to mitigate those risks? This may be a novel idea, but let’s look at it for a moment.

Risk is the possibility of a negative impact on an eLearning project if some part of its development or deployment falls short. The risk is the possibility that the project could fail, lose money, or cost more than the problem it was designed to correct. Risks can have minor to severe impact on the project’s goals and they can vary in likelihood of occurrence.

The discussion of instructional development as an interdisciplinary concept called learning engineering has been ongoing for several years. Many instructional practitioners, engineers, and business leaders are confused by or object to the term “learning engineering.”

Engineers consider measurement and risk as important parts of building products. If a designer is going to create a product that can withstand the forces (natural and otherwise) that it will encounter, including a reasonable margin of safety, these are important. This also applies to the design of instruction.

It is worth thinking about how other professions, specifically engineers and project managers, assess risk, and how the concept of risk assessment and mitigation applies to instructional design.

Assessing risks in engineering processes

There are many articles and publications online that address risk assessment in engineering and project management, although from different perspectives.

Risk assessment defined

In an article published on the website of Banner Engineering (see References), there is a summary of risk assessment as a process that addresses:

  • Potential hazards
  • Potential severity of hazards
  • Frequency of exposure to hazards
  • Strategies to minimize hazards and avoid harm

The article states that risk assessments are conducted in many different industries where workplace accidents must be minimized and where product quality and performance are critical. There are plenty of industries that have made an effort to standardize a process for evaluating risk, including:

  • Metal forming/cutting
  • Medical devices
  • Robotics
  • Insurance
  • Aerospace
  • Semiconductor
  • Transportation

These examples also indicate that risk assessment details are different from one industry to another.

Risk assessment: A three-stage process

Ronald Hong, in Electrical and Computer Engineering Handbook: an introduction to electrical and computer engineering and product design by Tufts ECE Students (see References), summarized the risk assessment process as involving risk identification, risk assessment, and risk mitigation. The first two stages are also collectively called risk analysis, which in general consists of answers to three questions: What can go wrong that could lead to system failure? How likely is this to happen? If it happens, what are the consequences? Hong cautions, “There are numerous methods for each aspect of risk management and varying opinions on the effectiveness of each method. Each risk management scenario is unique, and the successful risk manager will adapt known methods that best suit the situation.”

The risk manager should document the strategy that is decided upon (risk response plan). Each identified risk will need to be documented in the plan as to how it will be handled.

After a risk response plan is complete, it must then be given approval by the appropriate levels of management (dependent on the project, risk, and mitigation strategies) who may require the risk manager to revise the plan. An approved risk response plan is a milestone for the risk manager as completing the risk management overall strategy. However, risk management is dynamic and the risk manager must reevaluate each stage of the process periodically to ensure relevance, adapt to changes in risk and risk probability, and revamp in response to changes in project objectives.”

Determining risks

In an unpublished paper by Zulqarnain I., "Risk Management in Civil Engineering Projects" (see References), the author identifies specific questions to answer in determining risks:

  • What negative risks (threats) or positive (opportunities) affect the achievement of project objectives? (Risk recognition)
  • Which of these is most significant? (Qualitative analysis)
  • How could it affect the overall outcome of the project in probabilistic terms of cost and future programs? (Quantitative analysis)
  • What can we do about it? (Answer risk)
  • After taking measurements, how does the answer change effects, and where is the project now? (Risk monitoring)
  • Who needs to know about it? (Communication)

These questions also appear to be ones to raise during the planning of a project that involves learning. The analysis is often an important part of getting approval for funding, and avoiding the risks is excellent information for the instructional design team to have.

Zulqarnain offers a simple way for converting the identified risks into a chart that balances the severity of a risk against its probability, and assigning a single-digit value in each cell of the chart.

This method relies on subjective judgment as to the estimates made, but it also relies on the consensus of experts based on their experience, and on numerical representations of the impact of the three points. Zulqarnain recognizes the limits of this approach: “The level of risk is always linked to the complexity of the project."

There are also some refinements as he considers the impact of company culture on risk assessment. “Different attitudes to risk can be explained by the cultural differences between organizations, where the approach depends on the company policy and internal procedures.”

How project managers assess risks

In "Risk Assessments — developing the right assessment for your organization" (see References), a conference paper published for the 2007 Project Management Institute Global Congress Proceedings, Joseph Kestel offers a proactive guide that helps quickly identify, qualify, and quantify risk. The result is a reusable risk assessment that can be used repeatedly and reliably. The paper is pretty generic, and the process would apply equally well to engineering projects and to instructional design projects.

Kestel begins his discussion with an examination of the reasons for conducting a risk assessment and an overview of an approach to “thinking outside the box.” He is clearly writing about putting together a risk assessment team for a large organization when he suggests, for the sake of getting a a group perspective, organizing a group of no more than 20 senior project managers, and even suggests reasons for going beyond that number. But be careful and judicious, and size your team to your situation. In a typical L&D organization, there will not likely be 20 senior project managers in total. In addition, a very large team is a guarantee that the risk assessment is going to take much longer. If more viewpoints are needed, it might be better to simply bring project managers in on an ad hoc basis.

Next, Kestel provides a detailed procedure for using facilitated sessions to put together the risk assessment. The critical part of this is identification and organization of applicable risk types. To start the discussion, Kestel suggests various types of risks that are more or less generic, such as:

  • The scope of the project may change.
  • Other projects may be added that will be dependent on this project’s scope and work product.
  • Team members may leave the project.

Including risk assessment in your eLearning proposals

There may be other risks that depend on the details or features of the work product. For example, when a feature such as microlearning, interactive video, adaptive learning, virtual reality, or subscription learning is included in the plan for a project, there will be risks created when instructional designers do not know or do not agree on the details of the approach. This will affect the probability and impact criteria and scores, as well as the overall risk.

You will need to determine a plan that will maximize the risk assessment’s applicability to every project. A key part of this will be how the plan and the assessment are communicated and adherence to the best practices that Kestel outlines.

This article is concerned only with project management within the L&D organization. The L&D project management will have to be coordinated with the overall project management approach within the larger organization. If there is a project officer or other person or group in overall charge, it will be essential to involve them in the development of your L&D plan.


Banner Engineering (undated) Recovered 10/24/21 from https://www.bannerengineering.com/us/en/company/expert-insights/risk-assessment.html

Hong, Ronald (2013). "Risk Management" in Electrical and Computer Engineering Handbook: an introduction to electrical and computer engineering and product design by Tufts ECE Students. Retrieved 10/24/21 from https://sites.tufts.edu/eeseniordesignhandbook/2013/risk-management/

Zulqarnain I.(Unpublished). Risk Management in Civil Engineering Projects. 

Kestel, Joseph (2007). "Risk assessments — developing the right assessment for your organization". Conference paper published for the 2007 Project Management Institute Global Congress Proceedings