Product manager: the missing role in (digital) L&D?

I have been turning some ideas over in my mind in preparation for a session at the Learning Technologies Summer Forum in July. I am trying to order my thoughts about one point which, I think, is fundamental to the theme – the capabilities needed for a successful (digital) learning service.

For reasons of luck, rather than judgement, I have been working with product managers since my first arrival in the digital start-up world in around 2000 or so. I was young and naive at the time (as opposed to aged and unwise) and assumed that every business had product managers. Certainly, every dotcom business had product managers. Over time, the role started to segment and advertising product managers appeared alongside consumer or user product managers. A more mature industry valued a different approach for different customer segments.

I then shifted to BBC Online (as it was then called) where product managers were becoming a must have accessory for every team as traditional media organisations grapsed the nettle of digital change. Less commercial, certainly but operating in similar ways and to similar ends.

Then into the Learning & Development world where, in my experience, product managers are quite rare. They are around on the vendor or platform side increasingly, where a solid roadmap needs to be steered through to satisfy client needs. On the corporate and organisatoin side there a few (I think). This is, I believe, a problem.

Product management is more than technology

It’s problematic because it is a missing glue role in a well fucntioning digital business or service. The product manager is responsible for bringing the reources and inputs together to develop the tools and products that meet the organisation goals. This is a handy definition of the role from Aha! which emphasises that product management is more than technology : it is strategic, creative and commercial (or business focused). It is the conductor to the various instrumentalists of the orchestra, bringing the performance to life from the score and the talents of the players. The intent is to delight the audience with the varied capabilities needed for the performance.

Successful prouct managers have a deep practical understanding of:

  1. Users: their needs, the barriers to their needs, how they behave, what they are trying to achieve. They are empathetic and seek evidence.
  2. The business: the organisation goals, environment, constraints, strategy and vision. They know why the organisation needs what they do and can measure how well they are doing it.
  3. Technology: what it can do, what it does best, what it does not do well, how it works, how people work to make it. They may or may not be an engineer but they can lead them and work well with them.

With these characteristics, it is easy to see this as a pivotal role. In the world of digital L&D we have too few of these people. The closest analogue is probably the Learning Technology Manager in many organisations. Learning Technology though, at our current point of maturity, centres on systems implementation and integration. The horizon is limited by the features of the systems purchased. These features are designed for corporate customers via procurement decisions. Product managers will have a zealous end-user focus reaching beyond these constrained parameters.

Product management also goes hand in hand with user experience design and user testing, data analysis and metrics, agile development approaches and multi-disciplinary teams. These, again, are hallmarks of the digital ways of working which challenge traditional L&D operating models: swift, open, evidence-based decision making, resting on the trust and confidence to experiment in the service of gathering the data for good decision making.

These are important changes that our industry needs to embrace more widely I reckon. Product managers really help to focus minds around these challenges and help to make visible progress.

What do you think? Are they out there?

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