Confusing the P’s of learning products

I threatened a couple of weeks ago to return to the theme of product management in learning. Specifically, to return to the problematic relationship learning teams can have with product management. Frequently, that problem is absence. There is no actual product to manage or there is no product management in place to create the most value from one.

There is a risk in this post that I will dally with definitions. I intend to avoid throwing extra catnip out to a profession that is dangerously obsessed with labels, particularly new ones. I will use some P words by way of describing the environment as I observe it rather than rigorously classifying it. 

To begin though, let’s consider a ‘T’. A confusing one. Teaching. In the learning game, much time and effort is expended in designing and creating teaching products and tools. This is the main cause of the product management problem in our midst. We know, from frequent, painful experience, the problems of teaching in a digital context. In reality, most users don’t care. 

As a user, I don’t want to be taught. I might not even explicitly want to learn. I have a problem to solve, an investigation to undertake or challenge to overcome. In the workplace context, if there is an explicit desire to learn, that is to do something, do something better or become something. Learning is a required route, not the destination. Being taught? Not so much, thanks. Being helped, challenged, inspired, guided, informed, listened to. That’s much more useful. A dash of instruction will be valuable but not in and of itself. Get the teacher out of the way and help me get on with it. (Our COVID induced ‘pivot to digital’ (yuck) has, in large part, been a pivot to digital teaching).

So, to the P’s. These are nouns I think we conflate in the L&D world.

Product

A product is a something created from digital components which creates specific value for a group of people and the organisation that develops it and provides it. In the learning context I believe we should focus on that value as solving problems for people in a work context. A little more specifically, we should focus on the problems people have with their performance in and around the workplace. Problems faced by known people (users) not theoretical people or people as we would like them to be. So, learning products should not be about fun or engagement, that is a different category of value. Further, a product has a lifecyle. It is developed, released or launched; it grows, matures and at some point will decline in value and expire.

Platform

And it gets tricky already. A platform used to be a combination of technologies upon which products and services can be created (a computer and an operating system, maybe). Now it tends to be a combination of technology elements and features that enable customers to do something additionally valuable with them. It’s tricky because there are many examples platforms which are also products. Facebook and YouTube spring to mind. They are valuable to us as direct users and enable further valuable applications to be created. Kahn Academy is an excellent example of a learning product built on the platform of YouTube.

Platforms in the L&D context are usually systems based or have foundational systems elements, borne as they are of the infamous learning management system. They may have product elements too (often weak ones, like search). The LXP is a valuable attempt to escape the confines of the LMS, focusing on that direct end user value at the expense of administrator value. As we are starting to observe, the value of the LXP is in it’s considered application to solving problems rather than simplifying the aggregation and publication of content. An LXP can be applied in an organisation as a product or as a platform, unlike the LMS. The opportunity for us is to generate product value with them; the trap is platform implementation alone.

Programme

A series of learning events and/or content organised in a deliberate order to help people learn or, most often, to instruct them. These are accessed via a platform and managed therein. They are not products. I mention them here because this is the reflex P of the industry. It is the best understood and most loved. Awkwardly, it is also reducing in relevance as time passes. I see programmes as a barrier to the uptake of product management activity and attitudes in the industry. It is not that they are incompatible, just that they absorb so much time and budget.  Programmes are time bound and have an explicit end point. Products have lifecycles. They are different. Compliance eLearning progammes are not products (although they would benefit enormously from product management approaches).

Projects

These aren’t products either, as you know. I mention them here because we often throw project management at L&D efforts, creating a project when something else might be more useful. I am thinking of an experiment, a test or an exploration. A project has a defined end point, unlike the lifecycle of the product. 

Why all the P talk? As with all work themes, it paints a messy picture. The definitions overlap clumsily, prejudices and preferences abound, mine included and ingrained habits obstruct progress. The principal point here is that learning is none of these P’s. It’s a process. It happens in the brains of the people we should think of as our users. Our focus should be on the management of products which create the most value in support of that process and the outcomes of it. In a sense, there are no learning products. There are products which focus on helping people learn. If we further concentrate on solving the problems people have in that pursuit, we will find a clearer route to value.

In case you are interested, further posts on the theme of product management in learning are brewing.

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