What might a product manager for learning be?

For the persistent few, this is another post on the theme of product management in the learning world. (Previous posts can be found here, on our preoccupation with technology and here, on our preoccupation with platforms and programmes). I would like to shift the focus a little from the need for product management thinking in our game to some thoughts about what a product manager in learning might look like. What should they be good at? As with any profession, the local context of priorities and preoccupations will be unique and this is a generalised view.

First, a view of the generic product manager. A role which is all about creating product value for the organisation and for its users. This requires the combination of three forms of insight: about the user and what they need, about the business and what it needs and about the technology and what it can best achieve. By way of example, from my ancient experience in the search engine industry, our perennial product management challenge was making enough money from ad clicks without alienating our users. The product management function brought together an understanding of the relative merits of the search and advertising technologies with a deep insight into user needs and behaviours, plus a clear view of the balance of short and long term commercial goals. As you can imagine, diplomacy and creative problem solving were in demand characteristics for the team.

Product Manager Characteristics

So, creating product value is no simple matter. It involves a real understanding of some diverse, complex and varied disciplines. It can be a tricky range of experience to gather without actually being a product manager. There is more structure and definition around the role now, though. There are courses, conferences and competency frameworks available; signs of maturity and enough activity around product management to support revenue for the learning industry itself.

How does this combination of attributes look in the learning context? The crux is the definition and articulation of product value. As discussed in previous posts, this is where we also often see the difficulty. Product value should be defined around performance improvement for users (being better at our work in some manner) and business impact for the organisation (improving business performance in some demonstrable way). Learning product value supports people in the process of improving performance. (Learning products are helpful products). Our historic preoccupation tends to be with the creation and delivery of instruction, in the form of events and content – learning is not something which can be delivered in this way. So, the value, or enduring value, can be diminished.

Some Characteristics of a Product Manager in Learning

This brief listing of characteristics is neither exhaustive nor complete, of course. Every organisation and context is unique, requiring different emphasis and priorities. These are characteristics a product manager should probably have or develop to be successful. Finding them fully formed in the wild relies on luck, so many are raised in captivity, developing their capabilities in the particular context of the business they work in. An organisation may decide to select a candidate on technology and business understanding and develop the learning specialism, for example.

As with all valuable endeavours, the product manager role in learning is difficult and takes a lot of hard work. I would suggest that it is no harder however than the equivalent role in entertainment, finance, retail or healthcare. It’s just different. I suspect that one cause for that difference is a lesser focus on the business understanding piece of the puzzle: the ability to understand business goals closely and converse about them with those who are responsible for their realisation is essential. Perhaps this has not been a historic strength of the profession.

There are signs, as well, that technology understanding has tended to focus on implementation and platform launch at the expense of organising technology components into a clear roadmap over a product lifecycle. The required knowledge is there in many of us but directed in a slightly different direction, perhaps. For my money, a product management mindset and approach will be helpful, even if the role itself is not adopted. There is a great deal of value in thinking and working like a product manager whether that is your job title or not.

In a sometimes introspective L&D arena, a common concern is that a product manager ‘from the outside’ will not understand learning design or learning theory, thus struggling to make an impact. Were I to be flippant, I might counter that this lack of facility has not hampered other industry veterans (your author was new to these ideas when starting this career chapter, in fact), so why lay this barrier in the path of this role? Being more constructive, I might also add that a good product manager is a professional specialist, able to apply their expertise across industry boundaries, learning the unique features of the new landscape and seeking guidance from sector specialists. This is what we expect of marketers, accountants, HR executives and erm, L&D folks. Voices from the outside have the added benefit of enriching the conversation.

One final observation to add (to which I may return in a further post), is that product managers seem to be more prevalent on the vendor side of the digital L&D equation. Learning technology providers look to be further ahead, in this respect, than the clients they service, by and large. This is my wholly unscientific observation and I would like to hear what others think. My hypothesis is that they have a clearer view of product value through revenue generated than their client side contemporaries. Sales is only one metric, of course. Many other measures of commercial value are needed to describe learning product success: customer numbers, order values, customer retention and margin are also sharp and give good direction. Business impact and performance are tougher product value nuts to crack, but such is our task – client and vendors alike. This is our challenge and I believe that the mindset of digital product management, if not the presence of the role itself, can play a vital part in the development of the industry.

I am biased, but I don’t see many other definitions of product value as powerful as ours. Product value in the learning world can change people for the better – it is on another level to many, if not most, other industries. How far do you think product management has come in our world?

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