What does a good product manager for learning do?

Before we start, a quick note on nomenclature, if I may. Product manager for learning and products for learning rather than learning products is a minor but useful clarification in the way we talk about this subject. Linguistic pedantry can be exhausting I realise, but I think we need to avoid the notion that we are making learning in some way. We aren’t and we can’t. We are and should, though, be focused on products which help people learn. This is the domain of the product manager for learning – helping, supporting, encouraging and guiding learning – not making it.

In a previous post, I attempted to explore, admittedly at a high level, what a product manager in the learning world might look like: their characteristics and the insight they are required to bring to their priorities.  Here I want to spend a little time on what they do, how they work and with whom.

A learning specialist? Maybe…

Central to that previous piece is the notion that knowledge of the learning game is important but that a product manager for learning does not necessarily need to be a learning specialist. That specialism is needed, certainly, and it can come from other roles and suppliers. Most learning teams house learning design specialists in the guise of instructional designers, learning experience designers, learning facilitators, classroom trainers and so on. These are crucial partnerships for our product manager for learning to forge and develop. The notion of specialist partners is crucial to the product role in all sectors and contexts, in fact.

A while ago, I worked with members of product teams in a vaping business. Those product teams contained a range of specialists such as marketers, front end developers, software engineers, scrum masters, designers, data scientists etc. Some, but not many, were vaping veterans with a deep (and I mean deep) knowledge of the product, the manufacturing process and the market. Being the sector it is, these folks were often zealous consumers whose lives had been changed through freedom from tobacco. It was vital for product managers to draw on this expertise and zeal but not necessarily, to embody it personally. The best of them were naturally curious about it all, however and absorbed the vapists drive over time. So it is with product managers for learning, enthusiasm and curiosity required deep specialist expertise, less so.

A natural partner and collaborator

The critical success factor in this respect is the ability to work purposefully and constructively with the range of specialists on the product team (and, yes, a product team really does help). So a product manager for learning will be a natural collaborator with learning designers, SMEs, vendors, content producers, data analysts and others. They will be a strong and open communicator with an impulse to keep partners up to speed formally and informally as product progress is made and problems arise. Inevitably, organisations of people being what they are, a political sensitivity will stand them in good stead too. Establishing and good relationships with stakeholders and some influencing skills stand a product manager in good stead.

A maker of stuff

If we are looking for a personality characteristic as a hallmark, I think a strong bias to action, to making stuff, is hugely important. The best product folks I have seen and worked with measure their success by what their products can demonstrably do. So, proving themselves means getting stuff made and released. Planning is important but not at the expense of action – something for us corporate types to ponder. Our product manager for learning can help us overcome our tendencies to polishing and introspection with a bias towards releasing things and keeping a close eye on how they are received.

A visionary

Setting a collective vision and having the strategic and commercial nous for that vision to gain support is a capability which can be overlooked as we get on with our day jobs. It’s really easy to assume consensus and a shared purpose only to discover, as priorities are debated, that agreement is hard to come by. Our product manager for learning needs to be a strategic thinker to clear the path for all the doing and making. This is a further test of that collaborative and communicative approach we are looking for. 

A data lover

And now to our strongest contender for the Achilles heel in L&D: data chops. Our product manager for learning needs to be confident and conversant with data of many varieties. This needs to go way beyond the staples of bookings, completion and evaluation. And even beyond that, they should conduct experiments to create the data needed for effective product decision making where that data is lacking. They will make and do stuff with the aim of looking and seeing what happens to further roadmap development.

Back in my search engine days, product managers would create tests for results layouts and page design to gather sample data on usage impact before a decision would be made and the product updated. Products for learning require a different kind of decision making, yes, but not a data free kind. Testing, research, feedback and refinement need to nudge judgement and opinion further out of the way.  The learning game really needs help here and our product manager is a great source of it.

A commercial animal

I was considering using the phrase ‘a bit of an accountant’ but that doesn’t quite do justice to this point. Our product manager does need to be financially fluent and understand how best to set and manage a budget. The value of those financial basics is added to with a commercial sense of the organisation they are in – the value of their product costs as investment. The extent to which valuable problems are solved and opportunities are realised in a commercial context is vital. On the vendor side, this sensibility is closer to the surface and possibly easier to bring to bear as sales measure progress. On the client side, this is often a signal of the range and variety of relationships our product manager holds and how close they are to the commercial realities of their context. Everyone in L&D needs to be some kind of business partner.

A conductor

Jeri Lynne Johnson

So, our product manager for learning is a strong partner to many. They are a conductor of the ensemble of makers and doers rather than a virtuoso in performance. All this to help users solve their work performance problems. A further realm of partnership is required to keep this show on the most relevant road for the organisation. What does the organisation need? Which are the most relevant performance problems for the business? A natural ally here is often called learning business partner or performance consultant (I hear voices at the back shouting ‘order taker’). They should readily know what the organisation most needs. What they might need our product manager’s help with is deciding whether something is a product problem for learning at all. Assuming it is, then translating it into a series of developments to bring that to life in a useful manner for users. Yes, this is the hardest of the hard parts. Answering the “is this worth doing?” question can be an uncomfortable episode, but such is the task.

Developing a product management mindset

A product manager for learning can be an ally and a catalyst in creating a strong user and business focused team. Not all teams will have the space, budget or headcount for one, however. This is where cultivating the mindset of a product manager can be highly beneficial. Thinking, planning and acting like a product manager (or conductor) can introduce many of the benefits of the role without creating the headcount and job title itself. My belief is that many in the learning technologies world are starting to do this, either with deliberation or because it is a good fit for the challenges facing them. Personally, the idea of developing a product management mindset is highly valuable to meet the needs of the current learning organisation.

And finally, a free offer…

In the next few weeks, I will be hosting an open conversation about the idea of introducing a product management mindset into learning teams and organisations. So, watch this space for further news and please do come along to talk through these ideas and how you think they might benefit you and your team.

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