A short personal story of product management for learning

Continuing the series of posts about product management in learning and getting a little more personal. The discussion and description of principles and approaches to product management for learning has caused some reflection on my part – when, where and how these have worked well for me and my colleagues and what bloopers and blunders might also be instructive. This post gathers some of those that seem usefully relevant and are available to share publicly without, erm, editorial issues. It is entirely possible that this narrative will describe certain events and activities at a large, UK based public service broadcaster. If you recognise any of these, do chip in; it’s your story as much as mine.

The Tardis Effect

I joined that large, public service media organisation from the search engine world of Ask Jeeves/Ask.com. By that time we were a relatively small player having been bought by two successively larger fish. It was, though, an international business and we were competing with already massive technology companies who were changing the world. From that external perspective, the broadcasting place seemed quite modest in dimensions. And slow. (Oh, so slow). It didn’t take long to notice that, from the inside, it seemed really quite big to most staff members. Many had been there for a long time, making that sense of relative size harder to spot. (Guaranteed income also has a magnifying effect but that is a matter for another time). Over a number of years, my sight adjusted and it seemed to be that size to me as well – a vast kingdom. On leaving, it shrunk swiftly away, reducing to a modest scale and now seems to be shrinking all the time. 

I think this effect is common. Our working tasks, preoccupations and relationships, make things seem larger from the inside. After ten or so years in the L&D world, I think the same is true of the profession. Our preoccupations and concerns are often smaller to others than they seem to us and we need to be careful to keep these in perspective. More empathy required, perhaps?

Bigger from the inside?

Territorial negotiations  

Bringing four adjacent content publishing services together under one product roof had an undeniable audience logic. Users saw each as coming from the same service anyway and became quickly confused by duplication and inconsistent navigation. So, from four would come one. The product design and specification was a fascinating challenge and really stretched our taxonomy and navigation muscles. What users called things and how they gathered them together mentally, was often a challenge to our internal organisation logic.

This was nothing compared to the diplomatic and relationship challenge of bringing together the people responsible for those four parts. Not feeling like you are in charge any more is tough. Accepting the authority of people you see as doing less significant work is harder still. And this was hard work, with constant diplomatic effort and reassurance that ‘your content matters to us’. It was never quite clear if all stakeholders involved held the benefit of the whole as a higher goal than their part of it. Consequently, we published our org chart as the navigation for the product with department titles as category headings. Politics beat users. Users don’t care and we need to respect that. Sadly, this is a still a relevant lesson in so many cases.  

A couple of unpleasant surprises

Very early in my first role in L&D I made two uncomfortable discoveries. The first was the LMS. I know, I know. Nothing new here. So many dislike them and are frustrated by them. For me, this was a first introduction as owner, however. I was responsible for the operation and development of a system (not a product) which had no real end user logic to it. Naïve as I was, it took a while to reconcile the fact that the audience was secondary to the organisation in this respect. Lubricating the experience as much as possible became our, less than satisfactory, goal until other more useful products could be introduced. I doubt this to be a unique experience.

The second was a discovery of absence: data. There wasn’t any really. Bookings, attendances and completions was about the extent of it. The occasional cursory perusal of these items did little to inform or change direction. Rather, they described what we were going to do anyway. Coming from a world of daily product performance dashboards and detailed weekly and monthly reporting, it was a barren landscape. This is a familiar challenge in the L&D world as I now know. There are no silver data bullets but there is value in understanding how your products are used and not used. It is hard work for which there are no real shortcuts, but digital value is data, so work we must. We have quite some distance to travel here.

Stories and their editors

A counter to those dark unveilings, was the dawning realisation of being surrounded by accomplished storytellers. My colleagues were tellers of tales from rapid news bulletins, through comedy series to long form documentary creations. They were writers of stories, inventors of ways to tell them and sometimes telling them on air themselves. These are such valuable facilities at all times and within the learning world they are vital. Stories are so often what gives our subject matter the chance of personal meaning. Well told they can carry entire projects.

My biggest lesson was of the value of the editorial mindset of these accomplished story tellers. The ability to decide whether a story is worth telling at all is most salient. Does it make sense to tell it? Does anyone care? From there, deciding the subject of the story, its pace and duration seemed to be much easier to judge. Seasoned journalists were invaluable in this respect: identifying a worthy tale, swiftly rejecting the duds then turning it round in a jiffy and boiling it down to uncover the real gems. These are foundation skills of learning design and I recommend journalists as colleagues. Even the most flabby and pompous subject matter experts can be sources of value in their hands. They tend to get on with stuff as well, which can be refreshing.

A rare combination

With the benefit of hindsight, the nature of the team I was able to assemble was a rare treat. We had product managers, journalists, learning designers, project managers (in fact the best I have ever worked with, who is now in Atlanta, energising CNN), UX designers, film makers and audio producers. Perhaps luckiest of all, we had a few developers. We could actually build a few things and fix them up. In that data desert this was land of plenty. A product organisation of sorts.

Having travelled further afield in the L&D world since, I know this to be an unusual team make up, at least on the client side. Not many L&D departments hire developers, let alone product managers. The benefits of a digital product centred approach don’t necessarily come from the roles though. The ways of working, methods of enquiry and planning approaches are available to us all. That user centred impulse can be developed and sharpened. The planning of products with roadmaps and lifecycles can be done without the specific role. Suppliers have developer teams even if we don’t and understanding how they make and do is valuable. Developing the product management mindset is a great place to start.

And finally, a free offer…

In the last week of May (final date TBC very soon) myself and an experienced product manager colleague will be hosting a conversation about the benefits and opportunities of introducing this product centred mindset to our work in learning. Come along and share your views – and stories of course. 

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