Who should run your digital learning organisation?

The question in the title is worded poorly, I admit. It ought to read: “Who should run your learning organisation?”. The need, and I do believe there still is one, to use the digital qualifier ought to be redundant by now. I do not believe it is, though. Digital is still seen as something to be planned for and developed alongside business as usual – an adjunct to the real work. Digital remains a special case and in treating it as such, the barriers to progress remain higher than they should be. In June of 2021, I wonder that we should know better. 

Anyway, things being as they are, the question stands. I have asked this question of a range of audiences in a variety of circumstances over the last five years or so. My (thinly disguised) agenda has been to press the case for product management as a marker on the way forward for our endeavours. I sense a shift in thinking and expectations in the last year or so. Perhaps L&D is warming to the theme? 

At the risk of seeming scientific, I will share two data points. In February of 2019 at an LPI event (appearing in my calendar as “Learning Lounge Live”, which doesn’t seem right at all) I asked around 100 leaders in learning which role  they would put in charge of a (digital) learning function from a list of Product Manager, Performance Consultant, Designer, Marketing, Content Producer, Data and Social persons. The vast majority, my memory has it at 90% or so, opted for Performance Consultant, or some form of business partner. Product managers had little support. I suspect there was an equivalence with technology management in the way at that time. 

Last week, I posed roughly the same question on LinkedIn. The answers looked like this (below), from 50 votes at the time (as I said, I am no scientist, or poll promoter either). Most of those voters are in some kind of learning work or related field. In a false race, there are two contenders and the product manager is ahead. 

From LinkedIn poll 21/6/2021

Thankfully, being free of science, we don’t have to make too much of this comparison other than to say, it matches other sources of anecdotal evidence gathered since the turn of the year. As I said, I sense a shift in favour of product management in L&D. And, yes, it is an unfair question. Hiring for such a role would be an exercise in selecting against a range of criteria from candidates – polls are reductive. 

That range is one of the reasons I think L&D is, belatedly, looking to product management for answers. We need decision makers who can conjure technology knowledge with user insight and design understanding whilst juggling commercial and business priorities. The traditional learning business partner or performance consultant might struggle on some of those scores, landing on some form of programme as the favoured solution. A good product manager should be on a firmer footing though.

Learning = training = course?

Many department leaders are also looking for people to help solve new problems or solve perennial challenges in new ways. The cat is out of the bag on the learning = training = course false equivalence. Were it a reliable solution, we would have seen the results more clearly by now. 

Back in that room (lounge?) in 2019, the conversation centred on the identification of important business problems to solve and close relationships with that mythical place ‘the business’, the implication being that product managers are less well equipped to fulfil that need. At that time, I was unsuccessful in my claim that good product management rests on that capability as well. Perhaps sentiment is shifting now. 

Thankfully, it’s an artificial choice and we are able to bring both sets of expertise together in our teams. The poll mentioned design and technology as contenders for the big seat. Other capabilities needed are data gathering and analytics, community hosting and social design, plus content production and editorial thinking. Each organisation will need a different emphasis for their context. Whilst there may be models that help navigate these choices, there are no replicable formulae. Such is the challenge of leadership.

Organising the capabilities of a successful (digital) learning organisation is a rich theme of enquiry. Where do decisions lie, what new skills are required, which are core, which can be brought in via the marketplace? And, yes, who is charge? These are the crucial and demanding questions for leaders as we make our plans. I have some views, obviously and am keen to hear more from others. 

A further conversation about product management for learning – skills and capabilities for success

This will be the topic of our next hosted conversation about product management for learning. What are the skills and capabilities required to make this work well and how should we organise them? What should such an organisation feel like to work in? What do people need to know and what are they good at? This will happen on Thursday the 8th of July at 11.00am UK time. Register here to join us.

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