Another conversation about product management for learning

On Thursday the 8th of July, we hosted a second conversation about product management for learning. Our previous event (summarised here) focused on what we mean by product management and why it is vital for success in the learning world. This time we delved a little further into the characteristics and capabilities of the role and the organisations that house it. A conversational approach seems to work well for this topic, lacking the certainty of a defined recipe relevant to all contexts. As we discovered, family recipes differ widely and are borne of a range of experience. This post is my summary of central themes from the discussion.

When sharing a view of the necessary characteristics for managing and sustaining products for learning, we deliberately avoided using the ‘L’ word itself. So we referred to design, business partnership and consulting and data analytics, for example, with no explicit reference to Learning. I find talking about learning a distraction most of the time. It’s not what organisations are after and is rarely what users are tying to achieve either. The value of the tools is what we can do with them rather than their designation. Few of our favourite learning products are made for that purpose, in fact. I was encouraged that our group was similarly disposed.

I was furthered encouraged by the debate about which ‘role’ or set of characteristics might be best placed to run the function. Admittedly this is a reductive question but it can help to unearth what we see as most important. My experience has been of a tussle between business consulting and product management as prime roles for L&D, with a trend in favour of the latter. Our conversation last week rose above this, however, rightly placing decision making for the function as a strategic matter; the team being the enablers of those choices. This feels like a more realistic model perhaps, the requirement of managing upwards to encourage a sound use of resources being a primary skill for the senior members of the team. 

One of the tricks of making these capabilities work is deciding what is core to your team and what might be brought in via partnerships or through the marketplace. The answer to this is, resoundingly, “It depends”. On maturity, clarity of strategy, resourcing, team size, budgets, team capability and so on. This core vs. non-core discussion is central and will need constant monitoring and evaluation. I think we broadly agreed that these are central requirements (other attendees may wish to weigh in here and steer me):

  • Product management
  • User experience
  • Editorial management of content
  • Consulting and business partnerships 
  • Insight and evidence from users
  • Supplier management

We had a long discussion about design. Partly because it’s a fundamental yet complex area and partly, I wonder, because this is the area we know best and are most comfortable with: designing and making content. The gravitational force of content is powerful on planet L&D. We need to escape it, somehow, if we are to progress.

Once again we ran out of time at the hour mark (apologies again for the chairing there). This was a shame as, at that point, the conversation was turning to the strategic role of this kind of product function. How can a learning team invent itself, or reinvent itself, as a digital performance service (beyond the products alone)? How can a learning function take a role as something like a commercial product team, seeking valuable problems to solve (desirable, viable and feasible) and making the case for funding to develop solutions. This is rich territory definitely, although I wonder if it is yet a bridge to far for L&D in its current guise? 

We also wonder where to follow the conversation next? I imagine a summer break with a return in the autumn. Where would you like to take the conversation?

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