The four horsepeople of learning tech?

Who asks you to solve a problem defines the problem as much as the real challenge itself. This phenomenon dogs so many learning technology efforts. The framing of objectives and success by a combination of IT (and its ‘People Systems’ cousin), Finance, Procurement and PMO departments can squeeze the life out of what might be digital progress. It is a wearisomely common tale.

As with all workplace endeavours, no one is deliberately attempting to do harm. They just see a different problem to solve. The motivating interest is in the success of the organisation and how it works, rather than the goals the organisation is there to realise (or those who work amongst it). Jerry Pournelle put this well, many years ago, in his Iron Law of Bureaucracy.

At its most basic level, there is a failure of user focus and human centred design. The benefits of product development and management are overlooked in favour of predictability, process management, single points of control and safety. Sadly, the world of work is it too complicated for that. The notion of single systems to rule all needs becomes less useful as time passes. A five year planning horizon is not a relevant timeframe for product decisions. Meanwhile, the alternatives of the web proliferate, continually indicating our preferences for solving the problems of personal and skills development for work. Amanda Nolan described this really usefully in her summary of the Degreed and Filtered partnership. These lessons, I fear, are beyond functions which are so internally focused.

Constantly tidying up is not a realistic response to the causes of a messy and unpredictable environment. It is only a response to the mess itself. An attractive tactic from the distance of the stakeholders eerie, not a helpful product management goal, however.

In many ways, this is a mismatch of mindsets. One which favours long term planning and predictability of destination and another which seeks to discover value as it works and be guided by those signals. The value of good product managers lies in their ability to understand the real business needs (not always expressed by these four horsepeople) and simultaneously identify the user value in the same territory. Applying the tool kit of user research, testing, build/measure/learn and an evolving roadmap help to keep development focused on those sources of value. Waterfalls are beautiful, but they won’t help.

As with so many challenges facing corporate L&D services, new relationships are needed with those who can help decode what the real problems are. IT, HR, Procurement and PMO are the historic bedfellows of L&D. There is a risk that sticking to those relationships alone will hold us back in tackling the most important needs. The time seems right (still) for L&D to abandon the systems approach we grew up on and find new relationships to sustain where we can go next.

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The Four Horsemen, from The Apocalypse by Albrecht Du00fcrer (German, 1471-1528) is licensed under CC-CC0 1.0

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