I have been encouraging the use of product management and product thinking in learning and development for, I think, about ten years. Over this period, my enthusiasm for the cause has waxed and waned along with response to the message. For an industry that runs on technology and content (in very large part) it is deeply curious that product thinking is not just part of how we do what we do. For a profession that is deeply anxious about business relevance and learner engagement, it is utterly baffling.
Why would L&D be any different from news? From marketing? From podcasting? From music? From the digital world? How special is it, in 2023?
Why is product management important for L&D?
- It marries insight into audiences with business needs and technology capability (“why should we spend money on this?”)
- Decisions about what to do next are based on evidence of what has worked before
- That evidence is not only from surveys and opinions but from user behaviour
- Where evidence does not exist, experiments are created to seek it out
- Product managers, effective ones, are excellent at weaving together the multidisciplinary teams needed for digital endeavours
- A product roadmap is a valuable tool for continually balancing priorities and potential
- Product managers, effective ones, are excellent at building stakeholder relationships to understand business priorities
- Product organisations are learning organisations, adapting to and changing course based on experience and evidence
- Product organisations have a tendency to making and making swiftly (the MVP and such) – L&D loves to make stuff
- A product mindset is a clear and constructive way to speak with suppliers – use cases, features, benefits, metrics, data and such
- Products run on data about how they are used – L&D cannot escape this digital imperative
Why is product management not pervasive in L&D?
- L&D is founded on systems implementation and administration in the form of the LMS, or similar – the end user is a (very) weak stakeholder here and business benefits are opaque
- Those systems provide data which are weak signals of user relevance, one fuel source of product management
- Products, well managed, give users control – L&D has a strong control tendency and preference for assignment
- L&D prefers programmes and projects – activities with a definite end point – and structurally tends towards them
- The idea of an MVP is a vital ingredient – L&D has a strong tendency to scoping in the kitchen sink
- The idea of a product roadmap is a vital ingredient – the strong preference for programmes creates a tension
- There is a tendency to equate user experience with the experience of using ‘the learning’ – looking beyond territorial boundaries is uncomfortable but a natural product management behaviour
- Digital value is built from connection (as well as data), L&D has weak habits for close, ongoing user connection and relationships
- Product managers know that digital value is not achieved from technology alone – much of L&D appears not to believe this
- And lastly, adopting product thinking requires L&D to change its preoccupation with making and delivering learning in preference for solving valuable problems
Over my stalling ten year journey, more product thinking and practice has definitely emerged. Product managers are in place (more on the vendor side I reckon) and the mindset is seeping slowly in. This is encouraging and makes me feel a little less like a howler into the winds. Given the extent of digital development, it should be one of our reflexes by now, surely?
I am peering forward into that wind. About to howl…
Image courtesy of White Wolf: https://www.flickr.com/photos/10243056@N02/2397726141/in/set-72157617663648202/