The role of a product manager in L&D

Sometimes you see a sea change approaching and hope that it lives up to its potential.

When e-learning came, it was touted as this time saving technology that would keep people being productive without them having to leave their workplace. After about 30 years of this, it has improved immeasurably. That improvement has been in large due to the advancement of the tech we use to create digital learning.

When the LMS came along, it had a purpose. Track and report on training as required. Along the way, modules got added and further functionality like social communities or badges and they were ill thought through. Still, most organisations require an LMS because there is a basic business requirement to help people register for training, track completion and report as required.

The tech itself rapidly moved forward in the last 15 years. MOOCs became better and better learning experiences. Accessing digital resources and video based learning improved learning experiences considerably and we now have stronger learning solutions than we ever had.

And in the world of tech organisations a new role has gradually been coming to the fore in very strong ways. That of a Product Manager.

Product Managers are a new kind of role where you marry the skills of tech, user experience, market knowledge, and tech functionality. In doing this, you create a role where someone has a deep understanding of the product being developed, how it’s likely to be used by clients/customers, what the market needs are, how to make improvements, and essentially bring to market a great quality product.

It’s a fascinating new set of roles, and there is already significant investment in developing the capability of product management as a professional skillset.

Some clarifiers may be helpful here, too. It’s not simply the renaming of other functions. The closest might be R&D / Innovation, but they only provide a useful comparison up to a certain point. Product Managers aren’t necessarily focused on the commercials of the product. That is, although they are trying to create products that will have commercial success, they aren’t salespeople, nor marketers. They still need the skills of those roles to help bring the product to market.

Product Managers are also not instructional designers, trainers, facilitators, or learning designers. They may have those skills, but it isn’t their primary goal.

Additionally, this role of Product Manager is more focused on digital products, and not really the stuff L&D is typically known for creating/selling. A good example of a digital L&D product would be LinkedIn Learning. A bad example of a product as I’ve described is an open workshop or an L&D model or a certification in some L&D approach. Being a virtual trainer or digital facilitator is also not a good example of a product manager.

By the by, those completing MBAs are now seeking to take on product management roles as opposed to and distinct from typical strategy and consulting roles.

Coming back to the beginning of the post where I hope to see a sea change, I think this role of Product Manager presents something really interesting for the L&D industry.

In the same way in recent years that data and analytics, comms and engagement, learning experience design and project managers have become stronger parts of L&D to provide strength to the function and the profession, I see Product Managers as offering something quite unique to L&D.

In L&D we are typically responsible for a range of digital tech to provide solutions to our organisations. Where the role of Product Manager could really start to make a difference is in bringing a more strategic/ecosystem approach to the tech, its capabilities, user needs, and work with vendors to always find the best solution for unfolding and developing digital needs.

Again some clarifiers are needed. I’m not suggesting the role of administrators will be going away. We still need people who can administer and maintain the tech we have. I think some L&D functions have attempted the ecosystem approach in different ways by building portals from which different L&D digital systems can be accessed. That’s quite a different approach to the thinking and the skills of a Product Manager.

The role of Product Manager I think has best relevance for L&D is for someone who understands the tech landscape of L&D, the tech requirements of the organisation, and building an ecosystem in which the different products can work together. That ecosystem means seamless integration of products, where they talk to each other, data is shared easily, and what the end user experiences is a better use of tech and services their needs more readily.

Some digital tech L&D vendors will already have Product Manager roles for their specific products. And they will have senior leaders fulfilling that role where they have oversight of all the digital products they’ve got in development and are offering to their clients/customers. We need these vendors to keep doing that as it helps L&D with choice and improving the end solutions.

Also, I think in time we may well evolve the role of Product Managers so that we do include the tech products as well as the person-led products e.g. facilitation/training – be that virtual or in-person.

As ever, I’m interested to know what this post provokes for you, and please do ask all your questions and post comments for the ongoing discussion to take place.

Published by

Sukh Pabial

I'm an occupational psychologist by profession and am passionate about all things learning and development, creating holistic learning solutions and using positive psychology in the workforce.

4 thoughts on “The role of a product manager in L&D”

  1. Hey Sukh. I am with you on this quest for the Product Management approach in L&D – particulalrly internally. It might not need to be a role or a job title (but I think that would probably help), it doe, however, need to be a way of thinking, taking decisions and organising. It does feel like an important step in the ongoing maturity of the profession.

    1. That’s actually more of what I think is needed. The mindset approach. I think it’ll take some time to get there, but another new way of thinking for sure.

  2. This mindset shift is definitely something that could be proactively embraced. How much of it is ignorance? How much of it is self-preservation of a core skillset? How much of it is fear of change?

    Roles in L&D require a massive overhaul to get as relevant as possible for a changing approach to work. Great work Sukh.

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