Learning Leaps Part 5: Incorporating learning strategy while building products

Welcome to another edition of Learning Leaps, where I’ll be sharing lessons learned from my first 16 months as a product manager at Pluralsight. 

Since transitioning into Product Management, one of the biggest lessons I’ve had to learn was about the difference between learning strategy and product strategy. Thats why for this final edition of Learning Leaps, I’ll be taking a deeper look into the need for learning strategy to be incorporated in technology products.

Whats in a strategy anyway?

Many organizations, especially those in the technology space, focus on the importance of product strategies to help drive their decision making. For those unfamiliar, a product strategy can be defined as a set of decisions and priorities that a company focuses on in order to achieve a shared vision that wins with the users of its products (thanks to my good friend Jess Kadar for this concise definition!).

During my time in the industry, I’ve sat through my fair share of product strategy sessions. These meetings would usually include some sort of discussion about the company mission and vision, OKRs, and even product roadmaps. These sessions were great exercises for the company to illustrate why they were focusing on specific areas of investment. The outcome of the meetings would often empower product teams to drive the specific areas that they oversaw. Despite this, the more I sat in on these discussions, the more I noticed learning strategy not being considered during the creation of technology products (even when creating learning products).

For those unfamiliar, learning strategy can be defined as a set of decisions, techniques, procedures, and processes that learning creators can use to promote desired learning outcomes. As a learning strategist, I’m often thinking about the learning outcomes I’m looking to drive and the best way to deliver them. In other words, I consider things like learner goals and objectives so that I can determine the types of content or activities to help influence a learners knowledge, skills, and behavior.

Learning and product strategy are different yet intertwined

Over the years, the general theme I noticed in the industry is that product strategy and design are often driven by market and customer needs while learning strategy is driven by theory and research (Note: this is an oversimplification and I’m happy to dive deeper with anyone who may be discussing more of the intricacies).

Theres a few problems with this approach. First, as Clark Quinn mentions in Where is the Learning Science in Technology Products?, there is a documented disconnect between what learners think is good for their learning and what actually works. This is the same way that customers will ask for things that they think they want but it still may not get to the root cause of what they actually need.

Second, this approach leads me to think about the ancient qualitative vs. quantitative research debate that happens in product and UX communities. It should not be one or the other but rather a blending of the two or a mixed-methods approach.

What i’m recommending is that learning strategy should be considered an equally as important apart of a business as product strategy. If you look into the market, the best learning and educational products have a solid foundation of learning strategy. To put it succinctly, if you’re building a product to help people learn, you have to know how they learn.

Balancing customer needs with learning science

So whats the best way to balance your customer needs with learning strategy? Heres a few tips to get you started:

Connect with people who have learning expertise

If you don’t have a background in learning, thats okay! You can connect with folks who already have some inside of your organization. These individuals might be sitting on your learning and development, UX, or even product teams. They’ll be familiar with learning theories and models that could help to influence the success of your learning product. Use them!

Incorporate learning research while making product decisions

As a PM with a background in learning, I often lead and conduct my own learning research alongside the product discovery process. This often means leading mixed method research which include surveys, conducting user interviews, or prototype testing. At the same time if I have a specific research question in mind, I’ll look at existing learning research to see what it was says. I’ll incorporate this research into any synthesis and consider it when making any product decisions with my team.

Build out a center of learning research

Depending upon the size of your learning product and organization, it might be worth investing in a center of learning research. Many of the larger learning companies in the industry such as Pearson, edX, and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt have done just this. These centers often focus on staying up to date with the latest learning research and techniques in addition to conducting efficacy studies among customers to prove that learning outcomes are indeed happening.

Do you have any tips on how technology platforms can incorporate more learning science into the experiences they’re building? Post them in the comments below!

Learning Leaps Part 4: Using empathy to uncover the needs of your learners

Welcome to another edition of Learning Leaps, where I’ll be sharing lessons learned from my first 16 months as a product manager at Pluralsight.

While transitioning into a Product Manager role, one of the biggest responsibilities of my role became leading my team through a human-centered design process in order to deliver meaningful learning experiences to our customers.

That’s why for this weeks Learning Leaps, I’ll be taking a deeper look into how learning practitioners can use empathy to help uncover the needs of their learners.

A human-centered approach to learning

After spending the past 9 years designing and delivering learning experiences, I was no stranger to the need to connect to learners in order identify their needs. Historically, I spent a lot of time using the ADDIE framework (analyze, design, develop, implement, and evaluate) to create the learning that I was creating. This all came to a head during 2016, when I transitioned to the user experience team at the company I was working for.

My time on the team exposed me to using a human-centered approach to solving problems. For those unfamiliar, human-centered design is an approach that focuses on building a deep empathy with the people you’re creating for, using brainstorming and ideation to identify possible solutions, sharing your ideas with your audience to get their feedback, and then eventually pushing your solution out into the world.

By incorporating this approach into the way that I was already working, I was able to iterate quicker and truly connect to the needs of the learners I was serving. Since moving into Product Management at Pluralsight, I’ve seen the true power of human-centered design in action. Part of my daily role is leading a team through the human-centered design process in order to deliver impactful experiences to our learners. I’ve become such a huge advocate for this framework that I wanted to share some tips and tricks for how other practitioners can incorporate this framework into how they design and deliver learning experiences.

Tips to use empathy while creating learning experiences

Identify your purpose for connecting with learners

As I shared during the last Learning Leaps article, learning interventions are proposed solutions to help solve performance problems inside of an organization. Thats why before you jump into meeting directly with learners, you’ll want to first take a step back to determine the outcomes you’re hoping for.

Some questions you may want to ask yourself are:

  • What is the current performance taking place? What is the ideal performance the organization is looking for?
  • What are my learners backgrounds?
  • What am I looking to find out by connecting with learners?
  • What decisions am I looking to make with the information that I find out?
  • How many learners do I need to connect with in order to get an accurate picture of what is happening?

Determine the best way to connect with your learners

Once you have your intentions nailed down, you can start to identify questions that you’d like to ask learners and determine the best way to connect with them.

Where I am in the discovery process, will usually impact the type of method I might use to gain empathy with my learners. For example, if i’m trying to identify the problems I’m looking to solve for customers, I’ll usually use some type of qualitative research method like sending out surveys, conducting interviews, or focus groups. If i’m trying to gain a better idea of how a learning solution is already performing, I might use some type of quantitative measure.

Below are some things I keep in mind when choosing the best way to connect with learners:

SurveysSurveys can sometimes get a bad rap because of overuse and poorly written questions.

They’re a great tool if you’re looking to collect data from a large group of people or identify trends over time.

I’ll often send out a survey to identify general themes from my audience and help narrow down participants that I may want to interview in person.
InterviewsInterviews are a great way to meet directly with learners and ask them about their needs, motivations, and preferences.

It can take some time to recruit, conduct, and synthesize information from interviews so be sure you schedule enough time in your process.
Focus GroupsFocus groups can be a helpful tool if you’re looking to facilitate a group discussion around the area you’re exploring.

As learning practitioners, we often conduct focus groups without even realizing it. It could be in the form of a group discussion or debrief at the end of a course or training session.

In any case, they’re a helpful way of getting feedback from multiple learners at the same time. Just watch out for any bias that this may cause!

Regardless of the method you choose, connecting with your learners doesn’t have to be a labor-intensive process. Connecting with only 5-7 learners can help you to notice themes and trends that may be occurring.

Practice mindful communication

Once you’re able to connect directly with learners, remember to practice mindful communication. This might include being mindful of asking non-leading questions, asking open ended questions, embracing silence, and keeping your reactions neutral when learners are responding to you.

Synthesis always takes longer than you think it will

Finally, once you’re done speaking with your learners, you’ll want to synthesize your findings into a way that is manageable for you and your team. I find that incorporating stakeholders in your synthesis process is a great way to get buy-in from them when you’re designing solutions later on.

One general rule of thumb when conducting synthesis is that it always takes longer than you think it’s going to. I’ll usually try to schedule a block of time on my teams calendar for the session.

Some questions you may want during the session might include:

  • What were our expectations going into this?
  • Are we surprised by what learners told us?
  • How does what we learned impact decisions related to our experience?
  • Whats the best way to communicate what we learned to others?

Do you have any tips for others on how to use empathy to meet the needs of their learners? Post them in the comments below!

Be sure to check out the final edition of Learning Leaps where we’ll be diving the need for learning science in technology products offered today.

Learning Leaps Part 2: What collaboration looks like when creating learning products

Welcome to another edition of Learning Leaps, where I’ll be sharing lessons learned from my first 16 months as a product manager at Pluralsight. While transitioning into a Product Manager role, one of the biggest lessons I’ve had to learn was about facilitating effective collaboration while creating learning experiences. That’s why for this weeks Learning Leaps, I’ll be taking a deeper look to identify what collaboration looks like and provide some tips to help get you started!

Moving from IC to Product Manager

After spending the past 8 years designing and delivering learning experiences, I was no stranger to collaboration on the job. In all of my previous roles, I was always an individual contributor on a cross-functional team. I had enjoyed this type of role and had done well with my approach to collaboration.

Soon after transitioning into my PM role at Pluralsight, I had a huge wakeup call that my existing approach to collaboration needed to change and FAST!

Product Management is collaboration. As a Product Manager, you are driving the product you’re responsible for. This means that you’re frequently coordinating and collaborating with all of the stakeholders who touch your product. So rather than being an individual contributor on a cross-functional team, you’re the one driving the initiatives and overall decision making related to your product line.

This type of collaboration is a skill that is learned and perfected by many Product Managers over time. So I decided to put together a few tricks that I’ve learned over the past year that I hope will help others while they’re collaborating on learning experiences.

Tips for effective collaboration when creating learning experiences and products

Identify and build trust with your stakeholders

A week before joining the team at Pluralsight, I fell down the stairs and broke my ankle. This put a huge damper on the onboarding plan I had created for myself. Since I am the absolute epitome of an introvert, I knew I was going to have to make an extra effort to meet everyone who I would be working with.

Over my first month on the job, I ended up having 30+ virtual 1:1 sessions. I did them in order of priority; starting with my immediate team including developers and UX designer. I put together questions that would help me learn more about their experiences inside of the company and in their roles. By taking the time to learn more about my team and stakeholders, I was able to gain empathy about the challenges they had to overcome on a daily basis. This gave me insight on things I could do to help make their lives easier in our work together.

After the official meet and greets were done, I made sure to put reoccurring meetings with stakeholders on the calendar so I’d never have to think twice about who to talk to and when. To this day, I’m still discovering people that would be great to connect with or touch the products and initiatives i’m working on.

Define the outcomes you’re looking to drive

Once you have a better idea of who you’ll be working with, you’ll want to identify the outcomes you’re looking to drive in your work together. Whenever I kick off a new project or initiative, I’ll usually schedule a meeting for everyone to come together and chat about the outcomes we’re hoping for and why. This alignment meeting makes sure that everyone starts out with the same context and helps us to be more effective in our work together.

Define roles for everyone on the team

When working on a cross functional team, it’s important to remember that everyone brings unique strengths and perspectives to the table. It is through your work together you’re able to deliver better outcomes than one person would be able to individually. Collaboration works best if everyone has an idea of what is being expected of them. Whoever the project leader is (in my case since I was the PM, it was me), will want to make sure everyones roles are clear from the very beginning so there is no confusion as you deliver on your mission.

Communicate early and often

Once you have your stakeholder group figured out, you’ll want to figure out the best way to work together. Since Pluralsight has multiple offices around the world, much of our work is done asynchronously. Depending upon the size of the project I’m working on, i’ll often spin up a slack channel for everyone to communicate and share insights with one another.

I’ll try to limit scheduled meetings for major project milestones like brainstorming, sharing user research synthesis, or discussing priorities for a coming year or quarter. As a Product Manager, I’m usually deep in the weeds of the problems I’m involved with, while others on the team may jump in and out as their schedule allows. Because of this, i’ll also try to over-communicate as much as possible to ensure others can follow along with things as they’re unfolding.

Show your work!

Prior to joining Pluralsight, I had always worked inside companies that were smaller in size. For context, when I joined The Predictive Index, the company had around 30 employees and when I left it had reached 100. Pluralsight on the other hand, is around 1400+ people currently. It goes without being said, collaborating inside of a 100 person company is drastically different than collaborating inside of a 1400 person company.

At a smaller size company, collaboration meant coordinating with maybe 8-10 stakeholders. During a recent project I was working on I had over 30+ stakeholders I had to coordinate with.

While chatting with my teammate Patrick, he noted how important showing your work was inside of larger organizations. He compared it to showing your work during math class. I vividly remember my math teacher trying to drill into my head the need to document my work as I progressed through problems (as a child I hated this activity).

I use a similar approach today for my projects inside of Pluralsight. I use project documents to highlight the outcomes were looking to drive, hypothesis we have, links to designs, experiment ideas, and decisions about future product strategy. This approach allows others to follow along with decisions and how they were made. As much as I despise forcing myself to slow down and document my work in this way, I’ve found that it’s made me more strategic about what i’m communicating and why. It’s also made it easier for me to get buy-in, influence, and manage others.

Seek context with intention

One of the core values that Pluralsight encourages amongst all of it’s employees is to seek context with intention. I’m a huge believer that as children we were driven by our curiosity and as we entered adulthood it was beaten out of us little by little. Thats why this value is my absolute favorite and I utilize it all of the time when working with others.

When working teams, it is not uncommon for everyone to have different viewpoints because of the vantage point they have in their role. I’ll frequently question why someone has a particular opinion, ask why they did something a certain way, what their thought process were and why. By asking questions, i’m able to learn more about the constraints and possibilities of a project.

Do you have any tips for others on how to collaborate more effectively? Post them in the comments below!

The next Learning Leaps will resume in 2020, where we’ll be dialing in on how to use data to make informed training decisions.

Learning Leaps Part 1: Tips for creating a culture of learning in the workplace

16 months ago, I made the decision to make a huge leap in my learning career and move into Product Management. With the transition, I’ve discovered that one of my favorite parts of the role is speaking directly with technology and learning leaders, in addition to learners themselves.

I’ve conducted hundreds of research interviews over the past year and one of the major themes I’ve heard from tech and learning leaders is about their desire to create a culture of learning inside of their organization. This should come as no surprise to many practitioners in the field as the phrase culture of learning has become synonymous with increased employee retention and engagement inside of today’s organizations.

That’s why for this weeks Learning Leaps, I’ll be taking a deeper look to identify what exactly a culture of learning is and provide some tips you can take to get started creating one inside of your organization.

A Culture of Learning: Defined

It’s no secret that technology has had a major impact on today’s workforce. It has changed everything from the way we work, how we work, and where we work; inevitability impacting how we learn and perform on the job. Gone are the days that learning takes place in the form of a single training event. The paradigm has shifted to supporting employees during the flow of work. Thats why it’s more important than ever that organizations support a culture of learning for their employees. A culture of learning is one where employees continuously seek, share, and apply new knowledge and skills to improve their individual and organizational performance. Ideally, an organization should have values, practices, and processes that supports this for their employees.

A culture of learning can look different depending upon the type of organization. Despite this, I’ve noticed some reoccurring trends that have come up in my conversations with customers during my time at Pluralsight. Below are a few tips to help get you started creating a culture of learning inside of your organization.

Tips for Creating a Culture of Learning

Build a foundation of trust

The foundation to any great culture depends on the basis of trust. If you don’t have trust, all other efforts are fruitless. That’s why if you’re building a culture of learning inside of your organization, the first step is to ensure that it’s safe for all your employees (regardless of rank) to make mistakes.

One of the main company values at The Predictive Index, is errors of action are better than errors of inaction. During my 3.5 years there, hearing this phrase empowered employees like myself to dive steadfast into challenges no matter how large the size. If mistakes we’re made along the way, we celebrated them and shared lessons learned with others. I frequently witnessed executive level employees get in front of the entire company and share stories about how projects went awry and how they might approach things differently moving forward. This cultural value of trust and vulnerability is one key element to building a culture of learning and should be embodied at every level of the organization.

Empower learners to take control of their professional development journey.

I’m a big advocate of the belief that career ladders are becoming somewhat obsolete. Employees are no longer staying in traditional career paths for 20-30 years. Rather, it’s more common to see employees do career pivots. Take me for example, after 8 years as a learning experience designer, I decided to take a leap and move into a Product Management role. I was able to bring skills from my previous role and apply them to my new position. I also had many skills I’ve had to pick up along the way.

During my time at Pluralsight, I’ve spoken to many learners looking to expand their technology skills in hope of transitioning into a new career. Thats why it’s important for organizations to empower their employees to take control of their personal learning paths. The employees themselves are the ones who know what skills they’re looking to expand and grow. As learning practitioners and managers, we can learn these by simply speaking directly with learners, either through 1:1 conversations or surveys.

Arm managers with coaching skills

Managers are often on the front lines helping their employees learn the skills they need in order to perform on the job. In organizations where there is a culture of learning, managers have the opportunity to adopt a coaching approach to managing. A coaching approach means enabling employees to identify problems, brainstorming solutions, and empowering them to success. This means that as learning practitioners, we need to equip managers with techniques on how to provide feedback. This could be in the form of discussion guides or reflective questions to help guide their conversations with employees.

Encourage expertise and mentorship

One of the biggest challenges organizations experience related to learning experiences is creating actual content and materials. One of the biggest untapped resources are subject matter experts (SMEs). SMEs are often passionate about a skill or topic area and enjoy sharing their experiences with others. Pull these individuals into your initiatives and empower them to share their knowledge with others. At Pluralsight, we actually rely on our network of Authors to create content for learners looking to expand their technology skills. I’ve also talked to many organizations that have even created mentorship programs where experts are paired with beginners as they begin developing skills in a particular subject area.

Set aside time to learn

One of the biggest struggles I’ve heard from many of Pluralsight’s customers is their inability to find time to learn. With an increase on their demand for time and growing responsibilities on the job, who can really blame them? If you’re a part of an organization, developing a learning culture, you must be an advocate for learning time. Your employees should feel empowered and encouraged to take time out of their day to brush up on their skills. My team at Pluralsight blocks off 4 hours of learning time at the same time each week to do just this. This ensures that everyone knows they have the time they need to continue skilling up in areas that matter to them.

Make learning accessible

Modern workplace learning means recognizing that learning is a continuous process that happens in the flow of work. As learning practitioners, this means that we need to make learning content as accessible as possible to meet learners where they are, rather than making them to come to us. This might mean adopting an on-demand learning platform that allows employees to engage in learning experiences when they want to.

If you have a learning technology platform, it might mean choosing a solution that optimizes the learner experience like mobile access and single sign on. This could also mean supporting informal learning methods like learners sharing articles or chatting about new topics or skills. Overall, the learning experience should be intuitive, not arduous.

Support social learning

By our very nature, humans are social creatures. We naturally love to chat about our ideas, share resources, and hear other perspectives. As learning practitioners, we should nurture these qualities inside of our organizations. One of my favorite examples of social learning is being carried out by my favorite supermarket chain, Wegmans. During Pluralsight Live 2019, Scott Root shared insights about how Wegmans hosts monthly challenges, hackathons, and coffee hours with employees who engage in their Developer Fitness program. These social learning experiences led to increased employee satisfaction and skills acquisition across those involved in the program.

Encourage stretch opportunities for employees

One great practice that organizations with a culture of learning often do is provide stretch opportunities for employees. This means providing employees with a safe environment to fail or test out their new skills. In many of the organizations I’ve worked at, I’ve often been placed on a tiger team where I’m able to attack a large business problem for the organization. These projects have always provided me the opportunity to stretch myself and become more confident in my new found skills. This approach could also be formalized in the form of supporting career transitions and allowing internal mobility for employees inside of your organization.

Do you have any tips for others on how to encourage a culture of learning inside of their organization? Post them in the comments below!

Be sure to check out next week’s Learning Leaps where we’ll be diving into what collaboration looks like when creating learning products.