Think Like a Start-Up, Act Like a Product Manager

L&D’s role should be content direction, not creation. Here are six fundamental lessons gleaned from the experiences of product managers and tailored to L&D.

In a typical start-up company (such as a modern software company), product managers direct the development of products. They are not programmers themselves, nor do they build or operate the product. Their job is to ensure an optimal product experience from start to finish.

L&D departments should observe a similar guiding principle: direction, not creation. Above all, L&D must stop creating learning content and instead start directing employees (subject matter experts) to do so.

In part one of this two-part article, “Managing Changes with Start-Up Thinking and Employee-Driven Learning,” I discussed the importance of getting started with employee-generated learning. Following are six fundamental lessons gleaned from the experiences of product managers that L&D can start implementing now.

1. Embrace Design Thinking: Employee Experience (EX)

Have you ever thought about how your favorite software products came into existence? Creators first invest enormous amounts of time into understanding and empathizing with their customers. Then they make design decisions based on what users want. The same approach should apply to L&D and HR teams when it comes to e-learning. Here are some key points to keep in mind:

  • Start by scanning the employee landscape. Identify and understand the pain points, needs, motivators, preferred media, device demographics, cultural contexts and goals for optimal employee engagement and learning experience.
  • Conduct a conventional needs analysis but take it to the next level by focusing specifically on empathy. Place the user (employee) at the center of every design decision you make. This way, you locate the sweet spots of learning.
  • Look specifically for points where user needs intersect with business needs and technological capabilities.

Resistance to Change: Do SMEs Have What It Takes?

One of the most common objections to employee-generated e-learning is that SMEs lack conventional L&D skills. How can you trust them to take over your L&D activities?

We are not advocating replacing classroom training; rather, we recommend finding those sweet spots where employees can step up and handle L&D demands for themselves. Think of employee-generated learning as part of a broader organizational shift toward the employee-driven culture of the future.

2. Get All Stakeholders on Board

As an L&D manager, you wear many hats. You must combine strategy, development, marketing, leadership and other skills with the end goal of launching useful learning content. It is essential for you to be democratic and collaborate with key stakeholders, including:

  • Business leaders (you need their buy-in, and their involvement strongly drives performance).
  • HR and talent development (you need to align with their strategy).
  • IT (you need them for integrations and security).
  • Finance (they have to sign off on spending).
  • Employees (they are your builders and creators).

Resistance to Change: Convincing Business Leaders

Getting business leaders on board with employee-generated learning is a must. Without their buy-in, it will be difficult to get the message across to their teams. L&D must demonstrate to business leaders the added value of the employee-generated approach. They should then cross-communicate with leaders and constantly involve them in playing a role to co-champion the change initiative. You win half the battle if you get buy-in from business leaders.

3. Build a Learning Road Map and Go Agile

When developing new products, start-ups create “road maps” that sketch out everything that needs to be done. Think of a road map as a development plan for the coming period. At Easygenerator, for example, our product managers work with nine separate development tracks at once. Each track has a specific topic: technical, architecture, new functionality, customer request, support, etc. At least one developer is assigned to work on each track. The work is planned in two-week intervals or “sprints” and communicated through clear user stories. At the end of each two-week sprint, a demo is held to showcase the results of the work that has been done.

You can follow the same approach for producing e-learning materials. First, lay out the specific tracks that need to be worked through. Most e-learning programs involve at least four tracks: content, design, technology and marketing. Then, assign employees to take ownership of each of the tracks or specific parts of a track.

This approach involves meticulous planning, and L&D still bears full responsibility for the outcomes. Some of the tracks (especially business- and strategy-related topics) will need to be handled by L&D professionals. Your SMEs will be most beneficial to you in the content track, where they can generate useful learning material based on their valuable experience.

It is important to remember that SMEs are experts precisely because of the jobs they do. They need to be free to keep doing their jobs as they also contribute to the shared knowledge base. As the product manager of their content, the L&D professional is responsible for directing how much time SMEs should devote to creating e-learning content.

Resistance to Change: Misconceptions About Knowledge Sharing

Some SMEs may be reluctant to start sharing their knowledge. They may falsely assume that creating a shared knowledge base will equate to planning a full training course or creating a curriculum. L&D professionals must make clear to SMEs that any piece of practical, everyday working knowledge is a valuable contribution to the shared e-learning knowledge base.

There is also no need for SMEs to spend hours away from their normal work activities. Remember, the point of an employee-driven e-learning strategy is to establish rapid-pace knowledge sharing that can be updated and improved in real time. Ideally, SMEs should be encouraged to share their knowledge using plain language that gets straight to the point.

4. Find the MVP: Minimum Effort, Maximum Return

One of the trends in e-learning is that smaller is better: Learners are more responsive to smaller packets of information. Software designers take a similar view. When creating new products or functionalities, they look for what is known as the minimum viable product, or MVP. This is the product with the essential, must-have functionality that takes the least amount of effort to create. In other words, it is the product that yields the greatest return on investment.

Whether you’re a software designer or an L&D manager, defining your MVP requires collecting feedback from your users. What new product would make a difference to them? What do they need?

Use employee feedback to define the minimal setup for a course or e-learning resource. We call this “minimum viable learning.” Ask your SMEs to create such a course, and then release it for your learners to use.

Resistance to Change: Do SMEs Know Anything About Learning Design?

Some may object that SMEs do not know how to present information in a pedagogically sensible way or that they are unfamiliar with testing methods. These may be valid points for discussion. However, it is important not to overlook how much valuable knowledge SMEs bring to the table. Better than anyone else, they know what works to fix a problem, how to deal with a situation, what doesn’t work, what is outdated, what new team members should know, etc.

SMEs are masters in their fields. It is not a problem if they are not well-versed in the best practices of educational design. Let them be who they are: experts at meeting fast-paced business goals through smart tips and tricks gained over years of practical experience. They know better than anyone what it takes to keep knowledge fluid, to constantly remove the bottlenecks, to identify where knowledge is needed and to prepare their teams to meet ever-changing business needs.

L&D’s role is to direct the creation process and harness their SMEs’ know-how in a minimum viable setup that makes it easy to share knowledge.

5. Test and Measure: Net Promoter Scoring

The typical way of measuring success in learning is to look at test scores. However, test scores do not always tell the full story. Learner engagement is another key indicator of success. Data analytics can be very useful in determining the level of user engagement. Instead of relying solely on test scores, it is important to adopt a data-informed approach when determining the success of a specific piece of learning content. Again, the world of software development offers a simple, elegant solution: the net promoter score.

Here’s how it works. Software developers continually ask their users one simple question: “Would you recommend this product to a friend?” The feedback they receive helps them decide which steps they need to take next to improve the product. In some cases, the feedback may indicate that the product is fine the way it is.

Similarly, net promoter scoring can help identify how users (employees) are responding to employee-generated learning content.

As reality changes, learning content needs to change along with it. In an employee-generated learning approach, your SMEs are responsible for that. They know when something needs to be updated, and they can change the content, republish the course and keep their fellow employees up to speed — all in a matter of minutes.

Resistance to Change: Do SMEs Know What Employees Need?

Another common objection is that SMEs are incapable of serving every employee’s needs. That is why we recommend starting the process by researching and surveying to find out who needs what. L&D should inform SMEs about their research findings so they can align their knowledge and create more useful content.

Second, using NPS, SMEs can determine whether a piece of content adds value to their peers or if more work is required. This way, SMEs keep in touch with employee needs and avoid wasting time on content that adds little value.

6. Marketing E-Learning

Together with your SMEs, you’ve built a new “product”: an e-learning course or resources. But how will employees know the product exists? Just like a start-up trying to launch an exciting new product on the market, you now need to work out a multichannel marketing plan to promote the new e-learning resource. It is important to keep all employees informed about which solutions and learning opportunities are available to help them to fill in any knowledge gaps.

Resistance to Change: Marketing and L&D?

According to Bersin by Deloitte’s webinar, “Reconnecting L&D to Learners,” 66 percent of L&D leaders are unable to engage their employees with learning interventions due to heavy competition from external and freely available learning resources. L&D should embrace marketing fundamentals to get an edge in this competition.

As a first step, L&D should focus on communicating the potential instead of the product itself. Marketers in the start-up world focus on the problems their product can solve. When it comes to e-learning, the key is to identify the learning needs/knowledge gaps that your e-learning product can address.

Second, based on the net promoter score of the course/learning product, you can also identify potential advocates who could spread the word for you.

To summarize, here is a list of the useful methods that L&D managers can borrow from start-up culture and the “product management” mentality:

  • Design thinking: Start with user experience (UX) research. Survey the employee landscape.
  • Stakeholder collaboration: Look for intersections where business, IT and employee needs overlap.
  • E-learning road map: Lay out a four-track road: learning, design, content, technology.
  • Design an MVP: Go agile with sprinted project management.
  • Data-informed feedback: Gain insight from analytics and NPS.
  • Marketing: Plan multichannel, collaborative campaigns.

It will take a new approach to meet the demands and requirements of employees and organizations in this era of nonstop change. Centralized learning departments lack the agility and speed to keep up with the never-ending flow of content updates in a cost-effective manner. The best solution is to engage your SMEs and give them the right tools to create an employee-generated e-learning program.

Best of all, employee involvement creates organic change that flows upward within your organization. The result is an all-around open-source change management strategy that makes your organization more competitive.

Kasper Spiro is CEO of Easygenerator. Videhi Bhamidi is a product consultant at Easygenerator. To comment, email