Everything Dies

Thoughts on a learning product’s lifecycle.

There is a reason that we use the term lifecycle when describing products. Products die. It happens to all companies. Startups that have launched a new product only to find that it does not deliver enough value to attract a user base generally run out of funding and are quietly forgotten. While the company may no longer exist, the product, be it an app or a web service, may remain. You can see examples of this reality every day. Look in the app store for your phone. If you see an app that has had no updates in the last 12 months, it is highly likely that the company behind it has closed. 

In December of 2017, AOL announced that it was shutting down its messaging service AIM. At that time, many still loved, AIM, a twenty-year-old remnant of the first dot-com era.  It is estimated to still have had millions of users at the time of the shutdown. So why shut down? Because there is a cost to keep the service running and as AOL stated in its announcement of the decision, “We’re more excited than ever to focus on building the next generation of iconic brands and life-changing products.” Focus. In an age of Facebook, Snapchat and Slack, there was little opportunity for AIM to deliver huge value to its users. Instead, AOL is investing those resources towards products that can.

Some products do not die, they are updated but unlike an app, where one version automagically replaces the prior, the older version remains. Software as a Service (SaaS) companies like Cornerstone, Salesforce and others release updated versions of their software all the time. The newer version is meant to replace the client’s older version. However, change is hard and many clients do not upgrade to the latest release. Upgrades can be fraught with unexpected pitfalls and the older version is familiar and therefore easier for the client to support with its internal users.

This means that SaaS companies are usually providing client support across several releases. This draws resources away from building value into future releases and instead requires investment in supporting the waning value of the past releases. Familiarity with legacy solutions is a challenge for L&D as well.   

Getting the business sponsors and managers to accept a new solution to replace an older one can take some work. L&D must be prepared to help them see the value.  L&D organizations, like all organizations, must always seek to invest their limited resources in areas that will yield the highest return. When a product either fails to deliver a predetermined value threshold, or is superseded by a higher value-adding product serving the same need, it must be retired. Like AOL, L&D must recognize that focusing resources on upgrades for a diminishing user need is a distraction and that continued support for an existing product has costs.

For L&D to adopt a true product approach it must acknowledge the dynamic nature of all solutions, continuously assess the value of its solutions, and acknowledge when a solution needs to be retired or upgraded. This requires the support of the business sponsors as well as the awareness that the “more” is not the goal. As in many activities it is not the creation but the editing that often drives significant value.

Note: I write this fully aware that in my enthusiasm I often share unedited thoughts in these posts. Unfiltered ideas are a feature not a bug for my product (I hope) – j.

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