Building a Thriving Learning Ecosystem: What, Why and How?

Learning within an organisation is wider ranging and more complex than may at first be apparent. It extends well beyond just the learning management system (LMS) an organisation may use. If looked at from a distance, it forms its own unique ecosystem.

An ecosystem is defined as “a biological community of interacting organisms and their physical environment” or a “complex network or interconnected system”. These are apt descriptions of how learning is developed within an organisation. This is an important concept for learning and development (L&D) to understand.

A learning ecosystem, then, is made up of interconnected and interdependent components that form a whole learning experience. These components exist both within and outside of an organisation. The relationship between the components means that the overall learning experience is greater than the sum of its parts. They all interact in complex ways to shape learning within an organisation, both formally and informally. The learning system takes disparate systems such as instructor-led training, virtual instructor-led training, self-guided learning, self-directed learning, social learning and/or attending an in-person training event and ties them into a single, elegant learning solution.

Just as in nature, ecosystems can be large or small, thriving or unhealthy, sustainable or unsustainable.

A learning ecosystem is made up of many parts.

People: This encompasses all the learners in an organisation, those who develop learning experiences, and those who influence learning attitudes. Employees play an important role in cultivating a learning and development ecosystem. Every single person from the executive suite to junior employees plays a role in feeding the learning ecosystem through contributing to the workplace culture. Without a supported growth mindset, L&D strategies are likely to flop.

Culture: A learning culture has a massive impact on the learning ecosystem, but they are not quite the same thing. Learning culture is a set of values and practices that encourages learning – employees are open to new information and are happy to share this information with others. A learning ecosystem encompasses and is reinforced by learning culture – it includes culture and the people, resources, channels and tools that make a L&D strategy possible. A thriving learning culture is sustained by employees who want to continue developing their skills and want to help their peers do the same.

Content: Content comes in all shapes and forms. The content in an organisation can be formally presented such as through instructor-led training sessions, LMS courses, classroom training, just-in-time learning, reference guides or manuals, and so on. But content can also be informal and even take place outside of the organisation. Discussions with managers, knowledge handed down by mentors and ad hoc demonstrations count as content too. Not to mention external sources of content such as online courses, reading books, and watching tutorials online. All of this content feeds into the learning ecosystem.

Technology: Technology influences the way people learn – how they receive and interact with content. Mobile learning, for example, allows learner development to take place almost anywhere and at any time. The company’s LMS or LXP (learning experience platform) plays a huge role in the learning ecosystem, making it possible to curate, aggregate and deliver learning content. An LMS or LXP also helps the development individual learning paths, tracks learning journeys and enables data-based decision making. The use of peer-to-peer communications platforms such as Slack and Microsoft Teams are also drivers of a thriving learning ecosystem.

Data: Data is the backbone of a thriving learning ecosystem. It allows the tracking and analysis of learner behaviours, such as when and where they like to learn and which content they find most engaging. LMS and LXP technologies allow L&D to measure the efficacy of learning content. This allows decisions to be made about which learning tools to keep, which to develop, and which to do away with altogether. Data visualisation software such as Microsoft Power BI helps gain valuable insight into making business decisions – L&D can use this information to drive business objectives in the wider organisation.

Governance: Learning ecosystems are regulated by the strategic decisions that are made in alignment with the organisation’s vision and mission statement. L&D leaders are largely responsible for the governance of the learning ecosystem.

Strategy: A cohesive L&D strategy is needed to ensure that all parts of the learning ecosystem within an organisation are aligned. To help develop a strategy, a good place to start is with a skills-gap analysis – identifying the current and future skills needed for success provides important data for making decisions. All components within a learning ecosystem should be pointed toward achieving the organisation’s strategic goals.

An organisation likely already has at least one or even multiple components in place that comprise the start of an organisation-wide learning ecosystem. These are a few extra ways to contribute to those efforts.

Every component in a learning ecosystem is important to its total success; it is therefore vital to evaluate all components equally. For example, it doesn’t matter what type of technology you use if the content it delivers isn’t engaging enough to learners. Conversely, you may have killer content but if the technology you utilise isn’t able to deliver it in an easily accessible format your learning programme may not see much use. L&D leaders need to examine every piece of the puzzle to move the entire ecosystem forward.

Since the people component of a learning ecosystem is so crucial, tangible roles need to be assigned to all the players. From the chief executive to the newest hire, everyone should understand how they slot into the overall strategy. L&D may implement the strategy, but employees across the organisation play a role in seeing that strategy thrive. Learners within the organisation must pay attention to gaps in learning content and share this with managers and the L&D team – this allows L&D to continually assess and fulfil training needs.

It’s important to align a learning ecosystem with the goals of the organisation. Employee development and learning is good for business, but only if learning initiatives are aligned with the bigger picture. As the learning ecosystem is designed and implemented, be sure to understand how the return on investment of L&D can be justified in clear, measurable ways. Keeping an eye on key performance indicators (KPIs) is one of the best ways to ensure that organisation learning stays relevant, and even drives the evolution of business. KPIs help L&D stay adaptive and agile when change strikes, leading to a healthy and robust learning ecosystem.

Adaptation and agility are key in developing a successful learning ecosystem. L&D strategies should evolve alongside technology, company culture and the needs of the organisation. Pay attention to the data and the needs of learners and be prepared to make adjustments. Evaluating and elevating each component in your organisation’s learning ecosystem is the key step in forming a sustainable L&D initiative.

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Written by Rob Ewart


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