What is a Learning Ecosystem? And How Does it Support Corporate Strategy?
The term “learning ecosystem” is a trendy one in learning and development circles. It’s an important idea; understanding it helps organizations and their leaders think strategically about their learning and training—and helps them achieve the goals they set for themselves.
To wrap our brains around this idea with a minimum of jargon and hand-waving, let’s start at the beginning: What is a learning ecosystem, exactly? Here’s our definition:
A learning ecosystem is a system of people, content, technology, culture, and strategy, existing both within and outside of an organization, all of which has an impact on both the formal and informal learning that goes on in that organization.
The word “ecosystem” is worth paying attention to here. It’s not just there to make the term sound fancy or scientific. A learning ecosystem is the L&D equivalent of an ecosystem out in the wild. Just as a living ecosystem has many interacting species, environments, and the complex relationships among them, a learning ecosystem has many people and pieces of content, in different roles and learning contexts, and complex relationships.
Just like a living ecosystem, a learning ecosystem can be healthy or sick, nurtured or threatened, self-sustaining or endangered. Achieving your development goals, then, requires an organization to be aware of its own ecosystem, including its parts and the internal and external forces that shape them.
What is a Learning Ecosystem Made of?
You likely already know the parts of your organization’s learning ecosystem. You might even work with them. It’s still surprising when you step back to consider all of these different parts. The parts you aren’t looking at might even be having an effect on the ones you see on a daily basis.
Your learners are, of course, people in your learning ecosystem; they are the ones you want to develop. But think, too, about the people your employees and volunteers are learning from:
- Formal instructors for your in-person training courses
- Managers and team leaders
- Internal SMEs and veteran employees
- Third-party SMEs external to your organization
- The internet
- Friends and family
These are in rough order of the degree of control you have over what gets learned. You have the greatest control over what your internal instructors convey in formal contexts—but folks learn a lot informally, too, from SMEs, other employees, friends, and family. You also have more control when the content comes from within your organization than when it comes from outside.
Management is a key component here as well. Not only do employees learn from managers and team leaders, but these people also set the tone for learning, set goals, and provide mentorship. If management is not on board with the way you train people, attitudes toward training will not be conducive to learning.
Content for training and development is often where L&D professionals spend a lot of their time and attention. Specifically, they spend a lot of time creating (or evaluating, buying, and tweaking) content to be used in formal training sessions: Classroom training, assigned video courses, manuals and reference guides, emailed tips, and so on. I would also add materials used to reinforce training—quizzes, exams, reminder videos, etc.
A lot of training content is informal in nature, too. Conversations with managers, knowledge handed down through mentorship relationships, and other tribal knowledge are all content, too.
This does not mean the content your employees are exposed to resides solely within your organization. There are external equivalents of all of the above. For example, your people might participate in off-campus training workshops, take classes from a local college or extension school, read books, or watch videos on YouTube. Much of what they learn might come from outside your organization, especially when it comes to topics like leadership training!
There’s no doubt that technology has received the lion’s share of attention in recent years. New technologies continue to create both opportunities and challenges when it comes to designing and delivering content. For learners, mobile technologies, modern LMS systems, and new social tools (like our social learning technology, The Quad) offer unprecedented access to knowledge and skills, as well as the opportunity to interact with peers virtually in learning contexts. For L&D professionals, technology allows for a greater degree of blended learning, letting them be more creative and more effective in their roles.
Technology also allows measurement like never before. With a training video library organized within a modern LMS like ours, L&D staff can measure and see what courses are the most popular, how much of a course is viewed, and which courses any given individual has completed. This allows organizations to track not only individual progress, but training effectiveness overall.
(One great change that technology has brought is that it has allowed us to collect concrete data on how long a training video should be for maximum engagement—in short, how to do effective microlearning. You can read more about this specific topic in our white paper on the science of microlearning.)
One last thought about technology: The same advances that make learning easier within your organization have also made it easier for outside content to come into your organization. Employees and volunteers are turning more to resources like YouTube, Udemy, LinkedIn Learning, Scribd, and so on. This has to be carefully monitored because it’s so easy to find information that is out of date, irrelevant, or just plain wrong…and sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference.
4. Learning Culture
We here at ej4 have written a lot about learning culture over the years, so I won’t reinvent the wheel here. When it comes to learning ecosystems, a learning culture is the background, or the “tone,” that tells people what to expect. It’s critically important, then, to take stock of your learning culture and ask some hard-hitting questions. For example, does your learning culture support self-directed learning? Are employees encouraged to share? To what degree do you want, or need, to control the learning experience? (Our white paper on the benefits of a true learning culture can help.)
I saved the best for last. Learning and development decisions should be made from a strategic point of view, with all the components of the learning ecosystem pointed toward achieving the organization’s strategic goals. Without this, L&D quickly becomes an afterthought…one that faces the chopping block when a budget crisis hits.
Paying Attention to Your Learning Ecosystem
The takeaway here is that, if you want your learning and development programs to be successful, you need to pay attention to your entire learning ecosystem. When you start doing so, you’ll discover that investments in learning technology and content are well worth it. Getting the right technology and content is a no-brainer.
For example, here are a few ways we help our clients manage their learning ecosystem:
1. Formal training content for development should reflect your corporate strategy—and the competencies you need to make that strategy a reality. To help with this, we organized our training content library along competency-based learning tracks, constructed around 36 of the Lominger Competencies, with videos grouped accordingly.
2. We help our clients select and implement video learning as part of their blended learning initiatives. Online video formats, when done right, are highly engaging; they allow for the use of professional actors, music and sound, and motion. All of these elements convey attitude and energy better than, say, the written word (or even an in-person lecture). They help set the tone of learning, and so affect the learning culture.
3. Online video also supports more sophisticated tracking and reporting. Clients find our tools for monitoring video usage easier and more informative than manual Excel spreadsheets that many of them used before coming to us! For example, one client noticed a significant increase in the customer service department’s viewing of our course on stress and burnout. They also found the department clocking more overtime than usual. This allowed them to intervene with additional customer service and time management training to minimize the need of the overtime causing the stress.
4. Have some high-potential employees (HiPos)? These are good targets for self-directed learning. Video content is perfect for HiPos who want to watch training content beyond what is assigned, even on their own time. Making this content available via mobile technology allows them to access it 24/7/365, on any device. We are always delighted when a client tells us how a new rising star got his or her start by stretching themselves and exploring new topics within our library.
5. Don’t forget: Much learning that happens in an organization is informal. It occurs when interacting with peers, mentors, and even supervisors in an informal way, every day. Tools for social learning, like our own The Quad, allow you to leverage that tendency to learn from others informally. It lets employees create their own network of peers to follow; we’ve found that learners are inspired to watch courses they see their peers watching, just as friends watch and share videos on social media. Tools like leaderboards with points systems also encourage friendly competition and increase engagement with courses.
There are more examples, too. If you are interested in seeing how our tools, or our library of off-the-shelf videos, can play a role in your learning ecosystem, sign up for a full-featured, full-library free trial of our HSI LMS. We would be happy to discuss how HSI can support your learning ecosystem.
- If you are looking for a deeper dive, download our eBook on "The Learning Ecosystem."
- You may also enjoy one of our most popular blog posts "A Guide to Creating an Employee Training and Development Program."
- Understanding your learning ecosystem is an excellent exercise as you begin evaluating your corporate training strategy.