“Learning ecosystem” might seem like a buzzword on the surface, but it’s an old concept that continues to advance as technology advances. We’ve always known that learning is an intrinsically human activity that needs to be supported in many places and in many ways. L&D has a history of attempting to support natural ways of learning: blends, cognitive or simulated apprenticeships, social learning, the 70-20-10 model, and nearly any instructional approach you can name.

Now, the business is paying attention to L&D more than ever. Organizations are more open to investing in L&D and want to see measurable results (like they did with marketing 15 or 20 years ago). Learner expectations are driven by how they experience learning and media in their everyday lives.

Enter learning ecosystems: the customizable “thing” that you build to spec, after you know what all those specs are. The word itself is enticing. An ecosystem is alive and evolving – the beating heart of your L&D department.

What Is a Learning Ecosystem?

A learning ecosystem is the collection of people, processes and tools that deliver, integrate and support the L&D function across your organization. Every organization has a learning ecosystem, just like every business has a culture, whether it was formed intentionally or not. Ecosystems differ in their level of maturity. Below is a maturity model that shows the technology and connectedness of the ecosystem (top) and the L&D function’s people and process maturity (bottom).

Learning Ecosystem Maturity Model

Your business likely doesn’t fall directly into one of these buckets. In fact, they’re not numbered, because organizations can (and often are) at different levels of maturity for technology and for the L&D function. For example, if you have a monolithic LMS, you’re not automatically further to the right on the maturity model, because you have to consider the maturity of your L&D people and processes.

What Is Not a Learning Ecosystem?

Effective learning ecosystems are aligned to business objectives and learner needs. A learning ecosystem is not:

  • Technology for the sake of technology
  • A way to throw all your systems together so that you don’t have to plan any learning
  • A plug-and-play environment for being able to add or swap applications into the ecosystem without having to think about it or do much legwork (While more mature learning ecosystems can support making this easier, the decisions about tools must still be strategic and aligned with some business or performance goal you’re trying to achieve, not an environment that lets you play around with the latest technology.)
  • Something you set up and then let run itself (The point of a learning ecosystem is not to be an entirely automated, self-maintaining system. Though it can make some traditionally labor-intensive activities, such as measurement, much easier, it isn’t intended to maintain itself.)

How Do I Know if a Learning Ecosystem Would Help Me?

An L&D department and the tools it deploys are there to serve organizational needs: to reduce risk, increase effectiveness or keep up with industry transformation. Whatever the business is trying to do, it trickles down to L&D: How can the department support these goals, and can it do so with the collection of systems you have?

It’s as simple as answering these questions:

  • What is the business trying to achieve?
  • What are the constraints to getting the progress that the business needs?
  • What does L&D need to do to address or solve the constraint?

If a learning ecosystem helps L&D better meet the specific needs of your organization and learners, then it may be worth the investment.

Keep in mind that a learning ecosystem isn’t an all-or-nothing deal. You can scaffold the maturity of your learning ecosystem over time. Start with making a single program more of an ecosystem or enabling two systems to start talking to each other (e.g. start with Salesforce and SharePoint, add a learning record system and mobile solution the following year, and so on). You can break up the process of creating your learning ecosystem depending on your goals, scope, budget and resources.

Learning ecosystems have a lot of benefits, from standardizing data across systems to creating a truly human learning environment. However, we always need to start with the problem we are trying to solve. A learning ecosystem may or may not be the answer.

How Much Do I Really Need to Know?

A learning ecosystem is about the learner (connecting performance to business needs) and, therefore, has little focus on the technology. Think of it like this: You probably surf the internet daily and are familiar with the “http” or “https” at the front of URL. But do you know how they work? Probably not. You don’t need to in order to have a solid web user experience. You only need to know that the technology will work for you to have a successful online experience.

For your technical team, learning ecosystems are about the back end. They are the people who need to care about what’s proprietary APIs, PENS, opinionated systems, custom APIs and so on. When their perspective and the L&D perspective join together, learning ecosystem magic can happen. That’s how you can achieve true elegance in the user experience.

So, as an L&D specialist, you don’t need to know all the technical back end details. However, someone on your team (whether insourced or outsourced) does need to know and be part of the conversation to develop a fit-for-purpose solution.

A Final Word on Learning Ecosystems

The role of a learning ecosystem is to be a place for all types of learning to happen and for you to gather standardized data on those activities. From quick bursts of informal fact-checking to external content to highly structured training across connected systems, it can be a place for it all.

Rather than arbitrarily-chosen technology, the software you choose should serve a vital purpose in support of specific business goals. It’s an opportunity to genuinely enrich the capability of your learners and enhance your progress as an organization.