As the pace of change within organizations continues to accelerate, the learning and development (L&D) function must undergo revolutionary changes to catch up, keep up and, ideally, get ahead. L&D departments have traditionally focused on helping employees gain critical skills needed to perform in their roles. Currently, much of L&D interactions with the rest of the organization are from ad-hoc requests that serve an “order taker” role. This type of ad-hoc interaction, or interaction without integration into personal development or organizational strategy, is challenging for L&D, as the half-life of a skill is only two and a half to five years, and 50% of the skill sets needed for jobs will change by 2027.

Moving from transactional, ad-hoc skills management to a transformative learning ecosystem will ensure learning is a key element in realizing the business strategy. Now is the time to rethink the learning ecosystem that has historically been used and assess new options that may better align with the evolving business strategy and needs of the workforce.

Learning Ecosystem Operating Models

To remain nimble, organizations need to adjust their learning ecosystem operating models. A learning ecosystem represents the tools, techniques, resources and places where learning happens across the organization. The right model for a given organization is aligned with the business strategy, reinforces the business culture and ensures all components are interconnected to remain flexible and supportive of the continuous changes of the business. Creating a learning ecosystem will fuel continued learning, building critical skills and capabilities ahead of the competition.

Typically, L&D functions fall into one of three distinct operating models that support a learning ecosystem: decentralized, centralized and federated (hybrid). It is helpful to gain knowledge of each model to assess the best alignment to the business strategy.

1. Decentralized Operating Model

Business units operate their learning initiatives autonomously with limited control or governance from a single corporate L&D department. Individuals responsible for the design and delivery of learning programs report to separate business units. See Figure 1 for an example.


    • Clarity: Clear lines of ownership and accountability.
    • Relevancy: Highly specialized knowledge and expertise related to a specific business unit.
    • Immediacy: Provides quick response to immediate and specific business unit needs (identifies needs, creates and maintains content).


    • Inconsistency: Duplication of programs and offerings across the organization with inconsistent quality standards.
    • Visibility: Lack of centralized reporting and visibility into values-based metrics.
    • Limited Capability: Inability to address organization-wide learning needs.


Figure 1. Example: Decentralized Operating Model

2. Centralized Operating Model

Ownership of the enterprise-wide learning strategy and associated governance resides in a centralized L&D department. There is strong collaboration with business units to understand and act upon carefully assessed needs. All learning professionals report centrally, where the design and delivery of learning solutions are managed. See Figure 2 for an example.


    • Efficiency: Optimize operations through reduced redundancies with high levels of accountability and transparency.
    • Consistency: Consistent learning culture throughout the organization.
    • Quantify: Facilitate alignment to broader business needs with the ability to quantify standardized learning outcomes.


    • Capacity: Limited ability to meet the full demands of the business units’ continuous learning needs
    • Scalability: Learning solutions are more generalized to meet the broader needs of the organization, missing unit-specific nuances.
    • Relevancy: The L&D team sits away from the business unit, heavily relying on the accuracy of training needs assessment to drive programs, content, and learning experiences.

Figure 2. Example: Centralized Operating Model

3. Federated (Hybrid) Operating Model

This model includes collaboration between a centralized L&D function and business unit L&D teams. Ownership of learning program standards and governance resides in the centralized L&D function, with business unit L&D teams designing and delivering learning assets specific to their business unit. A federated operating model typically includes a learning performance partner role responsible for facilitating interactions between the business units and centralized L&D function. See Figure 3 for an example.


    • Flexibility: Balances freedom with control by responding to the changing needs of the organization at the business unit level while maintaining a strategic enterprise-wide view.
    • Quality: Establishes and reinforces quality standards and process efficiency through central governance.
    • Fosters a strategic, long-term approach to a unified learning culture.


    • Clarity: Unclear roles and responsibilities between L&D teams.
    • Complexity: Potential dotted line relationships and multiple learning needs mapped separately creates a complex framework.
    • Inconsistency: Possible contradictions between central and unit-specific solutions.

Figure 3. Example: Federated Operating Model

Aligning the Operating Model to the Learning Ecosystem

Learning ecosystems evolve on purpose, combined with an overall strategy that gives organizations the ability to build and alter the operating model to meet challenges as they arise. Understanding how the various parts of a learning ecosystem interact with one another is critical to selecting one that supports broader organizational goals.

Consider these three factors and assess them against the operating models to find the right fit:

1. The Organizational Structure

    • Scalability: Large global organizations that are highly decentralized and operating in multiple markets will work well with the decentralized operating model.
    • Economies of scale: Small- to medium-sized organizations that are highly centralized with a small number of markets or products align well with the centralized operating model.
    • Expansion: Fast-paced organizations supported by strong collaborative relationships between HR business partners and the L&D function are a great match for a federated model.

2. Assessing the Needs of Learners

    • Decentralized model: The rate at which employees’ roles change in the organization, high levels of internal mobility equate to frequent reskilling and upskilling by role, requiring just-in-time and frequent learning interventions for each business unit.
    • Centralized model: A heavy focus on succession planning and talent designations, offering leadership development to a broad category of individuals across the organization where common leadership frameworks and programs are easily accessible by a broad range of employees and leaders.
    • Federated model: Environments where learners have little time dedicated to learning, where broad-based learning is accessible in a variety of modalities, along with technical training and on-the-job training options accessible at the point of need.

3. Examining the Learning Culture

While perhaps harder to define than the other factors, the learning culture is a set of values and practices that promotes continuous learning, setting the tone and expectations for how employees interact with the learning ecosystem.

    • Diverse learning cultures that vary based on region or business unit align with a decentralized model where the unique learning culture can thrive independently.
    • Enterprise-wide learning cultures where one vision and mission for learning is set and shared at the strategic level support a centralized model where one strategy drives the learning function.
    • A balanced learning culture that moves towards one overarching learning vision, leaving flexible elements for business units to modify as they see fit matches the federated model in offering a mix of learning cultures threaded by one overarching vision.

The most effective L&D functions are evolving the organizational learning ecosystem and adopting an operating model that flexes with the needs of the business, the needs of the learners, and the learning culture to drive a continuous learning mindset that moves the business forward.