The rise of the learning ecosystem – and what it means for learning technologies

By Mark Probert February 22, 2018

Learning ecosystem flowchartI’ve read a bunch of articles on the theme of ‘top trends for 2018’ over the last few months, and more recently several titled, ‘What I learnt at Learning Technologies’. And one thing comes very strongly out of all of them.

We’re in the world of the learning ecosystem now.

What is a learning ecosystem? The Elearning Guild defines it as ‘an environment wherein each resource connects to others, creating an overall structure in which all learning takes place … the combination of technologies and support resources available to help individuals learn within an environment’.

But is this just another bright butterfly destined to blaze brightly for a matter of months gathering likes and shares, then die out as soon as something newer and shinier comes along? Well, no. There are good structural reasons for thinking this concept has a stronger wind under its wings than the average L&D buzzterm.

Because to judge from my wider reading, and from all my recent contacts with organisations, it’s becoming clear to organisations that this new focus on agility and integration of multiple solutions is not just another trend, but a reaction to wider forces ­– the series of new digital developments and disruptions that are affecting all of us now, widely discussed under the heading of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

And if the move to learning ecosystems really is a large-scale and non-reversible change in the pattern of organisational learning, well then the implications for how we design the digital tools and platforms that operate within that ecosystem have to be massive.

What’s driving the move to learning ecosystems?

The Fourth Industrial Revolution will mark a significant change in the way we work, on at least the same scale as the three previous revolutions. Digital, AI and connectivity are at its core, and it is these technologies that will transform our organisations, trade and production processes (we will already have seen this starting to take effect in our own businesses, no doubt, to varying degree).

The learning department has had a reputation in some quarters for being the technological laggard within the enterprise, but ready or not will have a significant role to play in this transformation.

Mary Meeker’s influential Internet Trends report for 2017 gave a macro-scale, historical importance to this role; pointing out that while economic growth drivers for the pre-18th century world were cultivation & extraction, and those of the 19th-20th centuries manufacturing and industry, what drives economic growth in the 21st Century is computing power and human potential. Meanwhile, burning issues of immediate import such as skills shortages, immigration and the global productivity slowdown increase the scrutiny on learning, and give greater urgency to leveraging technology in the service of better learning solutions.

Given these strong macro drivers, as organisations adopt new structures, technologies, processes and markets it is opening the door for learning, potentially, to take a huge leap forward.

Putting agility at the centre

The guru community has embraced the concept of learning ecosystems enthusiastically – not surprisingly perhaps, given that it follows on logically enough from ideas such as 70:20:10 and learning architectures. This much-shared blog post from Arun Pradhan shows them disputing the possible shape of the map, a debate that includes luminaries such as Clark Quinn, Charles Jennings and Nick Shackleton-Jones.

Interestingly, Pradhan received major push-back over putting digital platforms and tools at the centre of his first-draft diagram.

In the wider perspective, the key to learning success throughout this revolution is not a system, or content, or any particular technology – it is agility. Being able to adapt and flex to whatever changes this revolution will present is vital to staying in front of the competition and particularly in the continuous challenge for talent.

Bridging the work/life gap

Along with this revolution in technology, we can also notice a change in people. Our everyday lives are becoming more and more digitised and our expectations on what is available to us is now incredibly high. I have heard many people say recently how they feel they live two different lives between work and home.

At home people are constantly connected, whether via their phone, tablet, Alexa, smart fridge, smart heating system, etc. Meanwhile at work, when they try to use similar means to streamline their activity and up their personal productivity, they face barriers such as prohibitions about the type of content and social channels they can access, what sort of technology and software they can choose, restrictions imposed by necessary security protocols, etc. All of this, they find, slows them down.

Being able to bridge the gap between how people behave in their everyday lives and their work life is going to enable you as a business to start to create a new learning culture that is more aligned to people expectations and, in turn, the business objectives of growth and development of talent.

How learning ecosystems give you greater agility and flexibility

The learning ecosystem is a logic that allows for agility in this ever changing digital world. It is hard to know what you will need as a learning solution in five years’ time, but even looking three years – or just one year – ahead is hard nowadays, such is the speed of change. So the ability to be flexible around your setup is key.

We know through our own behaviour that we have already adopted particular systems and in some cases businesses have solutions in place that are working for them. Ignoring these successes and familiar tools is a huge error. Trying to introduce a new system for something that is already successful is not going to result in adoption, and the return on investment you desire. For example if you know your people are using Skype as a comms tool, don’t introduce a new chat tool in your learning system. People won’t use it. Instead, bring the current tool of choice into your learning environment and encourage it to become part of the ecosystem. The tool is already adopted, and learners will be comfortable with using it to collaborate.

Learning ecosystem flowchart


Suite solution or best-of-breed?

The learning ecosystem approach poses a challenge for decisions over platform that has to be tackled head-on.

Suite solutions that encompass multiple functions and do those different things very well nevertheless might be thought to impose an inherent limit to agility. You couldn’t change the chat element of your multi-function suite, for instance, until the vendor decided they needed to enhance it. Having an agile ecosystem, on the other hand, would give you control to un-plug a chat tool and plug in a new one – or even integrate a new tool to serve a similar but different purpose.

Embracing the agile world of learning ecosystems requires moving away from a belief that there is one perfect, all-encompassing system that will do it all for us. Although that is the basic marketing message of almost all learning platforms, the reality has always been one of multiple platforms doing slightly different jobs in different parts of the organisation.

In Lumesse Learning, for instance, we’ve moved away from the belief that a learning management system can perfectly serve the needs of both mandatory and elective (or personal) learning. That’s why we created me:time, to support the self-directed learner, sitting alongside our LMS platform Learning Gateway.

Which is not to say that suite proposition doesn’t have its place – it undoubtedly does. In linking performance and recruitment processes to learning, nothing will quite do it like a powerful, multi-function talent management suite such as our own ETWeb Empower. But here a modular architecture is really important to allow maximum flexibility.

Evolving needs drive greater flexibility

In my own work with organisations I’ve seen a growing demand for shorter, more agile agreements on technology platforms. Clearly, a five-year contract is quite binding and limits your flexibility, so I think we will certainly see this trend continue. Customers and consumers alike will demand smaller, shorter agreements to allow them to remain flexible.

So from many points of view, the learning ecosystem looks like a popular concept with strong drivers and potential benefits for all concerned; organisations, their employees, and the wider world at large.

And as we work to support businesses through the digital change and help them offer the best possible learning they can to each individual in the organisation, I can’t help but recommend that they adopt me:time as an essential part of their learning ecosystem. It was, after all, designed with exactly this approach in mind.

If you have any questions about me:time and how it could be incorporated into your learning ecosystem, please get in touch.



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