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The learning ecosystem: What it is, how to build one, and why

Much like energy and nutrients flow in a continuous cycle between the elements of a natural ecosystem, a free flow of knowledge fuels the growth of a learning ecosystem.
Learning Ecosystem
Credit: Elena Poritskaya; Nick Dale, david_franklin / Adobe Stock

In nature, ecosystems large and small contain both living parts and nonliving parts, all of which depend on each other in one way or another. This interdependence makes the ecosystem a very appropriate analogy for the way learning occurs within organizations. 

A learning ecosystem includes people, culture, content, technology, data, strategy, and governance. All of these components interact in complex ways to shape learning, both formal and informal. Like ecosystems in the natural world, some learning ecosystems are larger than others, healthier than others, and more sustainable than others. 

A Training Industry article acknowledged that, “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.”  

The components of a learning ecosystem 

Learning ecosystems evolve by design, with the intent of achieving specific goals. The nonliving parts are chosen and deliberately brought into the ecosystem to help ensure that those goals are met. This gives organizations the ability to build and alter their learning ecosystem to meet challenges as they arise. 

Understanding how the unique parts of a learning ecosystem interact with one another is essential to building one that supports organizational goals. Below, we’ll discuss each of the components and how they influence one another. 

People

This includes all of the organization’s learners, those involved in developing and providing learning experiences, and those who influence attitudes toward learning and development: 

  • The L&D team
  • Instructors (internal and external) who deliver training 
  • Internal and external subject matter experts who contribute to the development of learning programs
  • Employees who engage with the content and provide valuable feedback about their needs and preferences 
  • Team leaders, supervisors, and managers who provide on-the-job training, coaching, or mentoring
  • C-suite executives who may or may not be supportive of L&D efforts

Culture

An organization’s learning culture — the set of values and practices that encourage learning — is similar to a natural ecosystem’s climate conditions. It sets the tone and shapes expectations about learning. The most critical aspect of a learning culture in terms of supporting the ecosystem is the extent to which it promotes a growth mindset. If failure is seen as the antonym of success, rather than part of the growth process, the learning ecosystem will be stunted. 

Discover how a culture of learning can prepare your workforce for the future.

Content

A learning ecosystem’s content comprises everything used in the service of learning — videos, articles, podcasts, job aids, manuals, materials used in instructor-led training, and more. In addition to such formal content, informal content abounds in the form of conversations between managers and employees, discussions among team members, ad hoc demonstrations, and other exchanges of information.

Technology

Learning technologies have opened up new ways for L&D to deliver content, and for employees to engage with content. For example, mobile learning allows employee development to occur just about anywhere. 

Perhaps the most impactful technology in any organization’s learning ecosystem is its learning management system and/or learning experience platform. LMS and LXP technologies make it possible to curate, aggregate, and deliver learning content. They also support the development of individual learning paths, track employees’ learning journeys, and facilitate data-based decisions. 

Data

Data is the lifeblood of an evolving learning ecosystem. Most LMS and LXP technologies enable L&D staff to measure and track the effectiveness of learning content. Training evaluations are another key source of the data flowing through a learning ecosystem. Such data can provide a wealth of insight into employees’ learning styles and needs. 

Strategy

An L&D strategy is required to ensure alignment of all parts of the learning ecosystem with the objectives of the organization. A skills gap analysis is a good starting point for developing one. The identification of current and future skills needed for success provides crucial data for decision-making. A solid understanding of adult learning theory and modern methods for training employees will also help inform the overall strategy. 

Governance

Natural ecosystems are self-regulating — populations of its living components grow or dwindle based on changes in the food web, terrain, weather patterns, and other natural forces. Learning ecosystems are regulated by strategic decisions made in alignment with the organization’s vision and mission. L&D leaders are largely responsible for governance of the learning ecosystem.

How to start building a learning ecosystem

According to ATD, “Learning ecosystems help organizations withstand crises and generate long-term benefits for employees by fostering creativity and innovation, which in turn affect product and services delivered to customers.”

Other benefits of a thriving learning ecosystem include:

  • A community spanning the entire organization, regardless of physical location, working to develop the skills needed to accomplish its strategic goals
  • The ability to track and analyze learning activity at individual, departmental, and organizational levels
  • Informed decision-making about learners, content, technology, and other aspects of the learning ecosystem 
  • The ability to upskill and reskill employees as often as needed and be proactive in anticipation of change
  • Better organizational performance from a more engaged and competent workforce
  • A competitive advantage from building capacity ahead of the competition

A thriving learning ecosystem is deliberately cultivated over time. It’s a matter of recognizing the current state of an organization’s development and then guiding its maturation in alignment with business objectives.

360Training’s cofounder and CRO, Jean-Christophe Bourgade, has outlined a three-prong approach to developing a learning ecosystem: 

  • Assign roles to the people in the learning ecosystem, with L&D personnel overseeing the strategy for engaging learners and aligning learning content with business goals.
  • Choose a learning tool (LMS or LXP) that facilitates peer-to-peer knowledge flow.
  • Align and measure the learning ecosystem against business goals.

Growing a learning ecosystem requires establishing connections between systems, people, data sets, content, culture, and decision-making. 

A Harvard Business Review article suggests putting employees on new learning curves through job swapping, job sharing, mentoring and outreach programs, to connect them with each other and with learning content.

Most importantly, knowledge should flow freely between employees across functions and at all levels, much like energy and nutrients flow in a continuous cycle between the elements of a natural ecosystem. That free flow of knowledge will fuel the growth of the learning ecosystem and the organization as a whole. 

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