The Learning Ecosystem

Without a sustainable, user-friendly and easily implemented plan to capture and spread information between employees, technology is just hardware and software.

Without a sustainable, user-friendly and easily implemented plan to capture and spread information between employees, technology is just hardware and software.

There’s good news for today’s CLOs concerned with learning ecosystems — the environments, cultures, organizations and methods that support workplace learning and performance. It’s not about the software; it’s about what they do with it.

Learning executives often inherit a technical landscape of tools and processes, and as they work to utilize them effectively, they must decide: What stays? What goes? What gets added? How to integrate?

Planning Is Paramount
As with any tool or capital appropriation, the strategy and plan should precede the investment. This principle is no different when investing in employee learning and workforce performance. Too many software implementations fail because of lack of front-line adoption, corporate culture, employee readiness and compliance. In other words, there is no effective environment or plan.

Before there can be answers to any of the aforementioned questions, it is critical to assess the current learning environment in preparation for planning by asking:

  • Is there a training department?
  • Is there a learning organization?
  • Is it on the corporate org charts?
  • Is it virtual?
  • Are practices and processes supporting employee development endorsed from the top?
  • Are these processes lean, efficient and integrated with business operations?

Assessing the current state will guide the decision-making processes, not necessarily the end state. An end state can and will change in today’s business environment. Investing in learning processes, environment and plans will help guide and sustain a learning ecosystem regardless of rapidly changing technologies.

Employees, not technologies, are the focus of all learning strategies. Employees are a business’s front line, one that varies from organization to organization. Some employees are behind a desk in front of a computer the entire workday. Others are moving quickly around a shop floor. But wherever they work, employees are a key consideration in the choice of learning strategies. Further, learning is of most value and relevance when it yields front-line performance improvement. One of the most precious organizational assets is knowledge. How well leaders optimize and convert knowledge to sustained employee performance is one measure of success, reflected by employees’ knowledge management capabilities, their ability to learn, support of their own performance and collaboration with experts.

Start Strong and Solid
Consider Figure 1 when designing a learning ecosystem. Starting on the left will focus all attention on the performance of employees, organization, business and operations. That focus drives investments in learning, performance support and collaboration, providing a strong architecture for the desired sustained improvement.

Building a learning ecosystem on anything but a solid foundation increases the likelihood of crumbling investments, where money is lost, time is wasted and credibility suffers.

With effective plans and a solid platform in place, learning leaders can positively answer that age-old question: So what? The focus can shift from the learning alone to measuring evidence of true proficiency and effectiveness on the front lines. Without workforce performance that can be evaluated, analyzed and reported, few executives will continue to invest time, money and corporate assets.

There simply has to be evidence that learning investments changed employee performance behavior positively or did not, and that evidence is readily available via new, innovative technologies. Part of all planning, therefore, is building in a component that continually discovers, measures and reports performance leading to the ability to take immediate action to address any deficiencies. If employee performance is below expectations, there are definite ways to develop and deploy assets, allowing employees to access resources as needed to support their own performance. For example, if the assessment tools in a technological system show employee performance has improved, that evidence can be successfully leveraged to replicate the process elsewhere in the organization and continue positive growth and profit.

Consider these corporate examples to illustrate the aforementioned points:

  • A large pharmaceutical company invests in a development application that easily records software transactions so they can be published in documentation and interactive simulations. This solution to a companywide deficit in communication and interaction is met with thunderous applause. Then, the warehouse staff needs attention because they don’t use desktop computers to support their processes. Also, the sales team is at a loss because it is completely mobile, using only hand-held devices with wireless communication. The learning ecosystem need? A new or complementary tool set to satisfy all employee learning, performance support and collaboration.
  • A U.S.-based consumer products company acquires another company with operations in the Asia-Pacific region. Each has invested in its own learning management system (LMS). The debate about which platform to retain for the new, larger company consumes an inordinate amount of time and energy. The learning ecosystem need? The development and execution of an effective strategy to sustain effective workforce learning and performance in the merged companies, regardless of previous practices.

Knowledge Capture: Enabling the Experts
The typical LMS available in the marketplace supports deployment of learning content and logistics of learning events. However, it does little for the capture and retention of valuable business knowledge. This business knowledge is not just about how to conduct transactions, but how, when and why to utilize these transactions within the business process. It is about employees being able to make the best decisions, apply operational talents and expertise to business practice, and satisfy and delight customers and constituents.

Consider the following example. A director of operations for a global petrochemical corporation expresses a goal to help employee experts in the business units capture and share their knowledge with colleagues. He investigates ways to automate this process so that it occurs in the most effective and efficient manner possible. He wants to retain this expert talent as well as attract new talent to this elite and valuable group.

Conversations center on the concept of “there’s got to be a way.” This executive is aware that more than 30 percent of his workforce will retire in the next five years. That loss, combined with normal attrition, emphasizes the value of having a plan for sharing employee expertise not only with those already on staff, but with those yet to be hired.

This is a monumental vision and plan. Now, how to execute and enable this capture of expert employee knowledge? Traditional documentation exists in flat file format using standard office applications such as Microsoft Word. However, that format does not address the many dimensions the workforce needs to satisfy diverse needs, such as employees who learn best by:

  • Watching and copying.
  • Using context to comprehend high-level concepts and practices.
  • Safely practicing what they will do.
  • Repeating any new skills.

There are technologies available that employee experts can exploit to capture steps, transactions and processes to better enable high performers, but they need easy methods to publish those steps and concepts into formats that other employees can access in multiple ways at any time.

By employing the same technologies, experts also can capture, document and deploy conceptual knowledge about the business, processes and context. They can easily develop learning assets without help from instructional systems designers or programmers. These learning assets can be delivered and facilitated by other experts or instructors or even self-facilitated by the performer.

Part of the urgency in harvesting employee expertise and knowledge capture exists because employees’ time in the organization may be short given turnover or retirement. Also, as experts, they are extremely attractive to other parts of the organization. Once transferred, they likely cannot dedicate time and attention to their original group.

Knowledge Sharing via Technology
There is a growing trend of learning through collaboration. In fact, it’s like a tidal wave. It can be difficult to prescribe exactly what learning assets and events are necessary to support the workforce. Scenarios often arise that demand experts’ attention and advice. By electronically collaborating at the time of need, employees satisfy themselves, with a little help from their friends.

The typical image for formal learning is a classroom setting with an instructor and students. One person imparts knowledge to others in structured environment — the sage on the stage. Informal learning, on the other hand, is not based on an event or location. It usually occurs online and is mobile, contextual and able to be accessed repeatedly as needed. Whether employing a blog, wiki, discussion forum, RSS feed, networking platform or social media site, collaboration is the method and performance is the outcome.

Consider, after participating in a workshop about collaborative performance in the workplace, that the director of training for a large media and publication organization asks if that mode of learning and performance support is her responsibility. The question is really one of her charter, not her capability. With the advent and popularity of platforms such as Facebook and LinkedIn, the technologies exist, but is it her responsibility to focus on workforce performance or employee training?

The learning ecosystem consists of strategies, methods, processes and tools to enable learning in every aspect of the business or operation. The goal is to yield front-line performance improvements that result in customers who notice and come back for more products and services.

Within all effective learning ecosystems, look to employee behavior for noticeable measures of success:

  • Colleagues want to be designated as subject-matter experts and embrace the responsibilities that go along with that designation.
  • Learners and front-line performers clamor for the ability to learn and support their own performance.
  • Employees head to the collaborative platform as a new watering hole for knowledge and support.

There is no single design for the ideal learning ecosystem. Its architecture is driven by what experts and performers will adopt best and by other factors, including the physical infrastructure deployed: network, real estate, hardware, software and learning assets that are contextual, accessible and measureable.
Every learning ecosystem is supported by tools and technologies, but support for tools and technologies requires an effective strategy, a strong and lasting plan for learning and spreading business knowledge. Remember, it is not about the software. It is about what you do with it.

Mal Poulin is director of business development at RWD. He can be reached at