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ATD Blog

Learning Ecosystem: Why You Need One, How to Build It

Monday, December 14, 2020

During times of crisis, such as the ones we have been experiencing during 2020, learning and development (L&D) leaders must provide continuous learning to help the workforce navigate difficult times. To provide continuous learning frameworks for their employees, organizations should build their learning ecosystems. 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.

Organizations that build learning ecosystems show better performance results. Creating a learning ecosystem requires a focus on the people, content, technology, data, and governance in the organization. Today, every learning and development professional needs to ask two critical questions: “Why do we need a learning ecosystem?” and “How can we build one?” Let’s explore my answers to these two questions.

Why Do You Need to Build a Learning Ecosystem?

As an L&D leader, you need to build a learning ecosystem for three reasons: to increase employee engagement, to cut reskilling costs, and to increase innovation in your organization.

A learning ecosystem is a symbiotic environment where people interact with the content, technologies, and data that surround them to facilitate and deliver learning experiences based on the governance guardrails set by the organization. A learning ecosystem can be broad and organization-agnostic, open, and accessible to anyone. For example, think of LinkedIn and how much you learn, connect, and engage with other professionals daily.

A learning ecosystem can also be specific and organization-centric (existing within your organization). The resilience and survival of the ecosystem depends on the variety and diversity of the people and content in it as well as the frequency, ease, and depth of the interaction facilitated by the underlying technologies. As a learning leader, you can focus on building an organization-specific learning ecosystem, which is more within your control. An organization-specific ecosystem that embraces diversity of content, access, and types of learning fosters innovation and is more resilient to change than a closed and rigid ecosystem. Now, let’s see how you can build a learning ecosystem.


How Do You Build a Learning Ecosystem?

To build a learning ecosystem, you must focus on five building blocks: people, content, technology, data, and governance. Let’s examine each of them.

People. The main beneficiaries of your organization’s learning ecosystem are the employees. Additionally, the quality and depth of the ecosystem in turn benefits your customers. The better your employees learn through the ecosystem, the better the quality of the products and services they’ll provide to your customers. The ecosystem may include other stakeholders such as university faculty, professional association members, policymakers, and other industry vendors that your employees engage with during their learning journeys.


Content. The content in the ecosystem includes the learning courses your organization offers, from formal learning including online classroom instruction-led, to informal learning including asynchronous courses, videos, articles, podcasts, on-the-job tools, guides, e-books, and webcasts, among others. Content curation is critical because it will enable you to address your learners’ educational needs and preferences.

Technology. The most viable technology to support and foster a learning ecosystem is a learning experience platform (LXP), which is increasingly replacing the traditional learning management system (LMS). Bersin by Deloitte defines an LXP as a single-point access, consumer-grade system that can curate and aggregate content; create learning and career pathways; enable networking; enhance skill development; and track multiple learning activities delivered by multiple channels and content partners. LXPs provide detailed data, which empowers the learner to track and own their learning journey and enables the employer to make talent management and retention decisions for the organization.

Data. Data is critical for your ecosystem because it will help you analyze the behaviors of your employees. Through the data, you can collect from your underlying ecosystem technology platform and glean more about how, when, and where your employees like to learn. You can track which type of content and modality your employees prefer. Based on the data on employee preferences, you can make decisions about which learning assets to keep, which to expand upon, and which to eliminate.

Governance. A key concern when it comes to governance is balancing the need for centralized coordination of the various ecosystem elements with the flexibility to allow the ecosystem to grow organically. You and your team will have to address several questions relating to the ecosystem members focusing on aligning the content, the technologies, and the processes with the context, mission, vision, and strategy of your organization.

In addition to these building blocks, you will need to consider the three phases of the learning ecosystem lifecycle so you and your team can be prepared to manage the challenges of each phase before progressing to the next. To learn more about how to build a learning ecosystem and how to track your organization’s progress, read the chapter I wrote in the book Forward-Focused Learning: Inside Award-Winning Organizations, which was published by the Association for Talent Development.

About the Author

Marina Theodotou, EdD, is a learning faculty member at the Defense Acquisition University. She is a learning and development leader with global business experience across private, government, and nonprofit sectors. She helps organizations increase productivity, profitability, and performance by optimizing their talent through the design and development of relevant, game-changing, and measurable learning curricula. Marina is a certified Lean Six Sigma Black Belt.

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This overview is a great starting point for analyzing all the elements of a Learning Ecosystem. Looking forward to going deeper. Thanks.
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Excellent quick level set on the key and critical elements of a Learning Ecosystem!
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Thanks for this article! Helpful high-level overview of the critical components needed to drive this idea in an organization.
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