Learning Ecosystems – Part 1 – What is a Learning Ecosystem?

This is the first article in a series about learning ecosystems (LEs). Using a milk-before-meat approach, we’ll lay the groundwork for the following discussions by giving a general overview about what a learning ecosystem comprises, why it is important to build one, and how having a robust LE can benefit a company.

What is a learning ecosystem?

The word “ecosystem” was first-and-foremost an ecological term referring to a “community of interacting organisms and their physical environment” (dictionary.com).  If you think about it, the ecological definition doesn’t differ too much from the business world. What is a learning ecosystem if not a ‘community’ (a business organization) of ‘interacting organisms’ (the people who comprise it) and their ‘physical environment’ (space, culture, tools, etc.), all working together toward the learning and progression that will help the company meet its strategic goals?

A learning ecosystem is comprised of the people, content, technology, learning culture, and strategies that influence a company’s learning environment (ej4.com).

  • People – Learners aren’t the only people involved in a company’s LE. The formal instructors, team leaders, subject matter experts (both internal and external), and even co-workers and acquaintances are involved in learners acquiring knowledge.
  • Content – Learning and Development (L&D) leaders expend most of their effort developing training content, which can refer to anything from in-person training to virtual training to webinars or from video courses to company handbooks.
  • Technology – Technology is the means by which much (if not most) of the content is delivered to learners. A robust LE boasts integrated technology solutions that work together in support of business goals (trainingindustry.com).
  • Learning Culture – A company’s culture, boiled down to its essence, is its “tone,” or the feeling employees have working there. The learning culture, then, refers to the employees’ perception of how relevant and effective the company’s learning initiatives are and the level of priority they sense from management about L&D.
  • Strategy – Strategy refers to the fact that your LE should not be an accident–you’re going for intelligent design, not a “big bang” where you just hope all the pieces fall into place. While it can evolve organically, every component of the process should be analyzed and specifically geared toward meeting company goals.

The Importance and Benefits of a Robust LE

Whitney Johnson, CEO and founder of WLJ Advisors, says, “Like a biological ecosystem, organizations are either growing or they’re dying. And organizations grow when their employees are learning. So if you want a high-growth organization, you need to create a learning ecosystem to support high-growth individuals” (Harvard Business Review).

Johnson beautifully and succinctly summarizes the importance and benefits of a robust learning ecosystem.  Such a system is important because your employees’ success and your company’s sustainability are important to you, and a strong learning ecosystem has an enormous impact on both of those factors (more on this topic in a subsequent article). Besides the obvious benefit of a healthier, growing organization, a mature LE also contributes to employee recruitment, engagement, value, and retention.