Ecosystems: the new black but much more than a buzzword.

Note: I am adding some quick thoughts here on learning ecosystems before my memory loses them. I will return to some of these ideas for fiurther posts.

Perhaps the most important factor in the idea of “the learning ecosystem” is that you can’t buy one. (Equally, you can’t be sold one). This might just save the debate about what they are, how they work and how to make the most of them from the pollution of the ‘next big thing’ and the purveyors of silver bullets. 

Whatever “the learning ecosystem” might be, it is not the pretender to microlearning’s dubious crown as the next big thing, thankfully. A (learning) ecosystem is not the next thing of any size. It is a past, current and future thing. More than a single thing too. It requires a more mature response.

This was my favourite pondering from the excellent afternoon I spent with Filtered on Friday at their Taking Flight II event. Every organisation has an ecosystem already – they may be of varying quality and utility but they are there. Our mission, last week at the event, was to consider how to make the most of them. The conversation was elevated above some of our commentary about technology in learning because we are all in the game. It was not all about content or platform wars.

I was given great hope by the (I think) universal acceptance of digital common sense that the questions and answers revolved around. Following Helen Smyth’s description of the work Sainsbury’s are doing with Magpie to support navigation and discovery in their ecosystem, the panel I was part of were given good direction to keep the debate at the same useful and considered level.

An ecosystem, whether of learning or work, will consist of many components. Jane Hart’s directory of tools is pretty good starter for the learning elements. Add to these learning record stores, data lakes, HR systems, commercial tools and systems, document stores, analytics tools and so on and the scale and scope of the ecosystem value and challenge emerges. This is a wide landscape with varied terrain and will take time and effort to cover. But, as with everything of value, effort is needed to find it.

With apologies to other contributors at the event with better memories, this is what I recall as the main themes of the conversation around what to do with them and about your (learning) ecosystem:

  • Yes, an ecosystem is probably broad in scale with many many components and somewhat messy 
  • Better to accept that than trying to tame it all into one system to rule them all and suffer from time, cost and technical debt
  • Stay close to your user/worker/colleagues and solve some small problems that are very real to them
  • That way lies relevance to their work, which is the user value
  • Start small and test what works best
  • Develop from there if you are seeing good results
  • Navigation and discovery are good places to explore potential – taming some of the complexity and saving your audience some time
  • Don’t do anything without data and the ability to measure what’s happening
  • Useful data will take you some way beyond learning data and systems
  • Useful experiences might take you beyond learning systems too
  • So, we need to become comfortable with the tools and data of the organisation – times are changing for L&D
  • Technology alone is not the answer (and is likely to be a problem)
  • People are inherent in the ecosystem: users, producers and stakeholders
    • They have their own agenda as well and that’s OK
  • Culture is crucial to what happens in the ecosystem 
  • Like an ecosystem every organisation has a culture – a good one will help value thrive in the ecosystem

One pause for thought I experienced on the Northern Line as I travelled home: the audience at the event were a relatively enlightened one, I suspect. There are probably many out there with less positive ideas about working across an ecosystem. There is a strong preference for control and order in L&D which will see these developments find good homes in some teams and not others. This territory requires a different maturity. Is that fair?

For the record, my fellow panelists are listed here with my thanks for sharing such good ideas:

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