Part One: What Is a Learning and Performance Ecosystem?

“You cannot create value for any one investment—you have to bundle them.”
—David Norton, developer of the Balanced Scorecard

Here’s a blinding flash of the obvious…

The increasing complexity of the world in which we live and work, combined with the explosion in the amount of knowledge we need to be successful, requires us to be more sophisticated in how we learn. We must be better prepared to learn on demand, with minimum disruption to our workflow and productivity. With this goal in mind, it is increasingly critical that the resources we put in place to help us learn—and ultimately perform—be as direct, effective, and instantly available as possible.

Our gut tells us this is where we have to go; yet we often struggle with how to express where we are headed, especially if we want some structure without forcing ourselves into a lockstep, one-size-fits all methodology. So, over the next two columns, we’re introducing a new concept that may just be what we need to put the disparate pieces of our function together, for ourselves and our clients.

Training is not enough

Here’s another blindingly obvious observation: given that most workers get just a few days to a few weeks of training each year, it is impossible for them to learn everything they need to know through formal instruction, unless, perhaps, they were in training every day. Not a good idea.

Training alone will not get people to mastery. At best (and this is never guaranteed), it can get them to baseline proficiency. To keep the learning process going, we must look to alternatives to formal training and move beyond the classroom to the workplace. If we do this, our view of the ways we can positively impact learning and performance greatly expands, to the view in Figure 1.

Figure 1: Training is not enough to get people to mastery

The growing diversity—and complexity—of learning and performance solutions

We are becoming smarter about how people learn. We know that people learn differently depending on their level of experience and expertise. A master performer learns quite differently than a novice. We also know that people learn differently depending on the content to be learned. Learning a carpentry skill is different than learning a scientific principle, which is different than learning how to write computer code or a music score. So the challenge we face is not just in expanding our toolkit and the places where we apply it, but clearly matching our solutions to the people we seek to help, and the specific type of work they have to do.

It is important to recognize that these solutions are not limited to training programs; they are much more diverse. People learn from each other as well as from a variety of online, non-instructional information resources. Sometimes learning is secondary to performance; that’s where performance support comes in. In many of these situations, how the user approaches these learning and performance opportunities is self-directed, rather than dictated by the program. And, it can all be customized based on individual or group needs, so that we don’t have to teach all things to all people.

As we look at all these approaches to learning in a new way that better addresses the realities and challenges people face working in complex and always changing environments, we must move away from individual, siloed, “one-off” solutions to an ecosystem comprised of multi-faceted options that enhance the total environment in which we work and learn.

A learning and performance ecosystem: The big picture

Ecologist Ernst-Detlef Schulze defines an ecosystem as the network of interactions among organisms and between organisms and their environment. Ecosystems were originally used to describe connections in nature, among species and their physical environment. However, ecosystems are not limited to the natural world; the idea is also popular in business and technology; and now, in learning.

Definition: A learning and performance ecosystem enhances individual and organizational effectiveness by connecting people, and supporting them with a broad range of content, processes, and technologies to drive performance. 

A learning and performance ecosystem introduces new capabilities that integrate learning and performance solutions into the work environment, where the vast preponderance of learning actually takes place. While training is still important, the overall strategy minimizes the need for workers to leave work in order to learn, reducing work disruption and placing more learning opportunities directly into the workflow.

Learning and performance ecosystems put people and users in the center. They support people and users with six primary components that we are already familiar with—talent management, performance support, knowledge management, access to experts, social networking and collaboration, and structured learning (Figure 2.) From these six components, we can craft an infinite number of dynamic learning and performance solutions; solutions that are far more robust than training used alone.

Figure 2: Learning and performance ecosystem primary components

Why do we need a learning and performance ecosystem?

There are five unique and important advantages to embracing an ecosystem framework:

  1. It expands our capabilities and choices. The ecosystem is a much bigger toolbox. It takes into account the full array of components and resources that you can combine in hundreds of different ways to support learning and performance.
  2. It increases our innovativeness and agility. The demands of modern organizations, especially in the arena of learning and performance, require quick responses to problems and innovative solutions. The ecosystem framework allows us to apply more direct and impactful solutions, faster, using the appropriate combination of approaches, some of which can be embedded in the workflow.
  3. It helps us find solution relationships. Ecosystem components are complementary and synergistic. When used in combination, ecosystem components can support learning, mastery, transfer, reinforcement, enrichment, sharing, and more.
  4. It adds value. By providing more options, ecosystem solutions have the potential to be more efficient and effective, improving productivity and lowering costs.
  5. It provides a framework to organize the learning and performance improvement function. The ecosystem provides an inherent structure for organizing staff and budget in ways that can optimize resources.

What should be clear is that a true learning and performance ecosystem is more comprehensive, conceptually and operationally, than the individual components that comprise it. Next month, in part two, we’ll dive deeper into this emerging new framework.

Note: Steve Foreman contributed significantly to this article.