In the second half of last year, we did a fairly in-depth exploration of the learning technology vendor market. From that study, we learned that the majority of vendors (about 60%) are actually point solutions – meaning that they intentionally focus on one or two functionalities and try to do them better than anyone else.

Interestingly, when we ask these vendors where and how they fit with other technology vendors in the space, the majority of them can articulate it clearly: they know what they do well and how they need to interact with other technologies in order to serve the needs of their business and employees.

Given the rise in point solutions and their increasing ability to integrate and think holistically, we were surprised by the dearth of credible literature on how to create a learning technology ecosystem. Pickings are slim. We found ourselves needing to expand our search beyond just learning technology ecosystems to include things like business technology stacks, the future of learning, and the broader learning technology landscape. Doing this, we were able to round up 54 articles.  The word cloud to the right identifies the topics we heard most. The larger the word, the more we saw it.

From those 54 articles, we were able to identify several themes that reflect current and near-future thinking and to identify 5 articles that we think push the thinking beyond the pedestrian.

What we saw:

Yes, technology has changed the way learning and training is delivered. It has also changed the way people communicate, process, and share knowledge. Unsurprisingly, the literature we reviewed highlights the need for L&D functions to adapt and design for the current needs of the employee. Surprisingly though, a lot of what we read is written by vendors and solution providers, which brings us to our first theme:  

The discussion of ‘Platform vs Best in Breed’

A number of articles we reviewed focus on discussions of choosing between a platform or suite solution or self-designing a solution with the best of technologies available.

If the purpose is to provide a solution that creates a learning experience based on the purpose and needs of the employee and is tailor-made to provide solutions to the company’s unique problems, then the answer is simple: own the digital process and choose the technologies that are right for you.

As Adam Hardwood mentions in his article, while buying a single solution LMS might be simple on the surface, building an ecosystem, however, “requires performance conversations, a clear purpose, in-house maintenance, and the development of digital know-how” which leads to greater employee engagement and solving real problems of the business and its people1.

The conversation needs to shift from ‘why’ and ‘what’ to ‘when’ and ‘how.’ L&D functions need to think beyond deciding between a platform or building a technology ecosystem. There is enough evidence to strongly suggest that they aren’t mutually exclusive.

The literature suggests that learning technology vendors are thinking more consciously and intentionally about how to design an ecosystem that supports both the business objectives as well as the employee needs. That said, there is a lack of existing case studies or shared experiences on how organizations are approaching building an ecosystem, who are the stakeholders involved, what are barriers faced in designing one, and what kind of budgets are being utilized for them.

New technologies & better integration make ecosystems more viable than they’ve ever been, but there are challenges

New tools and technologies are undoubtedly getting easier to integrate into existing systems, which is providing all kinds of new opportunities. Open APIs, plug-ins, advanced analytics, and tools like AI allow multiple solutions to work together in a flexible and interoperable manner and allow data and information to flow seamlessly.

That said, the literature also points out challenges. For example, there are a ridiculous number of solutions and new technologies doing one or two things incredibly well. While this allows organizations to find exactly what they’re looking for, it also makes for a really crowded market. For organizations without a clear idea of the business objectives and employee needs, it can be a difficult market to maneuver.

There’s also the question of what exactly needs to be integrated. David Wentworth at Brandon Hall tells us that while integration capabilities are one of the top three criteria organizations have for their tech providers, “customizations can often break, causing the integrations to fail” or malfunction2. Technology, process-related variables, and the business value have to be considered when looking to integrate.

The focus on employee experience

A global 2018 study of five hundred CHROs, found that 83% of organizational leaders believe a positive employee experience is crucial to the organization’s success3. There is a general consensus that we need to shift focus to a more balanced approach that takes into account the employee as well as the business needs.

A significant portion of the literature reviewed emphasizes the importance of tying learning to employee experience, placing the employee at the center of it, and designing initiatives that fulfill their needs and wants. Most articles cite employee experience as the reason to move to a learning technology ecosystem strategy, as it does more to enable employees to access learning whenever, however, and in whatever form they may need to.

However, we think these articles may be missing a larger discussion about how ecosystems are intrinsically connected to the people’s experience. Authors (such as Lynda Gratton and Adam Hardwood) highlight the importance of creating a seamless and ‘frictionless’ employee experience by anticipating employee needs and supporting and guiding them with the help of the right digital tools.

The discussion needs to switch its focus on technology to first identifying the needs and then using technology to fulfill those needs, which brings us to our next point.

Learning Tech Ecosystems are broader than just learning tech

A number of articles that we reviewed touch on how learning ecosystems fit into larger business ecosystems. For an ecosystem to be agile, mobile, and organic, it needs to be aligned with a business model that supports it. That means that it should be integrated not just within the L&D department but also with the business tools and technology that share knowledge and data. This means L&D functions should be looking beyond the learning technology they buy and should include existing business technology that can be leveraged for learning as well.

A few articles also stress the importance of understanding how these technologies intersect with non-tech systems and processes within the organization. Learning clearly takes place outside of technology; understanding what the intersections are between the tech and the learning can give L&D functions additional levers to influence learning behavior.

Finally, there is also a point to be made about the problem of over-focusing on technology. A report by PWC states that more than 50% of employees surveyed believe technology is taking them away from human interaction4. And while tools and technology are a means to enable people to move in and out of learning, an ecosystem comprises of other equally important components such as the people, the processes, and data.

Ecosystems can help orgs and employees deal with uncertainty

One of the unexpected gems of this literature review is a small but valid discussion on uncertainty. Now, more than ever, organizations are faced with the need to be agile and adaptive.  Currently, technology is seen as an enabler for this.

While the articles addressing uncertainty are not specifically learning-focused, we think the conversation fits nicely; learning technology ecosystems allow for greater adaptability for both employees and organizations.

For employees, a well-thought-out ecosystem can allow them the space to come up with new ideas, seek multiple sources to satisfy their curiosity and needs, and move in and out of learning environment seamlessly. In his article, Randall White says that ecosystems allow leaders to give free space in which people can develop themselves by trying out new ideas and have alternative learning experiences. It helps them manage uncertainty so individuals can perform better and become more agile and thus benefit from it5.

For organizations, an ecosystem approach to learning technology allows flexibility to adjust where necessary; technologies can be plugged or unplugged depending on the needs of the business without huge tear-ups to the organizations. It also provides them with opportunities to experiment and test.

 

What caught our attention:

Of the literature we reviewed, we found several articles that spoke to us. These articles were chosen because they offer insight into the idea of learning ecosystems and add something unique to the conversation.

Removing the “Platform” From Learning Platforms: The Learning Ecosystem

Michael D. Croft

A learner doesn’t want content; they want knowledge, competency and skill.”

This article helps the readers better grasp the idea of a learning ecosystem where all moving parts are working as one unit, tool creators and consumers are the community, and the environment is the learning context. The new ecosystem, capable of evolving and meeting the needs of new capabilities, can plug into existing systems and embed itself into the structure.

Highlights:

  • Learning platforms are primarily file systems and repositories with passive forms of delivery.
  • They are incompatible in a world that needs more proactive, agile, and adaptive solutions.
  • The modern learning ecosystem, instead, is organic and adapts itself to learning moments whenever and wherever they occur.

Who’s Building the Infrastructure for Lifelong Learning

Lynda Gratton

“Anticipation is key to managing a working life.”

This MIT Sloan Review article talks about the evolving nature of work and the need for lifelong learning. The anticipation of how jobs and roles may change and morph acts as a motivator to prepare for the future through learning.

Highlights:

  • The “three-stage life” comprising of three distinct periods of full-time education, full-time working, followed by full-time retirement no longer applies as people continue to work and learn even after crossing the traditional retirement age.
  • A more future-proofed concept is a “multistage life,” in which learning and education are distributed across the whole of a lifetime.
  • To achieve lifelong learning requires involvement from multiple stakeholders including educators, governments, and corporations.

The Organization of The Future

Allison BaileyMartin Reeves, and Kevin Whitaker

“Ecosystems cannot be successfully managed without deliberate planning and control.”

This report speaks to the need to unlock the full potential of AI and humans through fundamental organizational innovation in order to be successful in the coming decade. Leaders will need to reinvent the enterprise as a next-generation learning organization by integrating technologies for seamless learning, using human cognition for high-level activities, nurturing broader ecosystems, rethinking leadership and redesigning the human-machine relationship.

Highlights:

  • Organizations need to not only automate but to also “autonomize” significant parts of their businesses.
  • Humans should increasingly focus their efforts on higher-level activities such as causal inference (“why is it the case”) or counterfactual thinking (“what is not the case but could be”).
  • Combining the comparative advantages of machines and humans will enable the organization to learn on an expanded range of timescales—faster and slower.
  • Ecosystems cannot be successfully managed with deliberate planning and control. Instead, organizations need to be adaptive in order to respond to signals that emerge from the ecosystem.
  • The new way of designing and operating organizations will require managers and leaders to focus on several new challenges such as developing governance principles for technology, harnessing the continuous learning capabilities, and leading the ecosystems and an adaptive organization.

The End of Average

Todd Rose

“[Average] is worse than useless, in fact, because it creates the illusion of knowledge, when in fact the average disguises what is most important about the individual.”

This book addresses the myth of average — and how no one actually is. It walks through several examples of how our society designs for the ‘average’, but when the ‘average’ is applied, it doesn’t actually serve anyone. For us, this book did two things: first, it opened our minds to a myth that L&D has been perpetuating from the beginning; second, it made us wonder if ecosystems — more than platforms — can help us side-step the tendency toward serving the non-existent “average” employee.

  • The history of “average” isn’t as long as we are led to believe, and there is an increasingly popular study of individuality.
  • Rose makes his point with several case studies including cockpits and the average Air Force pilots, Norma and the average woman, and a study of how individuals learn and the myth of the average career path.
  • Applying individuality — as opposed to averagism — in business can produce just as good or better results than thinking about the average.

Uncertainty: Learning’s Final Frontier

Randall White

“Uncertainty creates chaos, but the answer is not to inflict order.”

This article highlights some of the philosophical questions regarding the concept of uncertainty and benefits of chaos in the workspace. Learning leaders can play a crucial role in helping employees and organizations prepare and understand ambiguity and uncertainty by developing ecosystems that provide the necessary environment.

Highlights:

  • The growing complexity that leaders and organizations face has been one of the top factors that negatively impact an organization’s performance.
  • In the face of uncertainty, learning can play an important role — that of engaging people within organizations.
  • Uncertainty and chaos do not necessarily require order and control. Allowing for freedom and space to experiment, collaborate, try new ideas, and experience alternative learning can help develop people and prepare them for the future.

 

Overall impressions

As we mentioned above, there is a lack of shared knowledge in the space about how to build and design successful modern ecosystems. This is why we believe our research is well-timed and can shed light on some much-needed clarity.

Perhaps less surprisingly, the few articles that we did find on the topic are written by vendors who are thinking about technology integrations and applications in a more holistic manner as they develop their solutions. To that end, we also want to highlight a few critical articles that are authored by vendors, who are also our sponsors, as well as others in the space. We hope you find them as informative as we did.

 

Endnotes

1 “LMS vs ‘Best of Breed’ Learning Tech”. Medium, Adam Harwood and David James, 2018.

2 “Connecting Learning to the Right Systems”. Brandon Hall Group, David Wentworth, 2017.

3 “The New CHRO Agenda Employee Experiences Drive Business Value,” ServiceNow, 2018.

4 “Our status with tech at work: It’s complicated”. PwC, 2018.

5 “Uncertainty: Learning’s Final Frontier”. Chief Learning Officer, Randall White, 2019.