28 May 2019

Learning Technology Ecosystems

Dani Johnson
Co-founder & Principal Analyst

Priyanka Mehrotra
Research Lead

TL;DR

This article introduces the Learning Tech Ecosystems research, providing our reasons for pursuing it and our assumptions going in.

Why is this important?

One of the most impactful ideas in recent learning technology is that of ecosystems. Obviously, ecosystems are not new: we’ve been talking about them for years. But the conversation is resurfacing with a vengeance for two main reasons.

First, organizations need ecosystems. Flatter structures, greater connectivity, increased collaboration, thinner organization walls (e.g., gig economy workers), and a shifting focus on creating a positive employee experience have many leaders searching for solutions more customized to the challenges their organizations face.

This is beginning to lead them away from a solitary learning platform and toward a network of point solutions that work together to better serve their purpose. We think that having a thoughtful and strategic learning tech ecosystem will help organizations compete.

As organizations need to be more agile to respond to their markets, L&D functions need to be more agile to develop their workforce. An ecosystem (instead of one platform) allows organizations to adapt their technologies to fit those development needs.

We think that having a thoughtful and strategic learning tech ecosystem will help organizations compete.

We think that organizations with successful learning ecosystems will be more strategic and intentional in their employee development efforts in an attempt to help their organizations respond more quickly to the marketplace. Since different workplace skills and capabilities are needed, the best way to develop them also changes. An ecosystem approach allows organizations to add to or take out technologies to accommodate those changes more easily.

Second, solution providers are making ecosystems easier. In the recent past, the buzz in the learning tech space revolved around being the “front door” for learning and having all learning (and therefore all data) exist on one platform.

Things have changed. Solution providers are providing some really unique and interesting tools and specializing instead of platformizing. Roughly 60%1 of providers in the space do just a few things really well and focus pretty heavily on making it easy to both launch and integrate their tools into existing ecosystems. And not only are they doing it better than they ever have before, they’re touting it in their marketing: they can clearly articulate what they do and how they fit into the larger ecosystem.

Solution providers can clearly articulate what value they provide and how they fit into the larger ecosystem.

Interestingly, however, while the idea of ecosystems seems to resonate with both L&D functions and with vendors, there isn’t much information out there about how to intentionally design one. Sure, leaders have begun to dip their toes in, but they often do it in a way that leads to a smorgasbord of technologies rather than a cohesive ecosystem.

In fact, 85% of organizations report having a fragmented ecosystem.2 Today, we’re launching a formal research study, sponsored by Axonify, Degreed, and NovoEd, into how organizations are purposefully designing these ecosystems to meet their specific needs, how they integrate into the wider technology ecosystem, and how they better serve the individual as well.

Learning Tech Ecosystem Research

The purpose of this research is to gather and share information that may be helpful to organizations who are currently trying to figure out their learning technology. To that end, we’re starting with three assumptions that we’ll test throughout the study.

1. Different conditions call for different types of learning tech ecosystems

While we recognize that each learning technology ecosystem needs to be tailored specifically to the organization, we think there are likely “personas” or types of ecosystems that are likely to work in certain situations. For example, smaller organizations, or organizations in certain industries may have similar configurations of technologies. Likewise, organizations where the majority of the workforce works on the front line may require a different type of ecosystem than those where most employees sit behind a desk. We want to identify these “personas” and in what types of organizations they’re most likely to be used.

2. Capabilities first, technology second

Right now, the market classifies learning technologies by the type of technology: LMS, LXP, microlearning, and the like. While this makes sense, particularly given that there are general line items in the budget for these types of purchases, we think there’s a better way.

In our initial discussions, leaders in more evolved organizations don’t start with the technology; they start with how they want to enable their employees to learn. We first noticed change this last fall when we looked at the learning technology landscape. While there are 28 different learning technologies, they can actually be grouped into how they help to enable development. As we interview leaders for this study, we’re interested in their approach as well as which functionalities they’re enabling.

3. Integration with the larger ecosystem

Last, but definitely not least, learning technology ecosystems should not be stand-alone systems. In fact, because work and learning are so closely integrated these days, they cannot be. As organizations think through the technology they want to use to develop their employees, they should be considering more than just the line items in their budget.

Learning technology both integrates and interfaces with technology used to do jobs. We’re betting that more evolved organizations understand where their technology (and resulting data) should hook into the larger organizational tech infrastructure.

This research

One of the reasons we feel compelled to research this topic is because not a lot of information currently exists. In fact, we have started the literature review and have broadened the scope slightly because we think some key information can be found in tangential topics. Some of the ideas we’ll be exploring in this research include:

Learning Technology Ecosystems

Tell us what you think.

If you have questions or comments or even critiques about our initial theories, please reach out – we would love to hear from you. Drop us a note here or comment below. We read them all.

Footnotes

  1. The Learning Technology Landscape”, RedThread Research, Dani Johnson, 2018.
  2. The Truth About Digital Learning”, Fosway Group, 2018.

Written by

Dani Johnson
Dani Johnson

Dani is Co-founder and Principal Analyst for RedThread Research. She has spent the majority of her career writing about, conducting research in, and consulting on human capital practices and technology. Her ideas can be found in publications such as Wall Street Journal, CLO Magazine, HR Magazine, and Employment Relations. Dani holds an MBA and an MS and BS in Mechanical Engineering from BYU.

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