Downloadable Workbook: Learning Tech Ecosystem Design Tool

Posted on Monday, May 10th, 2021 at 11:49 PM    

We've been following the learning tech market for years.

One of the most striking trends we've seen is the shift to ecosystem thinking. Learning leaders no longer see learning tech decisions as a single exercise—an LMS purchase made once every 5-10 years. Instead, they are thinking about learning tech as an ongoing series of decisions to build and maintain a network of learning technologies that collectively enable employees to learn and grow.

We wrote about this trend in a report, The Art and Science of Designing a Learning Tech Ecosystem, which found that learning leaders are asking themselves questions like:

  • What tech should be in my org's ecosystem, and what should be eliminated?
  • Who should we involve in learning tech decisions?
  • What data do we need to make informed decisions?
  • What's the best process for engaging vendors?
  • How do I select the right vendor(s)?

Building on this report, we've created a tool to guide leaders in building and maintaining their learning tech ecosystems. Use this tool to do a custom analysis of your org's needs, evaluate vendors, and make informed decisions about what to build, buy, borrow—or get rid of.

Download Learning Tech Ecosystem Tool

As always, we'd love your feedback! Shoot us a note at hello@redthreadresearch with questions, comments, and insights.

Building Learning Tech Ecosystems: What the Literature Says 2 Years Later

Posted on Monday, March 15th, 2021 at 12:33 PM    

About 2 years ago, as part of our research on learning tech ecosystems we conducted an in-depth lit review on how to create such an ecosystem. We were looking for thoughtful, credible insights on how orgs, vendors, and thought leaders were approaching the question of how to build truly effective learning tech ecosystems that meet org and employee needs. Given how many vendors we'd seen offering point solutions rather than all-encompassing platforms, we were surprised at the dearth of credible sources on the topic.

In more recent research, we noted that learning tech is booming—with more vendors, more customers, more users, more functionalities, and more choice than ever before.1 Some of this growth is due to COVID-19: Learning tech got a shot in the arm during the pandemic as orgs scrambled to pivot their businesses—and the learning strategies that support them—to keep up with the massive changes occurring in their environments.

And, while some growth in learning tech was already happening (or forecasted) even before the pandemic, the upheavals of the past year have made this question much more urgent—and critical:

How should orgs be thinking about creating their learning tech ecosystems?

In other words, with so many learning tech options and so many ways to fit the pieces together, how can orgs choose tech to build the ecosystem that’s right for them?

So we decided to look at the literature again. We wanted to see if, in the past 2 years, articles on learning tech ecosystems have started pushing the thinking beyond the pedestrian. As it turns out, in some areas the thinking has moved forward—for example around learning budgets—but the advice in the literature is still largely fragmented and tactical.

Themes from the Literature

We reviewed the current literature on the topic of choosing learning tech to identify any models, frameworks, or thought leadership on creating learning tech ecosystems. The text of the 40 articles we reviewed resulted in the following word cloud (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: Lit Review Word Cloud | Source: RedThread Research, 2021.

The word cloud highlights one of our early observations during this research:

The meaning behind “choosing learning tech” is changing.

Notice in Figure 1 that LMS and LXP are the only types of learning tech mentioned enough times in the literature to show up in the word cloud. This reflects the historic meaning of “choosing learning tech.” This phrase used to mean choosing the best LMS—or, if you were really forward-leaning, LXP—for your org. But there’s so much more to the universe of learning tech—a fact that shows up in some of the other words in Figure 1 like data, digital, experiment, change, and perform. That wasn't the case when we did the last lit review 2 years ago.

This shift towards an awareness of the wider learning tech universe is reflected in the 5 themes we identified from the literature:

  • Learning budgets are shifting toward tech
  • Don’t let the tail wag the dog: learning tech decisions should be made in service of business and learning strategies
  • Advice in the literature is fragmented and tactical
  • Choosing learning tech doesn’t (necessarily) mean buying learning tech
  • L&D teams need technologists

Let’s dive into these 5 themes in more detail.

Learning budgets are shifting toward tech

By Q1’2020, most L&D budgets for the year had been set. As the COVID-19 pandemic arrived on the scene, a few orgs decided to increase their overall learning budgets to invest more than originally planned in employee development. Many more orgs, however, decided to simply shift existing funds from planned in-person training to expand virtual and online development opportunities—all of which is supported or delivered by learning tech.

Overall, orgs significantly increased their usage of online and collaborative modalities, with considerable increases in 3 types of tech tools in particular:2

The shifting trend toward tech is here to stay: As illustrated in Figure 2, in 2021, almost three-fourths (73%) of learning professionals expect to do less instructor-led training (ILT), and almost four-fifths (79%) anticipate doing more online learning.3

Figure 2: Percentage of L&D Professionals Expecting Investment Changes—ILT vs Online |
Source: LinkedIn Learning, 2021.

Tech decisions must serve strategy

Don’t let the tail wag the dog: Tech decisions should be made in service of business and learning strategies.

A prominent theme in the literature is linking tech decisions to strategy. Many articles we reviewed emphasized the importance of understanding what your org is trying to achieve before deciding what tech is needed. Otherwise learning leaders risk investing in tech they don’t need and probably won’t use.

We particularly appreciated the point by two authors, Nan Guo and Bülent Gögdün, that in some orgs:

“… What goes wrong is the wasteful spending to signal innovativeness without solving a real problem.”4

Bottom line: While it may be tempting to experiment with new technologies, it's important to remember that novelty doesn't necessarily solve business problems. Instead, learning leaders must clearly identify what they want to achieve through employee development—what business results they seek to support—and look for the tech solution(s) that can help realize those goals.

Advice in the literature—Fragmented & tactical

The literature contains many, many articles on how to choose specific types of learning tech—an LXP, an LMS, or the latest VR tech, for example.5 As we saw in the word cloud above, LMSs and LXPs are far more represented than any other type of learning tech.

Where the literature falls short: Most articles don’t account for the incredible range of available tech that can be leveraged for learning—or how to fit the various pieces together into a cohesive ecosystem6 which evolves over time. Although some helpful checklists (provided by vendors) exist to help buyers think through various aspects of a learning tech purchase, most of these checklists focus on each vendor’s area of expertise.7

We see an opportunity to write about more holistic approaches to choosing learning tech.

These specific, tactical articles are very helpful—if you already know what tech you need. But there's not much in the literature for those leaders who need to step back, identify needs, and take a more holistic approaches to choosing learning tech.

Choosing learning tech doesn’t (necessarily) mean buying learning tech

Some articles in our lit review noted the importance of understanding the full capabilities of the tech already in-house. According to one source, 89% of orgs already use at least 3 learning tech platforms.8

89% of orgs already use at least 3 learning tech platforms—and most platforms aren’t being fully leveraged.

There’s a good chance that in-house platforms offer features and functionalities that could support learning needs—and which aren’t currently being used. This situation often arises because a platform is purchased to meet one need (or set of needs) and only certain functionalities are turned on to meet those needs, even though the platform has more to offer. In other cases, vendors add functionalities during platform updates.

Some orgs also have the in-house capability to build systems, processes, and / or platforms to meet learning objectives.

So, before making any additional purchases, it’s critical to understand what features already exist—or could be built in-house—and how they might be leveraged. Considering all the different ways to acquire tech—not just buying—can help learning leaders make the most effective, cost-efficient learning tech decisions.

L&D teams need dedicated learning technologists

The fact that most orgs already have multiple learning tech solutions makes any learning tech decision more complex. L&D leaders must not only ask what already exists—as discussed in the previous section—but also how any new tech would integrate with existing systems.

Enter the learning technologist!

Learning technologists have unique skills—amounting increasingly to full-time jobs and, in some orgs, entire teams—that allow them to:

  • Truly understand the learning tech that’s available in the market
  • Envision how learning tech might help solve an org’s specific business challenges
  • Figure out how all the different pieces of tech can be leveraged and assembled / integrated together

Traci Cantu, then-director of learning technology at Whole Foods, emphasized in a podcast that learning tech bridges the worlds of HR, IT, operations, and learning.9 It’s helpful to have team members dedicated to understanding and navigating this nexus.

Or, as another article put it, in the L&D orgs of the future:

“Learning technologists will design and implement the right technology stack with the right mix of tools—from traditional learning management systems (LMSs) to modern learning experience platforms (LXPs)—and fit-for-purpose learning apps.”10

Next, we take a closer look at some of the key articles we discovered in our lit review.

Sources That Caught Our Attention

Several articles—and one podcast—in the literature illuminated key considerations about choosing learning tech. The sources below contain insights we found both intriguing and helpful. We learned from their perspectives and encourage you to do the same.

Three Steps to Turn Your Company into a Learning Powerhouse

Andrew Dyer, Susanne Dyrchs, J. Puckett, Hans-Paul Buerkner, Allison Bailey, and Zhdan Shakirov | BCG, November 2020

This article outlines how to put learning at the forefront of the org. It includes tech as 1 factor to consider, situating tech decisions within the overall learning and business strategies.

“Does your company have the necessary infrastructure—the tools and technology—to measure, support, and continuously improve the learning ecosystem?”


  • The 5 domains that make learning ecosystems successful are:
    • A refined strategy
    • A mature learning org
    • High-quality offerings (library of content)
    • Enablers / infrastructure to support delivery
    • “Learnscape integration”—a community of providers inside and outside the org
  • The authors developed a set of questions to evaluate these 5 domains, including learning tech in the “enablers” domain
  • CEOs must measure learning capabilities against KPIs
  • Orgs must assuage leaders’ fear of investing in employee development only to lose those people to other teams or even other orgs entirely

Workplace Learning Report: Skill Building in the New World of Work

LinkedIn Learning, 2021

This comprehensive article on the state of learning in the workplace highlights a number of key trends that resulted from or were accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic. The section on L&D budgets is particularly relevant for this research on choosing learning tech.

64% of L&D pros globally agree was the moment learning shifted from a “nice to have” to a “need to have.”


  • L&D has gained a lasting seat at the C-suite table as CEOs continue to prioritize learning; as a result, L&D budgets are likely to continue increasing
  • The pivot from instructor-led training to virtual / online learning is here to stay—as reflected in learning budgets, which are allocating far more to tech than previously: 79% of L&D pros expect to spend more on online training in 2021
  • Upskilling, reskilling, and internal mobility are top priorities for orgs and L&D in 2021
  • Resilience and digital fluency are the most important skills cited by L&D leaders

Navigating the Corporate Training Market During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Ken Taylor | Training Industry, April 2020

This article offers a great snapshot of the state of learning tech at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. It reflects much of the uncertainty in the market and offers advice to vendors about how to best serve L&D teams struggling to pivot quickly. has seen an 8.6% increase in web traffic over the past few weeks , with an 8,135% increase in topics related to remote learning, virtual instructor-led training (vILT), and leading through adversity and change.


  • Although some learning tech spending was put on hold in the early days of the pandemic, as of April 2020, orgs appeared ready to increase spending on learning tech
  • Prepandemic:
    • 89% of companies surveyed already had more than 3 learning tech solutions in place, and almost a quarter (23%) had 9 solutions
    • More than 20% of companies planned to increase their investments in learning management systems (LMSs), eLearning, digital content solutions, social / collaboration tools, and delivery platforms
    • Two-thirds of companies felt they were ready to introduce new training tech
  • While the pandemic enabled greater spending on tech, “old problems still exist”; orgs still need to cultivate a strong L&D strategy

A review of L&D budget allocations in 2020

Rocco Brudno | Coassemble & Brandon Hall Group, November 2020

This article describes the changes in L&D budgets in 2020, including helpful statistics on overall budget shifts as well as data on how learning tech priorities change based on on org size.

The majority of businesses didn’t shrink their L&D budgets in 2020 but rather shifted, and in some cases, expanded them.


  • The majority of L&D budgets did not decrease and, in fact, some increased in 2020
  • 83% of small businesses and 97% of large businesses that responded to this article’s survey reported the use of an LMS, and almost one-half of businesses said they keep their LMS for more than 4 years
  • Almost one-half of businesses surveyed didn't know how much their LMS costs per learner annually
  • In addition to LMSs, video platforms and authoring tools were the most valued learning tech solutions among survey respondents, while microlearning and coaching / mentoring solutions were also seen as valuable

Navigating the Purchasing Minefield

Christopher Lind and Jordan Fladell | Learning Tech Talks, February 2020

This frank and fun podcast illuminates many of the landmines in the learning tech purchasing process, and provides helpful, practical insights to learning leaders about how to avoid or mitigate those challenges.

You need to know in detail what L&D must support, what your learning tech systems already can do, and what they can't. And where they can't—that's where you say, “We need X new tech.” Then you have your case built and your internal stakeholders onboard.


  • The RFP process is currently broken—it’s a check-the-box exercise that just encourages L&D leaders to chase features
  • L&D leaders need to clearly understand the business challenges most important to their org—and select learning tech that can help solve those issues
  • Learning leaders must set a scope for their due diligence searches to avoid being overwhelmed by the choices out there
  • Selecting the right learning tech includes understanding whether a new tech can integrate with existing systems exactly as your org needs them to

Additional Reading Recommendations

Choosing Learning Tech

Posted on Tuesday, March 17th, 2020 at 4:37 PM    

We've been asked for a glossary, of sorts, of the types of tech functionalities that are available in the market. This infographic outlines the 8 tech functionality categories – both those used to engage employees with their own development, and those that L&D functions use to keep the proverbial trains on the tracks. Let us know what you think!

Learning Tool Infographic_2020


The Rise of Learning Tech Ecosystems

Posted on Tuesday, October 15th, 2019 at 4:51 PM    

Ten years ago, the most complex questions learning leaders faced about their learning technology was which LMS they were going to use and how much it was going to cost. That isn’t true today. Now, learning leaders are faced with both higher expectations and unprecedented choice when it comes to creating a learning environment. Why?

Expectations have increased

Expectations of L&D functions have increased. Whereas they were once only responsible for creating and disseminating training, organizations and individuals now expect more.

Organizations need results.

Industries are constantly being disrupted, causing organizations to rethink both their products and their business models in order to properly compete. This has affected not only how organizations compete, but if they compete at all: nearly 9 of 10 Fortune 500 companies in 1955 are gone, merged, or contracted, demonstrating the market disruption and churning in the last 6 decades.1

Likewise, organizations face changes internally. They have flatter structures, greater connectivity, increased collaboration, and thinner organization walls (e.g., gig economy workers). More work is done in teams, roles are increasingly more flexible, and there are fewer concrete career paths. As structures and job requirements change to help the organization compete, L&D is forced to rethink development  solutions – customizing them to specific challenges and ways of doing things their organizations face.

As structures and job requirements change to help the organization compete, L&D is forced to rethink development solutions.

The good news is that the C-Suite seems to be doing what they can to enable the L&D function. As of 2019, only 27% of L&D leaders state “limited budget” as a top challenge. Additionally, 82% of L&D leaders report that their leadership actively supports learning programs.2

It’s getting easier: In 2019, only 27% of L&D leaders state “limited budget” as a top challenge, and 82% of L&D leaders report that their leadership actively supports learning programs.

Employees want better experiences.

We have talked to nary a learning leader or vendor that is not aware of the expectations employees have of their organizations for learning and growth. According to LinkedIn’s 2019 Workforce Learning Report3,

  • 68% of employees prefer to learn at work
  • 58% of employees prefer to learn at their own pace
  • 49% of employees prefer to lear at the point of need

Whereas the organization and L&D function used to have more control over who was taught what when, today, employees have essentially taken the reins. They want more control over how, what, and when they learn, and technology has enabled them to do so.

Organizations have a lot of choice.

Learning leaders also have more choices than ever before. Gone are the days when L&D functions vetted and chose one LMS to serve the entire organization. They are now choosing from a wide variety of technological solutions, and the many vendors that offer those solutions.

How much choice do they have? We keep a fairly close eye on the learning technology landscape. Ten years ago, there were roughly 60 players in the market (that still exist today). Today, we have a vetted list of over 200 vendors, with another 40 on our list to talk to. That’s a lot of choice.


To make it even more complicated, it’s more difficult to put vendors in boxes. Whereas offerings used to fall neatly in the LMS or Microlearning or Coaching categories, new technologies span many categories, making it harder for learning leaders to ensure the right solution without doubling up unnecessarily.

These expectations and choice have resulted in a sort of panic when it comes to the technology that enables employees to learn. Many leaders go after the new and shiny; many shy away from choices for fear of making the wrong ones; and many have failed to acknowledge the changes at all, instead opting for the traditional one-platform system with little deviation or addition.

For this research, we interviewed over 30 very thoughtful learning leaders about their learning tech ecosystems. They were incredibly generous with their time and candor, helping us to understand not only the challenges they face in choosing and implementing technologies, but their best ideas for doing it better.

What did we do with that information? We wrote a report. In it, we outline the findings of those 30+ interview and provide examples of real-life learning tech ecosystems and get their thoughts on how they should think about ecosystems, including their  philosophy, structure, sustainability, and evolution.

To access the report, click here.

Learning Tech Ecosystem: Roundtable #2 Mind Map

Posted on Tuesday, July 30th, 2019 at 1:09 AM    

We'd like to thank the learning leaders who took part in this discussion! We think collaboration makes the research better, and we learned a lot from this roundtable.
In July 2019 we conducted our second Learning Tech Ecosystems Roundtable. The turnout was excellent and we were able to have a great discussion regarding the strategy of thinking through a learning tech ecosystem.

The hour-long web-chat resulted in a really rich discussion, the highlights of which are shown on the mindmap below. Big branches represent the main topics.

Click the graphic to get a bigger view.

Learning Tech Ecosystem Roundtable #2 Mindmap

Source: RedThread Research, 2019


What should we be thinking about when creating a Learning Tech Ecosystem?

Posted on Monday, July 29th, 2019 at 11:41 PM    

One of the main questions we had going into the Learning Tech Ecosystem Study was, “what are learning leaders considering when they create learning tech ecosystems?” While each organization is doing different things, several threads have emerged:

  • User experience
  • Skills!
  • Data integration
  • Sustainability
  • Ecosystems for everyone


Number 1 answer? Survey says: Experience! A lot of the hype from the articles we reviewed in our literature review and almost every interview we conducted mentioned making the learning experience and supporting tech a little less Minesweeper and a little more Fortnite.

Employee experience, the ease of access, and usability are front and center in ecosystem decisions. Learning leaders shared the common desire use technology that allows them to make learning available to the employee and make it accessible in the moment of need to ensure a seamless experience.

The main reasons for this? 1) Establishing a clear signal through the noise to help employees understand what is truly important and beneficial to them; and 2) Matching the experience employees get internally with that they can get externally – hoping to engage employees and nudge them in ways that helps them personally and the organization as a whole.


L&D leaders also highlighted the importance of shifting their efforts from providing role-based learning to skill and capabilities-based learning. As up-skilling and re-skilling become must-have conversations and development goal for leaders, democratizing learning was a goal that we heard frequently in our conversations.

This fundamentally changes the type of ecosystems that organizations need. They need to be more flexible, more integrated with the work employees are doing, and more adaptable. Instead of completing a curriculum for a role, organizations are encouraging employees to develop skills, and then using technology to help them determine where those skills can help them.

Data Integration

L&D leaders are also beginning to think much more seriously about data. In our interviews, almost every learning leader mentioned the usefulness of data – not just to help them do their own jobs better, but to provide more information to the larger organization and to individual employees by seamlessly integrating data from different functions: talent, staffing, recruiting, career, performance, and experience.

While this was one of the largest challenges that L&D leaders raised, they were also thoughtful in their responses when we asked them how they were addressing it. Many are going beyond the analytics provided by any one tool and instead finding ways to consolidate that information. Answers ranged from using an ‘anchor’ technology as the system of record and integrating data feeds from other tools to using Power BI or simple Tableau dashboards to gather, crunch, and present metrics.

"The current state of the market is requiring CLOs to become CIOs."

Interviewed Learning Leader


Another point that leaders surfaced was this idea of sustainability in two ways: the viability of the individual technologies in the ecosystem long-term, and the completeness and effectiveness of the ecosystem as a whole.

Several leaders were cautious of using newer technologies because of the current consolidation of the learning tech market, and it is difficult to know if they’ll be around in a year. One leader shared a few questions he asks himself when vetting tech:

  • How long has the organization been in business?
  • Are venture capitalists betting on the technology?
  • Do their other customers have similar challenges to ours, and does the vendor partner well?
  • Are the companies young and nimble enough to react?

While it’s never guaranteed that vendors of any sort have long-term sustainability, asking the right questions upfront can save a lot of headache down the road.

Many leaders also mentioned their need to have their ecosystems grow and morph along with their organizations and its needs. We found that leaders with this need are often open to more experimentation, but also much more insistent that vendors play nicely together. In fact, one leader is approaching this by conducting joint sessions with several vendors in their ecosystem. This leader brings these vendors in together to help them understand their company needs and asks them to work together on solutions that will meet those needs.

Ecosystems for Everyone

Finally, an unexpected concern of many leaders is designing an ecosystem that equally benefits the deskless employees, those located in rural environments, and the hesitant adopter.

Deskless workers currently make up about 80% of the global worker population,1 and yet, many learning technologies overlook them: from not addressing them at all (a misstep) to assuming that making something mobile and responsive solves all problems (it doesn’t). Leaders we talked to emphasized the differences in audiences and identifying technologies that will work for all, or bifurcating the ecosystem so that it will serve all.

Really great tech ideas can be derailed over the simplest things: bandwidth for instance. As one of our roundtable attendees put it, “It’s hard trying to make a seamless experience especially for those employees who are not even online.” Leaders are in need of solutions that allow their deskless employees (and those in more rural parts of the world) to access learning on their personal mobile devices on their own time instead of locking it behind a firewall.1

Additionally, with several generations (sometimes up to 5)2 working together in a company, the rate of adopting new technologies can vary, ranging from enthusiasm to reluctance. A learning leader we spoke to is tackling this by instituting a blended approach of technology enabled content being delivered by an instructor in a classroom setting.

"It's hard trying to make a seamless experience especially for employees who are not even online."

Interviewed Learning Leader

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