Catherine's Learning Journal

The Biology of Learning Environments

An article in January’s Harvard Business Review has caught my attention because it adds validity and nuance to the broader approach we want to take in supporting learning in organizations.

Martin Reeves, Simon Levin, and Daichi Ueda write a nice analysis of businesses as biological ecosystems – more specifically, as complex adaptive systems. They warn that organizations are going extinct at increasing rates because managers are not adjusting to the realities of these kinds of systems. The article, titled The Biology of Corporate Survival, obviously drew my attention because I do a lot of thinking about learning and performance ecosystems and how to create effective learning environments. Their subtitle states “natural ecosystems hold surprising lessons for business,” and the lessons drawn here can be applied to L&D as well.

We believe that companies are dying younger because they are failing to adapt to the growing complexity of their environment. Many misread the environment, select the wrong approach to strategy, or fail to support a viable approach with the right behaviors and capabilities.

The authors define a complex adaptive system as one in which local individual agent decisions and changing variables can reshape the whole system. They are inherently hard to predict and nested within other complex adaptive systems. I think we can assume that learning and performance systems are complex adaptive systems as well. If you can agree with that proposition, then listen to the advice Reeves, Levin, and Ueda offer:

Be realistic about what you can control. Boy, do we need to learn this lesson! Many L&D professionals are still working to convince business leaders that tracking activities and even trying to measure learning can be something of a red herring. The bottom line is that things change quickly and we have to build for flexibility. As I think about designing learning environments, this advice underscores the importance of the cultivation processes. Whatever learning solutions are offered need to be crafted in ways that allow additions and pruning as needed.

Look outside your environment for resources and support. The whole idea behind conceptualizing learning and development as an ecosystem and not a program is to strategically incorporate resources from inside and outside the organization. To state the obvious, the Internet provides access to a huge array of potential resources to support learning, and opens the door to building human networks that are even more critical to ongoing development. The authors advice here includes not only tapping into the broader ecosystem, but also contributing to it as a step toward drawing in additional feedback and ideas.

Embrace the “inconvenient truth” that attempting to control lower levels of a system creates unwanted outcomes, up to and including stagnation and collapse. To me, this echoes the first piece of advice – that we need to let go of control. But the authors go on to suggest that what is needed is to shape the context. We do that by setting broader goals and enabling people to figure out how to get there. So rather than mandating training, create a culture that values continuous learning, routine collaboration, and exceptional performance. The culture of the learning and performance ecosystem nearly impossible to impact using only an L&D approach. Helping managers to understand the importance of a strong learning culture (if they don’t already embrace the idea) is one of L&D’s most pressing challenges.

Reeves, Levin, and Ueda have further identified six levers that can make a complex adaptive system robust and self-sustaining. Three levers are structural (heterogeneity, modularity, and redundancy), and the other three are managerial (reduce uncertainty, create feedback loops, and foster trust and reciprocity). See the article for a deeper discussion of these levers and how to mitigate risks associated with each. But here are some of my take-aways with regard to learning environment design.

> Ensure that learning resources are diverse enough to meet many needs. This is a tough balancing act because part of the point of designing a learning environment is to offer a narrower set of recommended resources. Nonetheless, we need to keep in mind the diversity of our learners and give many choices.

> Keep components only loosely coupled. If learners are locked into a prescribed flow, or the environment loses impact when one resource is lost or out-dated, then your learning environment is bound to break down. People need to be able to pull just what they need. Of course, some learners want and need recommended learning pathways, but even these should be able to be easily adjusted for individuals and the needs of the moment.

> Leverage diversity of resources to build some redundancy into the environment as well. That way, if aspects of the learning environment aren’t working as anticipated, that failure can be absorbed by other components of the system.

> Keep your eye on what’s coming, looking for emerging business needs, possible changes in needed skill sets, new tools and resources and other short and long term changes to the broader ecosystem. If we can anticipate some of these changes, we can adjust our strategies and resources accordingly. This requires continuous cultivation of the environment.

> Build in mechanisms that support feedback and amplify positive innovations. This helps to ensure that learning spreads quickly and new discoveries and approaches are able to be iterated and advanced quickly. This piece of advice underscores the importance of social learning – how the environment connects people to one another and supports open communication and sharing.

> Create a culture that encourages and recognizes the ways that people support one another and the ways they share their approaches and lessons learned. The “working out loud” approach can be useful here, but even more important is establishing expectations of team work and interdependence. In high stress, fast-paced work environments, supporting each other can be seen as too much extra work. And yet, it can also be a life-saver.

My approach to learning environment design is an attempt to scale down the concept of learning and performance ecosystems to create a workable strategy for a specific learning need. Reeves, Levin, and Ueda remind me that regardless of the scale of the environment, workplace learning and performance is a complex system. We need to take the “ecosystems” metaphor seriously and learn from biology in crafting our learning environments. The Biology of Corporate Survival offers important perspective and good advice. Highly recommended.


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