This post was originally published in the InSync Training blog (September 13, 2016).

Consider this scenario. You’ve been hearing some buzz among colleagues in the L&D field about what is referred to as a “learning ecosystem.” While you might guess what that’s about, you decide you want to learn a bit more. So you Google it, of course.

In the first page of results, you find three items that may be relevant to your context (corporate learning), and you’ll spend quite a bit of time poking through these links to see if they give you the kind of answers you need.

However, if you had asked me for resources to learn about the concept of learning ecosystems, the immediate recommendations that come to my mind are not found even in the first three pages of that search result.1

More importantly, I might ask you a few questions about why you want to learn about learning ecosystems before I offered resources, because your particular need will influence what I might recommend.

One lesson in that scenario is that it is often more useful to ask a colleague for learning resources, than it is to use your favorite search engine. Another is that what people often need is a curated set of resources for a particular topic – that is, some deliberately selected subset of learning materials (and activities) that is relevant to a particular context.

If you have a strong network of people (nearby or online) who are willing and able to offer you recommendations, that’s terrific; but many people don’t have that. A 2014 study by the Corporate Executive Board2 noted that employees were spending up to 11% of their time reviewing learning materials that were not helpful, thereby wasting precious hours just trying to find the right resource for their immediate needs.

Scenarios like these illustrate why so many thought leaders are urging learning professionals to become curators or learning coaches. We can add tremendous value that way.

The resources that might be identified for a particular development need go beyond internet links – learning professionals could point out company-specific resources, “go-to” people, industry experts to follow, available workshops or courses, books, equipment, development practices, and more – all kinds of materials and activities that are specifically relevant to developing a particular knowledge base or skill in a given company’s context. If we can achieve that – provide rich resources that are specifically relevant to developing a particular knowledge base or skill in a given context – that is so much more useful and efficient than consulting a search engine for learning recommendations.

In my work, I call that learning environment design. A learning environment is a deliberately curated collection of materials and activities to support the development of a knowledge base or skill set. That curated collection can be made available in a variety of ways – from an email response one-on-one, to a web page available to anyone who needs it, to a dynamic online space that allows for both sharing and conversation.

A learning and performance ecosystem is a similar concept, but on a different scale. When people talk about a learning ecosystem, they are generally speaking of a much larger scope of resources – all of the accessible people, processes, resources, and systems that can be tapped to support learning and performance in the organization.

A learning environment is much more specific, recommending cherry-picked elements of the ecosystem for a given development need. If a learning and performance ecosystem’s scope is on the scale of a regional biological habitat, a learning environment is more like a terrarium with its carefully selected materials and deliberate arrangement.

Those of us who wish to support learning and performance in organizations should be thinking about both levels of support. At the ecosystem level, we can influence internal resources like databases, enterprise social networks, internet access, and social media policies (and how these all link together). At the learning environment level, designers can play the curator role to recommend and promote specific materials and activities that people can draw from to customize their own learning experiences.

It’s easy to say that people can learn anything they want if they have access to the internet. But anyone who conducts an internet search looking for “how to’s” or “why’s” in order to increase their knowledge base or skill knows that Google often lets you down – you have to cull through a lot of “not-quite-right” to get to the resources that are on point. Learning professionals acting as curators and organizers of learning resources can surely top Google by giving employees a better starting place than thousands of hits.

Learn more about learning environment design in my BYTE session – Talent Development in the Digital Age: Designing Learning Environments  from September 20, 2016 (scroll to bottom of that post for the link to the recording).

BTW – Generally speaking, I might recommend these resources to learn what is meant by a learning and performance ecosystem in L&D:


1 Your search results will differ because the algorithms that drive search results are designed to adjust the results over time, and they also take cues from your personal browsing history.

2 Corporate Executive Board (CEB). 2014. Building a Productive Culture: More Learning Through Less Learning. CEB Learning and Development Leadership Council. (more here)