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In Real Life: The Modern Learning Ecosystem Framework

by JD Dillon

October 17, 2017

Column

by JD Dillon

October 17, 2017

“This framework provides a consistent, scalable way for L&D to address the ongoing needs of the business without continuously re-creating the wheel. While the framework provides the schematic for where the plumbing needs to go, your tactics are the different types of pipe that will carry the water (support) to various areas of the house for specific uses.”

The modern learning ecosystem framework is a simple, consistent method for addressing workplace learning and performance needs. It helps employees understand how they are supported in gaining the knowledge and skills needed to do their jobs. I think of this framework in the same way that I think of the municipal code for plumbing: It makes things predictable.

Have you seen Arun Pradhan’s “If Learning Was Water” infographic from last year?

Illustration of a cartoon person surrounded by glasses of water

Figure 1: “If Learning Was Water” by Arun Pradhan

No? Well, stop reading this and check it out here. I’ll wait.

(Quietly humming “All by Myself” by Celine Dion…)

Welcome back! I mentioned Arun’s infographic for two reasons. First, it’s awesome! Second, I’m going to somewhat borrow his water metaphor to tell my own story. I just wanted to make sure you knew who did the water/learning thing first (and better).

Imagine you’re building a new house. After you’ve decided on your location and general design, you must determine the layout of the rooms within the house so the major foundational components can be installed. Where do you want the bathrooms? How about the kitchen? The laundry? Once you’ve made these choices and the plans are finalized, plumbers know where to run pipes for the rooms where you’ll typically need water. Fast-forward to move-in—you can just turn on a faucet and access water wherever you need it. You don’t have to guess when and where the water will show up. It doesn’t move around or come from unexpected places (at least you hope not). Plumbing is a foundational, predictable part of home living.

Photo of plumbing in a home

Figure 2: Plumbing is predictable—something you can rely on (Pixabay)

Unfortunately, many L&D pros would make horrible plumbers. That’s because we often fail to establish the same foundational, predictable parts of our strategies that are so important when building a stable “house.” Sure, we have some tools (cough, LMS, cough) that we use over and over again. But, in real life, the application tends to shift based on the project. The company releases a new product today, and we provide employees with an eLearning module. Then, the company releases a similar product in six months, but we schedule everyone for an instructor-led session. Rather than focus on the consistent needs of the employee, we subject the same person to varying L&D methods based on capacity, timing, stakeholder request, and/or available talent. If L&D had built the house (strategy) I mentioned earlier, the water (support) would be flowing at random from room to room regardless of where or when it was needed. 

L&D may find itself constantly chasing “the business,” but there’s no excuse for forcing the employees to chase us to get the help they need to do their jobs. This must be addressed as a fundamental consideration in our effort to “modernize” our practices and evolve workplace learning. (See “How Is Instructional Design Changing for Today’s Practitioners?”) You should not be repeatedly forcing employees to “relearn how to learn” as part of your organization. Rather, you should provide them with a consistent, simple, familiar set of tools and resources to help them solve problems and grow their capabilities.

To effectively install your L&D plumbing, you’ll need three components: framework, tactics, and process.

Framework

If you’ve ever seen me present at an L&D event, odds are that I mentioned something called a “modern learning ecosystem framework” (Figure 3). I developed this method for addressing workplace learning and performance needs during my time with Kaplan and continue to apply it in my work with Axonify.

Graphic showing the elements of the modern learning ecosystem framework

Figure 3: Modern learning ecosystem framework 

While it’s inspired by popular L&D concepts such as Mosher and Gottfredson’s Five Moments of Need and Jennings’ 70:20:10, this framework is also just pure common-sense problem-solving. How do you overcome challenges at home? First, you probably Google the issue. Then, perhaps you ask someone for help. If it’s a recurring challenge, you may practice over and over. You likely only take a class for your most complicated skill needs. This framework applies added workplace context to our everyday learning sensibilities.

You apply the framework by starting at the bottom layer and moving up—but only as far as needed to address a specific learning and performance challenge.

  1. Shared knowledge: Make comprehensive information easily accessible, including the “nice to know” details
  2. Performance support: Provide the option for employees to “raise their hands” and request help
  3. Continued reinforcement: Ensure “need to know” information is retained long-term
  4. Management support: Enable managers to coach to related behaviors
  5. On-demand training: Provide structured “pull” learning experiences
  6. Formal training: Push training content only when necessary

If a problem is super complex or highly regulated, you may need to apply multiple layers and move farther up the framework (example). If it’s a simple or timely issue, you can reduce the complexity of the solution and apply only the foundational layers.

This framework provides a consistent, scalable way for L&D to address the ongoing needs of the business without continuously re-creating the wheel. On the flip side, employees can apply their familiar problem-solving and skill development behaviors more freely because they implicitly understand how they are being supported. To return to our earlier metaphor, the framework is the plumbing schematic that will help you position the right pipes (tactics) in the right places to ensure consistent, accurate water (support) flow.

Tactics

While I have introduced the modern learning ecosystem framework to many organizations, the application always looks very different. That’s because the tactics that fit within each layer of the framework vary considerably. For example, when I was with Kaplan, shared knowledge most commonly referred to our Confluence wiki, where all reference material was stored. In other organizations, shared knowledge may include an enterprise social network, intranet, and/or content management system. As long as users can leverage the tool as indicated within the framework set up, the actual tool(s) applied do not necessarily matter.

L&D pros are already applying a variety of tactics in their work. However, the framework asks you to establish clear, purposeful channels for learning and support using only right-fit tactics. This may force you to consider new tactics and/or challenge you to retire others that don’t fit this structure. The “traditional” tactics, such as instructor-led training and eLearning, likely won’t go away. Rather, they are slotted into the appropriate layer(s) and applied when they are determined to be a right fit (example) and in synchronization with the rest of the framework.

We’re about to hit the limits of my plumbing knowledge, but I’ll give the metaphor another try anyway. While the framework provides the schematic for where the plumbing needs to go, your tactics are the different types of pipe that will carry the water (support) to various areas of the house for specific uses.

Process

My big rule for L&D at Kaplan was: “We won’t build any instructional material on a topic until the information is shared in a searchable way.” This was my initial way of process-orienting our framework, as shared knowledge is the foundation on which everything else is based. After all, no one goes back into the eLearning from six months ago to find one piece of information they forgot. While I’m firmly against handcuffing L&D with piles of red tape, process is critical for the consistent execution of this approach.

We require that plumbing follow code; L&D must do the same

To go back to the plumbing metaphor one more time, processes are the valves that turn the water on and off as needed in order to provide water (support) to the right areas. L&D must be consistent in its framework application in order to provide a familiar, predictable experience for each employee. The purpose and intended use of each tactic must be clearly defined and followed to protect the user. As is true of the entire framework, these processes should evolve over time with the needs of the organization.

Of course, one strategy cannot solve every potential workplace problem. That said, deviations from the standard should be a purposeful exception, not the ever-annoying rule. By applying a consistent framework enabled through right-fit tactics and meaningful process, L&D can install the plumbing necessary to make workplace learning a familiar, agile, well-regarded business strategy.  

Unfortunately, this is the second consecutive month in which I’m compelled to conclude my column with a call to action in the wake of human tragedy. But such, it seems, is the state of our world today. United for Puerto Rico is collaborating with the private sector to provide aid and support to those affected by Hurricanes Irma and Maria. The situation remains dire, and I ask that you give whatever you can to support my fellow American citizens in their time of need. It will be a long road back, and every little bit helps. Thank you. —JD

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