What is a digital learning ecosystem?

AuthorNick DaviesChief Commercial Officer (CCO)

The adoption of digital learning solutions has accelerated since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. With multiple technologies at play, it is vital that these integrate and work together to ensure efficiency and accuracy when creating, assigning, distributing, and reporting on learning activities for the organisation. It must also integrate with HR processes, payroll, performance management and communication – each time a new technology is added, it’s vital that it works seamlessly as part of the bigger picture.

These digital activities work in synergy to create your digital learning ecosystem – but what defines a good ecosystem why do you need one?

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What is a digital learning ecosystem?

An ecosystem in the environmental sense is defined as “a biological community of interacting organisms and their physical environment”. In the context of digital learning, Gartner defines it as “an interdependent group of enterprises, people and/or things that share standardised digital platforms for a mutually beneficial purpose, such as commercial gain, innovation or common interest”.

A healthy ecosystem in the natural world remains sustainable due to its ability to maintain its structure and function against external stress. Likewise, we must pay attention to the individual components of the digital learning ecosystem within our own organisations and the internal/external forces that affect them if we want to keep that ecosystem thriving.

Gartner’s research has revealed that the digital ecosystem is a key differentiator in more digitally mature enterprises, with 79% of the survey’s top performers indicating they participate in a digital learning ecosystem.

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What are the components of a good digital learning ecosystem?

A good digital learning ecosystem provides people with relevant, personalised learning content that can be incorporated into daily workflows. It provides one source of truth for all learning, skills and performance data, creating a collaborative environment where learning and performance data can be measured to validate business goals.

Built upon social constructivism, a good digital ecosystem increases engagement by facilitating a learning experience aligned with self-led discovery. This is supported by ‘scaffolding’ in the form of peer collaboration, which helps guide learners when necessary while still granting them the freedom to create understanding for themselves.

For a holistic understanding of learning, talent development and performance in your organisation, you’ll need to consider the individual components of a digital ecosystem and how they interact.

The learning system

Your learning system, whether that’s a learning management system (LMS), learning experience platform (LXP) or smarter learning system like Thinqi, is the heart of your digital learning ecosystem – in fact, 72% of organisations report gaining a competitive advantage through use of a learning system. A good learning system will include the following:

  • A digital library populated with high-quality learning content
  • Courses
  • Functionality to support coaching and mentoring
  • Collaborative discussion spaces
  • Tools for detailed learner reports
  • Reward mechanisms such as badges or certification
  • Networks for communities of practice
  • Events management
  • Adaptive learning paths
  • Integration with third-party content (via SCORM or xAPI)

A robust digital learning ecosystem relies on the ability to link performance and improvement to learning programmes via an appropriate talent and improvement framework to achieve wider business goals. The learning system must therefore seamlessly integrate with other systems shown below using APIs (a set of rules that dictate how two systems ‘talk’ to each other).

This will provide the organisation with a full data table for optimising the quality of learner analytics and continually improving the learning experience.

The human resources management system (HRMS)

Your human resources management system (HRMS) is used to manage HR processes throughout the employee lifecycle. The HRMS can be integrated with your learning system so that employee data is automatically synced across both systems. It will pull through the organisation structure and assign the correct roles and permissions to people within the business. It can also facilitate auto-enrolment of learning pathways, such as onboarding and compliance training for new hires.

There is a cross-departmental requirement here where multiple departments will need to define the core competencies and requirements for roles within that area of the business. This will enable the necessary configuration to auto-enrol people into the relevant learning pathways to help them attain the competencies required in their roles.

Success profiles, such as those used in Thinqi, are an effective way to develop talent. By creating a profile outlining the competencies and skills of a digital sales manager, for example, a sales executive who is working towards a more senior role can identify any gaps in current competencies and be assigned to the relevant learning pathway to support their career progression.

The content catalogue will be under the purview of the L&D manager, so they will need to ensure that any learning catalogues are appropriately scoped to the right learners. This requires the person managing the HR system to have their user data in order within the HRMS so that the right data can be pulled through to the learning system.

By integrating your HRMS with your learning system, there’s no need to manually enter the same employee data into multiple systems. This saves you time building complicated spreadsheets, creates a streamlined talent and learning process, and reduces the scope for errors.

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Marketing and communications

Building and maintaining engagement with corporate learning is a challenge. In 2021, Linkedin’s survey of over 6,000 respondents revealed that 35% of L&D professionals are looking for new ways to boost learner engagement. However, according to the 2022 LPI L&D Dashboard, ‘marketing and communications’ was listed as one of the five weakest skills for L&D professionals today.

The marketing team in your organisation will have the tools and technology at their disposal to raise awareness of your learning campaigns and boost engagement with corporate learning. By integrating communications tools such as Slack and MS Teams into your digital learning ecosystem, the marketing team can push notifications of new learning campaigns to the relevant people.

Success relies on the tight alignment of cross-departmental goals. It would be useful here to create an operational level agreement between the L&D and marketing teams. While marketing should be accountable for raising awareness of your learning programmes, L&D should be accountable for continuing to engage learners beyond the sign-up process. If this alignment isn’t tight (i.e. the learning system and communications tools aren’t configured to ‘nudge’ people at the right time), the marketing team will struggle to support the engagement targets agreed with L&D.

A good digital ecosystem relies on the strength of communications between people as well as technology, which is why it is vital that you are in close alignment with other departments to achieve shared goals.

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Business intelligence (BI) tools

Finally, we need to consider the data that is generated from these systems. Your HR team will want to ensure that these integrations will allow for ‘writing back’ of performance data, as the HRMS will act as the one source of truth for user data.

Bear in mind that your data team will put heavy scrutiny on the L&D team to ensure that regulatory requirements and compliance data are easily accessible, and that the data format enables them to plug in their business intelligence (BI) tools. BI tools are types of application software that collect and process large amounts of unstructured data from internal and external systems.

For L&D, this means there’s now an ability to prove the efficacy of learning transfer. Mary L. Broad defines learning transfer as “the effective and continuing application by learners – to their performance of jobs or other individual, organisational or community responsibilities – of knowledge and skills gained in learning activities.”

When we consider the purpose of learning and training from a business perspective, the ultimate goal is to increase productivity and performance to achieve a defined standard. BI tools can plug into the learning system and external sources (e.g. performance management systems) to combine learning and performance, demonstrating the efficacy of learning and indicating whether learning transfer has taken place. This is a key part of delivering a return on investment (ROI) of learning to secure future buy-in for learning initiatives.

Let’s consider an example: say a customer service department in a call centre had a baselined performance that was lower than expected based on the first quarter of the year. Feedback showed that there were gaps in both knowledge and soft skills.

In response to this, the department was then enrolled on a set of learning programmes. The BI tool was connected to both the output of that learning and on-the-job performance. This enabled the correlation to be shown between the two.

This example shows an effective use of different pieces of the digital ecosystem jigsaw to impact business challenges.

In summary…

Your learning system sits as the enabler among the wider ecosystem. Each system within this ecosystem should have a dedicated champion with their own OKRs tied to the technology they manage. This ensures they have a vested interest in standardising and supporting a seamless experience that proves that the learning is effective, aligned with talent and performance goals, and proves measurable ROI with a robust data set every time.

That’s smart.

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