Here’s a quick recap for those just tuning in…

70:20:10 has shone a spotlight on the limits of formal learning. In contrast, social and experiential learning continue to be veritable goldmines of productivity, placing learners at the centre of their story and demanding a major shift from Learning & Development professionals.

Skip ahead and we find ourselves faced with an amazing opportunity. We can shed our obsession with isolated formal learning and embrace the real question: how can we best support organisations and individuals to develop a culture of continuous learning and high performance. 

Central to this cultural shift is the understanding that learning happens by learners, not tothem. When we really let that sink in, rather than just forcing attendance at a workshop or completion of an elearning module, the focus becomes creating a context that will encourage and support learning and high performance.

That’s where learning ecosystems come in. More than a fixed environment, the word ‘ecosystem’ implies complex interactions and continued growth which might include:

  • a range of people (managers, peers, mentors, coaches)
  • just-in-time performance tools (checklists, quick reference guides)
  • social networks (yammer, chatter)
  • processes (six sigma, kaizen)
  • formal learning elements (micro videos, webinars, workshops)
  • technology platforms (LMS, wikis, intranets)
  • work based learning mechanisms (action learning projects) and much, much more.

Such ecosystems represent rich, fluid environments that continue to develop and evolve based on peoples requirements and the needs of the organisation. The underlying aim is to help people develop in ways they need, when they need to, in the ways that are most effective to them. 

Sounds idyllic, but even if it seems a distant dream we can begin to move in this direction with a few relatively simple steps. 




“Learning can only happen when a child is interested. If he’s not interested, it’s like throwing marshmallows at his head and calling it eating.” – Katrina Gutleben

To embrace informal learning we must empower learners to play a central and proactive part in the process. Particularly because this runs counter to our previous approach, we need to actively encourage intrinsic motivation via a ‘positive marketing’ approach that establishes clear benefits and WIIFM (I like John Keller’s ARCS model for formal aspects of this).

Beyond engagement, we can support a growth mindset (as per Carol Dweck’s work) via a range of techniques including ‘learn to learn’ tips or by incorporating a sense of possibility and progress into the reflection and coaching process.




“By putting a measurable business goal — a high-level evaluation — first and making it the center of everything we do, we publicly commit to improving our organization’s performance and demonstrate our value.” – Cathy Moore

I still find myself using variations of Cathy Moore’s classic Action Mapping approach to identify which key levers (knowledge, skills, motivation or the environment) will impact on performance and therefore broader change. Her system walks you through how to target real outcomes rather than transferring knowledge for knowledge sake. As a result, it will often lead to creating performance tools rather than courses.  




“We don’t learn from experience… we learn from reflecting on experience.” – John Dewey.

Reflection is an easy yet all too ignored tool that must be integral to any learning culture and ecosystem. It can be supported via journals, group/individual coaching, mentors, ‘win/learn/change’ processes or elements of social learning.

Charles Jennings recently identified three simple, powerful questions for reflection which were (paraphrasing) ‘what have I done?’, ‘what would I do differently next time?’ and ‘what is the key lesson from this?’




Scaffolding consists of less than 10% of a building but take it away too early and you’re more likely to be left with a rock pile than a building. Similarly, formal learning can help shape and direct informal learning. 

Properly integrated into a broader journey, formal learning can prime learners by providing a WIIFM or context; focus attention on key aspects before and during an experience; flip content to efficiently deliver knowledge requirements; frame a learning experience; and provide micro learning just-in-time resources that can be accessed at the point of need.

Like scaffolding, the aim should be to use formal learning to encourage and support a culture of learning so when the formal elements are removed, learners still thrive through experiential and social learning. 




If we accept that much of our learning happens on the ground and with people then it’s obvious that managers play a crucial role. In fact a much quoted figure is that effective managers can have a 25% impact on staff performance improvement.

An effective learning ecosystem must engage managers and arm them with toolkits and support structures. This might include just-in-time video guides, elearning simulations, communities of practice, group coaching, observation grids, checklists or debriefing sessions. Any investment here has a massive cascading effect to the rest of the organisation. 




If you throw people into a social environment it’s unlikely they’ll click into a thriving and supportive community of practice of their own accord. Similarly, it’s not enough just to provide a social platform and sit back waiting for magic to happen.

We can’t structure or even schedule social learning, but we can seed it by providing real value on social learning platforms. This might include linking it to projects that participants care about; leading discussions that actually help address issues of concern; and using the platform to distribute key resources and information. Similarly, other events or tools can promote a social aspect (e.g. a just in time video explaining a communication technique can encourage learners to view and contribute to the discussion forum on the same topic).




I hope these steps help you move your organisation away from a passive culture and towards one that empowers learners to embark on their own learning journey. 

Which ones resonate for you? What other steps would you recommend or have you had success with?

Please add them to the comments.

 This article was originally posted on 19th August 2015 on linkedin here.


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