A learning ecosystem model

Posted by on 8 November 2017

A learning ecosystem model

The 70:20:10 learning model was developed by Morgan McCall, Robert Eichinger and Michael Lombardo at the Center for Creative Leadership in North Carolina in the mid 1990s. Their research showed that:

  • 70% of learning occurs as people engage in informal learning processes such as watching others, participating in workplace routines and undertaking challenging tasks
  • 20% arises from mentoring and coaching (mostly from a manager or supervisor)
  • 10% is the result of formal courses and reading.

The 70:20:10 learning model explains simply how learning really happens in the workplace, that learning doesn’t just happen in courses, and that learning needs to be highly experiential. The 70:20:10 learning model is extremely flexible in its application – but this flexibility also presents a number of challenges, including that it does not provide much guidance on how to turn the model into reality. An ecosystem mindset offers a great means to bring the 70:20:10 model into reality. Such a mindset provides a means to move beyond designing courses and instead design more holistic, integrated strategic approaches to learning.

What is a learning ecosystem?

My working definition of a learning ecosystem is that it is an entity made up of components that work together to create a whole learning experience. The relationship between the components means that the overall experience becomes more than the sum of its parts.

Components of a learning ecosystem

Below are the core components of a 70:20:10-based learning ecosystem. A learning ecosystem is also supported by the technologies, systems and the capabilities of the your learning and development team.

When an employee is confronted with a learning problem, they rarely turn to a learning management system for a solution. They search, ask their peers questions and naturally work beyond the LMS. A learning ecosystem needs to be more than just a learning management system. The components below are just the learning design aspects of the ecosystem.

Pathways – guides to learning while working

A learning ecosystem provides learners with choices about what and how they learn. It is learner centered, which means the learner needs to become more self directed. A self-directed learner is able to:

  • self assess and identify learning needs
  • find resources and people to assist them
  • practise and trial new behaviours and skills and gain feedback on performance
  • articulate and reflect on what they have learned
  • evaluate and measure their own learning.

Most employees need some guidance in how an ecosystem works and how to operate as a self-guided learner. Setting up a self-guided learning ecosystem doesn’t mean that people are merely told ‘go learn’ – they still need learning and performance objectives. These goals and the guides to support employees can be thought of as pathways to guides for each stage of the learning process. These guides might provide links to tools and resources, e.g. links to self-assessment tools and suggested reflective questions.

Gardeners – learning from each other

Learning ecosystems are not just about resources – the driving force behind a learning ecosystem is the people involved. Repeatedly it's been found that the employee's manager is the key to their learning experience. In 70:20:10 learning models, managers have a dual role: providing feedback to their team member about their performance, and leading conversations that encourage reflective thinking and continuous learning.

Jay Cross wrote extensively about informal learning as being the ‘natural way to learn’. Informal learning is often a process of looking at what peers are doing inside and outside of an organisation and literally copying them. Many ‘70’ learning approaches involve strategies such as job rotations or mentoring, where learning from others is critical.

Learning from others is not just about copying and reproducing what other employees do. Humans are social and form an understanding of the world and learn when we have conversations with others. There are many ways these conversations can happen, ranging from questions and answers, to working out loud and employees sharing what they are currently working, to online debates.

Learning together is a time when employees can reflect on and articulate what they have learned. It means the ‘70’ in the 70:20:10 learning model can go from just being an experience to being a learning process.

Hothouses – spaces to rapidly practise new skills

When I got started in training, I focused on providing learners with real experiential learning experiences. I quickly realised that learners often needed time to practise new skills and get feedback before they start on real tasks.

The idea of a flipped classroom is not new. The flipped classroom approach focuses on using face-to-face or online virtual classrooms for peer-to-peer learning, an approach that removes the provision of information from the learning experience. A similar way of thinking is that formal learning becomes a learning ‘hothouse, where learners are provided with somewhere to practise the decision making that they will be doing on the job and gain rapid feedback. The risk with flipped classroom models is that the formal learning experience becomes a content-focused information dump. When formal learning experiences are hothouses, the learning experiences are based around the same context and decisions an employee would face in the workplace.

Providing these opportunities for practice is often left out of 70:20:10-based learning approaches because of the focus on experiential learning.

Streams – learning in the flow of work

As work is becoming more complex, learning and work is often merged. For the employee, a new and challenging task or project often means the need for new capabilities. In most of these situations there is not time to first learn and then do the task. Learning needs to happen in the flow of work. It is not a separate activity, it is integrated. For instance, a project and collaboration platform that is used to manage a project is also a place for employees to reflect and articulate on lessons learned. Learning becomes part of the work environment. Learning in the flow of work brings together many of the aspects of a learning ecosystem – learners needing to have goals, learning from peers, having access to the right knowledge and supports.

Foundations – knowledge supports

Often, the only way to access an organisation's practices is through their training programs. This is one reason that learning gets confused with content. One of the root causes of performance problems can be the organisation’s intranet and knowledge bases. In these same organisations there is typically confusion between knowledge management and learning. A good learning ecosystem ensures learners have access to a range of job aids and support resources. These become the foundations of the learning ecosystem.

The idea of a learning ecosystem provides learning and development professionals with a framework and approach for making the 70:20:10 model a reality. As a framework it provides a way to move beyond designing courses and instead design more holistic, strategic approaches to learning.


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