[Webinar recording and transcript] How to design 70:20:10 learning ecosystem


Transcript: How to design a 70:20:10 learning ecosystem

Today we’ll be looking at the features of a learning ecosystem, and how digital technologies can be used to enhance learning. We’ll discuss what it means to be an ecosystem designer, and also how to go about generating new ideas for the 70:20:10 learning model and a few different places to look for inspiration.

Learning while working frame

Some of today’s discussion is based on Sprout Labs’ Learning While Working Framework. The framework is more than just a process – it describes a series of design patterns for thinking about the 70:20:10 learning model, and also some principles on which to base the model.

learning ecosystem  - new roles

We often talk about what moving to the 70:20:10 model means for learners, employees and L&D people. Managers need to become more responsible for their team’s learning; they need to become learning leaders. Employees become more self directed in their learning. Likewise, there’s a transition in store for L&D people as they shift from being instructional designers or learning designers towards being an ecosystem designer. It’s a very different role.

learning ecosystem - garden plan

As I was recording the last webinar my wife was busy doing a course on designing food forests (she’s interested in urban permaculture). There was an open public talk from the tutor that got me thinking about learning ecosystems. Developing a food forest means planting and organising plants in a manner where they're self sustaining and work well together in a holistic way. During the talk I realised that are there many ideas from designing natural ecosystems that could be applied to designing learning ecosystems as well. Essentially this webinar sets out to explore those ideas.

learning ecosystem - map of 70:20:10 learning model

During the food forest talk I realised that we've been using a fairly linear set of tools for designing 70:20:10 models. They naturally have a left-to-right sort of interaction. But when you design a learning ecosystem a more organic, circular approach is warranted. While learning maps work really well when applying 70:20:10 in a blended-learning mode – for things like learning transfer or sharing knowledge – they don't work as well when the 70:20:10 model is being used for innovation. So let’s explore some of the notions and ideas around ecosystem design and how the components might work together.

What is an ecosystem?

My working definition of an ecosystem is that it is an interactive system of components that work together. It's the interaction that's really important. The relationship between components means that they become more than the sum of the parts. During an interactive activity in the webinar we explored the idea further, with the resulting theme being that in addition to being more than a sum of its parts an ecosystem is self sustaining.

The ecosystem approach is very much learner centred. Sometimes in L&D we focus too much on the organisation’s needs, and neglect the fact that it’s our employees who are doing the learning. I’ve been guilty of this myself. If we flip that around, and think about learning experiences and systems from the learner’s viewpoint, we switch to a different way of thinking. We find possibilities that can lead to more successful outcomes in the long run.

learning ecosystem - overview

Let’s look at some infographics. First I'll give a bit of an overview and then I'll drill into each area in more detail. Essentially, at the centre we have the learner working on establishing better goals and practising in order to achieve them, possibly with a defined pathway through the ecosystem. This might take the form of a guide for both the learner and their manager.

Learners need feedback, which normally comes directly from their manager. In addition, there need to be peer-learning avenues such as communities of practice (I'll talk more about group learning later). In the background is what I think of as the bedrock, which is the collection of knowledge, performance supports and best practice examples.

These three aspects work together. Quite often, when I'm designing the 70:20:10 maps I mentioned earlier, we sort the various elements into the 70, or the 20, or the 10, but in reality learning activities move between these fields very naturally.

A good example of this is the idea of providing opportunities for practice. Is this a 10 activity because it is part of the formal learning program? Or as a simulation or guided workplace activity maybe it belongs in the 70? For me, what is nice about the ecosystem model is that learning activities don't need to be sorted into 70, 20 or 10.

Beginning in the centre let’s look at each of the components.

learning ecosystem - getting better goals

Learning ecosystem: ‘Getting better’ goals

At the centre is getting-better goals. I haven't called these ‘learning goals’ for a couple of reasons.

Dr Heidi Grant Halvorson has conducted a meta-analysis of the work of other academics in the field. She found that people who are more successful at achieving their goals are more successful generally in life, and tend to focus on getting better rather than being good. So instead of talking about learning goals I now talk about getting-better goals that are about improving and learning.

One of my favourite pieces of technology that supports getting-better goals is the 70-20 tool from Fort Hill. They have a background in learning transfer design and have taken some of that experience and built a very elegant tool that enables individuals and groups to work towards goals and track progress in a user-friendly social way that feels very natural.

The other aspect of our core is the idea of practice. We've worked with a number of organisations where there has been a strong culture of on-the-job learning, but not a strong culture of reflection and not a strong culture of being able to take risks through practise before doing the real task. In our work we find that allowing learners to practise greatly accelerates performance.

Digital learning and elearning done well can provide employees with opportunities to practise the decisions they’ll be making in the workplace. There are lots of other ways of being able to practise, for instance doing only part of a task or developing a prototype. The core challenge is finding tasks where a learner might fail (or not do a perfect job) that don't create a problem for the business.  

learning ecosystem - employee need pathways to and be guided

Now pathways. Managers and employees need to be guided through the 70:20:10 model. It can often be complicated, especially when you start to think about things as an ecosystem instead of as a linear course. This is where things like competency frameworks can be useful. This is why it's sitting near the goal. A good competency framework provides employees with guidance on what they need to achieve and provides a map of what is expected of them.

learning ecosystem - an employee manager is key their learning

I've spoken often about the reason that 20 is in the middle of the 70:20:10 model. It’s because it is the social interactions between peers and managers that glues together learning in the workplace. One of the most powerful things that makes a 70:20:10 ecosystem model work is a focus on the manager's role, and making sure that they have the skills and knowledge to make learning happen while people are working. The manager is the key enabler for learning. This is a real shift that is happening for managers in modern workplaces. Often in organisations – especially technical ones – managers are traditionally responsible for the technical performance of the team. Indeed they are often measured by their team’s outcomes, but do not possess the skills or knowledge to change their team’s performance through coaching and mentoring.

I have begun to see this changing as some people who are being promoted to management roles are natural-born coaches and learning leaders. It’s refreshing to see.

During the webinar we did an interactive activity about feedback. The big thing that came through was that giving employees self-assessment tools is one of the most powerful parts of the feedback process. Feedback shouldn’t just come from managers.

Learning ecosystem: Peer learning

learning ecosystem - learning needs to be social

Never underestimate the role of peer learning. Lately there has been a great deal of movement towards using social technologies in the workplace to enhance learning, with tools like Totara Social, Slack, and Podio. Communities of practice can be really useful when they are used by members as a place to articulate what they have learned.

In designing a community of practice for a learning ecosystem we need to think about more than just learning transfer. We need to think about how to make it last beyond what it was first designed for. We consider leadership, the value proposition to the participants in the long term, how it could be self sustaining beyond the initial inputs, and how it will grow over time.

Sprout Labs has one particular client who developed a community of practice on change management. The people who originally set up the community are now seen as experts in change management, and the community has evolved to support other employees new to the field.

Learning ecosystem: Group learning

We’ve done lots of work in medical education and health care, and especially in GP training. Through a couple of research projects we have seen what I call ‘group learning’ happening in the clinics. These might be monthly or fortnightly workshops that are run by someone in the practice. I’ve started to see these as an indicator of a strong learning culture. If you think about a GP clinic for a moment you’ll understand that getting everyone in the practice to stop and get together is not an easy thing. It’s a time-based industry and patients are always coming through the door. Taking time out (losing income in the process) to focus on learning tells us that the practice owners really see the value of learning.

Other types of group learning situations – designed not as learning experiences but are powerful nonetheless – are activities like projects lesson learned, and regular retrospectives during the project to pick up what is working well and what isn’t.  

If meetings were organised more around the issues a team is facing and how to solve problems they become part of the continuous learning environment as well. For this to work, what is needed are different skills from team members and managers, and the assumption of responsibility for resolving the issues.  

The foundation of a learning ecosystem

learning ecosystem need a foundation of knowledge.

In the background, knowledge and information form the foundation of a learning ecosystem.

Too often we hear that training is used just for information provision. As a digital learning company we often receive requests for awareness training. ‘People need to be aware of …’ But awareness isn’t the same thing as behaviour change. It’s not actually something that someone needs to change. If it doesn't have a behavioral outcome then it’s not a learning program, but is instead more like a marketing and communication exercise.

If an organisation is able to get the right information to an employee at the right time then that’s a really powerful thing.

We’ve seen organisations where the core of their performance problem was that the intranet was close to impossible to navigate and the content was badly written.

The bedrock of a good learning ecosystem is a knowledge base that’s easy to find. There are some really interesting things happening around knowledge sharing – things like Degreed, which is about bringing knowledge to an organisation. There’s an Australian product called SupportPoint, where the employee is presented with a separate window containing contextual information on what they need to think about during the task. It provides just-in-time performance support in the context of the application.  

Many of these tools were not designed specifically with learning in mind. It’s fascinating to note that even though these technologies are already embedded in many workplaces they aren’t consciously being used for learning, other than by particularly early adopters. The IT department might use a wiki for documenting their own practices, for example. From here, others see the opportunities and begin to adapt the wiki for their own purposes, offering guidance on various tasks and practices. Group spaces like these can be used to accelerate collaboration, exploiting the technology to do what it does best, which is organise information effectively.

We rarely talk about how technology can be used to encourage reflection. An example is, say, that I have a goal to be better at time management, or I need to make sure my meetings run on time. Doing a quick reflection every day on how I’m doing is a really powerful thing to do.

What does an learning ecosystem designer do?

What does an learning ecosystem designer do?

Since running this webinar I’ve been working on a blog post that goes into a lot more detail about what an ecosystem designer does. The core lies in designing the relationship between the components.

Let’s use the idea I began with – about food forest design – as an example. Light penetration is affected by the height of the trees in the vicinity, with the coverage of the tree canopy affecting what plants you should plant at ground level. In this you have a choice that must be carefully considered. In a learning ecosystem, too, you must choose the right components for the environment. Some learners will be really keen to join a community of practice while others might want to be mentored. Building an ecosystem is about putting the right components in place that make it hospitable for the learners.

Earlier I mentioned that designing for both the short and long term was important for an effective learning ecosystem. The L&D mindset has its roots in organising events, whereas designing for continuous learning means considering the long term as well. A learning ecosystem needs to be designed so it can be accessed or explored at different stages and in different ways. How the ecosystem with be supported and maintained has to be considered too. I think about this as asking who is going to be the gardener, and what are the processes and system that they will be using over time to grow the ecosystem. I’m talking about the role of the coaches and managers – they are the gardeners, the keys to keeping the ecosystem functioning properly.

Finding inspiration for designing learning ecosystems

During the final stage of this webinar I wanted to look at some learning models beyond corporate learning where you might find inspiration.

Take a moment to think about something you’re passionate about. Something that motivates you, whether it’s at work or in another space entirely. Now think about how learning in that area works for you. How does it work for your peers? What are some of the aspects of this learning ecosystem that could be applied in your workplace?

I’m bringing up this idea of passion-driven learning activities because the first learning model that I’m going to talk about is how artists are trained.

How artists are trained

In some ways, wouldn’t it be great if everyone in your organisation was like an artist? Generally they’re passionate about what they do, they are highly self-governed learners, and they’re almost certainly not doing what they are doing just for money. They’re on a life mission to explore or express an idea.

learning ecosystem - How artists are trained?

Artists are commonly trained in universities, but there are not a lot of lectures in their training program. When there are lectures they are generally visual sideshows about opening people up to new ideas and new ways of seeing things.

The core of the model is that everyone is working on their own project.

There are regular crit sessions. A crit is a type of group learning experience where someone presents what they have been working on and then their peers and lecturers give feedback on their perception and ideas around that body of work. Traditionally, artists train in a face-to-face shared work environment, and with people working closely together there is constant peer learning.

The students are usually supported by someone who is an experienced artist. Lecturers in art schools are all practising artists.

Visual journals are used to record thoughts and ideas over time.

Finally, the model includes an assessment that is based on a portfolio of work – it's not a traditional exam process.

One application of these ideas that I've come across is the use of crits in a software development company, where essentially every Tuesday at 4 o'clock someone would sit there and say, ‘Well, this is the code that I've written this week, what does everyone think about it?’ The staff then explore the pros and cons and how it could have been done differently.

How doctors are trained?

learning ecosystem - How doctors are trained?

Here my focus is on how doctors are trained once they’ve completed their initial university training and are moving to more specialised training. At this stage they are essentially working with patients all the time, under close supervision. The supervisor is doing two things.

  1. They are making sure that the work the trainee is doing with patients is safe.
  2. They are making sure their doctors in training are learning.

There is an ecosystem of knowledge – that’s constantly changing through peer-reviewed journals and conferences – that they will engage with throughout their whole career. You might hear doctors talking about doing exams. It’s important to realise that these exams are performance based, not solely knowledge based. They involve treating simulated patients – trained actors, who present with particular symptoms. The doctors in training respond while being observed. The written exams are also based around scenarios and performance-based problems. Simulations are increasingly being used as learning experiences.

Another powerful learning experience involves a supervisor or another experienced doctor observing the doctor in training with a patient, then giving feedback on their approach.

Hopefully these examples serve as a little bit of an inspiration for learning activities in your own organisation.

Here at Sprout Labs we’ll keep on working on ideas for designing learning ecosystems and how our Learning While Working Framework can be applied.