Creating a Sustainable Learning & Development Ecosystem?

Author: Alex Brittain-Catlin
Published: October 29th, 2020

Having made the decision to create a blended solution, what is required is a multi-tiered approach to make this successful. An approach that incorporates the elements of a digital support platform, a virtual method of delivery, as well as more traditional face-to-face event-based training, it’s not always such a smooth journey to actually bring it to fruition. On top of this is a change mentality to make it work together. In our experience, there are some elements that need to be in place to really make it sustainable.

We have seen a number of changes over the past few years in terms of companies incorporating a more blended approach when it comes to their Learning and Development Initiatives. This has only been accelerated in the last few months because of the need to deliver virtual training as standard. There seem to be two main camps when it comes to what will happen next, will things return to the more traditional approach of instructor lead, face-to-face, classroom-based training or will it become necessary to apply a more blended approach, where we incorporate digital support and virtual delivery as standard. We believe that it will be the latter, mostly because we can achieve better performance and results with this approach, not solely as a reaction to the pandemic.

Learning and Development Ecosystem

What we see is that creating an effective Learning and Development Ecosystem has not been without its challenges and that there are a few key elements to making this a successful and sustainable approach. For us, a Learning Ecosystem is a system where people, technology, content, culture, and strategy work in harmony to produce L&D initiatives that impact on that organization. The challenge arises that organisations may have some of the elements but without all they do not achieve an effective system that produces the results they require.

The basics are fourfold.

  1. Having a blended approach mindset, which enables the design and build of effective programmes.
  2. Having an effective digital support platform, which can support the learning journey over time but also focus on application of the lessons learned.
  3. Using a virtual tool that incorporates the right classroom functionality to create engagement in our participants.
  4. The ability to create and apply meaningful digital content.

A Blended Approach Mindset

A change in Mindset is perhaps the greatest challenge of all, and it directly impacts on the other three factors. Learning has been so dominated by the face-to-face, classroom approach that even suggesting a move to digital learning can meet very strong resistance. In perhaps its strongest form this comes from facilitators themselves, who have built up the knowledge and skills to deliver in the physical classroom. A blended approach requires not only a different mindset but also a different set of skills. Less time will be spent being the star on stage but instead will be directed to really guiding participants towards application and assisting them in this.

There is also some resistance from within organisations, just as facilitators have been used to delivering in the classroom, so have participants been used to receiving knowledge there too. Going with a new approach may be seen as being risky and there are also concerns as to how this will affect their participants, with the principle question being “how long will they be away from work?”.

It takes time for a blended approach to filter it’s way throughout an organisation. We have experienced trying to create a “big bang”, where we’ve tried to launch the idea quickly. This has mostly been unsuccessful. What we have found to be successful is a more gradual, step-by-step process. Where one programme is introduced at a time and the successes from that spread throughout the organisation. Providing support in how to build and facilitate in the digital platform, how to facilitate in a virtual classroom, and creating a core of people who can apply the blended mindset really helps too. This has had more success in bringing over both facilitators and participants and demonstrating what can be achieved by really taking advantage of digital elements. Though, a key point has also been to create support for them, someone who is able to “troubleshoot”, guide, and be there when things happen in way other than expected.

Digital Support Platforms

A digital platform may well have been a nice-to-have. A bonus to an existing LMS that could support the structure and interaction of a programme, whilst efficiently delivering pre-learning and support post-event action. However, it’s now becoming increasingly apparent that if we really want to create participant interaction, between themselves, with the managers, and with the facilitators, that LMSs just don’t provide what we need. In addition, if we would like to gain qualitative evidence that the learning is actually being applied in the right situations, we need to do more than test participants levels of knowledge but actually, focus on what they are doing. A digital platform can supply this necessity and it more of a must-have.

A drawback of digital platforms is that they often represent an additional cost to an existing investment made in an LMS. However, if we support that we can increase application by using such a digital platform, then the question remains what is the cost of having an LMS that doesn’t quite deliver what we need, particularly in a more digital learning environment. What this means is that we need two systems, one to run the administrative side and one to deliver the programme if we are to move our approach forward.

Virtual Classrooms

The use of digital meeting tools has skyrocketed over the last few months with the requirements to work remotely. Many of these have been adopted by Learning and Development to deliver virtual programmes. Though a very common trait is that they have primarily been used to transport the face-to-face classroom approach to a digital environment. This was a reasonable approach when it looked like face-to-face classroom events would only be impacted in the short-term. These tools have provided us with a way to communicate with our participants virtually but there has been a cost too. Too many times have I witnessed a group of participants who are completely exhausted after a day’s virtual training – the facilitator too. This when they have one or more days still to go. Going forward, we need to adjust our virtual classroom approach, to have more but shorter sessions, whilst using different functionality to support engagement. Suddenly, the number of tools currently available to us is reduced considerably.

There are options out there that can replicate more of the interaction that was found in the classroom. Though there is also a learning curve in how to use and facilitate through these. To really succeed, we have had to take organisations through such tools and how to use them in order to be successful.

Digital Content

With the adoption of digital approaches, suddenly there is a need for digital content that can be used within these programmes. Material that was designed for the classroom doesn’t necessarily fit the bill and there has also been a heavy reliance on the facilitator to deliver the theory and approaches that we want to get across. If we want to start delivering this digitally, we need to incorporate videos and other digital content.

To go a step further, if we are looking at really providing programmes that deliver performance, focusing the valuable face-to-face time on application rather than on learning, then we need to deliver the theory in advance. Films can do this but these have to be created. An alternative can be to go to one of the many video libraries and buy content, though this may mean misalignment between your specific message and what is on the video, along with additional and often repeat costs.

Creating video content is an area where the company’s experiences and ability to do so differ. Some have been offering digital content for a while but many others still haven’t gotten off the ground. The option of buying in that skill can be expensive and still doesn’t necessarily solve the problem of “on-screen” talent. The process doesn’t need to be so complicated or expensive, but it does require some careful planning and understanding to do this with a level of professionalism that is now expected by contemporary participants.

The uptake of a blended approach that incorporates not only the digital tools but also the flexible mindset of facilitators has grown in momentum. To create an effective Learning and Development Ecosystem is a change, and with change comes challenges. These challenges are not insurmountable but it requires time, effort, knowledge, and investment to successfully introduce them. The rewards for doing so are recognizable too. We are able to offer scalability, reduced costs, increased performance, and Learning and Development programmes that go further to meeting business demands.

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