Key Pillars of a Healthy Learning Ecosystem

Learning ecosystems are made up of people, philosophies, programs, and tools that all contribute to a culture of ongoing learning. We’ve developed six pillars that create a healthy learning ecosystem.

Healthy ecosystems in nature are diverse, self-perpetuating, balanced, and productive. Each component is essential and uniquely important. When one area is neglected, others suffer. They’re intertwined. Each part must work in concert with another to survive and thrive.

The same is true of the learning ecosystems that support healthy workplaces. Success depends on many elements all working in vibrant, self-sustaining harmony.

Learning ecosystems are made up of people. They’re made up of philosophies, of programs, of tools, and anything else that contributes to a culture of ongoing learning. That culture contributes to better overall well-being, development, and growth.

The exact formula is different for each organization, and it’s hard to figure out. The vast majority of companies have trouble understanding the signs and symptoms of faltering learning ecosystems.

We’ve worked for years with companies that have thriving learning ecosystems. Our close partnerships have led us to recognize the rhythms that lead to successful learning ecosystems and healthy organizations.

Here are the six pillars that support healthy learning ecosystems.
Wisetail LMS software engineer, Jill, works on a new project in the Wisetail LMS office.

Wisetail employee, Jill, understood her desire for career growth and decided to go to Montana Code School last winter. She participated in the part-time program and transitioned her role at Wisetail from CX Representative to Software Engineer.

1. Grow

The desire to grow is natural. We’re all more excited and engaged when there’s something tangible to work toward. Growth is an essential part of every healthy learning ecosystem.

Traditionally, the conversation around growth in the workplace began and ended at promoting people from position to position. The linear development path involved only moving up, for the most part. We’re seeing a shift now, though. According to Gallup, 93% of millennials left their company the last time they changed roles. This hints that something is off in the conventional understanding of what a learning ecosystem is and how it works.

Growth is multi-directional in a learning ecosystem. It allows for personal as well as professional growth, because meaningful growth is different for different people. Some want leadership opportunities while others want to learn and grow within their current roles, deepening their knowledge and expertise.

A pillar of growth creates ways for each employee to identify and recognize what opportunities are available to them and understand which ones align with their specific goals.

2. Communicate

Communication is more than just easier access to more information.

Communication involves structure, clarity, and understanding. It’s vital to creating and sustaining the professional and personal relationships that make a learning ecosystem hum. It fosters trust and can have an outsized impact on the impression people take away from your organization.

The key to this pillar is remembering that communication isn’t limited to things like emails or newsletters. Consider the value of well-defined job descriptions. Not communication in the classic sense, but job descriptions are essential to providing clear expectations to employees.

It’s easier to feel confident when you know the responsibilities and expectations around your role. Confident, empowered employees are the ones who help drive innovation and success at any organization.

One indicator that you’re empowering employees is whether they feel comfortable enough to share with the team. It doesn’t have to be sharing personal anecdotes. It can be as simple as sharing photos from a business trip on the company intranet, or sharing milestones like a great customer service success or a newly signed deal.

Conversation needs to extend to all levels of an organization if you want to create and maintain a healthy learning ecosystem. Engaged employees ask questions and launch two-way dialogues when they’re honing old skills or learning new ones.

Problems arise when people don’t know what they need to know. Communication is how they get to know what they need to know — whether that’s fully articulating job descriptions or writing a clear email to the team.

Wisetail LMS employees, Jill and Nick, share a laugh during a working session on a video project.

We know our employees lives extend beyond the office, so we want to provide creative ways to not only to retain our talent – but invest, support, and advocate ways to help each individual grow personally and professionally. Here, Wisetail employees, Jill and Nick, participate in a skill share reviewing the basics of Adobe Premiere.

3. Know

The core of a learning ecosystem is developing knowledge. This takes the shape of formal on-boarding programs, on-the-job training, and anything else that helps employees gain the knowledge they need to achieve success in their positions and within their company.

Typically, the scope of training is pretty narrow — get the new employee up to speed on the essential skills they need to do their jobs in the shortest amount of time. You know, check all the right boxes.

Developing a strong knowledge pillar for your organization goes beyond that.

It means that employees have the ability to learn the skills they need to succeed. It means they have easy and ready access to not only the knowledge they need but also fresh, engaging content reflective of company culture. It means opportunity exists for employees to learn skills outside their core job skills. It means that new courses and professional development opportunities are clearly communicated.

The clear communication needs to travel in both directions, too. You need to seek out feedback and constantly evolve the types of material and opportunities based on what’s working or not working.

4. Thrive

Work is only part of the puzzle when it comes to ensuring overall happiness and well-being. Thriving means taking into account each person as a whole — mentally, emotionally, physically — and giving teams the tools to prioritize overall health and wellness.

The reason why it’s essential that people are able to shut work out from their active minds is because someone who’s mentally and emotionally drained from stress pulls the energy out of a room. A person who’s refreshed and happy comes into work energized and ready to commit to the day’s objectives.

The real key here is to prevent workaholism or burnout. A workaholic isn’t someone who just works excessive hours each week — it’s someone who can’t stop thinking and stressing about work when they’re not in the office. This kind of burnout leads to high turnover and low morale.

One of our clients with a sustainable learning ecosystem gives employees resources for things like financial advice, fitness, and tips to develop interpersonal skills. It encourages employees to think about life outside of work.

Providing resources like that signals to employees that the company knows there’s more to life than hours spent in the office, and wants them to feel comfortable and encouraged to explore and thrive in the world beyond the 9-to-5 grind.

5. Be

This pillar speaks to the necessary balance in a learning ecosystem between employee empowerment and operational discipline. An organization can destroy itself if it goes too far in either direction. The two in equilibrium, however, produce creativity and growth.

The process of keeping those seemingly contradictory pieces in balance is open-ended. Ultimately, the balance is informed by your organization’s mission statement or company values. It’s your opportunity to calibrate the scale.

And the scale must be constantly recalibrated. Every time the company reaches a new stage of life, you have to rethink the dynamic between structure and freedom. What worked implicitly at a small scale becomes an explicit pain when the company grows in size and separates into distinct departments.

There’s value in reworking a mission statement when your organization reaches a new stage. The process of putting together a new mission statement demonstrates that your organization recognizes change and wants to make sure the company sticks to the values that helped it grow in the first place.

Company values show employees the purpose in what they’re doing. An employee who understands their purpose is more likely to engage and buy into company culture.

Nailing that transition is hard, but essential to keeping your learning ecosystem in rhythm.

6. Recognize

Recognition is essential to the structure of a learning ecosystem because it shows employees that you value their effort and their contributions. Recognition boosts overall employee engagement.

Recognition can come in a number of forms, from a strategic, leadership-backed plan to informal spontaneous praise. Common themes of effective recognition are that it’s given in a timely manner, and in a specific and sincere way.

The business effects of this pillar are unambiguous. Kim Harrison, an expert on professional communication, points to The Walt Disney Resort’s employee recognition program that resulted in a 15% increase in staff satisfaction and high guest-satisfaction scores. Harrison draws a direct connection between recognition and profitability, writing that a 5% increase in employee attitude scores can cause a 0.5% increase in revenue.

But even in the face of all that evidence we’re not giving enough recognition: a Gallup analysis found that even though recognition increases productivity and company loyalty, only one in three U.S. workers strongly agreed that they received recognition or praise for good work in the past seven days.

These pillars hold up the thriving learning ecosystems that we’ve seen over the years. Some organizations might place a little more importance on the ‘Thrive’ pillar. Some focus primarily on the ‘Be’ pillar. All of them understand the importance of keeping all six of them in the proper balance.

Always remember that learning systems are made up of people and a successful one helps employees improve their well-being, development, and growth, as well as the company’s.

A vibrant learning ecosystem is ever changing and always evolving. Keep these six elements in harmony and your organization will see the cascade of benefits that come from a successful learning ecosystem.

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