Barriers to Shifting to an Ecosystem-Centered Learning Strategy

There is increased awareness in L&D around the need for an ecosystem-centered strategy, yet I believe there are still many gaps and misconceptions that will need to be addressed to make this shift effectively. I will try to address a few of these here.
To begin, we have to get away from the idea that this change will be guided by a new blueprint or set of best practices. It’s a more fundamental shift than that — not just a shift in what we plan to do, but how we think, how we interact with our stakeholders, and and how we understand what learning is.
Systems-view thought leader Fritjof Capra writes, “In order to maximize an organization’s creative potential, learning capabilities and capabilities of change, it will be crucial for managers and leaders to understand the interplay between the organization’s formal designed structures and the informal, naturally-occurring networks or communities of practice.”
Far too often we think of L&D in terms of formal structures and fail to understand the patterns of informal networks that lie beneath them. Arguably, a critical part of transitioning to an ecosystem-centered way of learning will involve learning to discern these hidden patterns and working with them rather than against them. When we try to superimpose new patterns without this understanding, we disrupt the natural flow of developmental energy in the system. We experience resistance to our new designs and we struggle to realize change.
On the other hand, when we align with existing patterns and work with them, we build on existing momentum or energy in motion. We can add value by supporting these informal networks to develop. We can give rise to new networks that emerge naturally rather than in a forced manner.
There is no blueprint for how to do this as each organization has its unique set of patterns. What we can do is learn to see in a way that allows us to recognize and discern these patterns. We can then learn to intervene strategically at nodal points in the existing ecosystem: places where there is a high degree of connectivity and energy and where small actions lead to relatively big results. With this in mind, we are not building a learning ecosystem — we are helping an existing learning ecosystem evolve and expand.
Jon Husband, who coined the term wirearchy to describe the shift to a network-centered approach to collaboration, writes on his website: “The patterns of organization and activity are being discovered project by project, initiative by initiative. The interactive social web’s influence on learning will, I believe, in time show itself to be revolutionary through placing the learner squarely in the center of her or his world, but subject to a an ever-shifting mosaic of context that, because of community needs, imposes constraints (both positive and negative) on how we interact.”
This reflection from Husband points to another critical gap, which are the capabilities needed for individuals to manage themselves within these ever-changing contexts. It could be argued that generally speaking, we severely lack such capabilities now. We’ve created relationships of external direction, which worked relatively well in stable environments but which break down in the face of rapid change.
I’ll argue here that supporting the development of such capability is a logical place to focus first. Without it, our capacity for evolving adaptive informal learning networks is limited — perhaps too limited to survive the complexity we now face. Of course, capability is developed through the experience so we can see too that the individual and organizational processes of development are joined in a relationship of interdependent co-evolution.
Tom Palmer