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The term "learning ecosystem" seems to be popping up every couple of weeks at the moment. Now that may be because I'm leading a session on it at the Learning Technologies conference. So I'm just noticing it more. But it's not a term that I'd really come across until late 2009.
Before "learning ecosytem" becomes another buzzword like "blended learning", ie. meaning everything and anything we do in adult and corporate learning, perhaps we need to be quite clear in defining it.
Let's look at the biological definition of ecosystem:
a system formed by the interaction of a community of organisms with their physical environment
A complex set of relationships of living organisms functioning as a unit and interacting with their physical environment.
All of the factors that allow a healthy environment to function; the complex relationships among an area's resources, habitats and residents. An ecosystem may include people, wildlife, fish, trees, water and several other living and non-living elements.
Taking these definitions as a starting point, what we have then are three components that make up an ecosystem:
- discrete organisms, each of which is trying to meet its core functions: eat, reproduce and breath
- the physical environment within which the organisms carry out those core functions
- the complex relationships between the organisms, each other and the environment
Let's map this onto learning and work:
|Biological ecosystem||Learning ecosystem|
|discrete organisms - each trying to meet its core functions||Individuals - each trying to do its job, get paid, and have a life|
|physical environment||the work environment: location, space, equipment, IT infrastructure, IT systems etc|
|relationships between organisms, each other and the environment||management and team culture as expressed through delegation, feedback, reaction to mistakes, trust, policies, task allocation etc|
In a biological ecosystem, every organism plays an essential part. It's impossible for one organism to go it alone. Similarly in a learning ecosystem, every individual has a role. Just as in biology, every organism is a consumer as well as a producer, so in a learning ecosystem every individual's contribution is important for real learning and thus real change to happen.
In a "controlled" ecosystem, like a garden, the gardener has certain objectives which s/he tries to meet by making careful changes to the system. They may add in a particular organism that has a certain place in the food chain - maybe producing beneficial chemicals or removing unwanted organisms. Or they may change the environment, perhaps increasing nutrients, changing the temperature, or protecting particular organisms from harm.
A human organisation has all these characteristics. Managers act as the gardener. Absolute control is impossible, but by making tweaks to particular relationships, individuals or the work environment the organisation can be pushed along particular paths.
In a learning ecosystem, the objective is to induce change to behaviours that meets the overall organisational objectives. Again, forcing people to change is nigh-on impossible. The Learning & Development team can only provide the conditions in which change is more likely.
Running up to the conference, I will be exploring in more detail what sort of things L&D teams can do in today's work environment.
Where in the original definitions of ecosystem is everything tied to work?
It appears that you have simply taken some suff from work-management culture ("trying to do its job", “the work environment", “management and team culture") and shoehorned it into a vocabulary of ecosystems.
But the items you have highlighted ("trying to do its job", “the work environment", “management and team culture") have nothing to do with ecosystems, have no analogue in ecosystems.
Thanks for picking me up on these. I need dialogue to try to refine my thinking in this area.
You’re right that the original definitions of ecosystem mention nothing about work, but they do talk about individual organisms. These organisms follow rules of survival (that’s highly simplified I know).
My argument is that in a work environment (ie. the situation in which we find ourselves when we do stuff for which other people give us rewards) we are organisms also following simple rules of survival; do the job, get paid, have time for other things outside of work.
I know you have to be careful with using analogies; not to take them too far. But I’m not sure why you seem to be saying that you can’t use ecosystem as an analogy to help us understand learning at work?
there is one basic difference between ecosystem and man designed systems, that former are naturally compatible where as latter are rarely so. And if we exercise too much control it looses its basic nature of being an ecosystem. I think still a long way to go before the term can be crystallize in form of its constructs. Anyway it has initiated a new idea to ponder upon.
I think you are on to something here and it is worth exploring. I recently stumbled on this idea and think it can provide a framework for a 21st Century learning model; especially one that integrates with branding and marketing. Let’s talk some more.
Hi Mark, I wonder if we’re (as usual) trying too hard. I’ve studied natural ecosystems and human copies (e.g. Chinese hill & pond farming) and the idea of ‘ecosystem’ tends to be used with self-sustaining closed environments. Not sure if education fits that model.
You’ve got a valid point David. I would probably agree with you, but still think that the “idea” of an ecosystem (although perhaps not its true definition) is probably a useful one in the workplace context.
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