Designing with the Learning Ecosystem Canvas

Written by: Michael Hruska
President/ CEO Problem Solutions

Learning ecosystems are places where people, systems and resources are combined in a manner to support value creation around learning and performance. No longer is the LMS enough. Many systems are involved to assist the development of knowledge, skills, abilities and competencies and transferring these into behaviors that impact KPIs and business outcomes. Instrumented digital learning experiences are learning experiences delivered via mobile, web, or other format that facilitate the building of knowledge and practice of skills in a way where data are used to improve the experience for the end user or learner and also to improve the experience itself over time. As Dr. Michael Allen points out, “We should embrace digital delivery of instruction not primarily because it costs less than ILT, but because it can deliver exactly the right learning experience each person needs, when they need it.”
Having a learning ecosystem that supports digital learning experiences connected to KPIs to show effectiveness and impact is important. Developing a robust learning ecosystem has proven to create significant competitive advantages for many organizations; however, it should be noted that building an effective ecosystem is likely to be complex undertaking as shown in the diagram (Above).
The Learning Ecosystem Canvas is born from Design Thinking
Design Thinking is a set of tools and methods used by designers to solve complex problems and find desirable solutions. Design thinking in business uses the designer's sensibility and methods to match people's needs with what is technologically feasible and what a viable business strategy can convert into customer value and market opportunity [Tim Brown. Design Thinking. Harvard Business Review, June 2008].
One popular tool used for design is called the Business Model Canvas (BMC) -- a 1 page tool for understanding, designing and evolving a business model. We’ve been using the BMC model for products and service design with great results and saw a possibility to leverage its utility for learning ecosystem design.
The Learning Ecosystem Canvas is a derivative of the BMC where a handful of elements have been customized to describe the tools, influences and people involved in learning and development. The Learning Ecosystem Canvas describes 9 elements, with important interrelationships which are critical to the development of effective learning strategies. These 9 elements are as follows:
  • Value Proposition – what value are you delivering to your users?
  • Learning Relationships – what relationship will users have with the ecosystem?
  • Learner Segments – what are types of learners and journeys in the ecosystem?
  • Channels – what are the ways that learners will be reached?
  • Value Metrics – how do you know that you are delivering value?
  • Partners – who are the partners you need to deliver the value?
  • Activities – what activities must be taken to build the ecosystem?
  • Resources – what resources are available and needed to deliver the value proposition?
  • Investment Drivers – what investments are needed to enable the ecosystem?
The elements are organized into the following visual structure:
Purpose of the Learning Ecosystem Canvas
The goal is to create a visual framework and set of elicitation questions, which puts a “lasso” around the complexity of your world. It’s can be used stand alone or in conjunction with other Design Thinking tools to capture data about the current and desired future state of a Learning Ecosystem.
History of the Canvas
A few years ago, I was collaborating with John Delano (CEO and Founder of Saltbox/WaxLRS) on some business model innovation and I shared the BMC with him. We used that to better understand how the Learning Record Store (LRS) business model might be innovated. We discussed how the canvas was useful and might be helpful for modeling learning. John further built out the Learning Model Canvas. Over the last few years, we’ve been experimenting with different Design Thinking Tools to elicit ecosystem designs and tried different variations of the elements and elicitation question framework.
The first time I used the learning ecosystem canvas, I had a loose set of questions to drive the data collection. I’ve experimented over time to determine the smallest set of questions that helps to elicit information accurately and quickly in the canvas. These early captures were still incredibly valuable, but could have been accomplished much more efficiently. Using the canvas questions today, it is possible to take a team of 4 or 5 people and virtually capture a large amount of context and establish priority areas for value creation in just a few hours.
Team Approaches for Developing a Learning Ecosystem Canvas
Since the initial development of the Learning Ecosystem Canvas, three different capture sessions have been explored. Each has pros and cons, but as shown below the model is flexible and can be tailored for any organization:
  • Exploratory Capture: 1 person new to an organization puts the map on their wall and over their period of onboarding to the team uses the map to continually collect their data and findings. Once they feel they have 80+% data, they share with team and keep iterating
  • Quick Capture: A small group of people (2 to 4) from an organization sit down for 45 minutes to 1 hour and brainstorm all elements of canvas. This base capture is then used to explore deeper levels and validate assumptions. Preferably done face-to-face, this session type can also be hosted virtually.
  • Structured Capture: As the learning ecosystem is a complex model, a diverse group of stakeholders should ideally be at the table (and in the same room). Included in the team should be members from L&D, HR, and IT. A large organizational cross-section should provide data and vision for a holistic approach to mapping the current and future state of a learning ecosystem. In this type of capture the team is timeboxed to a 4 to 8 hour session, and ideally incorporate other Design Thinking tools (like the EMPLOYEE EXPERIENCE CANVAS). This type of capture approach yields the most momentum for ecosystem design as it builds shared vision and support.
Once data are captured, the next question is always: how do we get started. Problem Solutions has had great luck using visioning and prioritization games common in agile development. The goal is to narrow focus and scope so pilots, prototypes, and projects can be produced to quickly validating assumptions and show value. Additional exercises on a Learning Ecosystem Canvas can also help uncover the following:
  • Priority of items in elements
  • Priority of items across elements
  • Illuminating connections between different elements
  • Needed items that are not in play currently
  • Clear ideas of risk associated with elements
  • Items that are needed but not in the realm of control
  • Items that need not be addressed
  • Early wins that impact value metrics
  • And more…
Managing Risk
One of my favorite aha moments with the BMC is based upon a visual risk assessment variation that Tim Fletcher does with the BMC. He takes BMC data that have been captured and identifies completion, control, and risk using some simple but powerful techniques. The power of the BMC and Learning Ecosystem Canvas is that they both collect large amounts of information very quickly, but that has a double edge. Understanding and sorting this information into an actionable plan is key to strategy and project success. We use a similar technique with the Learning Ecosystem Canvas to manage risk. This allows risk and control to be identified as a follow on activity to an initial data capture with the Learning Ecosystem Canvas.
Canvas Surprise and Delight
The exercise around capturing data for a Learning Ecosystem Canvas provides great synthesis for team building, reduces complexity and assists in crystallizing future thinking. I think the most surprising reactions I get from those that experience these workshops are evidenced in the following types of quotes that I repeatedly hear:
  • “I finally can see what I’m supposed to do”
  • “I have never been able to think about all of this at once with clarity”
  • “It feels good to finally get this out of my head”
  • “I am surprised by how much we have and excited about how much we have to do”
  • “Where do we start?...because, I see that we need to get moving…”
Empowering Teams
The Learning Ecosystem canvas is a great co-creation tool. This tool enables a common context to form between our team and our customer team around value creation and bid ideas. At the same-time it allows for priorities and focus to emerge. Organizations really buy-in to supporting an ecosystem approach if early projects quickly add value and prove wins along a path to something very robust. The canvas allows teams (internal and external) to work together to define a common purpose and work towards that purpose.
Sharing your Learning Ecosystem Canvas
For teams that are doing initial captures, I recommend having 1 on 1 conversations with peers as a first step after capturing your initial view of the ecosystem. I like to start those with “We’ve been thinking about our learning ecosystem and are trying to see where we might move the needle. We’ve captured some data, and I’d love if you could take a look at this and provide constructive feedback, ideas, or even tell me what we’ve missed!”. This is a simple way to collect more data and validate assumptions and each team member from capture team can divide and conquer pretty quickly. Once an iteration is done, then share a validated model up the chain through management (especially outside of L&D). Keep your focus on creating shared vision.
The Canvas is Dynamic
The canvas is living model. It starts with your current world and adds the dream state. There are multiple ways to visually organize this and keep the canvas as a capture, planning and vision tool simultaneously. The canvas should be on your wall, in a “war room”, where you can continually capture and play strategy games. It should also live in a digital form, so you can communicate with stakeholders in a common format.
The Canvas is Key to Dreaming and Building Your Ecosystem
We’ve built this canvas to help take organizational thinking and design abilities to a level that can build the robust learning ecosystems we’ve all dreamt about. It’s our hope that these robust learning ecosystems will help companies build learning journeys with value that produce employee delight, business outcomes, and competitive advantage through data-driven people development. This is just one of a number of Design Thinking tools that can aid in resolving complexity and clarifying fuzzy spaces that are prevalent between doing and training. There is a lot of work to do to build a robust learning ecosystem with digital learning experience connected to KPIS, but this tool should be a great momentum builder.