10 Symptoms of an Unhealthy Learning Ecosystem

JD Dillon lists the 10 symptoms that your learning and development department might be operating in an unhealthy ecosystem.

Published on 29 April, 2016 | Last modified on 3 August, 2023
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by JD Dillon, Principal Learning Strategist, Axonify

Today’s organizations are more interconnected than ever. Thanks to technological evolution, cross-functional work streams, and considerable value derived from company-wide synergies, our workplaces now closely resemble organic ecosystems. In fact, a single decision made on one side of the organization can start a ripple effect that results in often unforeseen outcomes in far reaching corners of the company. Everything truly impacts everything.

A modern L&D team must function as part of a larger learning and performance ecosystem that supports how people do their work. While this ecosystem is already in place, it may not be functioning at optimal levels – for a variety of reasons. Everything may look OK on the surface, but, as is true with any illness, smaller symptoms may present that can help you both diagnose the overall health of your ecosystem and prescribe the right support strategy.

Here are 10 common symptoms of unhealthy learning ecosystems.

1) Poor Business Results

This is the most obvious symptom on the list and should be the most clear-cut sign of potential gaps in your learning and performance strategy. By no means is learning the only factor that contributes to negative business results, such as declining sales, lessened productivity, or dismal employee engagement. However, based on the integrated nature of the modern workplace, learning and performance support strategies must be evaluated anytime such problems arise.

2) Chase Mode

Are you constantly having to hunt people down to complete assigned training? Are employees not showing up for scheduled offerings that were highly requested by management? Are you forced to “shame” people to get compliance training done on time by sending lists of incompletes to senior management? This chase mentality points directly to a perceived lack of value in organizational learning and is therefore symptomatic of a larger strategic problem.

3) Lack of L&D Awareness

If you asked your frontline employees “what does the learning and development team do,” what would they say? No, they don’t have to regurgitate your full L&D game plan. But, how far removed from the perfect answer of “the help me do my job better” is their answer? If their response centers around course registration, compliance, or onboarding or shows a complete lack of role awareness, there may be a disconnect between their needs and your learning strategy.

4) Overflow of Entrepreneurial Spirit

This symptom is often expressed through the statement “this is how we really do it here.” Team enablement is a hallmark of innovative organizations. However, that enablement can overflow when it’s not guided by a consistent, well-understood vision. When everyone is moving in a different direction for their own reasons, it becomes difficult/impossible to support learning and performance at scale.

5) Stalled Problem Solving

We’re talking about the ongoing problems employees face every day. How difficult is it for them to get the information and support they need to overcome the most common barriers to quality performance? How many emails must be sent and forwarded along? Are employees reliant on their managers, who usually have their own tasks and priorities? How far removed are employees from subject matter experts? Are they able and willing to engage their peers for support? The complexity of the path employees must take when navigating around simple problems often mirrors the health of the larger ecosystem.

Take Ownership Learning Ecosystem

6) Ownership Mentality

If a single subject matter expert goes on vacation, do you have to wait for their return before you can proceed with seemingly everyday work? Excessive hierarchy is often accompanied by an ownership mentality when it comes to workplace information. Rather than enable employees to execute based on their sense of judgment and accountability, excessive conversations and formal approvals are required to get things done. This may make certain SMEs feel good about their value, but the negative impact trickles down through the rest of the organization.

7) Information Black Markets

It’s not a question of IF employees are creating and sharing their own reference materials. They are – constantly. It’s a question of HOW you perceive and leverage this user-generated content. Do you label it as “contraband” due to lack of “formal approval” and therefore motivate the creation of information black markets? Or do you enable more open sharing and support the development of better, higher-quality content? Attempts to limit user contribution will not tell employees they are not trusted but also slow the overall flow of information due to the reliance on informal sharing methods.

8) Lack of Shared Empathy

When things go wrong for one part of the organization, do other parts feel it too? Do they care? Are they even aware? This applies to your L&D team too. If part of the operation is in trouble, are you ready and willing to pitch in and help out? Or are you too busy with less timely project requests? The interconnected nature of modern organizations means that trouble will cross boundaries and impact everyone in some way – no matter what. A healthy ecosystem not only ensures awareness of such problems but also enables support and shared empathy.

9) Incompatible Behaviors

We rarely want for information in everyday life. We Google. We Wikipedia. We YouTube. Then, we go to work – and everything changes. We can’t find anything, often because those same information-sharing behaviors we use at home are discouraged or full out disabled in the workplace. Are you creating resources that align to modern user behaviors, or are you forcing employees to re-learn how to learn as part of your organization?

10) Failed Common Sense

I am often astounded by L&D’s willingness to deliver learning solutions that just don’t make sense. I mean, who wants to sit in front of any eLearning for 2 hours – ever? Too rarely do we ask ourselves “would I actually want to do this if I was them?” Regardless of industry or stakeholder request, common sense should be a primary driver of our learning ecosystem support strategy.

Remember – your organization may also present with unique symptoms that, while not on this list, should not be ignored. While a single symptom may not indicate widespread ecosystem dysfunction, it should be cause for deeper analysis to ensure more issues aren’t starting that may cause bigger problems long-term.

Have you experienced any of these symptoms within your learning and performance ecosystem? How have you dealt with these problems to ensure overall ecosystem health and optimal strategic performance?

JD Dillon has spent 15 years designing and implementing learning and performance strategies for respected global organizations, including The Walt Disney Company, Kaplan, Brambles, and AMC Theatres. With his practical approach and unique ability to integrate science, technology, storytelling, and pure common sense, JD delivers modern solutions that enable employees, improve performance, and deliver best-in-class experiences.

In his current role with Axonify, JD works with an award-winning team to boost employee knowledge and performance for global partners through the application of modern learning theory and cutting-edge technology.

You can find JD on Twitter via @JD_Dillon or online at jddillon.com.

Find out how to use microlearning effectively on this webinar with JD Dillon, Manal Houri (Ericsson), Sharon Claffey Kaliouby (State Street Global Advisors) and Ann McDonald (Mimeo).

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