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Vetting Vendors Vigorously: Three Tips For a Thriving Learning Ecosystem

Over the years, L&D has been split. Some want the old methods to stay and sit. Others buy every shiny new tool that hits. But ultimately, we all just want something that fits. All in all, it’s enough to make Dr. Suess’s head spin.

Between these extremes, the smartest organizations are finding vendors that fit their individual needs. The squad at RedThread Research talked to dozens of top L&D teams and broke down their strategies in an eye-catching infographic that highlights the proper way to build a learning ecosystem.

At LENS 2019, Degreed’s annual skill-building conference, we asked RedThread’s Dani Johnson to discuss the findings with three learning leaders: Heather Bahorich of Centric Consulting, Vidya Krishnan from Ericsson, and Lee Schubert at Dimension Data.

The full conversation is worth watching, but we’ve also summed up the major takeaways to help you select the right technology vendor for your learning ecosystem.

1. FOCUS ON FUNCTIONS

A few years ago, innovative L&D teams put new technologies at the center of their strategy. Josh Bersin, president and founder of Bersin & Associates, developed an iconic view of this approach.

Today, RedThread Research finds that leading organizations have shifted their perspectives. Instead of tools and providers, top L&D teams emphasize functions.

“Really smart companies are actually thinking about what they’re trying to do,” Dani Johnson observed, “rather than the technology that they’re going to use to do it.”

Think about what you're trying to accomplish, rather than the learning technology you're going to use.

Johnson’s framework supports people through six major functions: planning their learning, discovering resources, consuming content, experimenting with new skills, connecting with colleagues, and performing better on the job. 

Learning administrators also have another two functions to fulfill: managing the process and measuring the outcomes. “We need to talk about enabling learning, rather than providing it,” Johnson urged the audience at LENS.

At Ericsson, this philosophical shift is already underway. “Our brand promise is to strive for ‘easy,’ and that definitely infuses into our philosophy when it comes to learning,” explained Vidya Krishnan, Ericsson’s Chief Learning Officer. “It’s creating the habitat conditions for our employees to breathe in. User-centric design has been an incredibly strong guiding factor.”

In the search for the right vendor, look for a seamless experience that facilitates every major learning function. Integrations across platforms are important but they should be invisible. Employees should barely notice as they move from one tool to the next.

“The learning ecosystem is like oxygen,” Krishnan added. “You wouldn’t breathe without it but it’s invisible. That may not sound very technical, but that is actually the philosophy that’s driving every technical decision that we make.”

Three different types of systems: one platform, a central system, and a pure ecosystem.

2. PERSONALIZE TO YOUR PREFERENCE 

“When we talk to vendors, they say things like, ‘We want to be the front door for learning.’ How many of you have heard that?” asked Dani Johnson. Hands shot up across the LENS audience.

Everyone needs a front door, she continued, but the floor plans can be customized. “Depending on the characteristics of your organization, a different sort of structure may be more useful than another one,” Johnson pointed out. “So we identified three.”

The most basic approach is a single platform. This setup suits risk-averse, compliance-driven organizations with a homogenous workforce. But most competitive companies don’t work this way anymore.

More modern organizations blend the other two models. Many use a central system, with a hub that connects to an array of additional tools. Others experiment with a pure ecosystem, which allows employees to access learning through any technology.

This blended approach suits Dimension Data. “We are somewhere in between,” commented Lee Schubert, the company’s Enterprise Learning Technologist. “Degreed is definitely the front door and the start of the experience. We want to take advantage of the personalized homepage and get those recommendations.”

“But we are also cognizant that once workers move into, say, Pluralsight, there is a depth of information there. And that could be any one of the different partners,” she continued.

As they move across the ecosystem, employees stay connected to the central system. “We’ve put in place the integration to ensure that all completion data and the skills come back into Degreed, where we do our reporting,” Schubert concluded. “That’s why I think we are in the middle somewhere. We’ll probably stay in the middle for now.”

3. SEEK SUPPORT AND SUSTAINABILITY

All ecosystems must be sustainable. “We talked about sustainability in two ways,” Dani Johnson clarified. “The first one was sustainability within the organization.” Some initiatives fail because they lack internal support.

“Then there’s also sustainability on the outside,” she continued. “Is the vendor going to be around in three years?” Johnson told the audience to consider how certain tools would appeal within the organization and how long they would last outside of it.

Build a sustainable learning technology ecosystem.

Of course, survival is not enough. A thriving ecosystem should support evolution. “Forward-thinking leaders were continuously evaluating,” Johnson declared, “trying to decide what was working, what wasn’t, and then yanking out the things that don’t work.”

At Centric Consulting, sustainability and evolution are crucial considerations for technology vendors. “Is their vision similar to our vision about learners?” asked Heather Bahorich, the firm’s Talent Management Lead. “Is it similar to how we think about the lifelong learner and the everyday learner? Are they going to be able to grow with us? Can we then grow with them?”

Dialogue is the key to internal sustainability. “We ask for tons of feedback,” she told the crowd. “Whether it is from our learning leaders specifically or from the voice of our employee team. We’re always asking for feedback on our entire ecosystem, how we can help you learn better, and how we can get you the skills you need.”

Remember: User experience, effectiveness, and alignment.

Data collected from the ecosystem supplements this feedback. “The data helps build the story,” Bahorich added. “There are really great feelings when you come to a stakeholder meeting, but not a lot of tangibles. So the data helps with that.”

By now, you should have the vision to vet vendors like a very versed veteran. However, if you’d like to kick things up a notch and receive even more content like this, LENS 2020 is booked for Los Angeles, September 29 – October 1st. Check back soon for more details! 

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