Sustainable Learning Landscapes

Learning Landscapes on the Move

(initially published: eLearning-Journal 7/2020)
by Annette Bouzo, M. A.

Changes of enterprise's environment and organizational culture affects Corporate Learning and in consequence the design of corporate landscapes. Individual combinations of LMSs (Learning Management Systems), learning experience functionalities (often referred to as LXPs), virtual classroom software, digital content and external learning platforms must continually adjusted.

The key to success is the continuous monitoring and evaluation of changing demands and appropriate backing of learners and other stakeholders. You might want to employ methods such as Model-based User Requirements Analysis and Lean UX. This influences the selection and collaboration of and with service and development partners.

Changes are here to stay

Our environment keeps changing noticeably at times, but continually. This affects the organizational and learning culture of corporations. Organization must monitor and evaluate these continually in order to react, that is adapting to changes appropriately (=learning).

Enterprises develop, when staff is learning within and outside of the enterprise and contribute their learnings, their acquired knowledge, and new skills to the organizations. An organization is operating efficiently when the potential of its staff is employed. Co-workers developing their skills and knowledge can provided targeted impulses for the development or the organization and thus contribute to the future existence persistence of the company. Naturally, this also requires a certain degree of perceptibility of the respective corporation.

Many companies are aware that they depend to some degree of the increasing competency of their staff, as skilled employees can make decisions. They organize and design their area of responsibility and evaluate their (educational) requirements. If corporations support them, they shorten their decision processes and are therefore faster to react to occurrences. This results in a better service and product quality. Supporting exchange of experience within internal interest groups such as Communities of Practise and other high quality knowledge management formats can raise this effect to a higher level.

 

Clocking Organizational Culture

In many models organizational culture is visualized by differentiating visible artifacts (e. g. typical workwear, rituals ...) and invisible elements (e. g. rules, values, shared experiences ...). Other aspects illustrate the learning culture, illustrated by the degree of freedom of choice, which employees enjoy, the number of communication and exchange based learning formats as well as the degree to which new skills and knowledge can influence the organization - also resulting in an according development of the digital learning landscape.

The digital learning landscape and the degree of it's digital maturity belongs to the more tangible artifacts of the organizational culture. It represents the status learning in general and learners in particular have.

To optimize this catalysts’ process the organizational / learning culture has to grant a certain degree of freedom to the employees but also requires an investment in the learning infrastructure which is continually to be adjusted to the requirements of different stakeholder groups.

Individual and organizational learning Individual and organizational Learning influencing each other

Prerequisite is that the corporation is prepared to support these developments, specifically design appropriate new blended learning concepts and digital knowledge management and establishing a suitable learning culture. This includes the individual support of individual staff members, also concerning their digital and learning skills.

It has been widely proofed that the relevance of a real learning culture (compared to a conventional teaching-culture) is by far the superior concept concerning the application of new skills and knowledge.

Challenge: Shadow IT

Change cannot be stopped. Ignored or suppressed changes will influence the rank in competition. Such ignored changes, especially such concerning required or desired technology, lead to decreasing identification with the enterprise, motivation and higher level of frustration. More sick leave, inner or actual notifications leading up to brain-drain. Motivated and committed employees, who stay often finds creative ways to make up for lack of learning support.

The (seemingly) inappropriate learning infrastructure might be substituted by a shadow IT, consisting of various single tools for knowledge management and communication, which are often freeware and can be used with little effort. Those apps are mostly cloud-based and consist e. g. of features and data structures not sufficient to IT security or data protection standards. This causes a significant breech of security requirements designed to protect critical information. IT cannot control data, which has been distributed on servers all over the world.

Watch out!

 

  • 24% of employees find their professional IT applications to inadequat, to increase efficiency. 
  • 39% of German companies register data loss by shadow IT
  • 77% of  department heads think that the work of their departments would suffer, if they could not use these services anymore.
  • 15% of  IT experts of German companies believe to have a problem with shadow IT.
  • Only 8% of German CIOs believe to know the shadow IT of their company.
  • An average of 52 instances of shadow ITs were counted per department.

(Source: https://www.it-daily.net/it-management/digitale-transformation/22912-wie-entsteht-schatten-it)

If the IT department is involved in the development of the learning landscape and acts service oriented in consideration of learners and communication with stakeholders ( learners, personnel development, instructors, managers ...) and equipped with adequate resources  for development, data maintenance and management of a high degree or systems integration, than IT can contribute highly added value resulting in competitive advantages.

.A professional, digital learning landscape is a very individual combination from central, structure and process supporting components (Learning Management System, resource and course administration), a surface for visualization (learning platform, learning experience features), target group optimized training portals for secure access to personal and assigned data, software for communication and collaboration (enterprise social network, webinars, virtual classrooms) and current, appropriate learning content.

A digital learning landscape must be adjusted to the learners' requirements within the respective organization. It is a question of creating a holistic IT system, with an LMS as a core application to continually monitor and support individual and organizational learning processes.

 

LMS - the striking Mechanism

Skills always imply knowledge. The relevance of product training, technical training and mandatory issues such as accident avoidance and compliance is obvious. Formal learning processes are mandatory for many subjects, especially within regulated industries. Together with the learning infrastructure they represent a vital organizational part of individual learning culture. The LMS is mandatory to present appropriate content and formats to the relevant target groups and individuals. The processes of an LMS provide learning units and content of all kinds on its own learning platform and integrate consolidated content of other, external platforms.

Defined areas of knowledge are intricately connected to necessary abilities and skills, which are meaningful for a particular learner's task profile. It is obvious, that training content referring to unique techniques, recipes or processes which are considered to be a competitive advantage should not be available to all on a website or platform. Such details should be made available to authorized staff only.

The principle and advantage of standardized curricula over e. g. completely self-organized learning is, that content is well structured. It offers some guidance as the single units refer to each other in a certain logic. Concerning critical issues, such as quality assurance and maintenance of medical equipment or pharmaceuticals cannot be left to a self-managed Trial-and-Error-procedure. Learning-by-Doing can hardly be seen as an added value. Autodidactic studies often result in deep understanding in some fields but may feature a complete lack of knowledge in another, significant area. To understand complex connections and the consequences of certain measures and actions it is important, that experts provide to content generation and frequent curation. Level of difficulty and complexity must be designed according to the skill level of the learner.

LMS Learning Platforms

Professional learning success and successful application of new skills focuses a particular business model, an industrial sector, and the competitive situation of a particular organization. Successful application of knowledge refers directly to the type of learning scenario. That is the combination of learning formats, time and location of learning, the intrapersonal preferences of the learner, competencies, especially the learning skills.

To support appropriate and current content in the right format, the LMS must be very flexible and be administered and configurable independent from the vendor.

Integration of external Learning platforms

Staff should also seek and find knowledge outside of their information as well as increase and enhance their skills in networks. At least such is the idea of Learning Organizations. There is hardly an enterprise which forbids its staff to research on the internet, especially on platforms such as Youtube, Slide-Share etc.. Increased companies enhance their own learning platform with content from external learning platforms such as Good Habitz, Coursera and LinkedIn Learning. Integrated by interfaces these platforms contribute to the training portfolio by volume and variety.

Many a content, which is available free of charge offers basic knowledge on introduction level. Very often these serve as mere teasers to sell more specialized course content on a higher level. However, those course are not always frequently updated, thus there is a chance that content is outdated. A thorough evaluation requires the analysis of a professional in the respective field. Thus, learners should be encouraged to also enhance their learning competencies, such as critical thinking and media skills.

 

Context is King

The way how corporate learning develops influences the mentioned issues. New learning formats, integration of external application and current andragogic approaches are not in conflict with digital learning platforms. In any case the individual learner's process is the central focus.

Modern Learning Management System such as TCmanager® integrate both aspects:  it provides individuals or target groups with relevant learning content and offers the biggest possible freedom - according to the respective corporation's requirements. The design of new blended learning concepts is not limited to certain learning formats. Therefore, the integration of virtual classrooms, the organization of communities of practice and knowledge management tools is down to the creativity of the staff development, LnD or academy, whoever is in charge.

Whilst an LMS with learning experience features support the organization by sharing, publishing, and secure access of content, integrated software tools for webinars and collaboration advance and apply the content, driven by the contributions of the learners. The use of such flexible systems provide also the possibility to grant rights for publishing self-organized events , WOL-circles, communities of practice etc. .

Read more about the difference between LMS & LXP

 

Uniform design for more value?

The layout of a learning platforms can be designed according to requirements. Design might vary by target group, depending on if it addresses staff, customers or service partners. The differentiation might be based on different URLs, via single-sign-on definitions. The learning platform can be integrated seamlessly in the intranet. so, the learner does not actually realize, that content is routed in another system. At the end the learner will not see this as important, as long as he/she finds the relevant information he/she is looking for. A learning experience platform (LXP) may be integrated as a consolidating design layer.

A broad search functionality, crawling various system to provide requested information, may it be a course event, a form for travel expenses or corporate marketing information, might be seen as helpful. If the volume of information on the other hand is extremely large, it might make more sense to separate learning content from corporate information and specific professional application.

To style everything according to a corporate style guide is convenient and allows for faster orientation. However, you might not want to underestimate your users. They are well advanced in finding information and using various applications for shopping, communication and entertainment.

 

Stakeholder are the Center

Whilst technical system requirements might well be a decision criterion for the employment of a LMS, the hoped for added value for the business site will only be generated if the learning landscape is suitable for the use of it's primary users (learners, managers, instructors, administrators...), They should feel confident to work efficiently with the application. Thus the responsible decision makers have to be aware of the requirements and expectations of the different user groups and their respective priorities e. g. :

Learners

Learners: A good user experience is relevant to learners. The learning person will not want to understand the learning platform in detail. Content, events, and formats are his/her priority, thus a familiar navigation e. g. tiles with images, classified by subjects saves the learner from a wasting time, while he/she is trying to understand the logic. The understanding of a complex navigation is not an advantage to the learner's task at hand (=learning). Additional features of a training portal should be displayed where and when they are required. It is an economical discussion if the investment in current design optimization and individualization of the learning platform is of higher value and advantage than the individualization and curation of elearning content, formats, and learners' support.

Same applies to managers and the special features in their respective learning portals.

Trainings administrators / LnD staff: Their focus is to plan, organize and execute structured training, but possibly also grant individual learner support and see to the curation of content. For them, the surface of the learning platform is not exactly relevant. They focus the logic of processes, technical transition of organizational particularities of certain course events and participants.

They assign rooms and equipment, define qualification profiles, see to invoicing, certification and reporting issues. Thus, their main requirement is a versatile LMS, which grants flexibility as reliable automated workflow support as well. It is important that they can configure the LMS themselves to some extend and are in large parts independent from their IT and the LMS vendor. A good usability of the LMS core features is relevant to them.

Depending on their task profile, the same aspects will be relevant for instructors, even though to a more limited extend.

 

Ergo: Usability

Thus, usability is not a characteristic of a learning portal or LMS, but a rating based on the usage result. That is the interaction of the user with the system, based on the goal of the user considering their respective task.

To anticipate satisfactory usability of different users you must analyze the requirements of users in different situations (context) collect usage context information and document them. The identified requirements must be translated in usage requirements, structured and consolidated (prioritized).

 

User Requirement Engineering

The usage requirements always relate to the usage quality of the application. It focuses the elements, which are used for the user to reach his/her goal. It is the central task of User Requirement Engineering to understand the usage context of the target groups and develop concepts for user interfaces. Defined usage requirements are the fundamental parameters for the system design. During continuous development of systems many validated information of requirements and context evolve. Obviously, it is not economic nor necessary to collect data from the scratch in each improvement cycle.

User Centered Design Process User-centered Designprocess

Primary model-based usage context analysis (delta analysis) is employed. These consider existing knowledge concerning tasks, user and resources of the system landscape's users. The method focuses gaps, vagueness, discrepancies and the deduction of question concerning new user requirements. Particular cultural developments are based on subtle developments, which are not easily defined.

Often data is collected by feedback and evaluation questionnaires, concerning the learning experiences and the training center, knowledge tests to determine status and by employing learning analytics. This information is valuable but are still a collection of subjective impressions. For a productive and goal-oriented improvement of content, learning formats and learning infrastructure, data must be verified and objectified. Ways must be found how stakeholder can articulate and consolidate their requirements. This requires skills, knowledge, and methods. Continuous reflection is also relevant when identifying requirements.

 

What is Usability?

Usability defines the extent to which a product, system or service can be used by specific users to achieve specific goals with effectiveness, efficiency, and satisfaction in a specific context of use.

What is User Experience?

User experience broadens the term usability to include aesthetic and emotional factors, such as an appealing, “desirable” design, aspects of confidence building, or joy of use.

Added Value: Lean UX

Lean UX unites the various approaches, such as agile development, design thinking and lean startup. It integrates method of improvement of usability and user experience with agile development and achieves quick and precise results, also under economic considerations.

Precisely defined, agile development packages are processed in fast test cycles. The results are directly integrated in the next iteration. The Design Thinking approach enables the project team to take the user's perspective and keep an eye on his/her problem context.

The Lean Startup philosophy sees the individual tasks as hypothesis, which are to be verified by experiments. The fact that not all hypotheses can be verified and some experiments fail contribute to a positive failure culture.

The unbiased and professional discussion with the world of users is essential to avoid the immunization trap. An immunization trap is the tendency of to define requirements based on the current system and from the requirements perspective, resulting in blindness for better solutions.

 

Agile Mindset across Organizations

Agile methods have their origins in software development but are widely accepted in project management and also deeply rooted in corporate learning.

Even though various departments like to stress their agile capabilities, a real understanding of development and implementation is not always distinct. A digital learning landscape of superior perfection is not to be created by a push on the button (or the signing of a check). Learners often expect learning platform and content to exactly meet their requirements in an instant (and sometimes save them the effort of learning itself). This demand cannot be met with individual adjusted software solutions and not with those "out of a box".

Standardized software packages "out of the box" are popular when it comes to show fast results. Even if the standard solution seems to be currently the perfect solution it is only a snapshot and might not be adequate for future demands.

This requires a prioritization according to the added value of the usage features. The requirements delivering the highest value for the different user groups have priority.  Achievements will be evaluated according to the usage quality and measured with usability tests. To develop a digital learning landscape suited to the enterprise's particular characteristics, the incremental implementation of structures, processes and content might be a superior way.

 

Agile vs classic Development Agile vs classic Development

To generate higher acceptance rates for the at the end never ending development of the learning system, a transparent communication of priorities, interim goals and progress is recommended. Continuous improvement and implementation require time and resources.

This means that responsible project teams must be granted the freedom to experiment, to evaluate adjustments and for iterative development.

Fundamentals for Successful Development Partnerships

Necessary essentials for such a trusting cooperation are common agile values. A basic agile assumption implies that humans follow different thinking / action logic and that heterogeneous teams can achieve more together. Values to be encouraged are the development on an individual level and differentiation on a team level and especially the interdisciplinary dialogue. Close interaction is not only relevant between the single requirement engineer and the stakeholders on one side and the product owner with the development team on the other side, but also on a higher level between the LMS vendor and the client organization. 

Partnerships

Mutual respect, trust and an agile mindset are essential across organizations. Agile cooperation, especially the definition of roles and the definition of done should be discussed early during contract negotiations.

Innovative development works best with continuous dialogues in small and flexible teams, which are taking initiative-taking responsibilities for their project. Development and progress but also the cooperation should be reflected on and discussed on a regular basis. The service partner should be selected accordingly not only by their references, experience and high service orientation. As development is a longer process you might want to select a partner who is also striving for a long-term and close cooperation on eye level with sustainable conditions.

Summary

  • Organizations and the requirements of their user groups develop continually. Within a holistic and growing organizational culture the development of the digital learning landscape illustrates the status and scope of learning culture within the organization.
  • A learning platform support the structured acquisition of knowledge by mostly by formal learning formats. The LMS protects sensitive content, relevant in competition from unauthorized access and is therefore a central part of the learning landscape. It is not the solution to all challenges, especially the learning skills of staff.
  • A consistent integration of LMS, learning platform, learning experience features (LXP), virtual classrooms and enterprise social networks illustrate the broad variety of individual learning in LnD.
  • User Requirement Engineering supports the design of the future learning landscape. Data concerning the requirements of different user groups should be collected professionally. Questionnaires and interviews are subjective. User requirements must be evaluated, consolidated and priorized for development. Lean UX integrates agile perspectives of development methods, design thinking and lean startup.
  • Iterative development and short implementation cycles ensure, that requirements of different user groups are met with.
  • Basis prerequisites are flexible and adjustable software solutions and sustainable concepts of licensing and development cost.
  • A learning organization is an development partner on eye level. A trusting and long-term oriented cooperation between the partners is not only based on sensible agreements, but also on shared sustainable values and an agile mindset.
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