Learning in a High Performance Ecosystem

Learning in a High Performance Ecosystem

The Learning & Development industry is slowly/ painfully/ finally realigning itself to focus on performance outcomes. This has many dimensions but essentially involves focusing on what people can create, solve and achieve which might involve learning.

Enter the concept of a ‘performance ecosystem’.

It’s a grandiose, bordering on a pretentious term, that explores the idea that we can achieve performance outcomes with the support of things, systems, and people. Like many, I’ve been exploring what such a performance ecosystem might look like.

My latest article on the elearning industry website entitled 8 Skills for L&D Professionals to Future Proof Your Career‘ looked at requirements to design experiences in such ecosystems, and included the following diagram.

It was only later that I noticed that this representation differed from my take on performance ecosystems in 2015 and the way I chunked it in 2016.

With the realisation that I was starting to argue with myself, I did what any self-respecting modern learning would do – I asked my collaborative network for help, in this case via this short post on LinkedIn.

At the time of writing this article that post, and the discussion it initiated, has hit around 9,000 views with thoughtful input from people all around the world. My question was largely pitched around the above diagram, asking for feedback and ideas on how others defined and represented learning and performance ecosystems.

The comments and time I’ve had to reflect on this issue led me to update my model to the following:

(keep reading after the diagram to see how people contributed to this model)

Firstly, HUGE THANKS to all who commented and helped me move to this next iteration. Secondly, let me (inadequately) summarise and respond to some of the comments and themes that came from the discussion. Of course, the Instructional Designer in me has made me theme the comments:


David James questioned the foundation of my initial diagram, rightly commenting that it could feel disconnected from the real world of performance. In this words:

“The thing that strikes me is that while the worker is at the centre, without acknowledgement of the work itself and the aspirations of that worker then the eco-system exists in a vacuum.”

Mark Britz agreed and went further, commenting:

“I personally struggle with the idea of a ‘learning and performance ecosystem’. It would appear as yet another way L&D distances itself from The organization.

This is a risk, and one that Helen Blunden pre-empted by suggesting that I seek broader input by asking people outside of L&D.

So far, in my experience of providing a high-level explanation of a performance ecosystem has resonated with my non L&D clients. The case study I discuss here was premised on our pitch to reduce learning requirements by focusing on performance support through, in that instance, people, resources, and a digital platform.

While I’m unlikely to show this diagram to non L&D clients or geek out about the details as I am here, I will definitely use the principles and model to help broaden the scope and reframe jobs which begin with the dreaded: “Can you build us a bunch of elearning/ workshops to …”

But I really do agree with the disconnection of the previous diagram. In my latest attempt above, I’ve placed workflow experience at the centre of the diagram. In simple terms, this is what people are doing in their job and, in a high-performance context, it involves the points I’ve listed in the diagram such as experimenting and stretch projects.


My original diagram had a person at the centre bounded by a circle marked ‘digital platforms and tools’. This rightly became the target of criticism, with Karen Einsteincommenting:

“I agree that ‘digital platforms and tools’ is probably too central to the learner here as there are a lot of great learning ecosystems which don’t necessarily include digital anything. Because the digital world is so complex and varied, you might want to divide it into different categories according to use instead of having digital be its own category.”

This point was reinforced by Nick Shackleton-Jones and Charles Jennings, who also suggested removing digital from the centre of the model.

While I agree, I found this challenging. I do see the evolution of digital to be a key enabler. Products like Slack and its more recent Facebook and Microsoft clones are some examples of how technology is deepening collaboration and supporting a culture of working out loud.

Of course, technology is an enabler, not a magic solution or absolute requirement… but it can be a bloody impressive enabler. Examples like Amazon training its holiday hires in two days instead of six weeks demonstrates how technology can take performance support to a whole new level.

I’m a massive fan of the humble checklists and Quick Reference Guide, but come on… Amazon’s use of robot assistants and screens with just in time resources embedded in the workflow is surely a sign of things to come.

There I go again, getting seduced by the bling of rising technology. I think we’ll all agree that ongoing digital transformation is significant and will become more so, but I agree that it didn’t deserve the centre position in this model.

Even in the Amazon example, part of their approach involved incentivising the return of previous season hires, keeping up to 14% of them with competitive salaries and tuition incentives.

Digital is part of the picture and, in my updated diagram, I’ve relegated it to one of four elements under ‘Environment’. Having said that, let’s be sure to keep an eye on this one!


Nick Shackleton-Jones made a very useful observation about how I’d represented systems in my original diagram:

“I think you imply that people and systems are separate, where I feel that systems and people are merely means of delivering resource or experience. A person can provide guidance (resource) or tell a story (experience) for example. “

Helen Blundell eloquently followed this up:

“One of the the things I say to L&D people are that “people are the platform” and not to get hung up on the tools or platforms. If we can harness the potential of people to share their work, build their networks, know how to find stuff or be found in the “noise” then the performance we should be worrying about is improving and helping that person be a better person to deal with today’s current work environment (and even, their own life).”

Great points, which I found incredibly useful and yet, I still represent ‘systems’ separate to ‘people’ on my new diagram. While I absolutely agree with Nick and Helen, I had difficulty in doing justice to their insights visually, although I hope the systems-people connection is more obvious in this version.


Clark Quinn had some great suggestions about capturing the formal versus informal on a spectrum throughout the diagram. He even applied this to people talking about a spectrum from formal to the left and informal to the right, he said:

“In people you could have coaching to the left, mentor in the middle, and cooperation/collaboration to the right. Not necessary, just a possibility. 

I didn’t take his advice to the letter, but it did inspire the two axis for people and resources.

Clark also shared one of his diagrams around conceptualising an ecosystem here, which I found fascinating, particular for its consideration on tactics people engage with content or people.


Charles Jennings discussed my separation between learning and performance resources:

“That works fine when viewed through a functional lens, but there is a more profound separation of perspectives, with two different working models – the ‘learning-centric’ working model where learning is the focus and performance the outcome, and the ‘performance-centric’ working model where desired performance is the focus and learning may or may not be involved in achieving it.”

I wasn’t sure if Charles was raising this as a criticism or observation, but he succinctly captured my intention.

As stated in the opening to this article, I’m an advocate of the latter approach Charles described, of the ‘performance-centric’ model which may or may not involve learning. This is essentially the ‘performance hacking’  approach I described in this article.

I’ve found it useful to make the distinction between performance and learning resources, which are respectively described as ‘learning resources’ (such as micro learning) versus ‘job aids’ (such as a knowledge bank, checklist, or guide) in the diagram.

In fact, I changed the title of this diagram to ‘Learning in a High Performance Ecosystem’ to reflect the emphasis on performance.

On that note, I normally find myself rallying against ‘learner-centric’ L&D folk, but Nick Shackleton-Jones takes this further with his wonderful chunking of everything under either ‘resources’ or ‘experiences’ in this diagram.

I love Nick’s call to action of ‘resources not courses’, and that approach informs much of my work, but I would not go quite as far to dismiss microlearning and formal training altogether. In my opinion, while learning will often and ideally be replaced with excellent performance support, the need for it remains.

In my opinion, our brave new world requires more complex learning which is less about ‘retaining knowledge’ and more about developing the mindset and mental models to apply complex ‘know how‘, and be empowered by a broad ‘know who.’

Beyond performance support, there will be times when people need to think, solve or innovate their way out of, or into a situation. In such cases, accessing formal learning as both scaffolding or drip fed elements which integrates spaced recall, will play a role.

Ultimately learning occurs through the interplay between reflection and socially supported experiences but formal elements, particularly those pulled from a place of need and challenge, will provide important scaffolding to the overall learner journey.


Taking up the theme from above, Susan Leslie linked to her article describing what an effective learner looks like. This is a topic dear to my heart, and my take on it was captured by this infographic outlining 15 Powerful Learning Habits to Succeed in a Complex World.

It’s also the driver behind my initiative to launch the Learn2Learn app later this year, which you can find out about here.


Chester Stevenson suggested:

“For the performance side have you considered looking at organizations necessary to look at the full ecosystem such as Operations and HR?”

Marcelo Borges seemed to be making similar points and I did add ‘Talent Management’ under the Environment section in part as a response to this. That said, I’d say this is the area I’d like to explore more both in terms of its potential and trends.


Finally, my attempt at creating this model resonated with Helen Blundell who said:

“What I like is that it feels like you are (just like I am) trying to encapsulate the richness of learning inside and outside the workplace and then putting some structure around it.”

Helen related some of her earlier explorations in doing something similar, including this diagram about networked learners.

Late in the discussion, after several models and diagrams had been shared, Damala Scales Ghosh referred to Einstein in summing up some of the issues raised by the discussion:

“As Albert Einstein wrote: ‘It seems as though we must use sometimes the one theory and sometimes the other, while at times we may use either. We are faced with a new kind of difficulty. We have two contradictory pictures of reality; separately neither of them fully explains the phenomena of light, but together they do.’”

Damala was generous to cite Einstein in relation to our humble rumblings at defining this elusive ecosystem, but it did remind me of one of my favourite quotes from George Box who said: “All models are wrong, some of them are useful.”

Models are inadequate representations of reality that we use to work with complexity. For my part, I’ll keep chipping away at this particular model in the hope it might help be more useful than not.


Thanks again to all those who answered my call and helped critique my last attempt. Now this diagram is fresh off the presses – have at it!

Please feel free to add your comments, criticisms and thoughts and who knows, I’ll probably quote you in my next attempt 😉


This article was first published on Linkedin in May 2017 here.