Learning Ecosystems: The Evolution of Learning Portals

Learning Ecosystem

Remember when learning portals were all about giving learners access to structured learning programs/courses, and maybe some FAQs?  Learning Management Systems, built to handle the structured course stuff, tried to become the next iteration of learning portals. They tried to do it all, but with little luck. Just ask anyone that uses an LMS. Some comments you’ll hear . . . “not intuitive”, “crappy search functionality”, “clunky”, “I need performance support.” As someone that has designed and managed the development of several learning portals over the last 16 years, I have seen the shift in learner requirements, demanding that learning portals evolve. Thus, while helping a client address their learning challenges, an opportunity to take learning portals to the next level arose.

Client Challenges:

  • Rapid growth = significant challenges
  • Training = mostly classroom, some e-learning
  • Complex topics = long training/learning cycles, lots of content – massive information dump
  • Learning was separated from work. Difficult for associates to remember everything they learned
  • No formal performance support system. Support resources emailed to associates which they saved locally.
  • Manuals that were critical to the associates work were either printed and used with sticky notes, or in a series of .pdfs
  • Associates needed instant access to information for problem solving with customers on the phones & in chats
  • With customers on hold, associates waited outside the cubes of supervisors and managers to ask questions. Supervisors and managers gave inconsistent answers, negatively impacting customer satisfaction
  • There was no formal way to capture and share the collective knowledge of the team

Based on our analysis, we determined that the main focus of our proposed solution to these challenges wasn’t just about building courses, it was about performance support, knowledge sharing and collaboration. The client challenges were a great fit for a “new age” portal solution, a Learning Ecosystem that offered instant access to vetted, critical information.

Our goal was to give associates easy access to real time support resources, and to group knowledge via questions and answers, while also allowing them to more efficiently and effectively use their resources manual. Since the reference manuals that associates used to support their work were paramount to success, we would create a digital tool that would allow them to annotate (and link quickly to relevant support information for specific parts of the manual). Tying it all together would be a powerful search function that gets smarter over time. Thus, as my team and I began brainstorming on what a learning portal should look like and do, we knew we wanted to add a layer of portal technology that would work with other systems (e.g.- the client’s LMS) and open doors to so much more for the learner. We wanted it to be an incredibly valuable access point to JIT, personalized, performance support resources as well as a community for knowledge sharing/collaborative learning. For this client, we decided the cloud based learning portal must have:

  • A clean and easy to use interface and personalized view
  • A killer integrated search function that learns from users and can search multiple systems with fast accurate results
  • A cutting edge document preview function allowing associates to quickly preview the docs/pdfs/etc that pop-up in search to determine if it will be useful to them
  • Strong community/collaborative learning functionality focusing on knowledge capture that easily allows associates to share knowledge with the community, and allows the community to vet information and rate it so the best rises to the top
  • Direct access to formal learning events and courses, as well as informal learning resources
  • Document management capabilities
  • The ability to easily access mission critical manuals and large documents, annotate, share annotations, and link sections of manuals to performance support resources
  • Important news and announcements
  • Data collection, and a management dashboard allowing realtime snapshots of who’s using what, when, what they are looking for and finding, and more importantly what they aren’t finding
  • Spaced learning delivery functionality, allowing scheduled delivery of content and resources to specific associates to improve retention
  • Curation functionality to ensure content is accurate, and useful

After months of design and development work, our team developed a Learning Ecosystem/performance support & knowledge capture system that was ready for our client to use. Phase 1 of the system was made up of 3 main components:

  • Document Management
  • Question and Answer
  • Annotations

Search is a key function. It’s powerful and fast and searches all three components both together and individually. It could also search the client’s LMS if we chose, but this system is focusing on in-the-workflow performance support, so pulling up courses in search would be of little value to the associate. We do link to the clients LMS so they can have direct access to learning events and courses, and will look at the value of integrating curriculums into the portal down the road. What’s important about this search is that it could be customized to integrate with other systems that a company may be using (e.g.- network folders, Sharepoint, Dropbox, etc). Our search is smart too, as it learns from the team’s previous searches and refines results. Did I already say that it’s super fast?

The main/landing page focuses on Search, News and Announcements, and My Activity. It’s the starting point for all associates, and each one gets a personalized view of content based on role and team permissions.

The real-time Questions and Answers component is an important part of our overall knowledge capture and sharing strategy (though other components have collaborative functions as well), allowing the community to up-vote or down-vote questions and answers. Managers and administrators have the ability to edit/curate to ensure accuracy and quality. The ability to link to other Q&As as well as resources makes this a very robust tool.

Annotations is a powerful component as this associate’s use of the manual to support their work is critical. The associates have the ability to easily annotate sections of the manual, and attach links to resources (job aids, diagrams, etc). Annotations are not shared with other associates, unless a manager (who has access to review all of their team’s annotations) finds an annotation worth sharing with the team, in which case they can. Managers can also add links to resources attached to specific sections of the manual and make them visible to all on their team. And Search not only searches the documents, Q&As, and manuals, it also searches annotations. Bam!

Our system was launched in December of 2017 to approximately 100 users. There are now well over 300 users from two different business units. Through the collection of usage/search data the system has been updated with new functionality to further meet the client’s needs. We continue to collect data and refine the system to meet our client’s ever changing needs.

Phase 2 of the system will include spaced learning delivery functionality, and an audit/curation component that will work 24 x 7 using a combination of technology and live SMEs to ensure existing content is accurate, and useful, and identify missing content.

Stay tuned, more updates to come!