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Learning Ecosystems: Leveraging the Work Environment to Support Training

Updated: Apr 20, 2020

Picture this: you're a nurse working in a busy hospital. New regulatory compliance is issued regarding HIPAA. The hospital issues training. It's an online game and actually a lot more engaging than you thought it would be. You get through it in a half hour, which is great, because you have a lot of patients. 6 months later, you come across your first case where you have to apply what you learned. Do you think you're prepared?

This is an issue many employees face when they're dealing with regulatory compliance demands in high-stress, fast-paced workplaces. In a field like nursing, it can't be hard to remember things that seem trivial in comparison to the life and death issues you deal with everyday, especially when you're expected to constantly pursue additionally training, like continuing education credits.

We also know that Hermann Ebbinghaus' forgetting curve is a real thing. No matter how great the training is that is formally provided to you, much of what you do in one sitting-- about 70%-- will be forgotten within 24 hours. The truth is that learning cannot be a one-time event (traumatic events are an exception, but we don't really want to traumatize our learners). Without spaced repetition, we simply forget.

Unfortunately, even when training managers understand this, they often fail to provide opportunities for spaced repetition or they offer spaced repetition only at the most basic level-- annual recurrent training.

Leveraging the Work Environment

To support training and improve retention, consider learning within the greater context of an ecosystem. This is a concept borrowed from Marilyn Cooper's landmark essay, "The Ecology of Writing," first published in College English in 1986. While Cooper is focused on writing, the same concepts apply to all sorts of learning environments. Ecosystems are made up of structures and organisms that are constantly interacting and changing. They are impacted by events. Therefore, the question that needs to be asked when designing a learning experience is:

How can the structures, organisms, and relationships be leveraged to help employees do their jobs well?

This same question can be asked in academic environments, as well as client education environments. In the case of the nurse, we might look at the following:

  • Structures - What are the objects and systems present in the ecosystem? You could look at the layout of the hospital, databases/forms/apps used to track patient data and/or nurse performance, as well as spaces dedicated to nurses (e.g., the breakroom) and their location in respect to patient spaces.

  • Organisms - Who are the agents and participants in this environment? In this case, we have nurses, patients, doctors, hospital support staff, administrators, etc.

  • Relationships - How do the organisms relate to one another? How do the organisms interact with the structures?

Thinking about these things can help identify spaces in which support for training can be implemented. It might be reminders from managers. It could be coachmarks built into the data collection app. It could be many other simpler or more sophisticated solutions. To be most effective, choose a collection of events that make the most sense within the given ecosystem.

Finally, as you design, remember that ecosystems are constantly adapting to events in the environment-- organisms, structures, and relationships may all be impacted. What works in month 1 may not work in year 2. You'll need to find ways to both monitor the ecosystem and respond to changes in the environment.


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