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Learning Architectures II: Building the Foundations

Andrew Joly, Design Director shares his views on the foundations and principles behind an effective Learning Architecture.

What does it mean to think about learning architecturally?

In a previous article for this magazine, I wrote about this important change we see happening in the way people are thinking about learning. It’s a change that’s happening in many organisations already; generally in those organisations whose use of learning innovation and technology can be characterised as more ‘mature’. It’s a very fundamental change, and one where, increasingly, we are seeing evidence that it links to improved results; greater cost savings, faster time-to-competence, better take-up and improved staff satisfaction*.

My article about the design aspect of this change had a good response, but also raised questions. Enough questions that it’s well worth getting a little further in to the detail of what we mean when we talk about a ‘Learning Architecture’. I’d like to develop this theme a little here by focusing on what I see as the fundamental difference about this way of thinking from what has come before, and what the foundations and principles behind an effective Learning Architecture are.

Getting the plumbing right

You could call it a more ‘holistic’ approach, or talk about more ‘joined-up’ learning – but each of these terms comes with its own unwelcome freight of baggage, so I prefer to stick with our architectural metaphor.

Anyone who has been involved in building work, even on a domestic scale (or anyone who has seen an episode of BBC’s Grand Designs, for that matter) will be aware that construction involves careful co-ordination of different trades. Plumbers have to provide water supply and wastes in the right place and at the right time for builders to put in kitchens and bathrooms, for instance. Electricians have to supply power in the right places for the appliances that heating engineers will install. Plasterers have to leave an appropriate finish for the decorators who will come later. You might have had the misfortune to be involved in a build where these different trades were not well co-ordinated, and to witness at first hand the delays, escalating costs and missed opportunities that result from badly co-ordinated and specified construction work. Let me tell you, as one who has been there, that it is a salutary experience!

How does this scenario relate to learning and development? Well, designing a blended learning programme at scale in the second decade of the twenty-first century involves co-ordinating a diverse range of requirements that we could equate to the trades in our building example. You might develop a Learning Portal, for instance, where learners will go to access self-paced study materials and assignment activities, alongside a calendar of ‘synchronous’ events (both face-to-face and web-based) – that hand holds them on a learning journey. At the same time you might want to provide subscription-based external web content, reference materials via a physical library or document management system, video masterclasses, modules of online learning, a facility for feedback and evaluation … and so on (it’s a complicated world).

The people and technologies to fulfil each of these different requirements might come from a different source, either within or outside your organisation. Fulfilling each of them will involve very different skillsets, and procuring and deploying these resources as part of an overall plan may call on a wide range of different understandings and sensitivities from you, the learning architect. You will be mixing online and offline modes, synchronous and asynchronous, formal and informal, self-paced and collaborative – and maybe combining these with an internal marketing or awareness campaign. Like the trades in our building example these resources need to be sequenced and combined effectively if the result is not to be an incoherent mess.

‘Connectedness’ is the key

Clearly, project management is a key skill here, but design and planning no less so. Just as a good architect will have a detailed knowledge of the elements they are assembling in their design – down to choice of a certain floor tile, for instance, or knowledge of how a particular underfloor heating system works and the dependencies that might create within a building project, so the good learning architect (a phrase coined by Clive Shepherd**) knows their materials. The most crucial part of this architectural awareness is the connectedness of all the parts – a knowledge of what each element adds, but most importantly how it functions within the whole.

So what are the important areas that a learning architecture needs to have in place to make sure all our key requirements are covered? It’s time to stop talking in metaphors and get specific. I’m going to offer a list of key structures or principles that we feel need to be at least considered in the development of a strategic architecture for learning. I refer to these as capabilities that enable effective learning strategies. ‘Capabilities’, because what’s important about this list is that it is technology-agnostic: it’s about the type of learner activity involved, rather than about whether or how it makes use of technology. To a great extent the technology is almost a side issue – a matter of logistics and engineering that we will look at in the next phase of work. It should also become quickly clear that there are tools and technologies that deliver many of these capabilities right now, but that is the subject of another article (or articles), perhaps.

Foundations of a Learning Architecture: 10 capabilities you need

Knowledge Resources – Elements of content that provide ‘informational’ knowledge or reference. These may be accessed independently and used directly as part of the learner’s working life. The specific tools to deliver and share these will relate to their use cases, normally related to illustrative, ‘just-in-time’ and ‘just-enough’ modes of engagement. Tools need to allow collection, distribution and sharing of specific or general content: videocasts, podcasts, introduction pieces, masterclasses, demonstrations, filmed debates, case studies, evaluations, reviews. Resources are often documents and can also be links to external content – e.g. knowledge portal(s), content and document management systems, subscription-based content, user-generated and highly specific (just-for-me) content relating to on-the-job knowledge.

Learning Resources – Elements of content that have a goal (however simple) of changing the applied behaviour of the learner. Their aim is to close a gap (skills gap, performance gap) in some way. Appropriate systems will allow these to be delivered for both ‘just-in-case’ and ‘just-in-time’ use. Typified by learning nuggets, mobile learning applications, micro-gaming engagements, assessment and feedback systems.

Learner Journeys – Ways of delivering more complex learner journeys; whether online, blended or wholly face-to-face. Made up of learning resources or other learning events, often combined with knowledge resources, and allowing for the usual effective design strategies to be employed (exploration, application, feedback etc.) These Learner Journeys are often co-ordinated or calendared; possibly via a learning portal or journey leader; often blended and often mixed, for multi-channel delivery – e.g. self study materials, assignments, activities, topic summaries, reading lists, memory joggers.

Synchronous and Asynchronous Dialogue
Synchronous – Communications channels as well as events e.g. workshops, virtual classrooms, live networking tools, group activities; tools supporting coaching and mentoring, sharing and support, webinars, help.

Asynchronous – Sharing/communications channels: forums, chat rooms, blogs, wiki’s, surveys, email. Often used in a learning mix for attitude and opinion preparation, learner activity preparation and practice, feedback and evaluation etc.

Communities – Allowing community creation, development and management; collaboration and sharing amongst formal and informal groups. Often using social network and personal profiling tools.

Reflection & Reinforcement – Anything that is used to meaningfully encourage revisiting, checking, assessing or reflecting on learning (often over time) i.e. survey, assessment, one-to-one performance sessions, mentoring or coaching.

Application and Exploration – Systems that enable any virtual application or exploration of skills as part of the learning mix – e.g. workshops, serious games, scenario-based learning, on-the-job/integrated learning programmes. These are often provided as part of a Learning Resource or Journey system but should be considered separately as a capability as there may be other ways of delivering powerful results through deeply engaging application of learning.

Internal Communications – Effective systems for delivering global or specific communications and awareness campaigns; multi channel, front-of-mind approaches to attitude; internal marketing campaigns.

Evaluation – Collection, compilation, presentation and feedback of both learner evaluation and, critically, programme and learning system evaluation (the subject of a much wider discussion!).

Extension – Systems that encourage close integration of learning with an organisation’s personal and professional development and management structures and behaviours – the critical link to organisation management, people and skills management and HR.

Remember – this is not (yet) an architecture in itself, it is more like a checklist of essential trades: a place to begin in the design of a structured programme to meet whatever business and learning objectives you are working with as a learning architect. Without these clear capabilities in place, and the systems and resources to deliver them, we don’t think your structure is going to be designed with current best practice in mind.


We recognise that we are in an area of emerging practice, and our Learning Architectures initiative is at a starting point. Our plan is to continue to codify effective architectures for different sectors, groups of learners and learning challenges; working with our clients, consultants and industry colleagues we will develop the patterns and models of what works best in practice. One certainty is that you will have your own views on the core capabilities needed for a successful learning strategy, and how these fit together most effectively. I welcome your thoughts and contributions as we move forward – so please by all means contact me, via the LEO Learning website, and tell me what you think. We will also be running a symposium later in the year, so stay with us, take part in the symposium – and let’s see where we can go….

*Accelerating Performance – Towards Maturity 2010-11 benchmark report
**The New Learning Architect, Clive Shepherd (Onlignment)

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