How to Build a Data Ecosystem Diagram with Room to Grow

We’re taking a quick detour from our Data Storytelling series for a bonus lesson on how to get to the data that will become the star of your story. In this post, we’ll tell you why visualizing a data ecosystem for your organization is important and how you can build your own.

It all comes down to maps—the most visual way to represent where you are and where you can go. Similarly, before you can use data, you have to know where to find it and where to send it.

The Lord of the Rings has a map of Middle Earth, Game of Thrones has a map of Westeros and Essos, and L&D has a map of a data ecosystem. Maps are objective, detailed, and full of possibilities—they don’t just visualize a single path or the locations we wish to go—they show all the options and leave room for exploration.

Whether you’re homebody or globetrotter, it doesn’t change the fact that there’s a vast world out there. And, as you explore the world represented in your map, you’ll probably discover there’s more fidelity in both how you experience your journey and the insights you gain along the way.

So, how does a map fit into a data story?

We don’t always experience stories from every location on the map; however, we know those locations still exist. While an L&D project or initiative may not initially span all corners of the organization, there’s still a possibility it could in the future.

That’s why it’s important to have a visual representation of where everything could happen before planning your journey, so, ultimately, you can tell the complete story.

A learning ecosystem diagram represents the location or the world in which your programs occur and how it connects to the rest of the organization.

Is there a real example of a data ecosystem?

In mid-2017, we shared a client story that illustrates how Visa’s L&D team built Visa’s Digital University—including their data architecture diagram, which is a map of the world that houses all learning activity and resulting reports.

In the following diagram, you can see all of the various tools that make up Visa's data infrastructure—and they're not just using learning tools (see SharePoint, Survey Monkey, etc.). 

Visa'a diagram isn't an isolated example. Most, if not all, organizations with which we’ve worked have some version of a data diagram to illustrate their ecosystems and resulting workflows.

Show me a robust data ecosystem diagram.

Based on years of work and experience with a variety of organizations—spanning industries such as healthcare, finance, consulting, tech, retail and more—we’ve built a an ecosystem diagram that enumerates all the different points you can tie into a robust learning record store or learning analytics platform.

This is a broad representation that includes many options so you can pick and choose what fits with your existing infrastructure as well as where you’d like to go with future initiatives.

In a story context, this diagram is the map that provides a complete view of the places (systems) that all characters—including the actors (learners), directors (L&D), critics (management), and audience (executive team)—may interact with.

Below is our diagram that illustrates all the ways a learning analytics platform—Watershed, in this case—fits into an ecosystem. Keep in mind, your data architecture diagram will differ depending on what you choose as the system for analyzing your learning data.

Can I build an ecosystem diagram with my data?

You already have a learning ecosystem (i.e., all of the places where the learning happens) as well as a data ecosystem (i.e., the subset that is generating the learning and performance data—some of which may not be captured). You just need to map out this information.

Start with an inventory list (or table of contents) of existing systems before building out your diagram. Here’s what best-in-class organizations include in their end-to-end maps:

  1. Types and locations of learning experiences
  2. Technologies that enable the tracking, storage, and transfer of learning data
  3. System or process for analyzing the learning data
  4. Data warehouses that already exist within the organization, and how these systems may interact with the technologies identified in Item 2
  5. Departments or functions of the organization that interact with the resulting reports and/or analytics, and in which capacity

If you define these five areas, no matter how basic your current ecosystem of data, you’ve got the foundation to grow your infrastructure diagram.

Because you’ve organized the diagram into specific areas, you can continue to add systems, stakeholders, and processes as your programs or organization evolve.

If this process seems overwhelming, take a step back to make it even easier—use the map we shared earlier and highlight the areas in which you know learning already happens.

This will help you visualize what you have and identify any gaps. Usually, most people struggle with that middle portion of the diagram—or, Item 2 in the list above—identifying the modes for tracking and storing learning data.

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