Gardens as metaphors for learning ecosystems – Italian and French Gardens


In this new series of blogs, Andrea Cardillo is exploring gardens as a metaphor for learning ecosystems. This week he is focused on the Italian and French style of garden.

Learning ecosystems

A couple of months ago, I was asked by our friends at Harthill Consulting to attend a stimulating community of inquiry about what it means to develop a learning ecosystem.

While today this is often referred to as a digital platform thanks to which an organization can centralise all its learning initiatives, I find the metaphor of a learning ecosystem has much more to contribute with the way we understand the overall L&D strategy.

There are different kinds of natural ecosystems we can envision as a meaningful analogy for a learning ecosystem, and a garden is potentially one of the most fitting.

In fact, in gardens we experience an intentional cooperation between humans and fauna resulting in the growth of specific plants or flowers, the building of greenhouses for accelerated growth, the digging of canals and irrigation systems to ensure water gets to the right places at the right times, the use of fertilization for the soil, as well as the creation of paths and meadows to facilitate the fruition and enjoyment of the garden itself.

Similarly, L&D departments often intervene in organizational environments to nourish certain kinds of competencies and values, they engineer courses and trainings to support the accelerated growth of specific populations, they ensure effective resource allocation to different initiatives, and aim to create learning experiences that can be both meaningful and enjoyable. Sometimes a digital platform may provide a space in which this is done, but the metaphor has much wider applications.

The analogy between learning ecosystem and garden is not new, but, as an Organizational Development consultant and a specialist in adult learning, I find that we should take it further and ask ourselves what kind of garden our organization needs.

Different gardening philosophies might in fact suit different kinds of organizations.

Italian or French Gardens

Italian-style gardens spread in Europe starting with the Renaissance, at the dawn of the modern age. These gardens are informed by a belief in the capacity of human reason to understand and master nature in order to make it – thanks to technology and art – most conducive to an enjoyable human experience.

In Italian and French gardens nature is shaped to be friendly: you see straight lines, geometric designs, the bushes are squared off, water is brought where you have no water to create lakes or fountains. For example, Villa d’Este in Tivoli and its many paths and fountains. Or the gardens of Versailles, with its axial paths, flowerbeds, hedges and lakes, the epitome of the French formal garden.

The Italian and French gardens are good metaphors of the learning ecosystems created by the L&D departments of many modern corporations – what Frederic Laloux calls Orange organizations.

There you often see a cooperation between architects (the Centres of Expertise or Corporate Universities) and gardeners (often HRBPs) to ensure consistent, easy-to-navigate, coherent learning environments. Corporate program targeted at different populations, repeated for different cohorts over time, and designed according to the latest developments (and fashions) in the field, take learners by the hand, and invite them to walk through experiences that are clear and relatable. Design architects are the real protagonists in this model, that can be, when well thought and maintained, very effective for large numbers of learners.

Italian and French gardens, as a model, can truly be spectacular, but is flawed with one main problem: it is hard to sustain.

Firstly, it is very resource-hungry: if there is a shortage of water for the fountains, or unavailability of good gardeners for daily maintenance, everything dries up and dies. Similarly, Italian garden-like learning ecosystems require continuous investment in maintenance, to ensure coherence over time, but also continuous innovation. The ecosystem must continuously evolve as the business evolves, and this is very hard to do if you want to maintain high standards over time.

Secondly, this model is centred around the vision of the architect, rather than respecting the pre-existing conditions of a natural ecosystem that thrives and evolves according to its internal laws as the environment changes. Similarly, Italian garden-like L&D strategies deliver learning in line with the original vision of the architects, they are vision-centred rather than learner-centred, and seldomly take into account the need to allow for organic development as organizational cultures change over time, while adapting to new competitive landscapes or societal trends.

So if Italian and French gardens are not sustainable, could an English country garden provide a better learning ecosystem? Check back in next week where I will share my thoughts on the topic.

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