Adaptive Learning Culture, Systems Thinking, and Change Management

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Chris Hutchinson
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    The term “adaptive learning” is currently having a bit of a “spotlight moment” with the influx of generative LLM’s and natural language processing tools. It is thought that such tools will edge us closer to “adaptive learning technology” or smart learning systems that learn the learner – providing “just -in-time” training and information, customised learning paths and content that appeals directly to the individual.  

    While this sounds great /and some EdTech’s have already begun promising this brave new world of the future of learning, the truth is we are still a least a few years away from even rudimentary versions of such systems being reliable enough and delivering on, what are to say the least, bold claims. 

    The focus of this article is another, less buzz-filled, but on less impactful application of the term, “Adaptive learning cultures”. Much less a technology solution and more connected to the ways in which an organization approaches planning, designing, deploying, and maintaining training and development opportunities.  

    By taking an adaptive approach, organizations can accomplish several of the promises made by optimistic AI advocates mentioned above – and done right, they can do so in a way that is accountable, measurable, and delivers ROI. So, what is an adaptive learning culture and how does it differ from adaptive learning technology? And are there any similarities or overlaps between the two?   

    What is Adaptive Learning Technology 

    Adaptive learning technology primarily refers to systems that use algorithms to personalize the learning experience for individuals based on their performance, preferences, and specific learning needs.  

    This technology dynamically adjusts the difficulty, type of content, and assessment based on the learner’s inputs and progress. Examples include educational platforms that modify materials in real time to suit the learner’s proficiency level, thus maintaining an optimal challenge level and enhancing engagement and efficacy. (It should also be noted that currently there are no such systems which accomplish this with any level of reliability.  

    Context is often an important part of any information or learning and AI systems responsible for “rewriting” content to tailor it to learners needs so far have proven unreliable in establishing, understanding or maintaining context. Though some simpler versions of this may exist or will exist soon.)   

    What is Adaptive Learning Culture 

    Adaptive learning culture, on the other hand, refers to an organizational ethos or environment that prioritizes continuous learning, flexibility, and the capacity to adapt to changes. This doesn’t strictly hinge on technology but encompasses broader practices including policy adjustments, leadership style, feedback mechanisms, and cross-departmental collaboration to support ongoing learning and adaptability.  

    It’s about creating a workplace that encourages employees to learn from each experience, adapt their skills and knowledge as needed, and actively seek personal and professional growth. In a professional setting, incorporating an adaptive learning culture tends to result in trainings that are more relevant to the learners, and which change and grow with organizational needs. 

    Now that we’ve seen why adaptive learning cultures are a big deal for modern businesses, let’s dive into how to actually make it happen. We’re talking about using some smart strategies that help these cultures thrive. Two standout approaches? Systems thinking and change management. These aren’t just buzzwords—they’re practical tools that help us stitch flexibility and resilience right into the fabric of our learning practices.  

    So, let’s roll up our sleeves and explore how incorporating either of these strategies can create a dynamic environment where learning and adaptability go hand in hand, pushing both personal and organizational growth to new heights. 

    What is Systems Thinking 

    Systems thinking – systems thinking is a popular methodology and can be applied to understanding any complex series of relationships and designing solutions which take these complex relations into account.  

    If we apply the systems thinking methodology to learning and development, it means taking a holistic approach to analysis that focuses on the way that a system’s constituent parts interrelate and how systems work overtime and within the context of larger systems.  

    In a professional setting, this means understanding how different aspects of the organization—people, processes, technology, and culture—interact and influence each other. Systems thinking encourages organizations to see beyond individual events or problems to the bigger patterns and structures that cause them. 

    In terms of learning, systems thinking helps organizations to: 

    • Identify Learning Needs: By seeing the organization as a cohesive system, leaders can better identify skills gaps and areas where learning and development are needed to enhance overall system performance. 
    • Design Holistic Solutions: It allows for designing training programs that are integrated with other organizational processes, supporting not just individual learning goals but also enhancing organizational capabilities. 

    How Does Change Management Work?

    Change management is a term we used to hear around the merger of big organizations, or when a new management team takes over existing operations. However increasingly Change management is becoming a continuous process in organizations and involves preparing, supporting, and helping individuals, teams, and organizations in making organizational change.  

    It guides how we prepare, equip, and support individuals to successfully adopt change to drive organizational success and outcomes. It is critical today for organizations to be able to adapt to change and incorporate new tools and processes to stay competitive, accomplishing this requires an environment where continuous learning and adaptability are key. 

    In relation to adaptive learning, change management: 

    • Facilitates Adaptation: Helps organizations adapt to changes in the market or technology by developing competencies that are critical to new processes or tools. 
    • Encourages Engagement: Through effective change management, organizations can encourage a more active engagement with learning processes, ensuring that employees not only acquire new skills but are also motivated to apply them in their roles. 

    Integrating Systems Thinking and Change Management for Adaptive Learning 

    Integrating these approaches creates a powerful synergy for fostering an adaptive learning culture. Here’s how they contribute to adaptive learning in professional contexts: 

    • Creating Feedback Loops: Systems thinking emphasizes the importance of feedback loops. In an adaptive learning environment, feedback from training outcomes can be used to refine and adjust learning paths and methodologies on a regular basis. This not only enhances the relevance and effectiveness of training programs but also ensures they are responsive to the changing organizational and market dynamics. 
    • Building Resilient Learning Systems: By applying change management principles, organizations can prepare employees for constant learning, helping them to become resilient to change. This involves creating support structures that help individuals understand the benefits of continuous learning and how it contributes to their personal and professional growth. 
    • Aligning Learning with Organizational Goals: Systems thinking ensures that learning initiatives are not isolated interventions but are deeply integrated with the strategic objectives of the organization. This alignment helps in prioritizing learning initiatives that deliver the most value based on current organizational needs and future goals. 
    • Promoting an Interdisciplinary Approach: Effective adaptive learning environments benefit from cross-functional collaboration, where insights from various departments help shape training programs that are comprehensive and inclusive. 

    To help better illustrate these concepts let’s examine a few examples to help contextualise the theory as it might appear in practice.  

    Applying Systems Thinking to Training Needs Identification 

    Systems thinking in the context of training needs assessment involves understanding not just the immediate training requirements but also how these needs connect to broader organizational goals, processes, and challenges. This holistic approach ensures that training solutions address root causes rather than just symptoms. 

    Example Scenario: Implementing a New Technology 

    Situation: An organization is introducing a new technology platform to streamline its operations. Initial feedback suggests that employees are struggling with the transition, impacting productivity. 

    Traditional Approach: The immediate response might be to implement a basic training program focusing on how to use the new technology. 

    Systems Thinking Approach

    Broad Inquiry and Root Cause Analysis

    • Instead of directly jumping into solution mode, the organization takes a step back to perform a comprehensive needs analysis using systems thinking principles. This involves gathering data from various sources – employee feedback, performance metrics, support ticket data, IT reports. 
    • Key questions include: Is the challenge purely technical (how to use the technology), or are there underlying factors such as resistance to change, inadequate support structures, or mismatches between job roles and the technology’s functionality? 

    Identifying Interconnections

    • Systems thinking encourages looking at how different elements within the organization interact. For example, how does the new technology interface with existing processes? How does it affect different departments or teams? Are there policy or workflow changes that need to accompany the technological upgrade? 

    Developing Focused Training Interventions

    • With a clear understanding of the interconnected factors impacting technology adoption, the organization can design targeted training programs. These might include: 
    • Process Training: For teams whose workflows are significantly altered by the new technology. 
    • Skills Training: Focused on specific functions of the technology critical to particular roles. 
    • Change Management Education: Helping employees understand the benefits of the change, addressing resistance, and fostering a positive attitude towards the new technology. 

    Feedback Loops

    • Establish continuous feedback mechanisms to monitor the effectiveness of the training interventions. This can involve regular assessments, employee surveys, performance data analysis, and informal feedback channels. 
    • Feedback loops help the organization refine its training programs, making adjustments based on real-world outcomes and ongoing changes within the system. 

    Visualizing Systems Thinking in Action 

    To illustrate this to your audience, you might consider using diagrams or flowcharts that show: 

    • The flow of information between departments regarding the new technology. 
    • Feedback loops that inform training adjustments. 
    • The impact of training on performance metrics before and after adjustments. 

    By applying systems thinking to training needs identification, organizations can create more effective and adaptable learning programs. These programs not only address the immediate skill gaps but also support broader strategic goals and enhance the organization’s capacity to respond to future changes.

    This approach ensures that training is both relevant and aligned with the systemic needs of the organization, leading to better outcomes and a more resilient workforce. 

    Change Management and Adaptive Learning: A Practical Conversation 

    Let’s dive into another vital concept that can significantly enhance how learning and development happen in your organization: Change management. You might have heard this term thrown around, but let’s break down exactly how it can transform the learning culture in your workspace, particularly through its integration with adaptive learning strategies. 

    Facilitating Adaptation: Keeping Up with the Pace 

    Change is the only constant, right? In today’s fast-evolving business landscape, your organization’s ability to adapt quickly to market changes or technological advancements determines your competitive edge.

    But how does change management fit into this? Well, it’s all about preparing your organization to not just respond to changes but to thrive on them. 

    Change management in learning does a few critical things: 

    • Develops Competencies: When new processes or tools are introduced, change management strategies ensure that your workforce is not just aware but proficient in these areas. It involves identifying the skills that will be most affected by the change and providing targeted training to bridge these gaps. 
    • Aligns Training with Strategic Goals: It ensures that any training provided is in line with where the organization is headed. If a new technology is set to be deployed, change management teams work to get everyone up to speed—not just understanding how to use the new tech but why it’s important. 

    This proactive approach means your organization isn’t just reacting when a new change hits; you’re ahead of the curve, ready and well-equipped. 

    Encouraging Engagement: Beyond Just Learning 

    Now, acquiring new skills is one thing, but ensuring that these skills are applied, and that employees are engaged with their learning, is another. That’s where effective change management really shines. 

    Here’s how change management boosts engagement in learning: 

    • Communicates the ‘Why’ and the ‘How’: It’s not just about telling employees what changes are coming but involving them in the process. This includes explaining why new skills are necessary and how they can be applied to their roles. The more understanding employees have of the benefits, the more motivated they will be to embrace the change. – just like businesses aim to make decisions which bring, aid, or provide value learning and development is no different its not enough to tell them “what” they need to learn, but explain why it’s valuable? How will in benefit their experience and help them achieve their goals. We are more motivated to learn when we see the value in what we are learning.  
    • Supports a Culture of Continuous Learning: By continuously engaging employees through the change process, organizations can foster a culture where learning is ongoing. Employees feel supported and valued, knowing that their development is key to the organization’s success. 

    The Bigger Picture: Success and ROI Of Change Management

    Implementing change management within your learning strategy offers substantial benefits: 

    • Better Preparedness for Future Changes: Organizations become more agile, adapting quicker to industry changes. 
    • Increased Employee Satisfaction and Retention: When employees see their growth as a core part of the organization’s strategy, it boosts morale and loyalty. 
    • Direct Impact on Organizational Performance: With employees quickly adapting to new skills and technologies, the organization’s overall performance is enhanced, directly impacting the bottom line. 

    In essence, marrying change management with adaptive learning isn’t just about keeping up; it’s about setting the pace and staying ahead. It’s about making sure that every piece of training is not just a task to be completed but a part of a larger, evolving picture that employees are excited to be a part of. 

    This approach ensures that your organization is not only adapting to the present but is also future-ready, cultivating an environment where continuous improvement is part of the everyday norm. Isn’t that the kind of culture we all want to work in? 


    One thing that should become apparent after this exploration of adaptive learning cultures is that while at first, they seem a far cry from the “adaptive learning” solutions promised by the new wave of AI assisted tools, they are much closer in aims and goals and aims than we might initially suspect.  

    Consider that one of the aims of creating an adaptive learning culture is to help ensure that learning is flexible, ongoing, can adapt quickly to organizational needs and recognises that trainings on the same topic might be different for different teams and roles.  

    In fact, it’s not hard to imagine that to properly function, adaptive learning technology pre-supposes an adaptive learning culture in order to have the necessary freedom to make changes updates and pivots in learning effective in contributing to organizational goals.    

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