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Building the Adaptive Learning Organization for Government

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Bill Brantley
November 16, 2020

I have been in teaching and training for a quarter of a century now. In 1995, I trained informally and took classes on instructional systems design from the (then) U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Graduate School. From 1995 to 2020, I have seen teaching and training change rapidly as the world became more connected, agile and dynamic.

As governments become more connected, agile and dynamic, government training departments are compelled to change. But change how? What are the best practices for the new government training departments? Maybe one model is the Adaptive Learning Organization.

The Adaptive Learning Organization (ALO) results from Josh Bersin and NIIT (a learning and development consultancy). According to their research, ALOs are, “27% more cost-efficient,” and deliver, “Significantly higher engagement, retention and leadership scores.” What makes ALOs so effective? A set of 15 best practices grouped into three areas: sensing, decisionmaking and innovation.


The sensing area’s five best practices help the organization determine probable futures and what capabilities will be needed by the workforce to confront those futures. The first best practice is trend analysis, which is a scan of the organization’s environment. The second and third best practices center on discovering learning needs and measuring the learning impact of building new organizational capabilities. A digital strategy is the fourth strategy that deals with the strategic use of new learning technologies to deliver more effective and efficient training. The fifth best practice is personalization, where training is individualized to the employee’s specific developmental needs.

The sensing best practices help the organization align its future strategic needs with developing the right knowledge, skills and abilities for the workforce. The strategies also push the concept of learning in the flow of work instead of training as an event. This shift in thinking will increase the relevancy of the training and create greater learner engagement.


There are also five best practices for the deciding area. Probably the most essential best practice is creating a leadership culture that supports employee development throughout the organization.

The second best practice is designing a roles and capabilities talent mobility process so the right people with the right skills are in the right place. The organization uses the information from the sensing best practices to feed into the decision area’s third best practice of creating the future of work model. This model informs the fourth and fifth best practices of building flexible capacity and capability academies.

Of the decision area’s five best practices, capability academies seem the most useful to government organizations. Capability academies go beyond building skills or competencies for the government workforce. Capability academies help employees achieve outcomes based on their abilities and capacity for action. I have seen training programs in which participants learn how to do something but are not given the power to make what they learned happen. With a capability academy, the leadership sends a message they want the employees to act and are encouraged to act.


Then, there are five best practices in the innovation (also known as “evolve”) area. First, there is the emerging L&D technology best practice. The emerging L&D technology best practice is supported by the digital strategy best practice of the sensing area because the digital strategy helps the organization effectively implement the new learning technologies. The second best practice is the use of design thinking to build empathy with the learners in creating engaging training products and services. The third best practice is learning in the flow of work, which supports the personalization best practice and capability academies best practice. Agile practices are the fourth best practice that enables the ALO to blend design thinking with agile thinking to create a training organization responsive to the organization’s dynamic environment. The innovation area’s final best practice is the creation of learning journeys that support the best practices of personalization and capability academies.

The fifteen best practices combine to create a training department continuously sensing its environment best to align its strategic objectives with its workforce’s capabilities. People are the key to organizational success, and therefore learning and development are essential. Training departments need to be agile in determining how to develop the employees best.

First Steps in Creating an Adaptive Learning Organization

The key to building an ALO is implementing a sensing capability. Government organizations must make an excellent environmental scanning capability while gaining the buy-in of the organization’s leadership. The next step is to create scenarios for the future capabilities of the government agency’s workforce. With this foundation in place, the agency can then start on the rest of the 15 best practices.

Author: Bill Brantley teaches at the University of Louisville and the University of Maryland. He also works as a Federal employee for the U.S. Navy’s Inspector General Office. All opinions are his own and do not reflect the views of his employers. You can reach him at http://billbrantley.com.

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