Interview with Joe Barrow, Adaptive Learning Expert

A 2021 report from LinkedIn on the “State of Workplace Learning” revealed that many organizations are investing millions – even billions – in “future-proofing” their employees, arming them with the skills needed for the new world of work. Beyond increasing employee engagement, workplace learning impacts companies’ bottom lines. A survey of 2,500 companies found that those with “comprehensive training programs” have 218% higher revenue per employee and 24% higher profit margins.

One area that we’ve seen a sharp rise in is Adaptive Learning. In fact, it’s reported that the global Adaptive Learning software market is expected to grow by 425.53 million during 2021-2025. With the focus for many organizations shifting to a more personalized way of learning, we wanted to hear from an expert on Adaptive Learning and how organizations can decide if it’s right for them.

In the latest episode of our podcast, “Bring Out The Talent,” TTA’s Director of Learning Solutions, John Laverdure, Talent Recruitment Manager, Jocelyn Allen, and President and CEO, Maria Melfa, sat down with Adaptive Learning expert, Joe Barrow, to take a deeper dive.

Q: What is Adaptive Learning?

A: I think in its simplest form, you could describe Adaptive Learning as personalized learning at scale. It’s really a matter of digging in and doing so with focus and purpose. Where companies really need to focus is getting below the surface. One thing I always try to say is what we’re not doing, and that is the Netflix approach. If you like this movie, you might want to see these other five movies. Personally, when I look at those other five movies, that’s when I end up asleep on the couch. You have an employee that’s sitting there and saying, gosh, I just left a seven-year career at Company A, to go to Company B, and two weeks in, they’re making me take courses or suggesting I take courses on really basic knowledge that I know I already have.

Area 9’s platform is constantly making those decisions on what are we going to show this person next to get them to proficiency. It’s very granular – we’re analyzing upwards of 20 or so variables per minute to get to that level of detail. As a result, it saves companies and employees a lot of time. For example, based on John’s experience, his role, and where he works – John should take these courses and put some mindful thought into that. Ultimately, I think we’ll get there. We just don’t think platforms are good enough to make those decisions as efficiently and as effectively as they can.

Q: Why is it important for organizations to think about Adaptive Learning and implementing a system in their company?

A: If you spend time reading industry literature, you’ll find that employees are demanding it. Employees are saying teach me the things I need to know in the most efficient way and let me get back to doing productive work. It’s a huge win for the employee and that rolls up to the business. We see that time and time again in the qualitative feedback we get from companies that have deployed the platform in that they can feel the platform adapting to them. To me, that’s one of the most important reasons why companies would want to do it.

Q: To help us visualize how Adaptive Learning can look in an organization, can you walk through a few examples?

A: We’ve worked with some major airlines with in-flight operations with pilot training, soft skills, crew resource management for a pilot, and all recurrent training that a pilot may do. A lot of large S.O.P manuals and those types of things across network operations in an airline, not necessarily really sexy type training, but airport codes, terminology across different systems in an airline load planning, all the things that happen in an airline to get it up in the air and safely back on or after it gets back on the ground. And then airport operations. The business of aviation versus just being a passenger.

Medical. We also have a very large-scale relationship with the American Heart Association for a more streamlined personal approach to resuscitation training. Additionally, we have an excellent long-standing relationship with the New England Journal of Medicine for physician training or training in pediatrics, internal medicine, and family medicine. Some really interesting data around increases in passing a board score on a first try after using our platform.

Retail. We also work with Shinola. Shinola is interesting not just because it’s a smaller company, but they do product training for watches and bicycles and a number of the other things they sell, but also around a lot of soft skills. For example, how to approach customers when they come into a store? What colors of clothing can you wear while you’re on the floor? So, there is a lot of stuff outside of just product training.

Banking. In the banking industry, we have a deployment that will ultimately get to well over 50 countries globally with a deep six-figure employment base. It’s focused on content development and review and how that process works. Some of the change management that’s associated with that. So, trying to recognize internal systems and processes and why they are what they are. And how can we put them in the context of an Adaptive Learning platform versus developing content in an external third party.

Oil and Gas. We do a lot of safety and training with a very large-scale oil and gas company globally. So, the platform for me touches a lot of really interesting businesses, both in terms of what they do, the scale with which they do it, and then also a lot of the internal operations we’ve been able to impact in terms of how this content is deployed and reviewed, et cetera.

Q: How long does the typical implementation take?

A: One of the deployment questions we typically get is, “what are the best practices? Can you send us a sample project plan?” When I get asked for something like a sample project plan, I really push back to say, I know we’re going to install and figure the software, we’re going to build workflows and we’re going to certify designers and we’re going to bring in partners, potentially. And that’s easy. But I have no idea what that’s really going to look like until we really start to dig in. So it can be, let’s say, a four-to-eight-week process and getting people in. It can be super quick, and you can build and scale a deployment that way. You don’t have to build everything at once and deploy and push it all out at the same time. So, I think it really depends on what is the business’s appetite. How fast can they go? And then also, what is the appetite across different segments within the company. We may start with ethics and compliance. We may start with diversity. We may start with sales. And then once they start seeing the data, how efficient the platform is, they can then take what they’ve done and scale across the rest of the business quite quickly.

Q: As organizations evaluate Adaptive Learning, what expertise should these organizations be looking for in an Adaptive Learning platform and company?

A: It’s an important question. I think if anyone Googles “Adaptive Learning,” you’ll see a ton of stuff. There are companies that have been around for a long time and there are a lot of new companies. It’s good for the space that there are new ideas and just continuing to raise awareness for what Adaptive Learning can be. I think some critical things that I look for if I were to get into a relationship or potential relationship with a business, I talk a lot in terms of the experience of not just the experience of our management team, but how long have they worked together. So, an Adaptive Learning project is going to have a lot of moving parts. It’s going to be much more fluid than traditional. So, I think it’s really important for a business to have an executive team not just with a lot of experience, but with a lot of experience working together. I think obviously the maturity of the platform itself and how many people have been through it speaks to how battle-tested it is. And then I also think experienced in the deployment, not just, let’s say, a traditional project manager who may have a lot of PMP experience, but some of those other roles, like a Chief Learning Officer or several Chief Learning Officers that are on staff, former customers that have a role with the platform out in earlier iterations that can see behind corners that have potential or a new customer might not even know exists. So, I think those are really important things to consider.

Q: As organizations go to implement Adaptive Learning, what have you found have been some of the key issues that companies need to dig into that they probably didn’t even think about?

A: I think there are several things that organizations will experience as they deploy and adopt a platform that they may not typically have to think about if they deploy another type of system in learning and development.

Feedback. Handling user feedback on the content, for example. So, we provide learners the ability to give feedback on the content. Well, that then presents an opportunity for a designer to edit things or to get a sense of what was the learner thinking when they read this question. But it’s something that needs to be monitored. How frequently will they do it? Who’s going to do it? When will they push updates to the course, et cetera, et cetera, those types of things.

Content Review. The overall content review process is a really important topic within our platform. We provide the opportunity to do all of the content reviews within the authoring engine itself. The process is much more efficient. But that process requires thought and mindful thought about who’s going to be doing those reviews and when and why.

Content Development. Content development is quite different. There isn’t always the need to do, say, a storyboard on the front end. It’s really focusing on granular learning objectives and then getting good quality probes or questions that are tied to those objectives and creating relevant learning resources.

Deployment. One of the areas we really try to focus on with businesses is the way we deploy, in a sense that traditional project management typically doesn’t work for us, or maybe a better way to say it slows down a deployment. Because many of the decisions that a customer is going to make are unchartered territory. And if we each have a significant number of people on the phone trying to figure that out in real-time, it grinds the process down. Think of it in terms of like an airplane – it needs speed to stay in the air. Typically, our teams on the call are much smaller than someone may experience where we have people digging into business. If someone says they want to do something, we’re always trying to get to what is the business need behind it? Not the problem, but what’s the business issue that we’re trying to solve here. And then typically we can do that a number of different ways versus here’s a problem, build something to fix it. And our traditional approach to project management slows that process down. So, in terms of how we deploy that is probably unique to a customer. Never seeing the many, many people on the back end that are doing all the build versus the one or two of them may be used to seeing on a phone call a traditional approach.

Q: For organizations that already have content and courses, how do they go about getting that content into the adaptive platform?

A: There is no easy button to get existing content into the platform. And it’s something we see overwhelmingly in terms of the majority of projects we do. It’s taking existing content and reengineering it and getting into the platform. So, in large part, we use AI to do the heavy lifting associated with these kinds of things around content development or reengineering. I think one of the misnomers with Adaptive Learning is most of the artificial intelligence is around analyzing someone’s free-form response to say is it right or is it wrong or did they answer this correctly or not? We don’t do that. We use AI to make the content development process as efficient as it can be, so we can allow designers to spend mindful time thinking about design versus cutting and pasting things. So, to specifically answer your question. We have several tools we can use to expedite that process. And it’s a longer-tail discussion about how they work. But I’d say there’s several ways to use some of these ingestion tools to take power points and videos and much more efficiently get them into the platform. We also have some really interesting tools. We call them content robots, where you could ingest, let’s say, if you took for an example in medicine like an intro to pharmacology, you know, one of those big five thousand multiple choice question books that you’d see to study for, like an LSAT or a medical exam. We can configure these robots to ingest that type of content and import it at scale and create thousands of questions very, very quickly using some of these tools. So, there are a number of options there. It really depends on what is the state of the content itself. Should it be reengineered at all, or should they start from scratch? And then where’s the opportunity to make it better or make it more efficient once it’s in the tool?

Q: Is there a typical path that an organization tends to follow as they start to see the value in using the platform?

A: I think the most important thing to consider here is how does the company approach deployment? I can tell you, for me and the rest of my colleagues, the way we look at deployment is that it is our objective to supersede what was discussed in the sales process and show value that exceeds their expectations. That is why having a team with experience is so critical, so you can get the most use of the platform as quickly as possible.

Now, how does that happen and when does it happen? I talked about sort of starting small. If all you did was multiple-choice questions, you’re going to see data that you never saw about what people know and what they don’t and where they have misconceptions about what they know. You’re going to see that people are learning quicker. So, all of that happens the second they take the first course. So, we can be as immediate as once people start going through modules. And then it’s a matter of how is an organization built to scale. So, if we start in one department, do we go to another or multiple? Then the value that we’re seeing will start to grow exponentially. If an organization is already a customer of some of our other content partners, well, we can flip that content to adaptive very quickly. So, in terms of the speed with which they see the value, they don’t have to wait for development time because that content’s already been done. So, it is immediate.

In parallel, they could certify their own design team so they can continue to build internally and not have to rely on Area 9 or one of our partners to build. So, the more they do in that regard, the more value they see. The speed with which that can happen will certainly vary. I think it’s more important to think about the different levers an organization can pull to achieve that value in the most efficient or quickest way possible.

Q: Are there some questions that organizations considering Adaptive Learning can ask themselves to see if Adaptive Learning makes sense to pursue or at least explore?

A: I think you’d be hard-pressed to find an organization that says they don’t want better data from their learning and development experience. You’d be hard-pressed to find a company, or a business, or a school that says we don’t want to be more operationally efficient. And it would be amazing if we could save a lot of time in the process. The challenge then is do the people really want to do it and are the right people in place that can impact that type of change? So those typically, when we think about the end game, I always think in terms of data efficiency and time as massive improvements for the business that they can leverage in all sorts of different ways.

Lifelong learning is an indispensable tool for every career and organization and Adaptive Learning can accelerate that process. For the full podcast episode click here. For more on Adaptive Learning connect with a TTA Learning Expert today!