Learning Agility: Building Learning Organizations

Written By

Arun Pradhan

March 08, 2018

Spoiler alert—this article will end with a call to action, asking for your help to explore a crucial issue that will empower L&D professionals to deliver real value: learning agility, learning to learn and unlearn at speed.

But first, here’s a quote about fish.

“In the new world, it is not the big fish which eats the small fish, it’s the fast fish which eats the slow fish.”

—Klaus Schwab

As executive chairperson of the World Economic Forum, Schwab is helping to popularize our understanding of the fourth industrial revolution—an era of rapid change where advances in technology are disrupting the way we work and live.

It’ll be a while before the dust settles on the impact of AI, the rise of the “gig economy,” and the influence of cryptocurrencies, but it’s hard to deny that we’re experiencing continued and accelerated change.

Automation has already taken over many repetitive, simple tasks, demanding that people climb Bloom’s Taxonomy and embrace higher order thinking and complex skills. You’ve probably seen countless “top skills for the future” lists. Here’s another (Figure 1):

Higher order thinking skills diagram

Figure 1: These are the skills that are most needed as work evolves to demand higher order thinking.  

This understanding has guided my professional direction for some time, leading me to identify three key areas of capability:

  • Design thinking, which encompasses empathy, collaboration and problem solving
  • Learning agility, which, as noted above, is essentially learning to learn and unlearn at speed
  • Leveraging digitally driven performance data, including xAPI

For now, I’ll focus on learning agility.

Learning agility

This conversation harks back to the ground-breaking work by Peter Senge around “learning organizations” during the 1990s, although the increased pressure of speed is a crucial development that has seen renewed interest in “agility” come to the fore.

Here is an extended definition:

Learning agility is the ability to continually and rapidly learn, unlearn, and relearn mental models and practices from a variety of experiences, people, and sources, and to apply that learning in new and changing contexts to achieve desired results.

In terms of how to achieve this, I’m influenced by Kolb’s experiential learning cycle and would argue that learning agility is achieved through a continuous, rapid, and dynamic flow between reflection and experience, which I’ve captured in Figure 2.

Diagram illustrating the development of learning agility

Figure 2: How learning agility emerges through reflection and experience.

In reality, this is never a simple progressive cycle; it’s a messy and unpredictable process that leaps from point to point. In addition, learning agility can and must play out at multiple levels, for individuals, teams, and organizations. Finally, it’s a process that can be improved.

A reality check and opportunity for L&D

That last point is particularly relevant for L&D professionals. While traditionally our industry has focused on delivering “event-based training,” this brave new world is calling—even demanding—for us to improve and expand our offerings. Just as other industries are transforming, L&D professionals must become experts in enabling rather than training. This involves designing learning ecosystems and using a range of strategies to support these dynamic cycles of experience and reflection.

In my opinion, that means we must explore, master, and champion learning agility.

Learning agility for individuals

Until recently, I’ve focused much of my attention on how an individual (rather than organization) can become a powerful, agile learner.

Practicing what I preach, I’ve spent countless hours studying agile learners (especially gamers and developers), as well as reading, experimenting, and working out loud around this topic.

My research culminated in the launch of the Learn2Learn app, which explores 18 key topics to empower individuals with learning agility. These include how to:

●        Learn and unlearn a diverse range of mental models for creative problem solving;

●        Use feedback to improve cycles of deliberate practice;

●        Use performance support to lower cognitive load;

●        Reflect and make sense of complex information and experiences; and

●        Fail faster, with prototyping and root cause analysis to learn more from failure.

I’ve captured and chunked these topics in an infographic (Figure 3):

Diagram of key practices for learning agility

Figure 3: Key practices that develop and support learning agility.

Although I have given you a quick taste of how individuals can develop learning agility, that’s not what I intend to focus on here. After all, there’s an app for that. What I’m particularly interested in exploring is how this plays out at an organizational level.

Learning agility for organizations

In today’s era of accelerated change the billion-dollar question is: How can organizations enable and harness learning agility to better meet their goals?

With the drive to meet customer needs more deeply and rapidly, the answer to the above question represents the ultimate competitive advantage. Solving it will enable organizations to rapidly adapt, innovate, and even lead disruption.

In other words, as the fourth industrial revolution continues to unfold, learning agility will be the difference between an organization thriving or disappearing.

So how do we enable learning agility in organizations? Figure 4 represents some of my work in progress.

Diagram of interactions that enable learning agility in organizations

Figure 4: Enabling learning agility within organizations happens through specific interactions.

Rather than a definitive model, I present this in the spirit of encouraging discussion and debate. It’s also a timely moment for me to circle back to the call to action I mentioned earlier.

Your mission, should you choose to accept it...

This is the first article in a monthly “learning agility” series I’ll be writing for Learning Solutions.

I don’t intend to write a traditional column. Rather, I’m inviting you to be part of a conversation that will help arm L&D professionals with ideas, strategies, and techniques to enable learning agility.

I intend to use these articles to support that conversation by working out loud and sharing experiments, ideas, case studies, interviews, research and more.

Please join in by:

  • Sharing your experiences in enabling learning agility with me directly via Linkedin or Twitter (and possibly be featured in future columns)
  • Providing feedback and thoughts via the comments function below this article
  • Sharing this article and inviting others to participate

The second article in this series will feature Brian Murphy, head of learning and leadership at Citi. It will highlight how a marketing-styled campaign helped encourage a culture of continuous learning.

But please, don’t wait a month to contribute. We’re at an important juncture where L&D risks being relegated to the irrelevance of order takers and “checkbox training,” even as learning agility is becoming the new currency for success.

I remain confident that together we can develop strategies to embrace Option B— where we enable people and organizations to learn, innovate, and adapt faster than ever before.

So again, I ask for your help. Please share your experience of developing learning agility, and how this conversation is playing out in your world. Does Figure 4 resonate with you, or would you add other factors? And what case studies or topics would you like me to explore in future columns?

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