Learning Agility: What? So What? And Now What?

In the 21st century we find ourselves in the midst of VUCA (Volatility, Uncertainty Complexity and Ambiguity). The term was originally coined by the United States Army War College to describe changing conditions on the battlefield. It is now widely used as the acronym for the reality of everyday life and work.

To be effective in changing contexts, we need to develop new capacities and competencies. Perhaps the most important of these is Learning Agility. In this short blog post, I will introduce the concept (What?), comment on its importance (So What?) and share a few ideas for how you can begin to develop your own and others Learning Agility (Now What?).

What?

Learning agility is the ability to learn and adapt in changing contexts (Mitchinson & Morris, 2012). In their study of more than 190 executives’ significant learning experiences, Management researchers McCall, Lombardo and Morrison (1988)identified the key to success within a complex organization: the ability to manage something new without having to master it first (p. 34). Learning agility is not simply the ability to think on your feet, it is the ability to access and apply lessons learned in one context to another.

So What?

It turns out that being competent, even excellent, in your current role is a weak predictor of your potential for success in a new, more challenging role. In fact, according to research published by the Corporate Leadership Council (2005), only 30% of an organization’s current high performers have the potential to rise to and succeed in broader, senior level, critical positions. A 2010 study by the Korn/Ferry Institute identified learning agility as the top ranking predictor of leadership success, while estimating that only 15% of the workforce is “highly learning agile” (De Meuse, Dai, & Hallenbeck). Perhaps most important for organizational leaders, learning agility is an essential component of organizational agility, which is proving to return significant bottom line benefits for those who make it a strategic priority (Glenn, 2009).

Now What?

Realizing that learning agility is essential to organizational success, managers and learning and development professionals are starting to make it a key strategic priority. Learning agility is not something easily acquired in a classroom, though formal learning that is particularly timely is more likely to be transferred into practice. A few steps you can take to maximize the value of formal training (for yourself and others) for learning agility include:

  • Think about your current work/life challenges and identify skills, knowledge and capacities that would help you be more effective.
  • Prior to formal learning experiences, identify your personal learning goals (these may differ from those described in the course materials). Ideally, share these goals with a colleague or supervisor before you participate in the formal learning.
  • Keep a learning log to make note of key insights and particularly relevant lessons, as well as questions and topics for future exploration.
  • Within a few days of the learning experience meet with your colleague or supervisor and share your learning and what progress you made toward your learning goals and discuss how you can implement/experiment with your new learning. If possible, create an opportunity to share your learning more broadly with colleagues via a brown bag lunch, company newsletter or blog post.
  • Experiment with putting your new learning into practice and reflect on your results.
  • Repeat.

We can all take more responsibility for seeking out new formal and informal learning opportunities that expand our skills and knowledge and increase our effectiveness in new roles and contexts. Not all learning opportunities are created equal. Research shows that learning experiences that have the most significant impact on learning agility are those that are “emotional, require risk-taking and have real-life consequences” (De Meuse, Dai, & Hallenbeck, 2010, p. 121). These can include:

  • Stretch assignments that challenge people to work outside of their comfort zone
  • New Leadership Roles, especially those that expand on the scope of prior experience
  • Living/working in a new culture
  • Reflecting on Lessons Learned from both Good and Bad Bosses
  • Mentoring/Coaching, to help people seek out new learning opportunities and mine those experiences for lessons learned

These are just a few places to start developing your own and others’ capacity for learning agility. As you think about your own work setting, consider ways in which you can take responsibility for your own learning and development, and help others do the same.

De Meuse, K. P., Dai, G., & Hallenbeck, G. S. (2010). Learning agility: A construct whose time has come. Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research, 62(2), 119-130.

Glenn, M. (2009). Organisational agility: How business can survive and thrive in turbulent times: Economist Intelligence Unit.

McCall, M. W., Lombardo, M. M., & Morrison, A. M. (1988). Lessons of experience: How successful executives develop on the job. Lexington, MA: Lexington Books.

Realizing the full potential of rising talent. (2005). Washington, DC: Corporate Executive Board: Corporate Leadership Council.

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