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What Is Learning Agility? Why Is It Vital For Businesses?

Asavari Sharma

January 18, 2022

It is an unpredictable world out there, and never more so than in the post-pandemic scenario. Businesses are having to rethink how to survive and thrive rapidly, and the ones who are doing so the fastest will be the ones that make it out strongest.

In order to accomplish this, businesses need to be ready and willing to learn on the fly, which is where the concept of learning agility comes in.

Here, we offer an introduction to learning agility in the context of a business and how leaders can incorporate it into the way their teams function. Let us begin:

What is learning agility?

Simply put, learning agility is the ability to learn and relearn as and when needed. It can be visualized as having a constantly flexible toolkit on hand, getting rid of whatever that does not work, and adding whatever is needed rather than forcing oneself to ‘make do.’

An official learning agility definition by Columbia University and the Center for Creative Leadership describes it as a collection of best practices that allow leaders to continually cultivate and leverage new strategies to deal with the complicated problems they face in their organizations.

In a nutshell, learning agility, essentially, is a mindset that promotes continuous growth and adaptation in the face of new and increasingly complex challenges. A Deloitte survey reports that ‘agility and collaboration’ are critical to organizational success.

In this day and age, agility is no longer a new concept. In fact, it is a global best practice that has been instrumental in disrupting workplaces across the globe, including huge brands such as Amazon, Facebook, Google, Apple, and Microsoft.

The dimensions of learning agility

Korn Ferry has described five dimensions of learning agility, all of which are important to measuring a company’s adaptability. They include:

1. Mental agility

This involves the ability and willingness to ask questions and keep learning as and when necessary. Mentally agile people operate from the premise that they do not know everything, but they can try to learn as much as possible. They are quick to observe, question, identify, and suggest changes as they are alive to their environment.

2. Self-awareness agility

This involves understanding one’s own strengths and weaknesses and seeking out feedback so that they can work on both. Self-awareness is crucial to gathering the exact learning skills necessary for each person to grow.

3. People agility

Those with people agility can talk to, work with and get along with people of all backgrounds and beliefs. They recognize that disagreement does not have to spoil a good working relationship and invite opposing views when it comes to brainstorming or collaboration. They are also highly empathetic and tend to have strong leadership qualities.

4. Change agility

Those with change agility embrace transformation and are always open to it, even when things might seem just fine as they are. Such people tend to consistently take up new challenges, such as picking up new methods of accomplishing things for the sake of the business.

5. Results agility

This is perhaps the simplest to measure, as there are concrete benchmarks involved, but there are also powerful subtleties.

People who strive towards delivering results in first-time situations tend to pick projects that they have high probabilities of succeeding at. However, they are also the first to pick up learnings from the things they did not succeed at and then apply them elsewhere.

They are eager to help others achieve positive results. In an agile organization, all the employees will possess these forms of agility in varying proportions. Therefore, these agilities will reinforce each other at the overarching level and enable significant shifts ahead.

Why learning agility matters

Perhaps one of the strongest learning agility examples that we know of occurred in March 2020, when the COVID-19 lockdowns began.

Almost overnight, people had to learn a whole new set of skills, including how to manage video software like Zoom or Microsoft Teams and how to set boundaries at home where spouses and other family members are now around 24x7.

The brands that emerged the strongest were the ones that adapted to these new skill requirements and learned how to continue marketing their products under restrictions.

Those that had trouble adapting were forced to make tough decisions, including laying people off or reducing their scale of operations. With 58.6% of employees feeling overwhelmed by change, it is natural for them to turn to peers.

Resilient employees are the need of the hour

It is perhaps self-evident that people in general — not just company employees — need to be able to pick up new skills and embrace them as and when needs arise. Without that ability, they are almost bound not to succeed.

For any business, this needs to happen at a company-wide level. It is often observed that there is internal resistance to a change even when the change is obviously for the better or when the first-mover advantage is in the company’s hands.

Giving in to this resistance can lead to costly mistakes, as it did when Kodak delayed its release of a digital camera and stuck to film. By contrast, learning agility can enable companies to generate up to 25% higher profit margins than their less agile competitors.

Leadership qualities and learning agility

High-performing organizations operate as empowered networks, coordinating through information systems, culture, and talent mobility. Leadership qualities often occur in specific individuals, but these qualities can evolve better by cultivating learning agility.

Developing agility helps grow exemplary leadership qualities, and that is important. More than half of HR departments actively recruit those applicants who are comfortable with digital technologies and innovations.

How HR can assess learning agility

Ideally, a company that wishes to maximize its learning agility will hire those employees most open to learning themselves. However, what is important to remember is that learning agility can be taught even to the most resistant of employees.

Therefore, the best way to improve agility is by tailoring the program to bring out the best in all the employees, which requires understanding where they are positioned currently. Here is how the HR department, in three steps, can do it:

1. Set learning agility tests

There are several professional learning agility assessments that you can use for your teams, such as those by IBM, Mettl, or any other stellar pre-employment assessment tool. It is crucial to pick a test that has been benchmarked and assessed for accuracy.

However, none of these tests is 100% accurate, so they should be supplemented with performance tests and benchmarked to specifics like department or level in the company. Emotional intelligence tests can also give you insights into who is most receptive to change.

Using Adaface, for example, you can conduct a series of tests to assess the candidate’s psychometry, problem-solving capabilities, logical reasoning prowess, critical thinking skills, and so on, besides the usual technical and non-technical knowledge.

2. Also test their cognitive ability

All functions in job roles are becoming increasingly novel or non-repetitive across the globe and need the application of cognitive abilities.

A big part of learning agility and soft skills like receptiveness and attitude to feedback is cognitive ability. It helps, therefore, to conduct cognitive tests for your current and prospective employees and identify which skills, if any, they need particular help with.

3. Focus on the candidate’s ability to adapt during interviews

When hiring someone new, test their openness to change with the right interview questions. For instance, you could ask them how they would approach a problem entirely new to their experience or how their experience has been with accepting and acting on feedback.

One of the learning agility interview questions could be about the people they have learned the most from, be they leaders, colleagues, or even people junior to them.

Candidates who are always receptive to feedback and act on it, regardless of where the feedback came from, are the most likely to be strong assets to a learning agility program.

Additionally, ask a ‘what if’ question. For instance: “What if you were given a new team to lead, which steps would you undertake?”

And when a candidate confidently answers the question, throw in a curveball and test their flexibility and speed to solve problems. Reduce their budget or time, remove resources, and ask them how they would reach the outcome in different scenarios.

Their responses will throw a shine on key behaviors of learning agility such as experimentation, collaboration, reflection, interpersonal risk-taking, feedback-seeking, and so on.

Best practices for building learning agility

Managers need to enable team members to learn extensively and in-depth as the need arises. This calls for a company-wide learning system, from the highest levels to the most junior ones — an essential step for achieving long-term organizational growth.

A collaborative environment is key, as is one where employees feel comfortable asking questions and seeking out new opportunities. Here are some best practices for managers looking to enhance learning agility at work:

1. Determine necessary system/process updates

In most cases, businesses will find that implementing a culture of learning agility calls for improvements in the way their software systems and processes run. Determine precisely what is needed, be it a revamped knowledge sharing portal or the removal of access barriers to crucial case studies, and then implement it as soon as possible.

2. Help employees target their weak areas

With the right performance, cognitive and psychometric assessments, managers can help their employees gain proper clarity on what they need to improve. This gives them a roadmap to start them off on the learning agility process.

3. Encourage them to make mistakes

All too often, managers talk a lot about learning through failure but then come down hard on their employees for making mistakes. This will only end up discouraging team members from trying new things.

If you want to build agility, encourage experimentation and foster a culture where mistakes are viewed as learning opportunities. You can even share your own mistakes and what you learned from them so that your team members can see you genuinely mean what you say.

4. Encourage cross-training

In siloed organizations, teams can fall into patterns of doing the same thing over and over. An excellent way to break out of the old mindsets is by letting one department observe how a different department approaches problem-solving. This can give them new ideas and help them break out of ruts and find innovative solutions.

5. Offer peer mentoring/job shadowing opportunities

If your employee expresses an interest in trying something new, facilitate them by giving them a chance to shadow other employees in that role. You can also match them with a mentor who can impart skill-based learnings while taking them through a relevant live project.

At the same time, reach out to your highly skilled employees and senior leaders and offer them incentives to serve as trainers and mentors for anyone interested.

6. Reward progress

Have a structured reward system for progress made with learning objectives or experimenting with new projects. This reward system should hold good even if the results are not perfect. The focus is not to demotivate the under-performing employees and not get everything right at one go but should be on taking steps in the right direction.

Over to you

Leaders often have an intuition about the level of learning agility within the organization, even if they do not use the exact words to describe their feeling.

Learning agility is not necessarily an academic skill. It just encapsulates an individual’s ability and inclination to study a new problem and use their methods to better understand before making a decision.

At the end of the day, it is essential to acknowledge that the world is changing rapidly and that businesses need to change along with it if they hope to survive and thrive.

It is agility that will enable this thriving even in the face of significant challenges, and accomplishing it calls for a company-wide culture that encourages learning and relearning at all levels and at all times.

Asavari Sharma

Asavari is an EiR at Adaface. She has made it her mission to help recruiters deploy candidate-friendly skill tests instead of trick-question based tests. When taking a break, she obsesses over art.

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