Organisational learning agility: an essential capability for surviving and thriving amid change

Organisational learning agility is not yet a fully recognised or mature area of knowledge or practice. As a learning provider, we at Skilla have seen it as core to our role for nearly two decades that we help develop organisations’ learning agility through our “multiple intelligences” method which stimulates heutagogy, our Learning Paths for key business processes such as Induction and Inclusive Leadership, and through deep L&D collaborations, for example with corporate Academies.

We will soon publish more insights on this theme, including our evolving theory of organisational learning agility in practice. For now, we wanted to share our thoughts and conclusions so far to encourage others to raise the profile of learning agility within their organisations, and to consider how it might be driven and measured, as it will be key to maintaining efficiency and staying one step ahead in these turbulent times.

Why do we need it?

As businesses operate in an increasingly globalised marketplace, with all the challenges, risks and opportunities that this brings, and technology advances ever onwards, the world is becoming a smaller place by the day – and these changes are being massively accelerated by the pandemic.

With the world growing smaller, then, every individual and organisation is being bombarded with more ‘noise’: more complex information for people to filter and navigate, processes to adjust to and integrate, changes to adapt to and embed. To deal with all this, besides the essential and broad set digital competencies, we need new strategies and competencies in the process of learning itself, to make the best use of the information we receive. For example, when does information become knowledge, and how do we then apply, transfer and disseminate that knowledge within the organisation, and beyond as appropriate? What behaviours help us do this effectively, efficiently and collectively?

That’s where learning agility comes into play: it involves our skill, judiciousness and efficiency in employing a range of different learning capabilities, utilising the different domains (cognitive, affective etc), learning methods, intelligences and sensory capacities to recognise, react and adapt quickly and effectively to changes in the business landscape.

The basics of Learning Agility: An “agile” mind must let the 5 types of agility blossom by harnessing the 4 driving forces and eliminating the
retaining force.

What is organisational learning agility?

Before we explore learning agility at the organisational level, what is it in the first place? Several different definitions have surfaced over the years, but we offer this:
organisational learning agility is the capability to learn from experience at an organisational level, based on an embedded learning culture, so that individually and collectively staff can adapt to changing contexts with agility, cohesion and the optimum balance of speed and preparedness.

Learning from experience

It may be easier to first consider learning agility in the individual. For an individual, learning agility is how effective one is at employing different learning methods, approaches and strategies to adapt to changing circumstances. In other words, think of it as knowing how to tackle something, with speed and due consideration, when you don’t know what to do.

The different aspects of practising learning agility

Imagine you’ve been asked by your manager to compile a new report, using software you’ve never even seen before. Agile learners are those who, faced with that unknown, rapidly apply themselves to the problem, filtering different learning approaches, e.g. “What’s the best way to approach this? Should I read the instructions online, should I plan what I want to do before using it, should I find a colleague who can advise, or should I just experience first hand how the software works first?” – to decide the best plan of action.

David Kolb contends that there are at least four different ‘doorways to learning’, through which learners can enter the experiential learning process: practical experience, reflective observation, abstract conceptualisation and active experimentation. An individual with learning agility is aware of the most appropriate doorway for them on a given challenge, before proceeding through the others. What’s more, it helps one practice different techniques to adapt to the situation and the level of complexity. If we master only one “learning style”, then our speed and accuracy will be more compromised the more complex the issue is.

The 9 techniques agile learners employ to adapt to new situations – how many of these do you use?

In the example above, the agile learner might first note the key features and commands in the software instructions, especially those needed to accomplish the task. After a period of practice and brief exploration of core features, and having established the source data, they might then start to put a test report together. Familiarising oneself with and experiencing the software, albeit quickly, is a more effective method for adapting it to the purpose than diving into the work blind, with no awareness of the tool.

For organisations, the same applies: in the face of new challenges, or blind spots discovered, how effective can the business be at learning from experience and applying it in different contexts in order to adapt? The organisation must operate as one body to respond, deciding on the best way to tackle the challenge based on considerations like ‘What have we experienced or do we know already that can help us here?’ (systems and processes obviously facilitate this); ‘Which learning tools might help us evaluate and qualify and utilise the new information?’; ‘Who’s best equipped in the team respectively to oversee the issue and to tackle each facet of it?’. In an agile learning organisation, such processes are habitual and systematised, so that results, and the right results, can be achieved more efficiently.

Embedding a learning culture

A crucial building block of organisational learning agility is that the organisation in question must have an embedded learning culture. A learning culture is one that allows, and encourages, employees to deal actively with new challenges (which can take a myriad of forms) and see these as learning opportunities, to share and collaborate in these opportunities, including taking risks (with the possibility of failure, but with support), and to reflect on both the outcomes and their own development, embedding the learning in work processes.

It’s not enough for a business to merely provide its workforce with learning resources. Of course understanding the theory is important, but without the chance to apply it in a ‘hands-on’ environment, learners won’t experience responding to challenges in real time, with real consequences, and therefore will not be able to develop their learning agility.

Even in organisations where there is understandably less room for risk-tolerance, squeezing it in where possible goes a long way in building a learning culture. Learners can practice new approaches and techniques in semi-live environments, on internal innovation challenges, on small projects, or while shadowing a colleague, or in scenario-planning workshops and exercises. They can then reflect on the outcomes and their own practice, and adapt their methods, at both the individual and organisational level, making them better equipped to face change when it inevitably comes.

Agility: a fine balance between speed and preparedness

When developing learning agility, we should not mistake agility only for speed. Businesses  are of course under pressure to get to market first and respond to challenges, whether customer or regulation-related immediately. But the product or service brought to market has to have been efficiently and effectively tested and experienced, the regulation properly understood and applied based on past experience, if it’s done with learning agility.

Speed is of course an important factor in exercising learning agility, but it has to be tempered with other qualities and skills, like preparedness, technique, control and  a degree of systemic thinking. An athlete doing the high jump won’t clear the bar by just sprinting towards it at full pelt and leaping: they must know where to plant their take-off foot, at what angle, how to transfer their speed into their launch height, when to snap their legs to clear the bar and so on. Without this fine level of control, and full understanding of the challenge in the round, their speed counts for little.

The same applies to organisational learning agility: instead of just responding to challenges as quickly as practically possible and considering it done, agile businesses must prepare themselves by having strategies that can be adjusted, a memory bank of learning experience (which in young businesses can come from individuals and be shared), and operations that can be effectively reconfigured to deal with new and developing roadblocks. Even if some initial speed is sacrificed here, fewer mistakes will enable the agile learning organisation to make more progress, more often and more consistently, than the knee-jerk one (the Tortoise in the end was more agile for the task than the Hare, though these days businesses need to be agile Hares!).

How do you make sure that your organisation has this balance? A good starting point is to ensure that staff, particularly those individuals responsible for leading the business and managing teams, are continually developing their Transversal Competencies – future-proof skills, like collaborative problem solving, initiative and independent thinking, resilience, adaptability – and so have the tools for learning agility and facilitating it in others too.

In addition, an agile learning organisation has a good level of self-awareness: an understanding of how well, and how efficiently it responds to both external and internal changes. This self-knowledge enables the assignment of the right tasks to the right roles in projects and teams when tackling business issues, so that each aspect of a problem or opportunity can be dealt with in synergy by suitably skilled people, while collaborative capability and capacity is enhanced.

Change is the only constant

“The only constant in life is change” – an essential mantra for agile learners, both individuals and organisations alike. For businesses, being open and ready for change is essential for organisational learning agility, and the benefits can be enormous. Learning agility enables us to perceive patterns in changes and sometimes, to anticipate them; learning agility is a fundamental prerequisite for effective scenario planning and futures thinking, an ability which is seen as increasingly important internationally.

When an organisation develops strategic foresight through having practised and embedded learning agility, it can react to changes in context at short notice, while adapting the long-term strategy to continue to achieve key business objectives while integrating new ones, and it is better equipped to thrive in situations like the current pandemic.

At Skilla, our mission is to empower learning agility in both individual and organisation. We’ve recognised from the start that business learning isn’t just about the content. We employ different learning techniques, methods and intelligences in our multimedia courses for learners to exercise and make their own, so when old content is eventually replaced with new, as is often the case, they can adapt to it smoothly and skilfully.

If you’d like to know more about practising learning agility, or if you’re interested in developing it for your organisation, don’t hesitate to get in touch! We have over 20 years of enabling learners and companies to practise agile learning, and are always researching and developing new learning formats and approaches – such as our Mobile Learning App, an adaptive learning solution – to ensure they’re as effective as can be, and to facilitate learning as part of and an enhancement to the work process, rather than a separate activity.

Finally we are currently conducting a short survey on organisational learning agility: if you would like to help shape and mature this important new aspect of Learning and Development, please check back on our homepage in a few days time, where you’ll be able to complete our survey (it’s brief and multiple-choice so will not take much of your time!).

written by: Simon Whittemore , 17 December 2020

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