Learning Agility: Understanding Its Potential in the Workplace
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learning agility

Learning Agility: Understanding Its Potential in the Workplace

HR managers are key resources in spotting and developing learning agility in any organisation. Research from many respected human resources authorities has shown that the ability to learn from experience is one of the key characteristics of people with high potential. High potential employees usually agility in self-appraisal but not always. Those who respond flexibly to new processes and institutional changes perform even more effectively than high potential employees.

What Is Learning Agility?

Learning agility is the ability to incorporate new material quickly, and the concept developed in the business world where it was found that the ability to learn quickly and use that information in business was the strongest predictor of success. Those with agility show strong leadership qualities. Only about one-third of high-potential employees with strong learning agility live up to their promise, but those with various dimensions of learning agility perform at the highest rate. These skills can be developed and improved. Those with various agilities learn quickly from information and experience, take risks, strive for growth and exhibit resiliency. These people absorb information through books and classes, peer learning, direct experience and reflections on past performances. Even failure can prove valuable to those with agility because they grow from their unsuccessful experiences.

The Five Dimensions of Learning Agility

Learning agility isn’t a single skill but a broad area that includes at least five aspects of learning. Each person is likely to have relative skills and shortcomings in different categories, so it’s critical to determine how each employee ranks in five categories. These agility characteristics categories, which were identified by Korn/Ferry Lominger after extensive research, include:

1. Mental Agility

Mental agility, despite common misinterpretation, doesn’t mean intelligence and book smarts but is closer in meaning to street smarts. Those with agility awareness are curious and work quickly to identify the salient practicalities in new information and work processes. These people cut through extraneous information, quickly find the most relevant insights and use that data to improve business practices and perform their duties at the highest level.

2. People Agility

People agility consists of people skills and leadership qualities. Those with people agility connect with others on an emotional level and display true empathy. Others look to them when changes occur or a crisis develops. These individuals work through conflict, value diversity and obtain actionable insights from different perspectives.

3. Change Agility

People with change agility thrive on new challenges and first-time endeavours. Unlike people who prefer highly structured and predictable work situations, these workers prefer to challenge the status quo, try new methods and improve business operations and/or their work environments. These individuals aren’t afraid to fail because they learn something even when they don’t succeed the first time.

4. Results Agility

Results agility is similar to change agility, but those with strong results agility strive to succeed the first time. These people consistently deliver the best results when undertaking new challenges.

5. Self-Awareness

Self-awareness is a critical element of career success. People who know their own strengths and weaknesses perform better on average than those with any of the other skills. A Cornell study found that accurate self-awareness was the greatest factor in predicting leadership qualities and career success.

Smart managers and HR staff encourage development in each area while using relative skills and weaknesses to allocate resources more effectively. For example, those with strong people skills might become managers, front-office staff or salespeople. Those with self-awareness know their limitations and try to get projects within their respective wheelhouses. Results-oriented performers show others how to succeed in new projects, and those with change agility find new and better ways to accomplish their duties.

Why Learning Agility Is Important?

Today’s complex and competitive business environment has generated many changes in standard operating procedures including more flexible and agile responses to change. Leaders can’t rely on traditional practices where employees follow well-established and inflexible rules. Savvy leaders respond proactively to change and industry trends, and they do so by inspiring and cultivating learning agility in their teams. Fostering a learning ecosystem gives employees the tools to access educational resources, advance their careers and establish themselves favourably in their industries and among their peer-to-peer contacts.

Learning Agility’s Relevance in Developing Leadership Qualities

Leadership qualities often occur naturally in certain individuals, but these qualities can be developed by cultivating learning agility. Today’s rapidly evolving business trends require new skills and a willingness to adapt. Developing agility helps to foster the right leadership qualities that statistics show are increasingly essential. Research conducted by Forrester and the Business Marketing Association found the following relevant insights for learning agility appraisal comments examples:

  • Leadership qualities are essential because 88 percent of workers turn to their peers for data and insights.
  • About 34 percent of people feel overwhelmed by change, so learning agility becomes increasingly critical.
  • 60 percent of HR departments actively recruit younger people because they are more comfortable with digital technologies and innovations.
  • 21 percent of workers feel that their skills have already become obsolete.


Predictors of Learning Agility

There are many benchmarks for predicting learning agility. The best forecasters are based on core competencies, which is why it’s critical to analyse work performance to identify strengths and weaknesses. Managers can strengthen the analyses by monitoring performance carefully, challenging teams to develop new skills and encouraging team members to identify and reflect on their strengths and weaknesses. Some of the best predictors of people who have learning agility include:

  • Deals with ambiguity
  • Shows strong problem-solving skills
  • Learns on the fly
  • Manages conflict well
  • Listens actively
  • Demonstrates perspective
  • Sizes up people quickly
  • Deals well with paradoxes
  • Works well alone
  • Pursues personal learning
  • Demonstrates patience
  • Grasps process management imperatives
  • Thinks creatively
  • Understands others through strong empathy
  • Retains composure in difficult situations
  • Motivates others
  • Organises effectively
  • Shows accurate self-knowledge
  • Has command skills and leadership qualities
  • Recognises political issues and deals with them perceptively


How to Cultivate Learning Agility

HR staff and managers can cultivate learning agility by creating supportive environments for taking risks and learning agility appraisal comments. Creating a conducive environment for learning involves designing workspaces that are free-flowing instead of trapping people in small cubicles. The best learning environments go beyond the physical to include the entire ecosystem of the organisation. That includes workspace design, managerial and executive support for innovation and building a learning culture. Identify, recognise and encourage people to develop leadership qualities.

It’s critical to give people enough space to experiment through trial-and-error. Encourage workers to take educated risks without delivering recriminations for failure. It’s important to develop a mindset of openness and receptivity to new ideas and different ways of doing things. Managers can reward workers based on how quickly they learn new skills. Motivating people to learn is a direct benefit of developing managers who have strong leadership qualities. Best practices for fostering workplace agility include:

  • Discussing inspirational stories and case studies of creativity and innovation
  • Initiating group discussions where people build pro-and-con arguments for specific initiatives
  • Solving problems with a logical and systematic approach
  • Carefully considering each team member’s viewpoint, beliefs and values
  • Incorporating different perspectives in action plans
  • Evaluating arguments critically to encourage rational thinking
  • Offering developmental, educational and microlearning resources
  • Promoting people who quickly absorb new skills
  • Using rewards, recognition and gamification to encourage developing leadership qualities
  • Providing mentors, coaches and peer-to-peer assistance for learning new skills

Learning agility is perhaps the single most critical benchmark that determines business success, employee potential and leadership qualities. HR managers face enormous challenges for succession planning, retaining top talent and troubleshooting change management. Leaders must constantly adapt to succeed and remain competitive. Fostering greater learning agility provides the critical blueprints for developing talent in-house and fostering staff loyalty and career satisfaction.

Ari Kopoulos

CEO at EmployeeConnect