Learning Agility: Fake News?

October 30, 2018

What is learning agility?

Learning agility was first coined by Lombardo & Eichinger (2000, p. 323) as “the willingness and ability to learn new competencies in order to perform under first-time, tough, or different conditions”. Since this initial conceptualisation of learning agility, there has been much debate regarding what learning agility and whether it is a new concept or whether it is simply an old concept that has been repackaged.

 

The topic of what learning agility is, is much debated as some view it as simply consisting of traditional psychological dimensions such as cognitive ability or openness to experience (amongst others). Others, however, view it as a unique and distinct concept. Regardless of what learning agility is conceptualised as, those with higher learning agility are typically characterised as being more inclined to:

 

  • Ask for feedback and be receptive to it

  • Experiment and try new approaches

  • Be flexible and adaptable to different approaches and changing circumstances

  • Enjoy and seek out complex problems to solve

  • Actively seek out diverse learning experiences that allow for complex thinking and variety

  • Learn from experiences and apply learning to new situations to perform successfully

 

What is learning agility?

Learning agility was first coined by Lombardo & Eichinger (2000, p. 323) as “the willingness and ability to learn new competencies in order to perform under first-time, tough, or different conditions”. Since this initial conceptualisation of learning agility, there has been much debate regarding what learning agility and whether it is a new concept or whether it is simply an old concept that has been repackaged.

 

The topic of what learning agility is, is much debated as some view it as simply consisting of traditional psychological dimensions such as cognitive ability or openness to experience (amongst others). Others, however, view it as a unique and distinct concept. Regardless of what learning agility is conceptualised as, those with higher learning agility are typically characterised as being more inclined to:

 

  • Ask for feedback and be receptive to it

  • Experiment and try new approaches

  • Be flexible and adaptable to different approaches and changing circumstances

  • Enjoy and seek out complex problems to solve

  • Actively seek out diverse learning experiences that allow for complex thinking and variety

  • Learn from experiences and apply learning to new situations to perform successfully

 

Why the rise in popularity of learning agility?

There is a growing desire amongst managers and leaders in organisations to have employees who are able to adapt quickly to changing circumstances, show flexibility and adaptability, experiment and try new approaches, and are receptive to feedback and to learning from experience in order to apply their learning to new experiences.

 

Managers and leaders in organisations are showing a belief that one of the most important capacities for high-performing and high-potential employees is to be able to adapt easily to the VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous) world of work which has in large parts been driven by acceleration in technological forces and an overwhelming abundance of information which requires decision-making within uncertain and ambiguous parameters. Additionally, organisations are under pressure to be innovative and to adapt to volatile markets, thereby requiring employees that can adapt easily and change accordingly to shifting conditions.

 

Organisations are viewing learning agility as an answer to the above needs and are searching for ways to select individuals with these characteristics, to identify high-potential employees, and to develop the learning agility of employees.

 

What is the business case for learning agility?

Organisations and managers want to identify and develop individuals with the capabilities and potential to be able to adapt quickly, innovate, show resilience when faced with adversity, and to learn from their experiences in a way that enables these individuals to be more successful in the future.

 

By focusing on learning agility in selection, high-potential programmes, development opportunities, and through facilitating a learning agility culture, organisations are more likely to attain the above desirable characteristics. Learning agility helps organisations to respond quickly to changing internal and external factors, to innovate, and to be competitive and agile in the marketplace.

 

Therefore there is a clear business need for the development of learning agility in leaders, employees, and in organisations as a whole. Although it is a concept growing in popularity, the existing research regarding the best predictors of performance should also be included in selection processes.

 

What does the research say about the best predictors of performance?

It is tempting to grab at learning agility as an answer to the future needs of organisations but it is important to maintain a scientific view of how can we best predict future performance which is ultimately what psychometric testing in selection decisions is about.

 

Cognitive ability has long been considered as one of the best predictors of work performance and training success and therefore should not be neglected in conceptualisations of learning agility and in making selection decisions. Personality is also likely to play a role in learning agility. In particular, the dimension of openness to experience is likely to be important in learning agility as a construct. It is worth bearing in mind that the best personality predictor of performance has been shown to be conscientiousness and emotional stability even though their role in learning agility is debatable.

 

Some aspects of learning agility are behavioural in nature such as a tendency to ask for feedback and to be receptive to it, as well as a tendency to experiment and try different approaches. Considering these aspects of learning agility are behavioural in nature, they might be assessed through techniques such as structured behavioural competency-based interviews, a selection method that has shown sound predictive validity.

 

How do we measure learning agility?

This is where much of the debate around learning agility comes from. Given the disagreement as to what learning agility is, there are differing views as to what constitutes its measurement.

 

The measurement of learning agility is currently done predominantly with self- or other-report questionnaires. This may be problematic due to faking or social desirability tendencies that are present in such measures, not to mention issues related to their predictive validity.

 

Both the definition and measurement of learning agility, especially in selection contexts, requires more development especially in the South African context. In the meantime, either self-report questionnaires or structured interviews can be used. However, self-report questionnaires in particular should be used with caution particularly in high-stakes contexts such as selection or promotions.

 

What can you do to increase the learning agility in your organisation?

So the question that managers and leaders in organisations may have is “how do we make our workforce and organisation more learning agile?” I propose a number of ways to facilitate learning agility in an organisation:

 

1. Allow an organisational culture for learning agility

The learning agility of individuals is likely to be hindered if they are in a punitive culture that discourages risk-taking or experimentation. Allow employees opportunities to take risks, to fail, and to reflect and learn from their mistakes. Also promote learning as an important part of everyone’s job – this means providing resources or opportunities to undergo informal or formal learning including training opportunities, challenging on-the-job assignments, or being mentored from a capable individual. An individual with a high degree of learning agility may also be inclined to challenge the ideas of their managers and leaders. As managers and leaders, to promote learning agility, you will need to become comfortable allowing others to challenge you without them feeling threatened.

 

2. Hire and assess for learning agility

This can be challenging as there is not yet sufficient evidence of the predictive validity of learning agility in psychometric testing for selection purposes in part because of a lack of agreement as to what constitutes learning agility. This is particularly true in South Africa although there are some assessments attempting to bridge this gap.

 

However, there are a few things you should pay attention to in your psychometric testing to increase the probability of selecting high-potential employees. This includes cognitive capabilities (one of the best predictors for job performance and training success), openness to experience, receptiveness to feedback, and willingness to challenge ideas and to be innovative.

 

3. Develop the learning agility of staff members

One aspect of this is providing opportunity for staff members to have learning opportunities such as mentoring or engaging in challenging, stretch assignments. The other aspect of this is focusing on and promoting the behavioural aspects of learning agility in staff members. This includes encouraging staff to be seek feedback and to be receptive to it, to be open in challenging ideas and being critical at times, and to experiment. Also make sharing ideas part of their job which can include initiatives such as knowledge sharing sessions.

 

Conclusion

There is still much research required to adequately conceptualise learning agility and how to measure it. While it is tempting to grab at it as a panacea for identifying high-potential employees or for selection purposes, it is still under-researched in order to fully utilise it. Organisations can however begin using traditional psychometric dimensions such as cognitive functioning or openness to experience to begin providing insight into an individual’s potential to engage in behavioural actions such as risk-taking, experimentation, or tendency towards innovation. In the meantime organisations also need to create a culture that enables learning agility and allows for development of learning agility in staff members.

 

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