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Article No.: 11-9

Article Title: Why Organizations Should Concentrate on Learning Agility

Author: The following article is an excerpt from an upcoming book that is being co-authored by Dr. Linda Gravett and Dr. Sheri Caldwell. 

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No matter how conceptually intriguing a topic may be, 21st century organizations have limited time and resources, which must be targeted on areas that will bring a return on investment.  I’d like to explore some of the concrete reasons why learning agility is a critical factor for organizations today.
The world is becoming smaller, more interconnected and intelligent, resulting in
the need for companies to have employees who can manage change in order
to survive and thrive.  Employees with learning agility can ensure business agility through their development of improved processes and systems.  New knowledge is everywhere around us, and it can, if managed well, generate excitement and employee engagement as well as bottom line success.
A 2010 IBM study analyzed businesses that have increased their agility and
enjoyed improved business results as a consequence.  The companies
represented in the IBM research are in the financial, insurance and healthcare
industries in the U.S., U.K. and India.  These companies saw a positive
correlation between their employees’ learning agility and:

  •  Growth in new business
  • Cost reductions across the organization
  • Innovative solutions that improved brand image
  • Reductions in product life cycles
  • Expansion of call center productivity without staff increases

My ongoing research about generations at work has found that employees
between the ages of 18 and 24 stay with their companies an average
of 18 months.  Baby Boomers, born between 1946 and 1964, began retiring in
significant numbers in 2010 and there are far fewer Generation Xers to fill their
vacated positions.  Statistics like these lead to the conclusion that organizations
have no choice but to step us their efforts to recruit, select and retain the people who will help them survive and thrive over the next few decades.  Finding people who can learn quickly and stay mentally agile in order to help their companies stay responsive to the marketplace is paramount.
In my research for an upcoming book, Leadership in Balance, I’ve discovered
that organizations which have survived for at least 100 years have some
common characteristics.  The patterns uncovered demonstrate that employees

  • The ability to learn new concepts and approaches – quickly
  • The ability to build a learning community within the company and industry
  • The ability to manage knowledge so that if one individual doesn’t need
    incoming information at a given time, he or she knows to whom to pass
    along that information

In a study published in June 2011, High-Impact Learning Culture:  The 40 Best Practices for Creating an Empowered Enterprise, Bersin & Associates shared some interesting statistics.  They found that organizations with strong learning cultures are:

  • 46% more likely to be strong innovators in their markets
  • 34% more likely to get to market before their competitors
  • 33% more likely to report higher customer satisfaction than other organizations
  • 39% more likely to report success in implementing customer suggestions
  • 58% more likely to be successful at developing the skills needed for meeting future customer demand

In my own research, I’ve surveyed organizations across the country from different industries and sectors.  I asked:

  1.  Of the four types of learning agility (mental, people, change and results), what is most critical to your organization today, and why?
  2. For your leadership team specifically, which of the four aspects of learning agility are most critical, and why?
  3. Can you describe some examples of when your employees’ learning agility positive affected the organization’s success?

My respondents indicated that all four components of learning agility are important for their organizations to survive and thrive; however, the most-often type of learning agility identified as critical (87%) was people agility.
A COO of a small start-up told me that his CEO’s willingness and ability to serve as a coach and mentor for employees at all levels within their organization has been pivotal in the company’s efforts to retain talent and respond to change in their global business environment.  The CEO had to learn coaching competencies because he didn’t bring them to the job; however, he did possess a charismatic personality that drew people to him.  Adding the coaching dimension helped the company recruit and retain highly skilled people.
Another CEO and entrepreneur in my survey attributed her learning to design and implement a Voice of the Customer service offering to clients as her company’s advantage to work with different personality styles across their customer base, which in turn builds positive word-of-mouth and good will.
Change agility was a close second to people agility (76%) in our survey responses.  A common thread throughout the comments received was the need for flexibility in a dynamic marketplace, and the ability to change direction quickly to meet customer needs.  One CEO said firmly, “You need to be able to switch gears, think outside of the box, and move quickly in order to make it in this market.”  Another CEO said, “My employees and leadership team have to be able to acquire knowledge quickly and know how to apply it, and when.”
I’ve found that CEO’s in my client organizations are seeking employees who find better ways – consistently – to do their work.  This means that employees are regularly designing plans to serve customers better, make improvements in existing products, and generally come up with ideas that will save time and energy.  3M’s Post-its and Apple’s personal computers are examples of this type of innovation in the workplace.
I’m consulting with a major chemical plant headquartered in the U.S. that has established the objective of building learning agility of employees who serve on virtual teams.  This international organization brings together virtual teams on a frequent basis to help accomplish critical business objectives.  Team members have to quickly grasp the desired deliverables, design a work process that will achieve results, and find ways to share technical expertise in a virtual environment.  Through using some concrete approaches to develop learning agility, this organization has seen improvements in bottom line results across teams during times of constant change in response to environmental and
economic concerns around the globe.  The teams are responsible for a 2% reduction in maintenance costs over a 3-year period and recordable safety related incidents have fallen to an all time low.  The teams have developed a highly successful quality improvement process that has been adapted to all types of teams around the organizations.
Five of the CEOs in my survey said that they believe organizational core values are consciously learned and should be intentionally taught because they influence behaviors and profitability.  Their organizations, they believe, are in large part successful in customer retention because they have fostered an environment that promotes learning agility.
Additionally, seven of the CEOs in the survey said that they have observed a direct correlation between learning agility and these characteristics:  critical analysis; problem solving; self-awareness; and ability to deliver results effectively in first-time or challenging circumstances.  There was no doubt with this group of leaders that learning agility has a direct and strong impact on their bottom line because of a linkage to problem solving, decision making and customer retention.
There are several organizations in the country who leverage learning agility of their employees, to their credit in terms of employee engagement, and to their credit financially.  We believe that Google, IBM, Hewlett Packard, Microsoft and Apple are leaders in establishing an informal learning environment, where
continuous learning on the part of their employees consistently leads to their profitability.
I believe that learning agility is a key differentiator that separates high performing, long-lived organizations from those that will languish in mediocrity.


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