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Article No.: 14-2, February 1, 2014 

Article Title:  Why Organizations Should Concentrate on Learning Agility

Author: Linda Gravett, Ph.D., SPHR, CEQC

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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.  In this article, I’ll explore some of the specific reasons why learning agility across employees is a critical success factor.
The world is becoming smaller, more interconnected and intelligent daily, resulting in the need for companies to have employees who can manage change in order to survive and thrive.  Employees with learning agility help ensure organizational agility through their development of improved processes, systems and approaches.  New knowledge is everywhere around us and if managed well can generate employee excitement and engagement, as well as bottom line success.
A 2010 IBM study analyzed businesses that have increased their agility and enjoyed improved business results.  The companies represented in the IBM research are in the financial, insurance and healthcare industries in the U.S., U.K. and India.  These organizations 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

Researchers at the Sloan Center on Aging and Work wrote an excellent study in 2009 which encourages employers to build their understanding of the correlation between one’s generation and ability and interest in enhancing learning agility.  This understanding can inform employers’ talent management strategies and practices.  In their 2009 report, Sloan Center discovered that workers 26 or younger are keenly interested in greater learning opportunities and development, more so that employees in the next older generation (ages 36 to 42).  This finding begs the question, “How can my organization tailor its environment to encourage learning across all generations in our workplace?”
In my research for an upcoming book, Leadership in Balance: New Habits of the Mind, coauthored with John Kucia, I discovered that organizations which have survived for at least 100 years have some common characteristics.  The patterns uncovered demonstrate that employees have the ability:

  • To learn new concepts and approaches – quickly
  • To build a learning community within the company and industry
  • 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

Over the past three years, I’ve surveyed organizations across the country from different industries and sectors.  I asked these questions:

  1.  Of the four types of learning agility (mental; people; change; results), what is the most critical to your organization today, and why?
  2. Can you describe some examples of when your employees’ learning agility positively affected the organization’s success?

150 of the survey respondents indicated that all four components of learning agility are important for their organizations to survive and thrive; however, the most-often identified component (83% of respondents) was people agility.  People agility is the same as emotional intelligence, which is in part the capacity to show empathy and compassion towards others and work effectively on teams to get results.
Change agility was a close second in the survey (78% of respondents).  A common thread throughout the comments received was a 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 the box, and move quickly in order to make it in a global market.”
These responses track with what I observe in my client organizations.  They’re seeking employees who continuously find better ways to do their work and seek out ways to serve customers better.  They’re also seeking employees who have the characteristics of critical analysis; problem solving; self-awareness; and the ability to deliver effective results in first-time or challenging circumstances.
I encourage you to consider ways that you can recruit and develop employees with learning agility.  Once you have these employees on board, consider ways to build and sustain an environment that fosters learning agility.

If you have any questions or need more information about this article, please complete our Contact Form, or contact Dr. Gravett by telephone at 513-753-8870.

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