What is Learning Agility and How is it Different to Agile Learning?

learning agility

The need to keep up with increasingly dynamic market forces means organizations must find ways to kickstart a higher pace and keep up with change. That’s why practices such as Agile, a method of working and collaborating that was initially designed for software development, has been seeping into multiple business functions in recent years. Learning and development teams are no exception. 

But while Agile can bring many benefits, implementing it can be challenging. So there has been some confusion about different terminology, methods, and best practices amongst learning professionals. For example, the terms “agile learning” and “learning agility” are sometimes used interchangeably. But they actually refer to very different concepts.

What is Agile Learning?

Agile learning is the application of Agile philosophies to the learning design process. 

It involves moving incrementally through an iterative design process. Agile teams alternate between learning phases and doing phases. The “doing” phases are referred to as “Sprints.” 

Agile learning also incorporates the use of Scrum. This is a method of team management during a project where daily scrums (concise meetings) provide quick, high-level updates on progress and learning. Scrums are not for discussions or problem-solving. These activities should happen separately, with only the people needed for each discussion. 

Agile learning focuses on speed, flexibility, and collaboration. So corporate training teams can move quickly through sprints and achieve their targets and goals.

Some of the key concepts that influence the philosophy of agile learning include:

  • Minimal focus on procedures or rules 
  • Reactive to market feedback
  • Flat team structures and continuous collaboration
  • Iterative “fail fast” approach to development
  • Highly adaptable and responsive
benefits of agile learning

Should you try Agile Learning?

Agile has been adopted across so many types of business situations because its benefits have a profound impact on performance. It’s a complete shift in the way your team works. So, who should consider adopting Agile? And what are the benefits of agile learning?

Flexible response to the changing needs of your clients

Things change more quickly now than they have ever done before. That’s true of your organization and your learners. Agile learning allows you to respond to quickly changing training needs and become part of the success story, rather than struggling to keep up.

Gain more opportunities for detailed feedback 

Agile learning development is a highly iterative process. Agile teams accept that there are many different approaches to the same problem and that market feedback should inform design decisions. So once a product is released, they seek out detailed feedback and continue to iterate on the product design. 

Learning pros who need to update courses frequently will instantly see the benefit of this approach. Quick iterations are far more effective than complete re-designs once a year.

Effectively deliver what the client actually wants and needs

User involvement during the development cycle is a core concept of Agile. By giving them a seat at the table, you know you’re delivering on the client’s vision and completing a more successful project with fewer iterations needed.

For L&D teams, this means working more closely with subject matter experts and testing prototypes with the end learners.

Achieve rapid course development

While you might need to implement tools on the technology side to improve your speed to market, adopting agile learning is also critical. The iterative nature of the Agile methodology allows for quick feedback and quick updates on site with your end-user, rather than going through lengthy testing and feedback reviews.

Functionality is improved due to frequent testing

Old methods involve deploying a course and getting feedback on tons of issues. But the rapid development and iterative nature of Agile means teams can fix problems on the fly as they arise before the product is released.

Promotes communication and collaboration

Organizational development teams are already working with subject matter experts (SMEs) over various training projects. But effective understanding and collaboration is frequently an issue. The project management methods of agile learning promote effective collaboration for project teams. And with enhanced collaboration comes fewer misunderstandings, less frustration, and higher quality outcomes.

what is learning agility

What is learning agility?

While agile learning refers to the process of developing training experiences, learning agility refers to characteristics held by individual learners.

Learning agility is the ability held by an individual to adapt to unfamiliar situations, learn quickly, and in a mostly self-managed way. People who are high on the learning agility scale are top performers during times of uncertainty. They can self-direct, and are okay with the discomfort of unfamiliarity. 

People with high levels of learning agility can approach unfamiliar situations by quickly connecting past experiences with present problems to make sense of them and find solutions.

Dr. W. Warner Burke of Columbia University has broken down learning agility into nine dimensions:

  • Flexibility (open to new concepts)
  • Speed (taking quick action)
  • Experimenting (trying new ways of doing things)
  • Performance Risk-Taking (seeking out challenges)
  • Interpersonal Risk-Taking (not afraid of constructive conflict)
  • Collaborating (open to ideas from others)
  • Information Gathering (takes the initiative to seek the information they need)
  • Feedback Seeking (appreciates the opportunity to improve)
  • Reflecting (thinks about how they can apply improvements to future challenges)
collaboration during agile sprints

Why learning agility matters

High learning agility is linked to top performers in every element of an individual’s work performance. However, there are some scenarios where learning agility is particularly beneficial:

New starters unfamiliar with your industry/company/team

When hiring a new starter who is mostly unfamiliar with the role, industry, or company, the learning curve is always going to be pretty steep. Hiring a new employee with high learning agility means they will take the initiative to seek out the information and training they need. 

Promotion to a first-time management role

If a candidate for a management position has no previous managerial experience, it’s a toss of the coin as to whether they will be successful. But highly agile learners will embrace the challenge of uncomfortable situations and adapt quickly.

Working with others outside of their team

Cross-functional collaboration is increasingly common in many organizations. But to do this successfully, contributors to a project have to be willing to listen, learn, and collaborate well with others. 

While these two concepts are very different, they are both equally important to successful HCM in your organization.

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