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Student or Learner: What About Learning Agility?

Today I share a blog written in response to my blog asking if you were a student or a learner. Dave Hoff, co-author of Learning Agility: The Key to Leadership Potential and COO/EVP of EASI Consult.

Student or Learner: What About Learning Agility?

My colleague Kris’ last blog posed the question, “Are you a student or a learner?” From my perspective, the answer could lie with your development of learning agility.

One of the specialties of my consulting firm is learning agility.  We define learning agility as finding yourself in a situation that you have never been in before and don’t know what to do but then you figure it out. Regarding learner versus student, I’d say that learning agility is probably more characteristic of a learner than it is of a student.

I want to step back, though, and first describe some aspects of learning agility, partially within the context of Kris’ earlier blog.

Kris writes that the biggest risk may not be that you are not smart enough but that you can’t learn quickly. With learning agility, we make a key distinction between ability and agility.

Sometimes people will ask me, “Isn’t learning agility just intellectual horsepower? Isn’t the smartest person in the room the most learning agile?” I won’t flat-out say no but I equivocate and say, “Not necessarily.”

What I tell people is that learning agility is important… to a point, a threshold. Once that threshold has been reached, smarter doesn’t equal more learning agile. It is learning agility that allows you to be successful in those new and unfamiliar situations.

I also tell organizations I work with that, in the future, employees are going to be hired more for their ability to learn what they don’t know than what they already know. The pace of change keeps escalating. Some organizations are finding the job they hired some employees to do five or 10 years ago no longer exist.

If the employee has been a good performer and done what they were initially hired to do but the organization no longer needs that kind of work, what should the employer and employee do? Does the organization terminate the employee?  Does the organization have an obligation to retrain the employee? If the organization goes the retraining route, then it would help if the employee were learning agile.

So, do you see why learning agility is going to play a bigger part in the selection process?

Skill, Motivation, and Context

There are three other factors we talk about in learning agility:

  1. Skill
  2. Motivation
  3. Context

Skill relates to someone’s baseline capability in an area. It may just tell us the person’s starting point for development, and that could play a larger role in consideration if time is critical. If it is going to take two years for someone to reach the needed skill level but we need them to be ready in one year, for example, that could be a problem.

Motivation is a much bigger factor. How important is it for this person to demonstrate these capabilities we need? It may need to become the person’s number-one priority. How driven are they to acquire this capability? They may need several practices to demonstrate this skill we need them to have. Are they willing to fail several times before they succeed and look awkward and foolish as they fail? In terms of learning agility, that is what is known as performance risk taking. Learning agile people are willing to take these risks.

The third factor is context. Context matters. Are you providing the type of environment that supports those behaviors you are asking an employee to demonstrate? I once worked for an organization that desired innovation… so long as you didn’t make mistakes. Innovation without the ability to make mistakes is impossible.

Kris mentioned in her blog that learners are a bit unruly. I can tell you than learning agile people question norms. They won’t accept that the reason we do something is because that is the way we always have done it. Learning agile people will push back.

The key work around learning agility was done by Dr. Warner Burke from Columbia University. His research determined that there are nine dimensions that, together, make up learning agility. Burke views the first two – Speed and Flexibility – as the drivers of learning agility.

The other seven supporting dimensions are:

  1. Experimenting
  2. Performance Risk Taking, which I mentioned earlier
  3. Interpersonal Risk Taking;
  4. Collaborating, which I know is something Kris has written about extensively
  5. Information Gathering
  6. Feedback Seeking
  7. Reflecting

There is a way to measure learning agility through a test called the Burke Learning Agility Inventory. There are 38 items on the test and they are all behavioral. By demonstrating those behaviors, you will then be more learning agile.

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