Are You Ready for an Agile Learning Culture?

May 30, 2016

Are You Ready for an Agile Learning Culture

Imagine yourself in a meeting with your manager and your colleagues. You are discussing upcoming projects, and your manager describes the kind of project you daydreamed about when you were in your recent graduate program.

The manager turns to a seasoned veteran and says, “Jack, you have done a lot of these projects, so it will be your baby.” Jack doesn’t look happy.

How many times will it take for this to happen before you start looking for opportunity elsewhere?

Now, imagine the same scenario where the manager says to you, “We think you are ready to take on this kind of project. You will spend a lot of your time learning, so you are going to need a lot of support. Jill will be your mentor.”

We trust your reaction would be far different.

Even more important -- which company is more likely to dominate the market?

Decisions at the Speed of Business

In today’s fast-paced business environment, traditional top-down, autocratic management is not capable of making decisions at the speed of change. The most successful organizations are those whose people have the knowledge and support to make the right decisions at the point of need -- and are empowered to do so. The heartbeat of an agile organization is a culture of learning that extends to every person in the company.

Stretch assignments, learning opportunities, and mentorship have traditionally been available to the few “high potential” employees on the leadership fast track. Fifteen years ago, our learning management projects were aimed at a small number of select employees. Learning development and delivery were time-consuming, and expensive developmental training was delivered in ILT, off-site seminars or immersive programs.

Technology has changed that. Micro-learning, mobile delivery, just-in-time learning, and ubiquitous interactive video have democratized learning opportunities, making it easier to deliver knowledge at the exact time and place people need it.  Anyone with a computer or mobile device can learn almost anything at little or no cost. Traditional barriers to learning have come down.

Cultural barriers still exist. One of the most persistent is the perception that learning is not work. Employees, on average, spend about 38.5 hours per year in training, and most companies begrudge that time as non-productive. The traditional model of managers deciding what needs to be done, who will do it, and how it will be done persists in most organizations. The traditional model is “we will tell you what you need to know.”

The growing complexity of job roles has rendered the old model obsolete. As anyone who has benefited from interaction with an empowered customer service agent can attest, we prefer, as customers, to deal with people who can make decisions. A new model is rising in which the customer is the boss and the manager is a coach.

L&D organizations are responding to the new reality. When you examine the top priorities, manager training managers is at the top, and the remaining key priorities support initiatives that help embed learning into everyday work.


Is Your Organization Ready?

At the top of our concerns about transformation to an agile learning organization is readiness, and first among those concerns is stability. If your organization is in a state of flux or undergoing structural or strategy changes, you may need to wait.

“Agility is the ability of an organization to renew itself, adapt, change quickly, and succeed in a    rapidly changing, ambiguous, turbulent environment. Agility is not incompatible with              stability —  quite the contrary. Agility requires stability for most companies.”
                                                                                                                                  Aaron de Smet, McKinsey & Co.3

However, it may not be too early to lay the groundwork: the underlying purpose, strategy, and technology to support embedded learning. You can work with your executive leaders and line-of- business leaders to develop the strategy and infrastructure that will support continuous learning.


Assuming your organizational strategy and purpose are aligned, you have an aligned workforce strategy, and your learning plan supports the workforce, you may be ready to start the long road toward cultural change.

We want to offer a few tips to make the journey a little easier.

  • Start with manager development. If your organization is like most, you have promoted at least a few managers on the basis of merit rather than leadership ability. After coming up through a career group through functional and technical skill, it may take a long time to develop the capacity to coach well. Make sure you have the support systems in place to help managers excel, and change your hiring and promotion practices to focus on leadership.
  • If your business model supports it, consider moving toward self-directed teams. It has been a common practice in technology and science for a very long time, but new ways of working among knowledge workers and professionals are making the practice more common and very successful in other areas.
  • Nothing is stronger than social learning. Put systems in place to facilitate learner curation and sharing. Provide the structure for learning communities within your organization. You can even use private groups on social networks.
  • Don’t try to transform the entire organization at once. Start with a small pilot project and work through the company over time. What you learn along the way will make each successive effort easier to manage.
  • Recognize that cultural changes are not projects. They are long-term sustained efforts that will take years to mature and will require maintenance and renewal forever.
  • Measure the impact. Work with line-of-business leaders to assess the effects of the change efforts on their metrics. Let them own the effort and the result. Internal learning measures will help you fine-tune your efforts, but the real need is to show the impact on the business.

Building an agile learning organization will create a new future for your organization. Not only will your company adapt better to changing market conditions, but will improve engagement and retention of talented people.

References : 

1. "1642 Billion Spent on Training and Development by US Companies." Association for Talent Development. December 12, 2013

2.  Denning, Steve. "How to Make the Whole Organization Agile." Forbes. July 22, 2015.

3.  Collins, Luke. "The Keys to Organizational Agility." McKinsey & Company. December 2015.

 Pixentia is a full-service technology company dedicated to helping clients solve business problems, improve the capability of their people, and achieve better results.

Guide 15:Building the Business case for New Learning management System 

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