What is “Learning Agility” and Why Should You Care?

What is Learning Agility? Is it the use of agile software development? Is it an improvable skill for finishing role-playing games? Is it what you do in yoga? The answer is, “None of the above!”

Learning Agility has been found helpful in predicting high potential future performance for over two decades. However, there is a lack of consensus on how to define and measure it.  Although it has been embraced as a way to identify high performance potential at work, the scientific community remains divided. Companies find Learning Agility to be useful in taking their leaders to the next stage of development and to increase profit. As Human Resource, Talent Management and Organizational Development professionals, as well as human beings, it is important to know, “What is Learning Agility?”

One way to define Learning Agility is, “The ability and willingness to learn from experience, and subsequently apply that learning.” It is this application of learning which differentiates those who have high potential from those who do not. Using this definition of Learning Agility includes a five factor multi-dimensional construct with several sub-factors (or dimensions). This description of the five main factors is adapted from Korn/Ferry International:

  1. Mental – The ability to think critically and be very comfortable with complexity.
  2. People – A skilled communicator and adept at perspective taking.
  3. Results – Achievement oriented and builder of productive teams.
  4. Change – Comfortable with change and seeks continuous improvement.
  5. Self-Awareness – Knows strengths and weaknesses; actively seeks blind spot information.

Lombardo and Eichinger estimate Learning Agility is high in 10% of the population. There are differences in how much Learning Agility individuals have, however evidence suggests Learning Agility can be developed. It is not a trait you are stuck with; it can be increased with practice. Learning Agility looks at how people learn from past experiences, apply the lessons, and prevent patterns from re-emerging. Can you think on your feet? Can you develop that ability? In other words, “How do people think and perform in novel situations?”  This can be a key difference in promotion and success at the next level of business. The post-recession economy and need for global cultural skill make the ability to adapt quickly truly critical. So what is this super sauce? Is it intelligence? Is it personality? Apparently, the answers are, “No.” Learning Agility goes above and beyond IQ and personality. Learning Agility can be identified and developed; therefore contributing to organizational success.

This sounds like a great deal, so does it work?

Companies are adopting Learning Agility as part of their talent development programs. Recent evidence shows increased career advancement including Learning Agility and company profit. Imagine a team of people with high Learning Agility steering a business through the ever-changing tides of innovation, technology and customer demand. Now think about those people helping others in the company to develop their own Learning Agility. Who do you know in the business world that exemplifies Learning Agility? Or in your other life domains? They do not have to be unattainable exemplars like Ghandi, Mandella, or Einstien.

How do I increase Learning Agility?

  • Leading cross-functional teams
  • Projects with great responsibility and little authority
  • Stretch assignments
  • Turnaround projects
  • International assignments

What is learning agility?

Going forward, new methods of increasing Learning Agility will develop, including computer simulations, gamification, and possibly, new video games! So in the meantime, work to increase your self-awareness, become aware of blind spots and stretch yourself in new directions. It is helpful to pinpoint which parts of Learning Agility you personally can identify and increase with your own action plan. Purposefully put yourself in new situations to change & grow.

Guest blogger_Paul ThoresenBlogging by guest, Paul Thoresen 

Organization Research Consultant



Additional resources:

  • (Bedford, 2011)
  • (Dai et al 2013) in press
  • (DeRue et al 2012)
  • (Dragoni et al 2009)
  • (McCall et al 1988)
  • (McCall, 2010)
  • (Swisher, 2012)

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