Human Resources
Learning Agility, Take 2: Accelerated Learning

Learning Agility, Take 2: Accelerated Learning


Feb 8, 2017 | by Rafi Prager

Let’s face it - work in today’s world can be exhausting. Employees are expected to keep up with the latest technology, rapid changes in the market and industry, geographic dispersion and global commerce, and to acquire new skills to stay relevant. It’s no wonder that a new buzzword has emerged in recent years: learning agility.

Over the past decade, many organizations have decided to employ learning agility models and measurement tools. But there’s little consensus on how to identify those who have the potential to learn and develop on the job. Michael Lombardo and Robert Eichinger first coined the term in 2000 defining it asas “the willingness and ability to learn new competencies in order to perform under first-time, tough, or different conditions”.  But, they expanded their definition and model to include other dimensions that are not theoretically or intuitively linked to learning. For example, they included “People Agility” as a sub-dimension. But is your emotional intelligence related to your ability to learn? It seems questionable and there isn’t a whole lot of data to back up this claim.

Many learning agility models are solely focused on the stable characteristics related to learning potential. But if I’m an employer, what do I do with candidates or employees who are not predisposed to be effective learners? Should I reject, demote, or fire them?  What’s sorely missing in these models are learning behaviors and strategies that can be developed on the job or through coaching, even if one is not naturally inclined to be a lifelong learner.

To address these concerns, we built the Accelerated Learning model based on the latest learning literature and research across different fields (Industrial/Organizational Psychology, Educational Psychology, Adult Learning and Development). The model captures one’s innate tendencies to learn and adapt and also the learning behaviors and strategies that can be developed and consists of three broad dimensions: each consisting of Learning Agility sub-dimensions (referring to individual differences in approach to learning and cognitive flexibility) and Learning Strategies (specific behaviors that can accelerate the learning and development process).

  • Seeks Challenge and Novelty is the tendency to go outside of your comfort zone and to seek new experiences and challenges. Essentially, it’s being comfortable being uncomfortable. This notion of novelty—new environments, new experiences, new challenges—is critical to this dimension. From a personality trait perspective, it means being flexible, comfortable with changes, staying positive when going through turbulent or challenging situations, and having the ambition and drive to seek new opportunities. In terms of the strategies and behaviors one develop and apply, it’s the dedicated focus and effort to review  current workload and make sure that there are enough “stretch” assignments—continuous monitoring of whether you’re being challenged. The second behavior is around experimentation and trying out new approaches, whether that’s with a coach or mentor or doing on your own. However, experimentation is only effective when you get feedback, which brings us to the second dimension.
  • Gains Insight from Self and Others is not only about reflecting internally and seeking external input and feedback, but pairing them together! Research shows that you can reflect all you want, but if you’re not getting feedback from others, then you may not be on the right track. Alternatively, you can seek feedback, but if you don’t critically think about it and how it relates to your role, career, project, etc.,then it may be meaningless and likely won’t result in behavioral change. 

    There is a certain level of self-awareness that is critical for one to be able to learn and develop. In other words, what are my strengths and areas of opportunity? Where do I have skill gaps? Beyond the self-awareness, it’s important to make time for purposeful reflection—thinking carefully through projects and activities, identifying learnings from challenges, failures, and even successes. The most difficult part of this strategy is finding and making the time to do it! Getting feedback from others is also critical, but it has to be done right. If you’re one who tends to ask for feedback a lot, think about how you ask for it. If you tend to ask “how did I do?”, consider modifying your approach by asking directed, insight-driving questions like “what did I do effectively?” , “what could I have done better?”, “what if I did X?”.
  • The last dimension is Lives to Learn, which dives deep into one’s intellectual curiosity and learning orientation, the tendency to be a lifelong learner. Carol Dweck’s research on fixed vs. entity mindsets demonstrates that people tend to view skills and ability as being stable or malleable and shaped by new experiences. Those who endorse the latter view tend to feel unthreatened by learning situations, are open to failure, and are internally driven to learn.

    The strategies related to this dimension focus on those used to plan and chart one’s development. Do you monitor your learning portfolio to ensure a diverse mix of development opportunities (learning from others, formal learning, learning on the job), do you set personal learning goals for yourself? Do you engage in communal learning, actively attending brownbag meetings or cross-functional meetings to learn about what’s going on in the industry or across the practice?

This model was presented in two sessions at the 2016 Annual Conference of the Society for Industrial Organizational Psychologists in Anaheim, CA. If you’d like to a copy of the poster detailing the model development and supporting research contact Rafi Prager.


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