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Learning and Development | 10 Min Read

Why ‘Learning Agility’ Is Key to Employee Success- Experts speak up

Successful Learners Are the Most Capable Employees

Ren Jonas, owner of ‘Rennovate It’, an employee training enhancement firm based out of Dallas, US, shared ‘Selecting someone who is a proven, successful learner is a sure way to ensure that you are hiring the most capable employee.

Tip: anyone can say they are a dedicated learner. Look for those who have taken additional classes in their free time, those who maintained a high GPA, or those who can otherwise demonstrate their dedication to learning.’

The Right Combination of Learning ‘Ability’ and Learning ‘Intent’ Is Crucial

As per Nate Masterson, HR Manager of Maple Holistics, a company dedicated to cruelty-free, natural, and sustainable personal care products- A proficiency of any particular skill isn’t ‘necessarily’ enough to compensate for a lack of other skills. Ability is always better than intent because ability ultimately pays the bills. However, a good attitude is indispensable, and if an employee is a slow learner but a dedicated employee, it serves the company better to be patient. On the other hand, retaining a talented, agile learner, who’s antisocial or has a bad attitude, isn’t worth the trouble of keeping because they can spoil the office culture. At the end of the day, every employee needs a workable level of ability, but if that’s all they have, then it’s not valuable enough.’

Learning ability is not weighted heavily than learning intent, but rather, they are both necessary for a learner. For learning to occur, the learner must have varying degrees of intent and ability; the necessary levels of each depend on each other. For instance, if an employee has low intention to learn, they will need a higher level of ability to help them comprehend the new information. If an employee has low ability, they will need a higher amount of intent to help them catch on.’- adds Ren.

Dan Meyer, Co-founder and CEO of Pocketdoor, a home renovation company, expressed the importance of learning ability and learning intent in a slightly different way- “I look for two key elements of learning agility. The first is curiosity, which provides an inherent motivation to learn. Team members with underlying curiosity to discover are more interested in tackling new problems, answering new questions, and investigate areas where the team has never been before. They are also personally rewarded by their successes. The second is the potential to learn and then adapt, both of which require an open mind to define questions and then apply their findings in a new way. This brings the highest return on effort for the individual team member, and the team as a whole.

Assess Talent on Tasks They Have No Prior Experience of to Measure Their Learning Agility

An individual’s learning agility is greatly dependent on their fluid intelligence. i.e. their ability to perform unfamiliar tasks efficiently.

Alex Robinson, Hiring Manager at Team Building Hero, assess the learning agility of talent in a very interesting way- Learning agility is arguably our #1 requirement for finding top candidates for all roles. We try to find people that are a good culture fit for the company and have a strong ability to learn — and we put only a very small weight on existing skills and experience. We’ve found that when we hire this way we can choose from a much greater number of candidates, and then invest in training the best ones to help them grow and develop in their roles. While our processes are still developing, we’ve found the best way to identify learning agility is to assign tasks to job candidates that they may not be familiar with. An example could be having a customer service applicant make custom images to post to social media or a marketing team member to do a practice sales call. Seeing how these candidates perform outside their core competency is helpful in determining learning capacity.

Katie McLaughlin, Creative Business Consultant at Katie McLaughlin Consulting , adds – “When I think of Learning Agility, I look for someone who exhibits skills and behaviors of adaptability, comfort with ambiguity, and critical thinking or problem-solving skills first and foremost. Every employee needs to be able to handle change and problem solve their way through sticky and difficult situations. Reflection and evaluation is also key to determining an individual’s learning agility. Any employee must be able to learn new skills and adapt — and that will not always come in the form of direct feedback. If the applicant is able to reflect upon their performance and articulate a change for next time, that applicant is agile. A key way that I measure or look for an individual’s learning agility is through either behavioral interview questions or role play activities.

Behavioral Assessments and Role Plays Can Also Be Used to Measure Learning Agility

Behavioral based questions ask the applicant to describe a time when they’ve had to exhibit the desired skills before or explain how they’d respond to a hypothetical question. I’m looking for an applicant to be able to specifically describe the techniques and approaches used to navigate a sticky or ever-changing situation. Often, I ask specifically about their experience learning something new — to describe their techniques used and how they knew they’d mastered the task. When hiring for a manager or coach who needs to be able to demonstrate a specific skill set of delivering feedback and coaching an under-performing team member, I put these applicants through a role play. Role plays serve as an opportunity for the applicant to show their instincts at demonstrating the skills desired for the role. Many applicants can be nervous during a situation like this, but I’m looking for someone who can show their existing expertise with these difficult-to-hone skills. Even if an applicant cannot demonstrate all of the skills I’m expecting, through the rest of the interview, I offer the applicant opportunities to adapt, change, and reflect upon their performance. The best applicants are able to actively demonstrate their learning agility directly within the interview process — adapting to the questions asked, reflecting upon their own performance [many times within the interview itself] and offering ways to make changes the next time they proceed with a task or scenario.”- Katie shares.

Learning Agile Individuals Are Well Aware of Their Own Learning Preferences as They Indulge in Learning Very Frequently

Different people like to learn in different ways. Some prefer to learn by experience, others like learning by reading (online or on paper) whereas many like watching online tutorials or learning in-person from a mentor or in a physical classroom. The one thing that is very true is that we all have a preferred mode of learning that we find most interesting and rewarding. People who are learning agile are always looking for something new to learn and hence are very clear about their learning preferences. Others are unsure as they have never proactively tried learning anything on their own.

Nate agrees- “Learning agility is very important when considering hiring someone. There is no way to exactly measure a person’s learning agility. The best you can do is ask them specific questions in an interview to better understand how they think and learn. For example, you can ask them if they would prefer to learn something new by reading instructions, watching someone else, or by their own trial and error? Their answer should be able to show their own self-awareness on how they like to learn and do things.

Learning Agility Is Most Crucial in Industries, Companies, and Roles Where There Is Constant Change and Lots of Complexity

We see this in High Tech Engineering roles, Management Consulting roles, and there are trends and waves that hit the Financial Services and Professional Services at different times and specific intervals, depending on what is going on in both the local and global economy, as well as disruption to the status quo. When you don’t factor in learning agility into the hiring and selection process, in these kinds of complex and fast changing roles, you run the risk of burning out your workforce. Hiring and retention are symbiotic. If you make a bad hire, it affects the existing workforce adversely, and then that person leaves, the job is open again, and your existing people burn out. Once they burn out, they leave, and you have more open positions to fill, and it becomes a perpetuating cycle that creates a revolving door. That damages your brand and makes it even harder to recruit top talent.”- states David B. Nast, CEO and Managing Partner of Nast Partners– a Human Capital Management and Talent Optimization firm based in the Greater Philadelphia area.

When you pay close attention to job fit, the successful candidate on-boards more smoothly, gets up to speed faster, starts to contribute more quickly, and that increases retention. And for the individual in a given role, when they are good fit, based on their learning agility, they are better equipped to be successful in the long term. Retaining top talent gives you the ability to be strategic and optimize your workforce. Hiring someone who learns quickly and can adapt to changes and manage complexity contributes to the organization more quickly, giving the company a competitive advantage in the market.

Leadership and Other Key Roles in High-Growth Technology Companies and Early Stage Startups, Require Employees with High Learning Agility 

High-growth technology companies and early stage companies consider learning agility as a key competency that needs to be assessed during hiring. Dan adds– “In one of my prior companies, I was hiring for the first few dedicated business roles and valued learning agility very high. We had fewer than 20 people and were growing fast so we wore many hats on the commercial and operations team. For early stage companies, learning agility is often paramount for key employees.”

Ewa Zakrzewska, HR Specialist / Recruiter at Zety, a career advice site shares-“In most cases, we pay special attention to learning agility in candidates for managerial roles. We believe that leaders must be able to find unexpected solutions and be able to learn from past mistakes to manage people effectively.”

Learning Agility Is a Must Have Skill in Newly Graduate Millennials

Since we hire only new graduates, in all cases learning agility is our top priority, no compromise. They often do not have rich working experience, so learning agility is almost the only way they could do the job successfully.”- says Son Ngo, CEO, Tankscrib.

Learning Agility can be considered more important than experience. If you talk into consideration the amount of progress and the kind of contribution a learning agile employee makes in a job role as compared to a person having average or low learning agility, quality of experience wins over quality of experience.

In newly graduate millennials, who will be facing a short skill shelf life of only 3 years, learning agility becomes an absolute necessary competency to have. The rate of change, that most businesses are facing these days, is very high. Hiring based on past accolades is not a guarantee of employee success at all and HRs have to live to rue the day they did not assess the talent’s learning agility before hiring them.

Son agrees- “There was only one time we hired a person, who through the interview demonstrated that he was slow in learning. We hired him because he has proven his technical ability through awards won in college. However, a year on, and I have to say I regret that decision: he struggled to keep pace with the real world and convert his ability into working successes. He is still contributing to the company, but nowhere near the hope we had for him.

High performing organizations are well aware of the power of having a highly learning agile workforce. If an organization has an average learning agile workforce, they are up for tough times as these employees will struggle to keep up with the changing job role skill demand and be reluctant to give up old and obsolete skills that will gravely impact the organization’s performance.

Individuals Who Are Not Learning Agile Will Not Be Able to Consistently Deliver High Performance

Chris Chancey, founder of Amplio Recruiting, a recruitment agency that mostly helps immigrant talent find jobs in the US, shares- “For many of my clients, having adequate training or job skills is not the main challenge. Often, they arrive in the U.S. with college degrees or extensive experience from their home countries. But because of differences in education requirements or terminology, immigrants often are unable to work in the same field that they did at home. As a result, they enter the job market seeking the opportunity to prove that they can — and want to — learn. A good example is Robe Kumsa, who immigrated to the Atlanta, Ga., area from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. She and her husband waited more than 15 years to come to America. College-educated, Robe worked for the Ethiopian government in the area of banking. But when she came here, the only job she could find on her own was as a cashier.

This presents a problem, both for employees as well as organizations. If employees are not able to develop learning agility, they will always be undermined in the job market. On the other hand, the organizations that are employing individuals who are not learning agile, will suffer as they will not be able to adapt and implement new technologies to stay competitive in the marketplace.

Employers Are Not Keen on Retaining Employees with Low Learning Agility

This is a universal fact that applies to job roles across all industries. Daniel Shen Founder of Soqqle, an EduGaming company, shares why he considers Learning Agility, a skill he will not compromise on while deciding to hire or retain an employee- “Almost all job roles can’t compromise where the individual doesn’t have the learning agility for teamwork, or a service-oriented mindset. These are often the hardest to pick up, and the biggest damage to an organization. I’m big on the gig economy and this (lack of learning agility) is often the number 1 reason that I would drop an employee.

Most Employers Consider Learning Agility as the Most Important Skill That They Look for in Individuals, During Hiring, High Potential Identification and Succession Planning

Ewa staunchly considers learning agility among the important skills because it enables people to know what to do when they don’t know what to by drawing upon past experiences. She shares – “We are only looking for A+ players who can disrupt the industry. That’s why learning agility plays a key role in Zety’s hiring process.”

Susan Braakman, Operations Manager at Seuss Consulting agrees. When asked if she considers ‘learning agility’ a key competency that needs to be assessed during hiring, she said- “Yes, we do, because it will help determine your talent management and talent development program in the company and will add great value to succession planning. In most cases learning agility is a ‘good to have’ competency, but when you are hiring your successors, it can be a deal breaker. We factor learning agility in our hiring decisions for all roles because of the value it adds to succession planning and developing talent management programs.

However, Employers Also Agree That Stagnant Job Roles Do Not Require Learning Agile Talent

Job roles or positions which are not likely to experience any change in responsibilities or up-skilling may not require learning agile talent

All this focus on learning agility will surely make you wonder- do all employees in all organizations need to be learning agile? The answer is – No. There are traditional repetitive, non-novel jobs requiring relatively lower cognitive skill usage that still exist and require employees who can do a specific task efficiently, repeatedly, for a long period of time. Although it should be noted- these kinds of jobs will very soon become automated and replaced by AI. But for now, job roles such as back-end developer require specialization in one particular skill and companies’ value specialization over learning agility while hiring in such job roles.

According to Nate– “Learning agility is only very important if they (the talent) don’t yet quite have the skills I need them to have. If they are proficient in everything, they claim to be in, then their learning agility doesn’t matter for the time being. It may come into effect if they ever want to move up in the company. Learning agility has to be considered for every role that requires any growth within the position. If it’s a position that will never grow or be given more responsibility, then learning agility is not a factor.”

Will Craig, Managing Director of LeaseFetcher, a UK based dedicated car leasing comparison website agrees- “At the moment, we only prioritize learning agility as a required competency for senior roles within the company, as these are the ones that have the most pressing need for. For senior roles in the company, we need to see some evidence that candidates can learn quickly and effectively so the ability to do this effectively carries some weight in a job interview. For less senior roles, it’s a ‘good-to-have’ trait and something that makes a candidate stand out to us – it won’t necessarily mean that we hire them though, as we’re focused more on their current level of skills and experience than anything else. Learning agility is limited to senior roles in the company at the moment – usually those roles which are likely to be dealing with rapidly evolving technology (like web developers) and those which are in charge of other members of staff.

So, to Summarize It All...

  • Learning ability and learning intent, both are equally important to be learning agile.
  • The best way to assess learning agility is to make individuals attempt tasks that they have no prior experience of.
  • Learning agile individuals are the most sought-after talent as they are most capable of delivering high performance consistently even as they face rapid changes in the company business and their job role.
  • Learning agility is considered the most important skill to have in your workforce as continuously learning new skills on the job is a necessity in the fast-changing business environment of present and future.
  • Key job roles that are very managerial or strategic in nature require higher learning agility than routine/ repetitive jobs that do not require regular up-skilling.
  • Learning agility needs to be assessed during hiring, learning and development as well as during high potential identification and succession planning.

Sliding CTA_Know How to Measure _ Improve Your Organization_s Learning Agility


Originally published January 28 2019, Updated December 17 2020

Romila Kanchan

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About This Topic

Learning agility is the ability and willingness to learn quickly and easily and incorporate new learnings in daily and first-time tasks. Learning agility is among the most wanted skills in employees in today’s fast-changing work environment.

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