Ready your workforce for the future through learning agility
The needs of employers are evolving continuously in today’s business climate. To keep up, employees must change their mindset and seek out “cross-training” opportunities to contribute in multiple areas of the organization. Employees can no longer master just one single skill set and expect to skate by for the rest of their careers. As technologies such as AI, robotics, big data, and cloud computing continue to advance, jobs will experience significant changes. Employees who develop new skills and an agile mindset for cross-training will build sustained relevancy to their organization and their career. Responsibility for instilling continuous learning into an organization’s culture lies both with the employer and the employee for mutual benefit.
One trait that is critical to successful cross-training is learning agility. We define learning agility as an openness to new information and the ability to gain and apply insights derived from this information. People with this trait often follow a nontraditional path and can develop professionally from an array of diverse experiences. Learning agile people aren’t perturbed by shifts in direction. When they fall, they get back up. They take risks and often receive commensurate rewards.
Why is learning agility especially critical today? Learning agile employees excel by honing specific habits. For employees, learning agility is the foundation for learning new skills and becoming a valued asset across multiple disciplines within an organization. For employers, it is a key component to transforming their workforce to be ready for the changes to come. The building blocks of learning agility are:
- Challenge pre-existing mindsets. Be open to new ways of doing things. Pay attention to the processes and examples your team is using to address issues. If it seems like everyone is saying something is no longer working, that’s a clue that a change may be necessary.
- Always ask the next question: What are 10 different ways I could approach this? You might not actually execute all the ideas you come up with, but you shouldn’t dismiss anything out of hand.
- Look for the common thread: What aspects of your current projects are similar to projects or challenges you’ve faced before? For example, if a current marketing campaign isn’t working as intended, could the problem be like last year’s technology implementation, in which you didn’t do enough advance audience research?
- Reflect on the past: Explore “what-ifs” and alternative histories for projects with which you’ve been involved. Never pass up an opportunity for genuine feedback, asking: “What are three or four things I could have done better?” Make sure the question is open-ended but specific so that you can act on what you learn.
- Take more risks: Look for stretch assignments where success isn’t a given. These might involve new roles, new parts of the company, or new geographies.
- Avoid getting defensive: When a risky project fails, don’t scramble to cover your tracks or look around to see who you can blame. Accept that you’re fallible and acknowledge the misstep. Capture the key learnings and make a conscious effort to take a different path next time.
- Don’t unconsciously put down learning agile teammates: Individuals with learning agility constantly challenge the status quo and may appear “rough around the edges” to more diplomatic, laissez-faire colleagues. However, their value is undeniable and the more of them we have working for us at all levels, the better off we’ll be.
Encourage the Acquisition of Diverse Expertise
SilkRoad Technology, a strategic onboarding firm that helps organizations deliver intentional, personalized, and employee-centric experiences, provides multiple paths for employee learning and development as part of its talent management systems. For example, if there is a cross-training path available for an engineer who wants to improve his/her skills in marketing, then that employee can be assigned to a specific learning path or workflow with curated content delivered by marketing experts in the organization as that employee progresses in their training.
We as leaders need to prompt our people to judge for themselves which coursework is most appropriate at a given time, because the future work world demands that individuals seek out and participate in self-directed learning.
Whether it’s offering a company-developed course, tuition reimbursement, an extra hour to do a massive open online course (MOOC), or a workflow with another department, work with each of your employees to devise a learning and development plan that makes the most sense for your team and for your employees as individual careerists. Real-life experience, such as shadowing assignments or on-site visits, can be used to enhance and reinforce key learning throughout the employee’s journey. Keeping the agility concept in mind, the plan should be updated routinely to keep pace with changing goals and new skill requirements of your organization.
Foster the Practice of Intrapreneurship
Leaders should also institutionalize intrapreneurship to increase learning agility. Intrapreneurship is the practice of entrepreneurial strategies within the context of, and leveraging the resources of, an established organization. Many companies have come up with creative ways to incorporate intrapreneurship into everyday operations.
The Microsoft Garage resides in Bill Gates’ old office and serves as a space for employees in any role to work on innovative projects. Photography company Shutterstock hosts an annual, daylong hackathon during which employees present demos for new tools that will improve the customer experience. Two tools that are now used routinely — Spectrum (color search) and Oculus (data analysis) — were initially unveiled at the hackathons and integrated into Shutterstock’s core business.
Companies talk a good game when it comes to innovation, but it can only happen when it is prioritized by senior leaders and there is a culture and an environment that encourages it.
Practice Hands-Off Management
One of the stated reasons many workers like startups so much is that being on a smaller team means they have less red tape to cut through to do their jobs. Self-managed teams employ the same concept of team ownership (i.e., action can be taken without the extra step of seeking approval within a traditional hierarchy).
A few years ago, shoe retailer Zappos got the world’s attention when it jumped into the most extreme version of self-managed teams. The company obliterated its hierarchy, getting rid of all titles and inviting employees to organize into “circles” working toward the same goal.
And, as you may have guessed, this process resulted in greater learning agility all around.
Make Learning Agility Easy
Your organization’s efforts to build learning agile teams will pay off sooner rather than later if you spell it out as a value very early on in the employee training process and make it part of your culture. Give your people every chance to apply new learnings in real-world business scenarios and reward them for coaching and serving as mentors to their peers. There’s nothing like sitting next to a more experienced colleague to learn something new!
The organization should also curate learning content through stories and videos so that you create a powerful brain trust and the opportunities come to life for the employees. Learning agility isn’t a skill that comes naturally to everyone, especially those who were educated in a more traditional climate. Feedback through scheduled “debrief sessions” is crucial.
By encouraging certain habits, promoting skill acquisition, fostering intrapreneurship, practicing hands-off management, and making learning easy, your team will possess a major advantage in an increasingly fast-paced business world.
Written by: Lilith Christiansen and Alexandra Levit
Lilith Christiansen is Vice President of Onboarding Solutions for SilkRoad Technology, where she leads a team developing world-class strategic onboarding practices and programs for clients that transform their employee experiences to drive positive business outcomes. She brings more than 20 years of HR consulting experience to SilkRoad, having established a reputation as an industry expert, author, and speaker.
Alexandra Levit is the author of the new book Humanity Works: Merging Technologies and People for the Workforce of the Future (Kogan Page, October 2018). A partner at People Results, she helps Fortune 500 and government organizations and their leaders prepare for the future of work through proprietary research, consulting, and program development.