Surviving in VUCA times: Bank on Learning and Agility!
In 1991, the U.S. Army was facing extreme conditions in their war zones in Afghanistan and Iraq. These conditions were totally new and drastically different from the ones they encountered in the past. The terrains were difficult and the asymmetrical battlefield appeared too overpowering for conventional military operations. The U.S. military went on to coin the term “VUCA” that would go on to change the nature of warfare forever.
The acronym, which was initially designed to describe the Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous landscapes in which today’s soldiers must learn to adapt and operate, has become trendy even in corporate circles, as businesses compete in an environment characterized by constant, rapid, and unpredictable evolution.
VUCA is the new business reality, and we all have to live with it. Learning is central to functioning effectively in this VUCA environment, and by its sheer definition, has to be essentially agile (let’s not abuse this word anymore, it’s just so apt and opposite)!
More so because in our times, the present is drastically different from the past and the present is not a good predictor of the future (in fact, it could mislead you).
The only way to survive and thrive today where emerging technologies disrupt business patterns and social lives almost every other day is to inculcate learning agility into your developmental program.
What is Learning Agility anyway?
Defining learning agility should not appear like yet another mischievous attempt to create a technical jargon out of a simple concept. To put it rather simply, learning agility is knowing what to do when you don’t know what to do. It is the ability and willingness to learn from experience and then apply that learning to perform successfully in new situations (please note the words new situations) by acquiring the necessary capabilities.
People who are learning agile (as they are often called):
- Constantly look out for new experiences to learn from.
- Thrive on complex problems and challenges.
- Enjoy making sense out of the different experiences they encounter.
- Deliver better performance as they have new skills ingrained in them.
In particular, leaders have to be more agile today than they were ever before. Adapting to continuously evolving business strategies, working with people across cultures having cross-functional resources to handle, and taking on dynamic assignments on a real-time basis, all demand that leaders be flexible and agile.
What does being “agile” mean in the learning context?
If you have ever been into software development, you know how impossible it is to avoid getting dragged into the never-ending Waterfall versus Agile debate. The topic evokes extreme passion from staunch supporters at both ends — while proponents of waterfall argue about its discipline and time-tested practicality, agile supporters claim waterfall is less adaptable to ever-changing business requirements, and this is where agile methodology scores.
An average customer, they say, doesn’t know exactly what they need at the beginning of a project. At other times, a dynamically changing market could just compel a change of direction.
Wait! What has agile got to do with learning & development from the business perspective? Well, agile has spread well beyond its original roots in information technology and the IT-based project management.
For just like the software development life cycle, learning & development industry too requires the virtue of agility to keep pace with the frequent paradigm shifts taking place in the new age. Typically, agility brings the following values into learning:
Learning agility offers more adaptability in today’s world of rapid changes. Planning is not something that’s done only once at the beginning. It’s an ever-evolving process.
The virtue of flexibility that agile brings, whether in IT or in learning, is priceless! The purpose of learning is no more to certify an individual with a badge but to keep sharpening their skills across the entire delivery spectrum, on a continuous basis.
Learning is bound to follow market dynamics. Your company will not train you on assembly language programming if you were hired to code advanced algorithms on machine learning. As an agile learner, however, you are expected to adapt and change quickly with the markets or as the client’s needs evolve.
The idea is to be people-driven and not process-driven. It requires an approach of continuous learning, ideally on a daily basis. This takes a lot of burden off enterprises as employees are able to handle their own daily work much more efficiently. When you infuse learning into daily work, employees tend to graduate almost every week, instead of once in a lifetime, and they are less tormented by disruptive technological changes which have become a bit too frequent these days.
Note the difference between flexibility and adaptability in the context of learning agility. While flexibility is about being able to change frameworks as deemed necessary, adaptability is being able to quickly adjust to an alien situation.
Learning Ability ≠ Learning Agility
Without underestimating ability, we have to first understand the difference between ability and agility. The latter starts where the former ends. Ability takes you to a certain point. Thereafter, Agility becomes important.
Learning ability is more IQ-based, whereas learning agility is behavioral and relates to your emotional intelligence. Learning ability could well be hard-wired, but learning agility can be developed and enhanced.
You can teach ability, but you can not teach agility. Agility is something you can only inculcate, and develop, through continuous learning and training with a sense of awareness and involvement toward things that surround your ecosystem.
Three essential components of learning agility
According to Harvard Business Publishing, organizations need leaders with learning agility in order to move ahead successfully in volatile times. The question is, can we teach someone to be a more agile learner? They say yes, and have identified some key elements that could help someone boost their learning agility. These capabilities are essential to successfully lead businesses in today’s VUCA operating environment, and essentially comprise three components:
- Potential to Learn: The competencies that make you successful in a specific role today might not be sufficient tomorrow. A learning agile person has an open and receptive mindset to constantly experience new things to reach new goals.
- Motivation to Learn: Learners need to be engaged and inspired by the learning process for learning to take hold because changing ingrained behaviors and long-held habits is hard work.
- Adaptability to Learn: If you remember, sometime back Google and Procter & Gamble had organized an employee swap — for about two months, their marketing and HR employees worked at the other organization to see how they managed operations differently. Once their tour was completed, they brought those ideas back to their respective companies. Instead of following a business-as-usual routine, learning agile employees have an adaptability to learn attitude, consistently working on improving their skills.
Agile learners are proactive; they look for opportunities to learn and experiment with new approaches.
Successful companies are the ones that harness Learning Agility to rapidly adapt, adopt and innovate
According to a McKinsey report, by 2030, automation could eliminate 73 million jobs in U.S. and about 48 – 54 million US workforce may need to change their occupations.
This could call for a push towards cross-functional promotion from the product side and a transition from individual contributor to a team manager on the leadership side.
Most companies use one or other performance management systems to track employees, but that could well mislead at times. True, with limited budget at hand, you can’t spend significant dollars on everyone — so to whom do you give this extra time, money and attention? That is the million dollar question (or a few thousand one).
One way is to spend a major portion of your learning & development budget on the most learning-agile person. What does that mean anyway? How do you determine learning agility? The best answer could be “Those who can learn on the go — learn while they work, work while they learn.”
The problem is, most of our promotion criteria are based on past performances rather than on whether employees possess the skills needed to achieve business targets. Whereas we need human resources who are not only accomplished but are also agile learners. Organizations especially need leaders with learning agility in order to move ahead successfully in volatile times.
A recent Korn Ferry study says executives with high levels of learning agility are 5X times more likely to stay highly engaged. And that companies with highly agile individuals have 25% higher profit margins than their peer group. Not that organizations do not realize this clear return on investment. According to the same report, individuals with high learning agility are promoted 2X times faster in current times.
The need of the hour: A continuous professional development platform to harness agility
Traditional L&D processes don’t harness learning agility. With millennials taking over and workplace environment evolving every other day, what organizations need at this stage is a comprehensive continuous learning and dynamic performance tracking mechanism which measures both tangible as well as intangible values an employee brings to the team.
On the other hand, if you want to contribute to your company’s agility, you have to remember that your job is not only to train people but to put in place programs and strategies which create a continuous learning environment.
The time has come to marry learning with working. Both of them are not separate. One of the hallmarks of a learning agile organization is that they infuse learning into daily work.
In today’s times, the major difference between successful people and those whose careers falter is their ability to make meaning from their experiences. That includes understanding the entrenched patterns of behavior and recognizing the fine nuances in different situations. These are the cognitive traits you could conveniently associate with someone who is learning agile, and shows the willingness and ability to learn throughout their careers, if not their entire lives.
If you have read the novel The Leopard by Sicilian author Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, you will certainly remember how the main protagonist’s nephew famously tried to convince his uncle to change strategy — “If we want things to stay as they are, everything will have to change.” The book is all about forces threatening the status quo through class struggle during Italian unification.
Change was always the rule of law. What is different today is the pace of change, the immediacy, the extent of impact and the number of horizontal and vertical factors they affect with every iteration.
We are in the midst of an ongoing 4th industrial revolution. This is the new age of automation — an era of rapid change where advances in technology are disrupting the very way we work and live.
As this fourth industrial revolution continues to unfold, learning agility will be the difference between an organization thriving or disappearing.
For the threats are real. Rapidly changing technology has led to the emergence of a skill gap that is costing the US economy over 1.3 Trillion Dollars annually in lost productivity. Ultimately, our ability to continuously learn and adapt will determine the extent to which we thrive in today’s turbulent times. The extent to which we are able to do this will have an impact not only on who we are today but also on who we can become tomorrow.
We also need to adapt and renovate on the lines we think about strategy and implementation. The old school set the goal – plan – execute the approved plan doesn’t work anymore. We need to adopt a ‘context-mindful’ framework that embraces situational awareness.
As organizations are continuously changing, growing, shifting, restructuring, downsizing, bringing new leadership onboard and acquiring new people and resources while frequently investing in new and advanced technologies, a continuous learning & development platform that fosters lifelong learning culture could be the most decisive factor in keeping employees learning agile and blending learning into daily work for enhanced business productivity on a daily basis.