The concept of learning agility has generated practitioner interest over the last 10 years but there is not a depth of research on it. Lomardo and Eichinger (2000) wrote about the relationship between learning agility and leadership potential. The ability to effectively learn from new experiences differentiates high potentials who go on to succeed from those who don’t.
In strategic IT leadership positions in several client systems, the ability to learn and to help the organization learn is seen as critical to transforming the organization from its very successful past to success in new normal business conditions. Learning agility is a multi-dimensional construct with elements that relate to problem solving and a number of elements that appear quite similar to emotional intelligence such as self awareness understands others, accepts responsibility (Lombardo and Eichinger, 2000). There are also elements related to results and organizational skills such as political savvy and teambuilding. Their definition is the willingness and ability to
Complex constructs can be challenging because there is a tendency for them to become the “secret sauce” for talent management and they can be hard hard to blend into existing competency models and practices because there is an ambitious set of competencies already contained within the model. This can pose a dilemma for practicing talent professionals who want to add new learning and maintain what has worked well historically. There are also times when we are asked to identify how a popular construct relates to work that we are doing within the organization.
DeRue, Ashford and Myers (2012) works to provide a narrower and more precise definition of learning agility. For example, removing performance or results which is an outcome of learning agility refines the construct definition. The authors focus on agility as requiring both speed and flexibility so that learning can appropriately be applied to a new or novel situation. Discernment about what lessons apply and what needs to be unlearned is important to successful learning. From a practitioner viewpoint, there are several interesting points that support development and assessment of leaders.
Both goal orientation research and openness to experience are posited to relate to learning agility. Learning goal orientation has been shown to relate to improved performance after feedback and a motivation to learn. Openness to experience indicates, broadminded, curious and imaginative characteristics as summarized in the article (DeRue et al, 2012). Additionally, Eichinger and Lombardo (2004) found a relationship between learning agility and opennessto experience. From these author’s experience, both of these underlying constructs can be measured through a number of leadership instruments and interview processes.
DeRue et al, (2012) also posit that cognitive ability (eg. who speed and pattern recognition) fit the working definition of learning agility. They provide two specific cognitive processes, cognitive simulation which requires thinking through multiple possibilities which assists in the application of learning and supports implicit and explicit learning. The other is counter factual thinking in which “what if” thinking is engaged to clarify the cause and effect relationships and broadens the lessons learned from an experience. As a coach or even an interviewer, reflection based on these two cognitive processes can be integrated into assessment and development of learning. In fact three behaviors that the author’s describe as related to learning agility: seeking feedback, experimentation and reflection are typical components of leadership development processes and are integral to coaching. This article offers definition that is translatable into existing assessment and development processes for practitioners who are asked to address the concept.
Norton (2010) reinforces the value of learning agility by suggesting that learning agility along with other competencies related to flexible leadership such as adaptive expertise and acceptance uncertainty create a meta competency or cluster of competencies. He describes adaptive capacity as representing a number of competencies and as being one of the key overarching competencies needed in leadership along with integrity, voice and shared meaning (Bennis and Thomas, 2002). He points out that there are behavioral, cognitive and affective components shared by all of the flexible leadership competencies and that these components can be integrated into selection, development and reinforcement of leaders.
In our client systems, we are finding that drawing the discussion to learning agility helps the talent data integration teams have a rich discussion of their multi source data. This has been a good place to start.
Bennis, W.G. & Thomas, R.J (2002). Geeks and Geezers: How eras, values and defining moments shape leaders. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press.
De Meuse, K.P., G. Dai & G.S. Hallenbeck (2010). Learning Agility: A construct whose time has come. Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research, 62: 2, 119-130.
DeRue. S. P., Ashford, S. & Myers, C. G, (2012). Learning Agility: In search of conceptual clarity and theoretical grounding. Industrial and Organizational Psychology Perspectives on Science and Practice, 5, 258-279.
Lombardo, M.M & Eichinger, R. W. (2000). High potentials as high learners. Human Resource Management, 39, 321-330.
Norton, L. W. (2010). Flexible Leadership, An integrative perspective. Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research, 62: 2, 143-150.