On Learning Agility

On Learning Agility

With learning agility, in this uncertain, increasingly complex and fast-moving world, we prepare for managing insurmountable challenges.

We Can’t Ignore Learning Agility

John Kennedy said learning and leadership are inseparable to each other. If we are in a leadership position learning agility is a subject we cannot ignore. Even if are not in a leadership position, a purposeful life cannot be led without learning agility; in other words, learning agility is a subject that concerns everybody.

Understanding Learning Agility

I would like to begin by mentioning the definitions of learning agility. Korn Ferry has an interesting definition of learning agility. “Knowing what to do when you do not know what to do.”

The text book definition of Learning Agility is “willingness and ability to learn from experience, and subsequently apply that learning to perform successfully under new or first-time conditions.” De Meuse et al. (2010)

So, learning agility has three ingredients: Willingness and ability to learn, Apply the learning, and performing successfully under new or first-time conditions. That’s a tall demand. This sounds like asking the number ten batsman to take the team to a win. And today even the number ten batsman is expected to be an all-rounder who can win matches.

In other words, the question before us is how can we prepare ourselves for future challenges. That’s how I have defined the problem of learning agility for the discussion today.

What exactly we mean by ‘learning’? When experience produces a lasting change in our behaviour, it is called learning. But experience is not the only teacher. We also have other sources. One of them is observation. For learning of adults, we have two major sources, experience and observation. Learning through experience involves culling out the lessons from experience. This is done through introspection. Experience by itself does not matter; how we process it, what matters is the meaning we make of it.

Agility means the ability to think and understand quickly. So, when we use the term ‘learning agility’ we are discussing ‘thinking and understanding by experience and observation which produces a lasting change in our behaviour.’

So much for the theory. Let us see the practical side.

Our learning process is unobtrusive. In other words, we do not notice that we have learnt a particular aspect. For example, our vocabulary increases as we read and speak a language, but we do not notice it. Similarly, our communication skills, problem solving skills increase as we work, but we rarely notice the change. Learning agility requires us to consciously hasten this process.

If we are learning continuously, why should we focus on learning agility? The answer is that when we do an activity with purpose, we develop both mind and body for it. Those who prepare for marathon running will agree readily.

Why Should We Focus On Learning Agility

That brings us to the question: Why should we focus on learning agility? The answer to my mind is that we aspire to go higher in the corporate ladder. This requires us to solve increasingly complex problems to achieve a goal. These could be technical, commercial problems or even problems of relationships. Our success is determined by our ability to solve such complex problems. Newspapers are discussing hostile takeover of Mindtree by L&T. Managers on both the sides will be facing this situation for the first time.  

We refer to one of our common experience which is caught by this quote: ‘The trouble with future is that it usually arrives before we are ready for it.’ Arnold Glasgow said it, and he must have experienced it because he was a businessman. Can learning agility help us prepare for the future challenge, the answer is yes, and that is the importance of learning agility.

When Do We Start Focusing On Learning Agility?

The answer is when we have an agenda, or a goal. Not set by others, but set by oneself. It could be a simple personal goal of leaving a mark on one’s job or it could be a big purpose in life. Dr. Baba Amte who created Anandwan where a few thousand leprosy patients have been treated; he was not a medical doctor, he was a lawyer by training. Yet he could create Anandwan. Similarly, Dr Himmatrao Bavaskar who discovered a unique treatment for patients bitten by deadly scorpions, and who brought them back from the jaws of death, worked in remote village in Maharashtra. It had no facilities for research. How did he make it happen? The answer is that when you have a goal or a purpose in life, you focus your energies in learning everything – knowledge, skills and attitude – to help you reach it. Something sparks inside when we are driven to achieve our goal.

Another situation when we focus on learning agility is when we have a sense of inadequacy. We then raise the antenna, we pick up signals quickly. Does not this happen when we move in a new role?

How do we know that we are ready to face the future?

How do we know that we are ready to face the future? The test of a pudding as they say, is in eating. It becomes obvious when we handle a challenging assignment. You will remember the scene in Sholay. Gabbar robs the village and catches Jay or Amitabh Bachchan unarmed. Gabbar asks Amitabh to touch his feet and ask for pardon. But he is hired to kill Gabbar not to surrender to him. He throws the ‘Holi ka rang’ in Gabbar’s eyes and turns the table.

The situation of being confronted with a challenge is not new to anybody. It is dramatized in films and literature. In real life we see a martyr soldier’s wife taking charge of the family, educating children and performing role of both parents. We know of surgeons handling complicated operations where it is a question of life and death. We have also seen HR Managers deftly handling situations of intense conflict. 

What are the lessons for us? First lesson is that we must act in consonance with our role. For this purpose, we have to think of our role.

The role of HR Manager in a newly set up company differs from that in a well-established company. And his role in a company which is on a decline differs from these two. Nobody prepares him to handle these three stages, but he can prepare himself by thinking about his role. Nobody prepares a martyr’s wife to take charge of the family and raise it. Nobody prepares a surgeon to take life and death decisions. They must think and make personal decisions about how they will handle those situations. In all cases they have to define their role and it involves deciding what they value and what they do not value. In that sense, they discover themselves.

Polyhydron case holds lessons for us. One of the consultants of Polyhydron advised them to manipulate the balance sheet to prevent paying taxes on their considerable profits. Before the machine arrived, the income tax department came to know about this deal and started an enquiry. Hundre, the entrepreneur, deeply regretted his decision and decided that his company will never again get involved in unethical practices. But the corrupt business environment did not change so he encountered numerous difficulties but he overcame them. What prepared Hundre to operate ethically and successfully in such a hostile situation? The answer is that he redefined his role. He rediscovered his values. This was the outcome of his introspection.

So long and short of the story is that we can never say that we are ready for future. What helps us face challenging assignments, which future holds for us, is a thought to defining our role, a thought to discovering deeper values we stand for, and an ability for introspection to ‘sharpen our saw.’

What Fails Learning Agility?

Two things fail learning agility. First, the tendency to defend our course of action. Several corporate managers suffer this fatal flaw. Not seeking to understand others is the theme in their failure story. Success in the past breeds this attitude of ‘I-know-everything’ attitude.

Second factor is our instinctive survival response which takes us on control route to handle things. It means we may run away from the situation or fight to destruction. Both these factors were evident in the story of the HR managers of some IT companies who mishandled the exit of their staff a few years ago.

And Finally…

We ought to find time regularly for introspection which means learning from experience. Introspecting on our failures help us prepare ourselves better for challenges that future holds. Learning agility differentiates the successful and the otherwise.

Vivek S Patwardhan

“What you leave behind is not what is engraved in stone monuments, but what is woven into the lives of others.”

PS: My address delivered at the 6th ChromaHR Conference at Chennai on March 16, 2019.