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Thomas Oppong wrote an article in March about the best way to have a successful career in rapidly changing times.

He makes it sound as if change is a new phenomenon.  I remember talking to executives about navigating the “white water” in their business 30 years ago. Maybe I am getting increasingly seasoned, but that old saw – the only constant is change – has always rung true. It could not be truer today and it will be increasingly true tomorrow, next month and next year.

So, what does change portend – uncertainty, ambiguity and maybe opportunity? Our definition of Learning Agility is finding yourself in a situation where you have never been before, not knowing what to do, then figuring it out.

Isn’t that what we are talking about with this increasingly rapid pace of change?

Oppong says in the 21stcentury, careers are no longer narrowly defined by core skills but through complementary skills and Learning Agility. He argues that if you can figure out the right approach (i.e. the T-shaped approach) to improve your skills, you will have an edge over your competitors.

I would phrase what Oppong is saying in a slightly different way – I believe that, in the future, people will be hired less so for what they know and more so for their ability to figure out what they don’t know. That, for me, is Learning Agility.

Oppong’s alternate description of “T-shaped” is “generalized specialist,” meaning the top of the T is the generalized part and the stem of the T is the deeper understanding or your expertise.

When I was an HR executive, I managed a group of specialists who were masters- and Ph.D-level folks with degrees in psychology, assessment and organization development. Some of them aspired to become HR generalists.

I also oversaw people primarily in the plants who were HR Generalists that came to me and expressed interest in moving over to corporate and specializing in selection, training or organization development.

I had a lot of success turning specialists into generalists. I had very little success turning generalists into specialists.

I am going to speculate that, for the generalists, their generalist capabilities are wide, not deep, and their technical expertise in a new area is very limited  – in fact, not deep enough to have credibility with their customers. The specialist on the other hand has deep technical expertise. The generalist capability did not need to be deep, and there was a lot of transferability of the technical skills to generalist situations.

The article I mentioned quotes Dr. Phil Gardner from Michigan State, who says an ideal job candidate is a liberal arts student with technical skills or a business/engineering student with humanities training (T-shaped candidates). McKinsey thinks they use this T-shaped approach by hiring world-class workers who are adaptable at solving problems in creative ways.

In its work with Learning Agility, E.A.S.I-Consult® differentiates between agility and ability. Ability is cognitive ability or intellectual horsepower. There is a certain amount of learning ability required in most situations. Once that threshold has been reached, smarter doesn’t necessarily mean more learning agile or able to deal with the unknown.

Oppong elaborates on T-shaped professionals by saying they are experts in one or two disciplines (vertical bar) and mastered complimentary skills (horizontal bar). This makes it easier for them to adapt and allows them to see things from other perspectives.

In Burke’s Learning Agility work, he identified nine dimensions that, together, define Learning Agility: Speed; Flexibility; Experimenting; Performance Risk Taking; Interpersonal Risk Taking; Information Gathering; Collaborating; Feedback Seeking; and Reflecting.

Speed and Flexibility are the drivers of Learning Agility. They underpin and support the other seven dimensions. Flexibility is defined as being open to new ideas and proposing new solutions.

There are five ways Flexibility is expressed behaviorally:

  • Proposing innovative solutions
  • Considering options before acting
  • Switching between different tasks/jobs
  • Finding common themes
  • Articulating competing ideas/perspectives

When describing T-shaped individuals, Oppong says they are better able to adapt and see things from another perspective. E.A.S.I-Consult would describe that as parts of Learning Agility’s Flexibility dimension.

Back to my HR generalist to specialist example – much of the HR generalist technical expertise is rules based (i.e. you can’t do this because of this law). Specialists going to generalist roles are more accustomed to seeing a situation from several perspectives and trying to find commonality. Said another way, they may start with a greater degree of Flexibility than their generalists colleagues.

The T-shaped idea has merit in today’s and tomorrow’s world.  The nine dimensions of Learning Agility and 38 items that comprise the Burke Learning Agility Inventory are a resource that can aid people making those kinds of career changes.

David Hoff is the chief operation officer and executive vice president for leadership development at E.A.S.I-Consult®. E.A.S.I-Consult works with Fortune 500 companies, government  agencies, and mid-sized corporations to provide customized Talent Management solutions. E.A.S.I.’s specialties include leadership assessment, online pre-employment testing, survey research, competency modeling, leadership development, executive coaching, 360-degree feedback, online structured interviews, and EEO hiring compliance. The company is a leader in the field of providing accurate information about people through professional assessment. To learn more about E.A.S.I-Consult, visit www.easiconsult.com, email ContactUs@easiconsult.com or call 800.922.EASI.