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Historically, there are certain dichotomies that don’t coalesce − like oil and vinegar. The equivalent in the world of organizational learning are things like “hard” and “soft” skills.  There are things better done by machines, like Artificial Intelligence (AI), and things requiring a human touch, like compassion, empathy, or interpersonal skills. A post that I came across recently in Forbes/Quora entitled “How to Empower Your Employees to Learn New Technology” cited these contrasts and caught my attention. The author suggested that changes in the business landscape are making the need for learning agility of paramount importance. However, the author didn’t define what she meant by learning agility. We agree with her about the importance of learning agility and will define it shortly.

There are two sets of skills which are increasing in importance and are also seen as opposites according to Palmer, the author of this post. She says, “On the one hand you have data driven skills, things like collecting, analyzing, processing and understanding data.” On the other side of the dichotomy are what was once known as “soft skills, things like creativity, emotional intelligence, empathy and collaboration.” These are now being called the “power” skills. I like that a whole lot more than I ever liked the label of “soft skills,” which made people stuff seem irrelevant or superfluous. Kelly Palmer, co-author of The Expertise Economy, who also wrote this Quora piece, suggests that employees with the capability to bring together data geeks who can’t talk to one another have a skill that is in high demand.

Palmer goes on to describe the everchanging business landscape, things like new technologies, new platforms, start-ups, and things that serve to disrupt existing ways of doing business. She says the most important skill is learning agility. I agree. She doesn’t define it, but I will and E.A.S.I-Consult® measures it through the Burke Learning Agility® Inventory. I define learning agility as finding yourself in a situation where you have never been before, you don’t know what to do and you figure it out.

I agree that the pace of change is only going to increase in the future. People are going to increasingly get hired not for what they know today, but to figure out what they don’t know how to do, tomorrow.

Industrial/organizational psychologists previously said that the best predictor of future performance is past performance; however, they are not saying that anymore. They are saying it is about learning agility, figuring out what you don’t know. Dr. Warner Burke, Professor of Psychology at Teachers College, Columbia University, researched this idea of learning agility. He developed an assessment tool called the Burke Learning Agility Inventory (Burke LAI) to measure learning agility. The assessment consists of 38 questions that cover nine dimensions. The nine dimensions are: flexibility, speed, interpersonal risk taking, performance risk taking, feedback seeking, information gathering, collaborating, experimenting, and reflecting.

In our book on learning agility, Learning Agility-The Key to Leader Potential, I discussed in Chapter 1 that one of the things that is different about learning agility is that one person, or a team, a division, or the whole organization could implement learning agility. Other earlier changes or learning interventions required the whole organization to participate for it to be effective.

The Burke LAI can be implemented on any organizational scale − individual through organizational. The larger the scale, like any large-scale intervention, the more systemic the issues become. We are not saying don’t go big, go big. Our preference would be to start small, experiment, learn from those experiments, and then expand.

Palmer, in her post, talks about creating a culture of continuous learning. This would show up in things like employees having the freedom to decide what they want to learn and how they want to learn it. The organization needs to define where its skill gaps are and then entice employees to develop those capabilities. Palmer finishes by indicating the need for a culture of continuous learning. Managers need to believe that their people will get their work done. Managers need to help their employees establish learning paths and then check on their progress. Now Palmer begins to get real. She cites a study by Degreed and Harvard Publishing of 800 workers, managers, and leaders. The survey found that those surveyed gave their overall learning and development opportunities an overall Net Promotor Score of -25.  (Note:  Only positive scores are helping, so a negative score would indicate negative help related to learning and development opportunities.  Translated, not good).

From my perspective, the takeaway is we know the kind of environment we need to create, highly supportive of learning agility. We know through the Burke LAI we have a way to assess someone’s current capability. We know learning agility can be developed. We need to get hundreds of small experiments going in a lot of different organizations in different industries. We need to learn from those experiments. We need to make modification based on what we learned. We need to share those learnings across organizations. As we experience successes, we need to expand those successes, but only to the point that they are sustainable. We are trying to grow learning agility at the individual level. Experiments using learning agility at the team level is a next step. We are trying to grow capabilities in our leaders to support that kind of environment. It is better to be methodical and yet ever moving in a forward and upward direction versus making an organization-wide big splash that becomes the flavor of the month and then implodes.

David Hoff is the COO and EVP of Leadership Development for 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-Consult’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 advisement. 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.