Modern organizations need agile learners. Given the pace of change due to technology, globalization, workforce diversity, and hyper-competition, people need to continually acquire and apply new knowledge, skills, and values at a rate unheard of in previous eras. As we explain in our new book, Minds at Work: Managing for Success in the Knowledge Economy, simple and routine jobs are being replaced by automation and robots. Even more complex tasks are beginning to be done my artificial intelligence (AI). Soon all workers will need to be smarter and more adaptable than ever. The most successful employees will be those who embrace the change and seek out learning when, where, and how they learn best. In other words, they must be agile learners.

As I wrote in a previous blog post, at least three definitions of learning agility are being used in the field. Each is worth considering. One has to do with openness to experience, another has to do with adaptability to change, and a third has to do with the range of methods one uses to acquire new information and abilities.

In Learning About Learning Agility, a white paper from researchers at Teachers College, Columbia University and the Center for Creative Leadership, the authors argue that agile learners are life-long learners. They write that agile learners…

…show the willingness and ability to learn throughout their careers, if not their entire lives…Learning-agile individuals seek opportunities for growth and are able to process these opportunities in order to learn. They are open to new experiences, seek challenges, and are willing to introduce new ideas and question “norms”. Moreover, they are able to remain present in challenging situations, performing and adapting “on the fly”. Finally, learning-agile individuals understand that experience alone does not guarantee learning; they take time to reflect, seeking to understand why things happen, in addition to what happened.

The authors make the point that we usually judge people based on what they have done and what they already know when another, maybe better indicator of success is how well they learn. This is a profound observation because it flies in the face of standard recruiting and selection practices. Do we throw out the resume and observe how people behave in novel situations instead?

Vicki Swisher, with Korn Ferry International, in a webcast says that organizations with learning-agile leaders succeed more than other organizations. These leaders adapt their leadership style and actions to the changing internal and external environments of their organizations. Agility, according to Swisher is about having the flexibility to change given the circumstances.

This kind of learning agility is most needed when leaders are under pressure to respond quickly and decisively. We know that when people are under stress they become less mindful, their perception of options becomes restricted, and they often make the most expedient and safest, rather than best, choice. Agile leaders are able to step back from these pressure situations, engage with others in a way that helps them see the range of possibilities, and make choices that are best for the organization.

Elliott Masie suggests a third definition of learning agility. This is the ability of people to find the information they need when they need it, to use a wide range of methods of learning (technology, social, practice, etc.), and turn that information into the knowledge and skills they need to be effective in the situation. Being an agile learner by this definition means being able to sift through all of the sources of information that we have at our fingertips (literally), evaluate what is useful and what is not, and apply that information to solving problems and improving performance of self, teams, and our organizations.