Organizations have reason to ponder their mortality these days. They now compete in faster, more complex and more volatile markets. And casualties are mounting. Consider that six of the top 10 bankruptcies in U.S. history have occurred since last September. Those six corporations had a combined asset value of more than $1.25 trillion. What’s more, the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts reports that corporate bankruptcy filings have doubled in the past 12 months. We’re not out of the woods.
A permanently altered reality, a new normal, has emerged. At stake is the fundamental capacity of organizations to adapt to rapidly changing conditions — and to do it over and over again. It’s becoming increasingly clear that strategy will not save us. Whatever competitive advantage an organization enjoys today is melting away. The only question is the rate of the melt.
How can organizations sustain competiveness? The answer is found in the pursuit of learning agility — the ability of an organization to learn at or above the speed of change. Organizations must accelerate knowledge cycles to keep pace with competitive cycles.
Organizational learning agility is an enterprise capability that requires deliberate and systematic design, including essential cultural, structural, process and technology-support elements. Based on studies from TRClark, a research, consulting and training company, there are five primary factors that interact to promote or hinder learning agility within organizations:
1. Intelligence function: The capacity of an organization to survey and interpret its entire business ecosystem, including both internal and external competitive environments. The intelligence function interprets information for the strategy function, which feeds the learning function.
2. Learning mindset: The prevailing assumptions, beliefs and dispositions relating to the way people learn.
3. Leadership behavior: The dominant patterns of leadership within an organization.
4. Organizational support: The processes, systems, structures and other forms of support that organizations provide to help employees in their formal and informal learning and execution activities.
5. Learning technology: The forms of technology employed to enable learning at both individual and organizational levels.
Factor 1: The Intelligence Function
The intelligence function is intended to be the early warning system and interpreter of the outside world for the organization. Some organizations approach the gathering of business intelligence in a systematic way. Most are haphazard and ad hoc. Regardless of the configuration and maturity of the intelligence function, it is critically tied to the learning agility of an organization.
To move to a high level of learning agility, organizations must establish a comprehensive, balanced and systematic process for gathering, integrating and interpreting intelligence from a variety of domains. They must have an established framework and logic. Also, there must be direct communication and coordination among the intelligence function, the strategy function and the learning function. Otherwise, the learning function — blindsided with unforeseen events and no time to respond — will remain a tactical and passive business partner.
Factor 2: The Learning Mindset
The second factor in the five-factor model is the organization’s prevailing learning mindset. The dominant learning mindset across organizations is undergoing a second major shift since the postwar period. For centuries, permanent learning was the prevailing model, which envisioned “one-time learning for permanent qualification.” As markets became more turbulent, and in response to relentless disruption and skills obsolescence, learners gradually embraced a continuous learning mindset. It was during this time that the notion of the learning organization came into currency.
Today, organizations find themselves in the midst of a second major transition. As competitive environments increase in speed, complexity and volatility, organizations and individuals are compelled toward a dynamic learning mindset. Dynamic learning is defined as rapid, adaptive, collaborative and self-directed learning at the moment of need. The new mindset recognizes learning as the source of sustained competitive advantage in the context of a protean organization.
As organizations move toward dynamic learning, they face a number of challenges. For example, employees across every demographic cohort demonstrate a general need for guidance in the use of social networking and digital media as learning tools. Many fall into patterns of inefficiency and ineffectiveness and need help avoiding supersaturation, working memory overload, and nonproductive learning or irrelevant learning.
Learning leaders should consider more carefully the return on instruction for teaching employees how to develop skills for problem definition, scoping, filtering, integrating and interpreting to replace the unguided and stream-of-consciousness patterns that prevail. It may be time for learning organizations to take a step back and offer new “learn how to learn” solutions. Even millennials, who are natural swimmers in social networking and digital media, don’t necessarily know how to learn in the digital domain.
Factor 3: Leadership Behavior
The third factor is leadership behavior, defined as the dominant patterns of leadership within an organization. The new behavioral requirement is shifting from knowledge and skills to the ability to acquire knowledge and skills. Competence is becoming a matter of individual dynamic learning. Not surprisingly, the new requirement can be personally threatening and psychologically unsafe for many leaders who have operated under the leader-as-expert model for so many years.
Leaders must stand first in line to model patterns of high-performance learning. This requires a very different emotional and social posture. Leaders must become comfortable portraying themselves as competent by virtue of their ability to learn and adapt rather than on the basis of their current knowledge and skills. The new environment requires a level of humility and curiosity that is simply alien within most traditional conceptions of leadership. Ironically, leaders are being challenged to develop and engender confidence in the very act of not knowing. Leaders need to be able to acknowledge publicly when reality moves beyond their knowledge and skills and do so based on their demonstrated ability to learn and adapt. They must be submissive to the fact that they will pass through periods of temporary incompetence as they move through learning and change cycles. But they will do so based on their underlying ability and willingness to learn. What’s different today is that credibility is based on personifying the qualities of a high-performance learner more than those of an expert.
The emergence of this new kind of leader may in fact be the biggest shift in leadership development theory in several decades. The new leader is exceptionally attuned to the changing environment and the perishable nature of competitive advantage. Because of this ongoing acknowledgement, the new leader is less wedded to the trappings of status and privilege, less ego-driven, less yearning for deference and certainly less attached to the status quo. Instead, dynamic learning leaders are more concerned with understanding the changing environment of their organizations and protecting the value the organization has created through a vigilance and readiness to learn and adapt. The leader understands that learning is where advantage comes from, that it represents the highest form of enterprise risk management and that the biggest risk a firm can take is to cease to learn. It seems increasingly clear that leaders who don’t possess deep patterns of aggressive and self-directed learning in their dispositions are almost certain to fail, whereas the ones who do are almost certain to succeed — provided, however, they combine those learning patterns with the ability to engage people.
Factor 4: Organizational Support
High-agility organizations support learners at the following five moments of learning need:
1. Learning how to do something new for the first time.
2. Learning more based on prior learning experience.
3. Learning at the moment when learners apply what they have learned in the context of workflow.
4. Learning when things change in order to adapt to new ways of doing things.
5. Learning when things go wrong in order to solve a problem.
An organization can measure its basic learning agility by assessing its capacity to address each of these moments. To improve learning agility, organizations must implement systems that are aligned with and address all five.
There are other critical aspects of organizational support. Learning agility is a collaborative process that springs from richly enabled interactions within the organization and beyond. There must be a process-oriented view of the business as a whole rather than fragmented sets of siloed activities.
In addition, highly agile organizations also apply collective knowledge and skills within and even beyond their borders. Collective knowledge and skills encompass not only what is resident and evolving within people, but also all that has been captured and stored along the way — and made useful in a form that is immediately accessible and adaptive to individual needs.
Factor 5: Learning Technology
The fifth and final factor is technical support. As organizations step into a full-out pursuit of learning agility, they must guard against being techno-dazzled. Instead, they should pursue learning technology as a means to enable the previous four factors.
The learning technology market is finally turning serious attention to the informal side of learning. Performance support, authoring, delivery and brokering tools are going mainstream. In addition, performer-generated content through social networking is highlighting the need for fingertip knowledge support.
Learning content management (LCM) is also reasserting itself in the form of multichannel publishing from single-sourced, metadata-enriched content. Other broader knowledge management technologies and practices are beginning to wrap around these LCM systems, enhancing the ability to capture, store, manage and maximize the usefulness of content capital.
Other types of technology are accelerating collaborative work as mashups — programs that combine data or functionality from two or more external sources to create a new service. These mashups further disallow structure, aggregate human capability and harness value out of what, at a tactical level, is a chaotic creative process.
As Web 2.0 tools continue to extend across the traditional siloed boundaries of organizations, they will continue to enhance — but not drive — learning agility.
The Pursuit of Learning Agility
Two decades ago, Peter Senge, director of the Center for Organizational Learning at the MIT Sloan School of Management, challenged organizations to develop the capacity to learn and adapt quickly. Most leaders acknowledged his point, but did very little to make the learning organization a reality.
In the meantime, markets have become more unforgiving. Although some leading companies are making significant gains in various aspects of learning agility, few are excelling in all five factors. There simply isn’t a more important leadership challenge today than to move an organization to higher levels of learning agility. For learning leaders, the call to action is clear. A seat at the table is available for those who are prepared to meet this challenge and thrive in the new normal.