Agile Teams Create Agile Learning Organizations

The future of work is one of the most widely discussed topics by senior executives across all industries. A mere internet search on the subject will pull up 238,000,000 results, more than 70 business books, countless conferences, and too many podcasts and blog posts to count. I have a few out there myself. I believe this is the topic du jour because organizations are desperately trying to find the crystal ball that will enable them not only to stay ahead of their competition, but also enter into new markets and beat new competitors.

I was recently asked what a leading-edge learning strategy might look like in the next five years. Many learning strategies today are focused on transforming the company into a “learning organization.” A learning organization, as introduced by author and MIT lecturer Peter Senge, is one that continuously facilitates learning for its people and transforms as needed. Key characteristics of a learning organization are systems thinking, challenging the status quo, continued growth for teams and individuals, and common understanding of a shared vision. All these things are still relevant and needed, but it isn’t enough for an organization to just become a learning organization; it also needs to rethink how it is organized.

Agility is the emerging trend for companies in thinking about how they structure teams to accomplish work. Agile methodology began with software development, but, with its focus on adapting to change rather than following a process, it has become relevant in other areas as well.

While each of these methodologies has value independently, together they are extremely powerful. Radical changes will be necessary for companies to become agile learning organizations that will be able to continuously learn and adjust to disruptions more swiftly.

Is your team agile enough today to respond to all the disruptions occurring in the business environment? Maybe a better initial question to ask is: Is your learning strategy focused on efficiency or agility?

Pop Quiz!

True or false. Your learning strategy:

A. Is designed and deployed by multidisciplinary project teams and shared resources rather than a center of expertise.
B. Has design principles rather than set milestones.
C. Is focused on embedding learning into work rather than providing a course calendar.
D. Includes tools and resources that make it easy for anyone to become a teacher rather than certification for trainers.
E. Makes learning visible with systems that increase transparency rather than learning confined to a classroom.
F. Includes methods for experimenting, failing and learning rather than pass-fail evaluation.
G. Leverages new technologies to expand human capability in the flow of work rather than creates a one-stop shop for content.
H. Will synthesize data from unexpected sources into insights and allow learners to take actions in real time rather than
targeted data only used in business reports.

If you answered true to most of these questions, congratulations — your learning strategy is more focused on agility than efficiency. However, if your company is like most companies, there is still room to become more agile.

Disassembling Existing Structures

Disruptions are adopted by consumers more quickly than ever before. Consider this: It took more than 50 years for the telephone to reach 50 percent of U.S. households but it took the cell phone less than five years to accomplish the same level of adoption. With even more disruptive technologies becoming mainstream today, organizations that are not agile enough to respond quickly will lose market share.

The challenge we need to address today is the current organization structure, where functions work in silos with few shared goals between them. These centralized structures act much like a machine that is slow to adjust to the changing environment. They were designed to create efficiency by centralizing the design of processes and deploying them across the organization. However, this method of efficiency has slowed organizational changes significantly.

Even cross-functional teams lack the ability to adjust quickly because of the hierarchy in decision making. In other words, they are not agile. A new and more agile model needs to emerge where empowered multidisciplinary teams work together to design learning into the flow of work.

The Radical Changes

Agile teams create agile learning organizations. A leading-edge learning strategy in five years will be designed by empowered multidisciplinary teams that assemble and disassemble as needed. Each team will be guided by a set of design principles, allowing for rapid changes when needed.

There are various ways that you can begin aligning your design principles to allow for agility and change.

First and foremost, embed learning into work as much as possible. Design work that allows learning to happen while achieving business goals. The following three types of support — performance support, social support and systems support — can filter out the waste of formal learning and allow employees to access the knowledge they need when they need it and learn by doing.

Performance support is no longer a laminated job aid next to a piece of equipment. Modern performance support could be a video, a mobile app or even a voice-activated digital assistant. While the delivery mechanism has changed, the objective is the same: to allow employees to access information at the moment of need.

Social support has also evolved as our social circle has been enhanced to allow making and sustaining connections simple and dynamic. Previously you may have been assigned a mentor with whom you would meet on a monthly basis. In today’s digital world you can access many experts around the world through powerful search engines and social networks. Organizations can now harness their collective knowledge by building the infrastructure to enable greater sharing.

Systems support is all about how your organization functions as a system. Do your strategy, structure, processes and culture support agile learning for your people? In the past, slow and methodical processes were the norm. To keep pace with competition today, organizations that create an environment where employees can fail early, learn and improve will have the edge.

Another way to begin to allow for agility and change is to make sharing easy. People want to share their knowledge. The trouble is, they don’t always know how. Your learning strategy should include tools and resources that make teaching as intuitive as learning.

As a learning professional who has worked with too many subject matter experts to count, I can testify that some of the smartest people have no idea how to teach others. Here are a few helpful tools.

A rapid development toolkit is a resource that allows an SME to plug in their information and, voilà, out pops an instructionally sound learning object. These toolkits can be either analog or digital.
Expert video guides can be as simple as a checklist or template or as complex as a workshop that teaches SMEs how to use their phone to create engaging instructional videos. The latter is also a great way to add more content to your video platform.
Hackathons are a great way to bring people together to share and collaborate for the purpose of problem solving.
It’s also important to embrace radical transparency. Leverage learning as a platform to share strategy and progress of initiatives that were previously confidential. Design systems that allow the flow of information to go both ways. This helps build knowledge and trust across the organization as well as a sense of ownership and accountability among all employees. Learning leaders hold a powerful lever that can connect a seemingly ambiguous organizational strategy to the everyday work of employees. Here are a few ideas:

Organize a companywide strategy discussion that allows employees to connect directly with those who set the strategy.
Use the classroom to allow learners to solve challenging company goals by providing access to people and resources.
Design learning into existing business updates by crowdsourcing “burning” questions using digital audience interaction tools like Slido and Poll Everywhere.
Again, allow room for failure. Acculturate methods to try things out early in the process, learn and try again. Experimenting might mean failing sometimes. And that’s OK: Sometimes the lessons learned from a failure can be more valuable than a success.

Think about how often a successful initiative is scrutinized: pretty infrequently. The typical after-event action for a success is a celebration, while failure is typically scrutinized and people held accountable. The problem with both of these situations is what happens to the human psyche. When success is celebrated and failure is punished, a result can be prolonged admittance to failure or hiding of failures altogether, which can lead to greater failures at higher costs.

Design thinking is a great example of a process that can help employees understand how to fail early, learn and iterate. Design thinking methods and mindsets can be developed by building learning that requires learners to solve workplace challenges by turning them into design challenges. As ideas are tested, the errors in assumptions can be corrected earlier and more often.

Integrate technology and people. People add value that technology can’t replicate just yet. Work that requires compassion, empathy, creativity and artistic design are still best done by people. Build a system that allows people to be more human and select technologies that will expand their human potential.

Finally, turn insights into action: There will be more data coming in from everywhere. Your learning strategy should help synthesize data from unexpected places and generate insights that allow learners to take actions in real time. Learning leaders should find out what data is already being collected inside their organization and collaborate to find ways to get more value from that data.

Another opportunity would be to look at emerging technologies such as sensing, blockchain, artificial intelligence and augmented/virtual reality. These tools place the ability for rapid response well within reach. Imagine merging people and technology to overcome challenges to agility that exist today. Consider the following example:

Laurence is part of a project team. Sensing technology and the “internet of things” recognize that she is on the project, which meetings she attends, what is discussed in the meetings, and decisions and commitments that are made. That information is stored as part of her learning record using blockchain, which is now being used as a source of truth for more than just financial transactions. All that data is fed into algorithms where AI provides feedback about performance, as well as insights and recommended actions. The organization now has more accurate information about Laurence, making it easier to deploy her talents on future projects. Laurence is armed with insights that she can share with her team to create prototypes using digital and analog methods to experiment and learn. Learning is happening between people and technology as part of the work.

A robust learning strategy is not about technology alone. It is about people and how they will use technology. To truly build an agile learning organization, we need to radically rethink the roles and how teams are organized to design the work.

Cloudy With a Chance of Disruption

There is no crystal ball that will show us our future, only signals that let us forecast the environment we might encounter. Shifting the focus of our learning strategy from efficiency to agility will allow organizations to adjust swiftly — even if we are wrong about what lies ahead.

Rebecca G. Chandler is chief principal of RG Chandler & Co. LLC and former chief learning officer and global director of learning and development at Steelcase. She can be reached at


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