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C-Suite Advisory

Of All The Agilities, This Agility Rules

The term agility has been applied to many aspects of a business. It extends to operations (process agility, manufacturing agility, supply chain agility), to products (portfolio agility, service agility, systems agility), to leadership (strategic agility, team agility, emotional agility) and more. Larry Cooper, who leads an agility LinkedIn group, cuts through it all: “Organizational agility is what you get when all the other types of agility are present.”

Despite its pervasiveness, a 2016 survey by the American Productivity & Quality Center (APQC) found that while most businesses considered organizational agility “important” (51 percent) or “extremely important” (38 percent), most were better at identifying opportunities and risks (strategic responsiveness) than in executing on them (organizational flexibility). So that begets the question: If agility is so universally understood and widely valued, why have so few companies mastered it?

APQC, and others, cite all the usual culprits: operational silos, organizational resistance, slow decision making, unaligned process, and poor knowledge management. The commonality among each of these obstacles is individuals unable, or unwilling, to make it happen. It takes more than skills and experience to achieve organizational agility; it takes a commitment to learning agility.

Learning Agility = Speed and Flexibility

Researcher Scott DeRue at the University of Michigan established a model that identifies speed and flexibility as the two most important factors determining learning agility. Learning agility is about being able to digest a large amount of information quickly (speed) and figure out what is most important. DeRue also said you need to be able to change frameworks (flexibility) that help you understand how different things are related or connected. In other words, flexibility is about being able to change frameworks as necessary to explain what is going on.

DeRue also made a distinction between learning agility and learning ability. “Ability” means cognitive ability or “smarts.” Ability is important to a point but smarter is not necessarily better. Ability takes you to a certain point. Then, agility becomes more important.

Learning agility is increasingly becoming valued as an essential leadership skill. Korn Ferry has conducted more than 2.5 million leadership assessments over the past four decades. They found that being learning agile is a key predictor of success and a critical attribute of effective breakthrough leadership—above intelligence, education level, or even leadership competencies. Yet only 15 percent of executives possess this trait.

The 70:20:10 Model

While the majority of learning comes through on-the-job experience, mentoring, and coaching, a percentage also comes from self-initiated training, courses, and reading. The learning and development community have a name for this framework: the 70:20:10 model. The majority of learning—70 percent—is through doing; 20 percent of learning is from trusted colleagues and mentors; and 10 percent is through more formal classroom courses, webinars, seminars, etcetera, with formal assessments. The model continues to be widely employed, and adapted, by organizations throughout the world.

Sometimes we are fortunate enough to work for a company that promotes and invests in continuous learning, like AT&T. AT&T is in the midst of what might be the most ambitious retraining program in corporate American history. Dubbed Workforce 2020, the initiative plans to retrain 100,000 AT&T employees (nearly a third of its global workforce) to be technically proficient by 2020, and the company is investing $1 billion to do so.

The retraining initiative combines online and classroom-based course work in subjects like digital networking and data science—skills AT&T has identified as crucial to its cloud-heavy future. AT&T chairman and CEO Randall Stephenson says, “There is a need to retool yourself, and you should not expect to stop. People who do not spend five to ten hours a week in online learning will obsolete themselves with the technology.”

Governments are also encouraging the adoption of new, in-demand skills to safeguard their country’s continued growth and prosperity. The government of Singapore is incentivizing its citizens to stay ahead of technology change by giving vouchers worth a few hundred dollars to each adult over twenty-five. They can use them to pay for online training from more than 500 approved providers.

Even Silicon Valley is feeling the pinch and getting into the act. To plug the shortfall in qualified workers, executives from Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, and other big tech companies are partnering with a private university to train people in the skills needed to land new high-paying jobs in the digital economy. Graduates of the new private-public partnership learn about design and UX, social networks, ecommerce, search engines, and digital law and, at the end of the nine-month program, receive a Master’s Degree in Internet Business. An expert in the field teaches each module from a partnering Silicon Valley tech company.

Bear in mind, all of these examples are exceptions rather than the rule. According to research by Wharton School professor Peter Cappelli, in general, businesses provide less employee training than they previously did. In 1979, the average young worker received 2.5 weeks per year of training; a few decades later, the average had fallen to just eleven hours. As a result, employees must take it upon themselves to increase their knowledge base and upgrade their skills, and apparently many are.

Learning Agility = Lifelong Learning

According to Forbes, online learning became a $100-billion-per-year industry in 2015, and it still shows no signs of slowing down. Learning is no longer something we just do in schools; learning agility is something today’s successful business leaders embrace to outsmart change and future-proof our careers. The goal of every company should be to have agile leaders who can innovate and drive change, at every level. It takes more than education and experience; it takes a commitment to lifelong learning.


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Engelina Jaspers
Engelina Jaspers is a brand strategy expert and founder of Marketing Flexology. Engelina Jaspers helps business leaders build nimble marketing organizations with customer insight and speed to execution at its core. Engelina is a business storytelling specialist and author of Marketing Flexology: How to Outsmart Change and Future-proof Your Career (Flex Pro Media; October 16, 2018).
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