Agile learning as a competitive factor

Agile learning as a competitive factor

“Learning organizations” were already a major talking point 20 years ago – and they’re still as relevant as ever. But what are the defining features of an agile learning culture? In this article, we present three factors that pave the way for state-of-the-art learning in today’s VUCA world.

Humans are born to learn. Helpless though we are when we come into the world, we quickly evolve from a babe in arms into a young child, learning to crawl, walk and talk. This involves immense cognitive achievements to adapt to our environment, which set us apart from all other species. Learning how to become independent may well take significantly longer, but this ensures humans can adapt to suit current circumstances. Our ability to learn is thus one of the most valuable skills we humans possess.

Agile learning cultures

Most of the time, children overcome new challenges through play and try to use each newly acquired skill in everyday situations. As we progress into adulthood, however, we unfortunately tend to lose this learning agility. This is partly due to numerous negative experiences, ranging from outdated teaching methods in school through to the absence of a learning culture in the workplace.

Yet given the volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity (VUCA) shaping our society, it is high time we dusted off our neglected toolkit. After all, training workers for a labor market that stays (pretty much) the same, is no longer an option. The reality is that learning, working and value creation are increasingly merging into one inseparable process. Indeed, learning has become a fundamental requirement for companies that want to keep up with the competition.

With this in mind, innovative corporations such as Amazon, Google and Microsoft have long since extended their focus to more than just product output. They have recognized that, particularly due to advancing automation and digitalization, they too need to continuously evolve. This realization has led them to place learning, adaptation and continuous performance improvement at the heart of their corporate cultures. In doing so, they have ensured their future viability and overtaken organizations that a mere decade ago were at the top of the list of the world’s most valuable companies.

There’s no such thing as a perpetual-motion machine. At some point, the concept or the idea that made you successful is going to run out of gas. So, you need new capability to go after new concepts. The only thing that’s going to enable you to keep building new capabilities and trying out new concepts long before they are conventional wisdom is culture.

Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft, in an interview with Simon London from McKinsey. Source:

Three success factors

Looking at the innovative strength of the above corporations, it’s possible to make out three success factors that promote an agile learning culture.

1. Learning must be seen as an active, social process that is linked to a specific need

What do learners, teams, the organization and external stakeholders need? What attitudes and misgivings do they have? And what does their specific work context look like? Only if these aspects come to the fore will learning processes take effect and create sustainable value.

2. Learning must lead to a sustainable change in behavior

As the saying goes – use it or lose it. That’s why there’s little sense in simply building up knowledge and doing nothing with it. It is only by getting to grips with what we have learned and putting it into practice that we can transfer this knowledge to our everyday activities and bring about a long-term change in our behavior.

3. Learning shapes the learning culture, which in turn shapes the organizational culture

Learning and organizational cultures are like shadows. We can only influence them indirectly through our actions. To instill a positive learning culture, companies must therefore consciously and systematically support learning. If they do, there is a good chance an organizational culture of learning will also ultimately take shape.

It is clear that only companies with an agile learning culture will be equipped to tackle the challenges of the VUCA world. Yet those focused on meeting requirements, transferring knowledge and creating an organizational culture will be in a prime position to ensure their workforce will still be able to create added value in the future.