Responsive Learning: The Role of L&D in Building an Agile Business

Learning & Development teams have an influential role to play in the journey of creating an agile culture
Bevan Rees
Jun 03, 2019

To say we live in exponential times has become a platitude. Few businesses have escaped exposure to the disruption and rapid redundancy of, what Yale Professor Richard Foster once called, ‘the era of accelerated obsolescence’.

To navigate this shifting landscape and respond quickly to emerging opportunities, leaders have increasingly adopted an agile approach to core business functions. However, decision makers sometimes perceive agile as more applicable to the tech sector than ‘traditional’ industries like manufacturing.

Dr Simon Hayward, author of The Agile Leader and Honorary Professor at Alliance Manchester Business School, believes that agile methodologies are relevant to every professional in every industry.

“By adopting agile ways of working that focus on ruthlessly prioritising, devolving decision-making, and investing in customer research, organisations everywhere can become more efficient and competitive.”

Moreover, agile development has enterprise-wide appeal. Its iterative and incremental approach to value creation is potent beyond well-tested areas like strategy, structure, and processes.

Learning & Development (L&D) teams have pivotal and often-unrealised potential to help create more agile organisations. By implementing agile methods in learning design, L&D has the power to seed the DNA of the business with a more responsive and innovative orientation.


A new relationship with risk

According to the 13th Annual State of Agile Report, organisation cultural issues remain the leading impediments to adopting and scaling agile. The obstacles include general resistance to change, an inadequate endorsement from management, and an organisational culture that conflicts with agile values.

Dr Hayward agrees: “The biggest challenge for most L&D professionals is the risk-averse culture that is so prevalent in many organisations. All too often, a fear of failure and its consequences inhibits experimentation and risk-taking, and slows down innovation, learning, and improvement.”

“If we fear making mistakes, the only thing we will learn is how to avoid them.”

This fear exists at all levels in an organisation. But it is most pronounced when it lives at a senior level. The lamplight of influence around leaders is wide. If a leader is apprehensive about change, the group will be too. If a leader embraces change, the group will too.

“Senior leaders can create a climate where learning is highly valued and where mistakes are viewed as opportunities for learning and improvement. This sounds simple, but in my experience,” says Hayward, “it requires a rethink about how we lead, how we deal with mistakes, and how we control risk.”

An agile culture requires leaders to renegotiate their team’s relationship with risk. Creative employees feel it is safe to fail. Thriving employees also know how to recover from failure and quickly try again.

L&D has an influential role to play. Given the mandate to operate in an agile way, L&D teams can work unfettered towards creating the learning solutions that are most innovative, responsive and effective. In doing so, L&D professionals also demonstrate the benefits of agility to senior leaders and teach others how to work in an agile way.


A culture of learning

Said Alvin Toffler, “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn.”

Beyond the redefinition of risk and alleviation of restrictive fear, agile-hungry organisations need to build an appreciation of continuous learning.

“Learning is the key to innovation and improvement in any organisation,” says Dr Hayward. “Agile working requires a culture where experimentation, risk-taking, and learning from failure are encouraged. Without a culture of learning, agile working will struggle, and people will tend to focus on risk avoidance and a fear of failure.”

Once leaders are on board, L&D is best placed to affect this evolution, which sometimes requires behavioural change. By creating learning interventions that teach agile methodology, positive behavioural change, and the ‘soft’ skills that underpin an individual’s ability to be resilient and adaptable, L&D can promote more nimble business functions.

Hayward believes that agile working represents a real opportunity for L&D to deeply embed learning opportunities in the organisation, creating a positive learning culture.

And, by doing this in an agile way, L&D actively engages the method in practice. Using multiple learning iterations, the team receives intelligence about what is and isn’t working in the learning programmes, as well as the organisation as a whole. L&D feeds this data back into other business areas, which can then make adjustments to structures and processes.


Agile inside-out

According to Dr Hayward, cross-team collaboration is more successful if every team, including the L&D team, is operating in an agile way. A cellular or siloed implementation of agile methods leads to incongruity or even friction between business units.

For L&D to become more agile, it needs to become more user-centric. It must take the best tools from design thinking and agile methodology to build learning interventions that meet the learner where he or she is. Teaching this way invites the integration of emerging technologies like AI and VR to deliver highly personalised learning experiences.

L&D also needs to be treating all learning programmes as minimum viable products, continually improving and reiterating. The ongoing goal is not ‘perfect and beautiful’. It is ‘practical and useful’. Needs assessment and refinement become constant practices, so that employees are always receiving the most relevant teaching through the most helpful resources.

Futureproofing a business is not merely an exercise of predicting trends and planning responses. It requires a flexible and adaptive posture in the uncertainty of the emerging present. When an L&D team has permission to work in this way, it brings agility to the core of the enterprise. Change becomes an asset. And learning is the key.