Senior leaders often have an intuitive feeling about the level of learning agility within their organisation, even if they don’t use these exact words. Learning agility is not necessarily an academic skill, rather it encapsulates an individual’s ability and passion to quickly study a new problem and use their own learning process to gain deep understanding before making a decision.

Learning agility, sometimes described as “knowing what to do when you don’t know what to do”, requires an open and receptive mindset. Those who demonstrate strong “learning agility” often excel at being able to study, analyse, and understand new situations and new business problems.

In unpredictable business environments buffeted by constant change, adaptation and evolution, organisations increasingly need talent with learning agility capabilities to move forward and successfully negotiate volatile times.

The path to business success is often said to be closely linked to spotting an opportunity, developing a plan based on future projections and applying the most efficient and cost-effective approach to realise the benefits. Until recently, the term “disruptor” was used in a negative sense, if used at all. Now, every day, market conditions are characterised by uncertainty, and disruption has not only become a favourite term, it is the norm. While the linear approach to conducting business made sense in predictable market conditions, it is ill-adapted to ongoing change and CEOs and individuals at all levels are searching for a new competitive edge.

As many businesses struggle to find the right capabilities to manage change and innovation in a VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous) world, others are finding a way to thrive. Those who thrive have shown the capacity to adapt, to negotiate ambiguity and show resilience in dealing with setbacks. According to a recent Korn Ferry research on agility, Talent for Tomorrow: Four Secrets for HR Agility in an Uncertain World, the difference between those that succeed in these conditions, and those that don’t, can be defined as having learning agility.

Learning agility is not necessarily an academic skill, rather it encapsulates an individual’s ability and passion to quickly study a new problem and use their own learning process to gain deep understanding before making a decision. Individuals with agile learning abilities continually acquire new skills, learn from experience, embrace new challenges, and perform well under changing conditions. They are curious and able to readily grasp new concepts and complex issues. They prefer to set challenging goals and will manoeuvre to overcome obstacles to achieve work objectives. Simply put, learning agility is about knowing what to do when you don’t know what to do.

Critically, a key aspect of learning agility is mental agility. Individuals with high levels of mental agility are not only capable of working through uncertainty; they actively embrace it and are excited by the opportunity to uncover novel ways of doing things. It’s an essential quality for dealing with today’s market conditions. When an organisation and its staff members are agile, and inevitable changes and challenges occur, employees and work process are less likely to become stressed, because this is a normal way of working.


Source: viaEDGE: Assessment for Measuring Learning Agility

Agile individuals create an agile enterprise

Learning agility is the X-factor that can propel organisations ahead of their competitors in today’s market. But it’s not just those at the top who need to be agile, the real organisational benefits are seen when all employees are learning agile. When all people in the organisation display learning agility, enterprise agility follows. And it’s this that really drives performance in a VUCA world.

In recent years, Korn Ferry has examined the impact of high levels of learning agility in individuals. It was unveiled that there are clear links between high learning agility and the success of individual executives. Korn Ferry’s research, Fast rising talent: Highly learning agile people get promoted at double speed, has also shown learning agility to be a strong predictor of long-term success, with high-learning agile individuals 18 times more likely to be identified as high-potential employees than their low-learning agile colleagues. They are also twice as likely to be promoted.

While individual success is a useful measure, the real impact of learning agility is best understood by examining the effect on the overall organisation. The impact is certainly remarkable, with a Korn Ferry study – The agile enterprise: Taking stock of learning agility to gauge the fit of the talent pool to the strategy showing that companies with the greatest rates of high learning agile executives produced 25% higher profit margins compared with peer companies.

Learning agility undoubtedly has a positive impact on both individual and organisational success. The concept has also never been more important, because high levels of learning agility are critical to performing in today’s volatile environment. In fact, learning agility is now a prerequisite for success and should be on every CEO’s agenda.

How agile is your enterprise?

Often, CEOs and senior leaders have an intuitive feeling about the level of learning agility within their organisation, even if they don’t use these exact words. They’ll recognise individuals and teams who work well through change, who thrive on challenges and create innovative solutions – those with high learning agility. Similarly, when CEOs express concerns about their organisations’ capacity to adapt and flex in volatile conditions they are often sensing a shortfall in learning agility among teams or the whole workforce.

While this instinct is often accurate, to really understand workforce agility – and therefore enterprise agility – organisations need to assess learning agility at an individual level. Using recognised assessment tools, such as viaEDGE™, can help an organisation to build a picture of their overall learning agility. Identifying and assessing enterprise-wide levels of learning agility can help business leaders ascertain whether they are positioned for success, given the business strategy they are pursuing, and the areas where focused attention on growing learning agility will have the most impact.

Learning agility encompasses five factors:

  • Mental agility—embracing complexity, examining problems in unique ways, making fresh connections, and staying inquisitive.
  • People agility—being open-minded toward others, enjoying interaction with diverse groups, bringing out the best in others.
  • Change agility—willingness to lead transformation efforts, continuously exploring new options.
  • Results agility—delivering results in tough situations, responding to challenge, inspiring others to achieve more than they thought possible.
  • Self-awareness—being reflective, understanding strengths and weaknesses, seeking feedback and personal insight.


Source: viaEDGE: Assessment for Measuring Learning Agility

How organisations can support enterprise agility

HR has a critical role to play in helping CEOs and leaders move from their intuitive understanding of learning agility to one that can guide decision-making and drive organisational success. The importance of this role was highlighted in the 2016 World Economic Forum (WEF) report The Future of Jobs: Employment, Skills and Workforce Strategy for the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

The WEF recommended immediate focus on reinventing HR to better manage skills disruption through using analytical tools to spot talent trends and gaps and provide insight to the business. Looking to the longer term, the WEF emphasised the need to incentivise lifelong learning. By supporting the business to develop learning agility, HR will step up and make an important contribution to the overall success of the business.

With APAC’s highly dynamic and VUCA business environment, organisations should look at assessing learning agility throughout the workforce to identify the baseline. It is also vital to identify precise areas in which talent and strategy are aligned—or where there are shortfalls.

By identifying and assessing enterprise-wide agility as well as establishing an agility-oriented approach to talent, business leaders will be able to build enterprise agility that aligns with key strategic priorities, win when confronting today’s volatile and complex business landscape, and more importantly drive performance by consistently placing highly agile leaders into can’t-fail roles.

HR professionals are critical to helping the business unleash its learning agility through building awareness of the competitive edge that increased learning agility offers and elevating it to a business imperative. HR can also play a role as subject matter experts, using tools like viaEDGE™ to build a baseline understanding of enterprise agility. In combination, these two roles position HR to partner with the business to drive performance in three ways.

  1. Agility-to-business-strategy fit: HR can measure agility, using tools such as viaEDGE™, against business strategy and identify precise areas where talent and strategy are aligned and where there are gaps. Using this approach, organisations can build agility that specifically supports strategy execution.
  1. Refine talent strategies to support agility: Identifying the organisation’s agility baseline (where the organisations are currently at) is the first step in implementing an agility-oriented approach to talent. Combined with a thorough understanding of business needs, organisations can assess and maximise current talent by placing highly agile leaders into critical roles and developing existing potential as well as targeting outside talent to fill gaps in the pipeline.
  1. Coach leaders and individuals to maximise their learning agility potential: An individual’s level of learning agility is not set in stone; it is something that can be developed. Individuals at all levels of the organisation need support and feedback to understand their baseline agility, as well as coaching and workplace opportunities to grow their capacity.

The world of work has permanently changed, with volatility the new norm. Ways of thinking and working that previously led to success now result in stagnation, or worse, regression. Success requires leaders and individual contributors who are creative, flexible and open to innovative thinking. Above all, individuals must be willing and able to embrace learning agility and organisations must enable them to maximise this potential, unlocking individual and enterprise success.

Agile organisations need a new breed of leaders. Join the webinar: Building Digital Leadership to learn how to turn your existing talent into agile leaders. Register now.


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About the contributors

May Knight is the President of Korn Ferry’s advisory business in Asia Pacific. She has almost 30 years of experience in operational and consulting roles in Asia and Europe. Her expertise encompasses deploying business and operating strategies and structures, developing business models and delivery blueprints, re-structuring organisations & developing leadership teams and establishing compensation structures to support the realisation of business strategies.

Natalie Wong is an Associate Principal for the Korn Ferry business in the Hong Kong office. She has over 25 years’ experience consulting with CEOs, country managers, managing directors, functional heads and hi-potentials of Fortune 500 companies to improve their leadership and organisational effectiveness. She has broad experience in leadership development serving clients across the Greater China and Asia Pacific regions for the financial services, health care, transportation, luxury, high tech and telecommunication industries.

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