Learning Agility: What It Is and How to Assess It

Learning Agility

Learning agility has become an increasingly popular concept in the last decade. HR professionals have been using learning agility to identify and further develop high potential talent as well as for selecting organizational leaders, globally.

Warner Burke, Professor of Psychology and Education at Teachers College, Columbia University says that of all the leaders hired, 50% of those fail at what they were hired to do. Why? Because they lack learning agility.  

But what exactly is learning agility? Is it a skill? Why is it crucial for organizations? And what can you do from a recruitment standpoint to reduce the instances of hiring candidates who lack it? More specifically, how do you assess applicants on their learning agility?

Let’s dive in!

What’s in?

What is learning agility?

Before we delve into the importance of learning agility at your organization and how you can assess candidates for this competency, let’s take a look at what the term actually means, and therefore what you’re looking for in candidates. 

Is learning agility a skill?

In a nutshell, learning agility is a set of complex skills that enable us to learn something new in one place and then apply what we learned elsewhere, in a wholly different situation. Learning agility is our ability to learn, adapt, unlearn, and relearn to keep up with constantly changing conditions.

What does it mean to have learning agility?

Learning agility dictates how we can figure out a way through a new situation without actually knowing what to do, by using past and present experiences to make sense of an uncertain situation.

It’s also being open to new ideas and innovating rather than relying on outdated information. When you’re an agile learner, you’re comfortable being uncomfortable. Agile learners seek out new challenges, ask for feedback from others to learn and grow, and are reflective.

An agile learner has the mindset that allows them to continually develop their understanding, to grow, and use new strategies that they’ve learned along the way, in order to ready themselves to successfully navigate any future problems.

Executives with high levels of learning agility, tolerance for ambiguity, empathy and social fluidity are

5x

more likely to be highly engaged.

Source: Korn Ferry

Are some people more learning agile than others?

Learning agility can be taught and learned at any stage in life. And like a muscle, if you want this skill to grow stronger, you need to constantly work at it.

Being able to call yourself an agile learner isn’t about what you have accomplished previously, it’s about the potential you have to accomplish future tasks.

Learning agility is correlated with some of the “Big Five” personality traits, such as agreeableness, openness to experience, and conscientiousness.

On the other hand, a person who’s emotionally unstable is less likely to be learning agile. Likewise, those who believe that events in their life are caused by uncontrollable external factors are also less likely to be learning agile.

Therefore, assessing a candidate’s personality alongside measuring their learning agility is beneficial and completes the picture of someone’s profile and characteristics.

Why is learning agility an essential skill at work?

If organizations want to succeed, they need to have leaders who possess learning agility because it’s a reliable indicator of a person’s leadership potential. As we mentioned above – 50% of hired leaders will fail at their job because they lack this precise skill.

Successful leaders manage disruption, they roll with the punches and adapt their strategies accordingly, in order to deliver success for the company. In short, exceptional leaders are adaptable, resilient, and open to thinking innovatively.

According to the Korn Ferry Institute, learning agility should be considered the single best predictor of an executive leader’s success, ranking it above intelligence and education.

Companies with the greatest rates of highly learning agile executives produced

25%

higher profit margins compared with peer companies.

Source: Korn Ferry

Possessing learning agility means leaders are capable of unlearning old beliefs and practices that are no longer relevant in today’s business. This allows them to seek out and learn from new experiences.

To list just a few of the characteristics of a learning agile person:

  • Make high-quality decisions on the spot, with confidence. Connect the dots even without compelling or complete data to work from.
  • Develop innovative solutions based on their ability to unlearn old solutions that no longer work.
  • See the bigger picture – look beyond what they already know and integrate unrelated pieces of information to gain a better perspective.
  • Be adaptable in their approach to a complex issue. Be open to sudden or unexpected change and be flexible – this comes from their drive to succeed.
  • Deal with unfamiliarity and uncertainty confidently, rather than shy away from new and strange situations.
  • Possessing the ability of agile learning means leaders are continually adapting to new business strategies, embracing working across cultures, taking remote working and dealing with temporary virtual teams in their stride, taking on new tasks but remaining unfazed when handed unfamiliar assignments.
  • Fill leadership roles effectively and rocket up the ranks. While there are no definite numbers, Korn Ferry research shows that people with high learning agility are promoted twice as fast as individuals with low learning agility.
  • Innovate. People who don’t possess learning agility tend to over-rely on past solutions to deal with current problems rather than look for new solutions.

Before you continue

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9 dimensions of learning agility you should measure

The measurement of learning agility has been long debated among researchers. DeRue et al have created a conceptual base for theory development and measurement in which was concluded that Learning Agility is one construct, with flexibility and speed being the two main drivers.

Flexibility refers to the ability to abandon behaviors that previously worked for new behaviors that better meet the needs of the future. Speed has more to do with how quickly an individual can change their behaviors and read a situation in order to create a plan of action.  

For our Learning Agility assessment module, we’re using the 9 dimensions of the Burke Learning Agility Inventory to measure a candidate’s LA. These are described below.

Learning agility assessment results - Overview of candidate detail page in the Harver platform

Speed

Acting on ideas quickly so that those not working are discarded and other possibilities are accelerated. It allows you to pivot quicker, to grow faster.

Flexibility

Being open to new ideas and proposing new solutions.

Experimenting

Trying out new behaviors to determine what is effective.

Performance risk taking

Seeking new activities that provide opportunities to be challenged. This allows you to open your mind to new thoughts and ideas.

Interpersonal risk taking

Discussing differences with others in ways that lead to learning and change. Being able to admit mistakes and seek help when you’ve gone wrong are key qualities of a great leader.

Being open to admitting one’s mistakes encourages others in the team to take risks without fear of repercussions if it doesn’t go well. It creates a psychologically safe environment for them to operate.

Collaborating

Finding ways to work with others that generate unique opportunities for learning. Being able to work with different working styles demonstrates empathy and a low ego – it means you’ll do whatever it takes to successfully achieve results for the organization.

Information gathering

Using various methods to remain current in one’s area of expertise.

Feedback seeking

Asking others for feedback on one’s ideas and overall performance. To increase our ability to learn, we have to be willing to receive feedback on how we are doing.

Reflecting

Slowing down to evaluate one’s own performance in order to be more effective. Once feedback has been received, you have to be able to reflect on the feedback, both positive and negative, act on it, and adjust behavior.

Highly learning agile individuals are

18x

more likely to be identified as high-potential employees than their colleagues with lower LA scores.

Source: Korn Ferry

Best practices for assessing learning agility

When you’re hiring employees for positions where learning agility is predictive for success such as leadership roles or management trainees, it’s important that you assess it in your recruitment process.

How exactly can you do this?

1. Use a scientifically-validated learning agility assessment

A dedicated learning agility assessment is the best tool you can have at your disposal to assess candidates for agile learning. When you carry out the assessment, make sure that all candidates are aware of what they’re being tested on and why you’re testing them.

The Harver platform provides a scientifically validated test for measuring learning agility and offers a detailed candidate profile to help recruiting teams make informed decisions when selecting candidates for roles where LA is important.

Here’s what the results of the assessment look like on the candidate profile page. Recruiters can see the scores for each of the nine dimensions of learning agility, so they can make data-driven hiring decisions.

Example of learning agility assessment scores in the Harver recruitment platform

Our tool provides guidelines on how to interpret these scores. For example, a candidate who scores high on Flexibility is likely to try new approaches and adapt to new situations easily. An applicant who scored low is more reluctant and unlikely to try new ideas.

A candidate who scores high on Information gathering is more likely to value new information and spend time reading and researching topics relevant to their work, to enhance their knowledge.

On the contrary, an applicant with a low score for this dimension is less likely to spend their time seeking out new information or asking questions that could enhance their learning and knowledge.

Although learning agility assessments can be used individually, we usually recommend combining them with other tests, such as cognitive ability or personality questionnaires.

If you’d like to see these in action and learn what solution would be the best for your specific case, you can book a demo below.

Ready to transform your hiring process?

2. Consider the relationship between cognitive ability and learning agility

Cognitive or learning ability is an important aspect in relation to learning agility. Smarter does not necessarily mean more learning agile, but an individual needs to have a certain level of cognitive ability to be able to be learning agile.

Therefore the combination of a learning agility assessment and a cognitive ability test makes a powerful couple when assessing candidates. Harver’s cognitive ability test, for example, assesses the core components of Fluid Intelligence: Logical reasoning, Verbal reasoning, Numerical reasoning, and Spatial Ability.

Example of Cognitive Ability test in the Harver platform

You can learn more about these two assessments below.

Cognitive Ability Testing
Learning Agility

3. Focus on the candidate’s ability to adapt during the interview

In your structured interview process, ask open-ended questions such as:

  • ‘Tell me about a time when you asked for feedback from your boss or a colleague. Who did you solicit the feedback from? What was the feedback you were given? Why did you want the feedback?’
  • ‘Tell me about a time when you made a mistake at work. What was the mistake you made and what did you learn? Who did you tell about your mistake? How did they react to the news?’
  • ‘Tell me about a time when you had to do something you’d never done before. How did you feel about it? What did you learn doing it?’
  • To test a candidate’s ability to roll with the punches and adapt to a novel situation, ask them ‘what if’ style questions to try and resolve. For example: ‘What if you were given a new task to complete, what steps would you take to get started on it.’
  • When the candidate confidently answers the ‘what if’ question, throw in a curveball and test their speed and flexibility to solve problems. Remove a resource, reduce their budget or time, and ask them how they would reach the same outcome in these different circumstances.

You’re looking for responses that demonstrate the key behaviors of learning agility as identified by Burke, which include: feedback-seeking, interpersonal risk-taking, collaboration, experimentation, and reflection, as well as speed and flexibility.

Mettl Learning Agility Matrix explains how learning agility demanded by a role and learning agility of an employee relate to each other.

4. Provide training to current employees

If you want to determine where gaps are in learning agility among your existing employees, provide them with training on Burke’s 9 dimensions of learning agility. Doing this will enable employees to recognize the exact behaviors that people with those exact skills demonstrate.

Once employees understand what it means to be an agile learner, they can identify which dimension they are lacking, or where they have been underperforming in order to improve.

Next steps

Learning agility is an extremely important competency for leaders. So if you’re looking to develop future leaders and changemakers, make sure you assess your candidates for this skill in your recruitment process.

If you’d like to see what the Learning Agility module looks like in Harver platform, and how you can incorporate it into your candidate selection process, you can book a demo below.

Ready to transform your hiring process?

Olaf Korsten

Olaf Korsten

Olaf received his B.S. and M.S. in Psychology from Maastricht University. As a Senior People Science consultant, he develops and implements talent management products and tools for Harver’s clients. During development, he uses a strong psychological theoretical basis with an innovative approach (e.g. gamification and SJT experiences). He has over 14 years in the assessment industry and uses that knowledge to guide client success.
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