As we come to the end of 2012, businesses that aren’t able to cope with change will struggle to succeed. The ability to be agile—to respond quickly to the fast pace of change across any business—is a major challenge for leaders. 

According to a recent research report from Lumesse, “Agile Learning: Living with the Speed of Change,” many companies are struggling to provide training and skills quickly enough to keep pace with how they, their markets, competitors, and customers are changing.  

How can learning professionals adapt to this fast pace of change? Here are four steps to agile learning success and the major pitfalls to avoid. 

Step 1: Review

Reviewing your learning needs requires you to challenge what’s gone before, especially practices and processes that may be the cause of friction in the business. That’s not to say your current approach isn’t working, but it does require you to think about how learners’ needs are changing and how the learning function can respond to that quickly.

Pitfall one: Assuming a learning intervention is required. Does your business assume that a course solves everything? Many do, but we know that isn’t necessarily the case. We need to push back and challenge the need for a learning intervention. To do that we need to understand the business issue that needs addressing. Once you have understood that, if the answer is a learning intervention, then ensure you map outcomes to the business objectives so that you can demonstrate success.   

Pitfall two: Planning solely for the here and now. Business is changing fast, so to focus solely on the here and now could be costly. Look at new thinking on learning, new approaches to engaging learners and new methods of delivery. Make it your job to understand how your business is changing and how the markets and market sector it operates in are changing. Bring that thinking into your learning strategy. 

Pitfall three: Focusing on learners “knowing something new.” How many times have you been asked to deliver learning because the business needs to know something new? Avoid the trap of designing and delivering learning so that colleagues know something solely for the purpose of “knowing it.” Focus on what learners need to do rather than what they need to know. Focus on the outcomes and what learners need to do to get there and how a learning intervention will help.

Pitfall four: Not understanding what technology can do for your learners. Technology tends to be as effective as the person who uses it. That means you need to understand how technology works in order to make it work for you and your learners. Be clear on what you need the technology to achieve so that you can be sure it will deliver the required business and learner benefits. Remember, technology is a delivery mechanism and as such will not be effective if not planned and managed correctly. 

Step 2: Implement 

Successful implementation of agile learning requires clear and timely communication with all stakeholders, and that includes your learners.  Successful implementation will come when user needs sit at the heart of all learning interventions, which is why you must include them throughout the design process. 

Pitfall five: Overlooking the stakeholders. Learning will truly fly when all your stakeholders are engaged with what you are trying to achieve. And the more senior the buy-in the better—nothing is more effective than leaders in the organization promoting your learning agenda. Make sure you understand who your stakeholders are and put technology and communications at the heart of your thinking. Remember, communication is key, especially if the project is supporting change within the organization. 

Pitfall six: Forgetting the learners. So you have stakeholder buy-in, but have you engaged the learners? The sooner you get the learners involved the better, because they will feel a part of the process and that they are at the heart of what you are trying to achieve—which is true, isn’t it? And make sure you support your learners through their learning journey as this tends to be forgotten in the focus on launching a new initiative.

Pitfall seven: Not knowing your advocates. Overlook your advocates at your peril! Successful learning initiatives need advocates—those that are fans of the project and are prepared to support and share what you are trying to achieve. Identify, nurture and involve your evangelists in the project at an early stage. 

Pitfall eight: Forgetting about user adoption. So you built a program but didn’t design it with the learner in mind, didn’t involve them in the design process and didn’t establish their learning needs. And then they didn’t engage with the program. Surprised? You shouldn’t be. If you want adoption then relentlessly focus on the user needs and make sure learning content is delivered at the right time, in the right way. 

Step 3: Deliver

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In an agile business, learning is delivered at the point of need so ensure you understand the best way to reach your learners. Now more than ever, learners decide what suits their needs—and learning and development (L&D) departments must be highly responsive to this.

Pitfall nine: Reverting to bad old habits. Business and technology are evolving, but is the way you design and deliver learning keeping pace? If the answer is no, then it is time to investigate new ways of engaging learners—and fast. You have lots of opportunities to use new methods; start by looking at the business need, how the business is changing and where it is going. Then look at the learner requirements and what types of tools and technology you could use.

Pitfall ten: Adopting the one-size-fits-all approach. Did the sheep-dip approach to learning ever work for your organization? Probably not, especially when we know people learn in different ways. The 21st century learning organization will understand the individual needs of learners and tailor learning intervention to suit those needs.

Pitfall eleven: Producing poor content. Simply assuming that content designed for one purpose can automatically become effective learning content is wrong. What you tend to get from this approach is long courses and information overload. No, we need to go back to basics here and look at the business need and then design learning content to support colleagues to deliver on that business need.

Pitfall twelve: Pushing informal learning. So we have a tradition of mandating training and controlling it. Unfortunately that won’t work with informal learning, which is becoming an increasingly important part of the learning mix. Informal is just that, which means you must let it emerge. That means trusting your learners and being confident in your role in facilitating this type of learning.

Step 4: Assess

All learning departments need to be able to show how they are helping the business achieve its goals. As the speed of change in business ramps up so L&D teams will be required to manage interventions more effectively—becoming more responsive to business need.

Pitfall thirteen: Considering only the general rules of learning effectiveness. Only you will understand what effective learning looks like in your organization. And if you don’t, then make it a priority to find out. Only then can you talk with authority on what is working and why. Relying on general rules of learning effectiveness alone will not help you to design effective learning interventions for your business.

 Pitfall fourteen: Being unclear on learning impact. Lack of clarity on learning impact will not serve you well. The business will ask more searching questions of their learning investment and you will need to have answers. So, be very clear on the purpose of your learning activities and how they impact on business performance.  

Pitfall fifteen: Thinking evaluation is simple. Learning ROI is a thorny issue because it is difficult to assess. There is no one magic formula for getting this right. So, focus on what success looks like in your organization and how learning initiatives impact on that. You might find it more useful to look at measure such as customer engagement rather than cost/benefit metrics. There maybe no magic formula, but there is one rule: measure what matters.  

Bottom line 

Business agility requires learning agility and in 2013 successful learning departments will put learner needs at the heart of all that they do, have clarity of vision, understand the business needs and how to deliver on them and understand how technology can help learners stay equipped to succeed.