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ATD Blog

From Fragile to Agile: The Future of Learning and Development

Friday, June 4, 2021

Change has always been a constant in business. The COVID-19 pandemic, however, accelerated the rate of change and gave rise to new and unexpected challenges for business leaders. The notion of “business as usual” has become a thing of the past.

Consider that in 1964, the average tenure of a company on the S&P 500 index was 33 years. By 2016, that tenure had decreased to 24 years, and by 2027, the average predicted tenure is just 12 years. That means that at the current rate of churn, nearly half of today’s companies on the S&P 500 index will be replaced during the next decade. Companies simply won’t last in the long-term without constant reinvention.

Facing unprecedented disruption, organizations are prioritizing resilience to weather the current crisis and prepare for future challenges. Agility is the key to becoming more resilient. Agile organizations thrive in unpredictable, rapidly changing environments. They evolve and embrace uncertainty and ambiguity and are far better equipped for the future than traditional organizations.

For organizations to become agile, talent development leaders must embrace Agile learning. Gartner defines Agile learning as “a mindset and method of skills development, via iterative short bursts, applied in the flow of achieving outcomes that can dynamically adjust with changing needs.” It is the direct opposite of traditional learning that is perceived by many to be too expensive, too time-consuming, and a kind that takes employees away from their work. Traditional training and development programs are also perceived to be largely ineffective (Gartner 2020).

In addition to these reasons, the trend away from traditional learning and development to a more Agile approach has been underway for years because adult learners retain new knowledge and develop new skills when they can immediately apply it. For training to stick, when employees are learning a new technology, adult learners must not only understand how it applies to their daily tasks but also use the newly acquired knowledge and skills as soon as possible. Relevance and immediate application are critical, yet 33 percent of HR leaders report that they don’t effectively integrate learning into the employee workflow (Gartner 2020). Agile learning and development happens in real time, right in the flow of work, which helps learning stick with adult learners.


Agile learning and development can help build organizational resilience. New competition, technological innovation, changing customer demands, as well as environmental, political, and economic shifts require agile learning for organizations to survive and thrive.

Agile learning links skills development to the business strategy rather than to knowledge gained. For example, if a business strategy is to increase revenue through technological innovation, then the skills that will create, implement, and maintain those technologies should be deemed as critical, and investment in them should be linked to the business strategy. Learning and development must keep pace with changing, but 31 percent of HR leaders admit that they can’t create skill development solutions fast enough to meet evolving skill needs (Gartner 2020).


Leadership coaching is the perfect catalyst for agile learning and development. It is dynamic and flexible, accommodating different learning styles and adjusting in real time to meet rapidly changing business needs. It is personalized and relevant, focused on individual needs while addressing larger organizational goals. Leadership coaching happens in the flow of work, creating an opportunity for leaders to apply new knowledge and skills with immediacy.

Our latest whitepaper explores the shift to agile learning and development. The paper details:

  • Why the hybrid workforce is here to stay and how it is driving the need for agility
  • Why more companies are investing in building—not buying—skills
  • Why HR and learning and development must become more Agile
  • How agile companies are accelerating leadership development

To download the whitepaper, click here.

About the Author

Kip Kelly has over 25 years of marketing and communications experience, with a strong focus on talent management, executive education, professional coaching, and leadership development. Most recently, Kip managed marketing efforts at the NeuroLeadership Institute (NLI) where he led the ICF-certified Brain-Based Coach Training program, supporting professional coaches globally. He has designed and delivered leadership development programs for Duke Corporate Education and UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School, consistently ranked among the top business schools in the world for executive education. His expertise in diversity, inclusion, and the use of data and analytics in learning and development has earned him a reputation as an industry leader, having published over 60 research studies and white papers, as featured in Chief Learning Officer Magazine, TD Magazine, Training Industry, HR Magazine, Fortune Magazine, the Chronicle of Higher Education, the Financial Times, and a host of other leading publications.

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