Ever since Darwin nailed the whole ‘adaptability equals survivability’ thing, it’s been pretty clear that being able to navigate changing circumstances was going to be critical to… well, just about everything. What was once a scientific premise is now also key to career resiliency.
Translation: learn fast, learn effectively, be able to learn on demand.
What is Agile Learning?
According to this Harvard Business Review article, learning agility is
…the capacity for rapid, continuous learning from experience. Agile learners are good at making connections across experiences, and they’re able to let go of perspectives or approaches that are no longer useful — in other words, they can unlearn things when novel solutions are required. People with this mindset tend to be oriented toward learning goals and open to new experiences. They experiment, seek feedback, and reflect systematically.
Although the focus of the article was CEOs trying to stay ahead of shifting market circumstances, the same challenges apply to librarians and other information professionals in almost every career path. In the LIS profession, learning agility is also the ability to learn new skills on the fly as job responsibilities evolve and expand. It’s the capability to continually hit the reset button and go from a position of mastery to one of “beginner’s mind,” i.e., the no-clue-what-I’m-doing stance.
It’s also about embracing what, in Mindset: The New Psychology of Success (Ballantine, 2007), author and Stanford University psychology professor Carol Dweck identifies as a “growth” mindset. With a growth mindset you approach life – and your professional skills – as a work continually in progress. Learning is not so much an onerous task necessitated by job change as a positive approach to life’s challenges, as well as those of your career. From a career perspective, agile learning both creates and underlies your best opportunities.
Mastering Agile Learning
In HBR’s “4 Ways to Become a Better Learner,” author Monique Valcour suggests four tactics to improve your game:
- Ask for feedback. Ask trusted colleagues to provide feedback on your performance related to specific tasks or responsibilities, then reflect on and learn from their comments)
- Experiment with new approaches or behaviors. This could be processes, people interactions, tools, technologies, or anything else that might improve your outcomes
- Look for connections across seemingly unrelated areas. One of the great things about being an information professional is that often one of your strongest drives is curiosity. What can you learn from a non-LIS interest or organization or discipline that you can adapt to your current challenge? Is there a solution lurking in your volunteer work that might apply to your department’s goals?
- Make time for reflection. According to Valcour, research shows that those who systematically reflect on their work experiences tend to boost their learning significantly. But if you’re not the type who enjoys or benefits from solo reflection, there’s no reason you can’t put together your own informal learning group, either in your workplace or among other trusted colleagues.
I think these are all great suggestions, but in addition I’d suggest a few other ways to become an agile learner:
Get ahead of the learning curve. Part of your ongoing agile learning process should be to continually monitor what you need to learn next. “Next” may refer to a range of circumstances: new knowledge for staying competitive in your current job, additional skills mastery to open up a promotion path, or perhaps a broader skills expansion to bridge into a related field. But your goal is to create your own learning agenda – don’t wait to be told what you need to learn to stay current, because by then it may be too easy to simply replace you.
Become familiar with the learning options available to you, including their costs, formats, and time requirements. For example, do you need to learn data analysis, a specific technology, or a process like project management? Each will call for a different type of learning provider and process. Do you need an online option or is classroom-based better for you? The good news: free-agent or independent learning has become a huge market with dozens of credible, cost-effective providers at whatever level of learning you need, and pretty much in whatever format works best for you.
Figure out how you learn. If learning is going to be an ongoing part of your life, you want it to be as enjoyable and stress-free as possible – okay, at least as painless as possible, if you’re not really the whole “learning as a journey” vibe. Although studies are now calling into question the validity and applicability of “learning styles” research, I know, for example, that I’m simply incapable of learning by listening to a presentation or watching a video. I need to read, reflect, take notes, outline, draw relationships, and reprocess the information from various frameworks.
You may have a completely different (and faster) way to learn, or perhaps you’ve never thought about it. If that’s the case, I’d strongly recommend you read about learning styles then start experimenting to find your own best approach.
Consider gamification. For those who tend not to just love learning for the sheer fun of it (i.e., normal people), an increasingly important trend across all areas of learning is gamification, or using game precepts to structure instructional design.
Although innovative educators had been researching gaming’s applications for learning for awhile, it really took off when game designer Jane McGonigal created a resilience-building game to help her recover from deep depression brought on by a severe concussion. Her best-selling book, SuperBetter: A Revolutionary Approach to Getting Stronger, Happier, Braver, and More Resilient – Powered by the Science of Games (Penguin, 2015) opened the floodgates to gamification in multiple areas, including learning platforms. Although the specific skill you need to master may not be in game form yet, if this appeals to you, it’s something to check out.
Look for “embedded” learning opportunities. What else can you learn on the job? Can you pick up project management skills? Can you learn an important new software program as part of additional responsibilities you’ve just been given? Can you hang out with that twenty-something new hire and upgrade your social media skills? Can you volunteer for a cool new project that helps you work on your team-building skills? There’s no cheaper or easier way to be an agile learner than to incorporate learning into your existing job.
Finding Your Inner Agile Learner
Behavioral psychology research says that you can have the best intentions in the world, but without the right motivation and a solid execution plan, those intentions are pretty much toast. So if committing to ongoing learning feels like a challenge, consider identifying inner motivations that will energize you. Although motivations are unique for each individual, a great way to start thinking about this is with Simon Sinek’s Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action (Portfolio, 2011). Essentially, Sinek’s premise is that if the why – or motivation – is sufficiently compelling, the how will follow much more readily.
Although written for CEOs and other leaders, it also applies to those of us aspiring to take a leadership role in our own lives – and careers.