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How Agile learning could revolutionize training and development

Agile learning enables an organization to pivot quickly in response to changes in technology, economic conditions, market demand, and more.
agile learning
Credit: Elena Poritskaya; fotomaster / Adobe Stock

“Agile learning” is not just another buzzword, but an important tool for L&D leaders to consider as they look to equip their teams for a rapidly evolving world of work. 

According to a Training Industry article, Agile learning refers to an “approach to content development that focuses on speed, flexibility, and collaboration.” 360 Learning adds to that definition the element of “implementing continuous feedback loops to regularly iterate on course creation and create highly collaborative working environments.”

Agile learning focuses on speed, flexibility, and collaboration.

In order to truly understand Agile learning, it’s necessary to know where it came from and how it differs from the ADDIE framework. Agile started out in 2001 as a project management methodology based on the premise that developing software in chunks, with feedback implementation in between each chunk, would keep the process moving forward efficiently and allow realignment with goals as often as needed. 

The ADDIE and Agile approaches to developing instructional programs have some practices in common. Both begin with a period of investigation followed by planning, but from that point on, traditional instructional design models like ADDIE continue in a more or less linear fashion. Agile learning design proceeds in a more iterative way, with such activities occurring in short, recurring bursts or “sprints.” 

That’s not to say ADDIE is not iterative, or that it does not close the loop between evaluation and revision. It does, but over a longer period of time. In an ADDIE project, several weeks or even months could pass between needs analysis and the final deployment of instruction, following pilot testing and some degree of revision. 

Sprints facilitate the quick detection and remediation of any issues that could impact quality. 

With an Agile approach, the design-build-test cycle occurs sooner, much more quickly, and typically in multiple rounds before organization-wide deployment. This provides the flexibility needed to shift gears quickly in response to changing business priorities. The short duration of sprints, and brief intervals between them, facilitate the quick detection and remediation of any issues that could impact quality. 

Agile learning design is an inherently collaborative process, certainly more collaborative than is the case with ADDIE and other traditional ID approaches. The daily meetings (called “scrums” or “stand-ups”) that typify the Agile methodology foster close coordination and transparency between project stakeholders and the ID team, as do the evaluations at the end of each sprint. 

The benefits of Agile learning 

Few organizations would argue against the importance of agility, so it’s no surprise that Agile project management methods have begun to expand from the software development realm into other functional areas. Here are a few additional reasons why.

It allows for a quick response to change

An agile mindset is becoming a prerequisite for success and long-term survival in our constantly changing world. The very nature of Agile learning design epitomizes flexibility and adaptability. 

Agile learning enables an organization to pivot quickly in response to changes in technology, economic conditions, market demand, and other developments. The iterative design process and resulting ability to launch learning programs quickly also supports rapid reskilling and upskilling. 

It improves cross-functional information sharing 

Information silos stymie cross-functional communication and knowledge sharing. Plainview’s 2018 Global Study of Project Collaboration reported that project teams spend more than 20 hours per month grappling with collaboration challenges, resulting in missed deadlines, quality issues, and cost overruns.

The daily meetings conducted by Agile work teams align the activities of employees across multiple departments. This collaborative process has proven to be very effective in breaking down barriers and information silos. 

It’s consumer-centric

Agile learning makes it possible to develop and deploy training in quick response to ever-changing customer needs and expectations. This can be very beneficial for sales teams in particular. 

The collaborative nature of Agile learning design leads to information about common customer concerns, objections, and scenarios being spread beyond their original audience, sharpening the focus on what customers value most. 

It improves organizational efficiency

Agile learning design provides numerous opportunities to identify risks, unlike traditional design models that frontload risk identification and management at the beginning of the process. With daily meetings, no more than 24 hours pass between opportunities for issues to surface, and the high degree of collaboration harnesses the knowledge of the entire team to resolve issues quickly. 

Additionally, under the Agile methodology, risk taking is viewed as experimentation. When employees understand that it’s okay to take risks, they’re free to come up with better ways of doing things. This inevitably leads to process efficiencies.

It facilitates peer learning

It’s long been a tenet of adult learning theory that much of the knowledge gained through a learning experience is acquired through peer interactions. Team learning that engages employees in conversation not only increases knowledge retention, but also establishes connections that expand their professional networks. 

Daily team meetings are essential to fully implementing an Agile approach to learning design. Simply having each team member answer three questions every day (What did you do yesterday? What will you do today? What roadblocks are you facing?) goes a long way toward fostering an environment in which peers can learn from one another. 

It promotes agility across the organization

A 2020 Training Magazine article emphasized the need for organizations to be agile to contend with the accelerating pace of change. It also discussed the “link between individual capability, culture (the way we do and talk about things), and organizational capability.” In other words, for an organization to be agile, its people need to have a mindset of agility — an openness to new ideas, transparency and the sharing of information, and a willingness to take risks. 

In the Big Think+ lesson below, Susan David, Ph.D. — psychologist and author of the bestseller, Emotional Agility — explains why these and other characteristics associated with agility are so important in the complex times we’re living in.

As David says, “You will never cultivate an agile organization unless the people who work within that organization are agile.” Cultivating this mindset can start in the learning and development team, by employing an Agile approach to learning design.

It supports a learning culture

Agile learning works hand-in-hand with an organization’s learning culture, or a culture of continuous learning that positions the organization to adapt to whatever unknown challenges the future will bring. Agile learning is a methodology (the “how”) that furthers the development of a culture of continuous learning (the “what”). 

Agile learning not only helps produce learning programs for upskilling and reskilling that will make the organization more agile as a whole, but it also breaks down silos through collaborative work involving multiple stakeholders. All of this fosters a growth mindset that places a high value on learning. 

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Final note 

Implementing Agile learning is not a simple matter of adopting the Agile methodology as a wholesale replacement for current learning design practices. Rather, it involves identifying the elements of the Agile methodology that support a learning culture and integrating them in a way that makes sense for the organization. 

Agile learning allows organizations to adapt rather than adopt.

In some cases, that will mean rethinking the way learning design teams are structured to increase cross-functional representation and more actively engage a wider range of stakeholders. In others, it could mean holding frequent scrum-like meetings to expedite the development of learning programs, ensure transparency among team members, and identify risks before they become issues. Or, it may involve providing more learning programs of shorter duration that can be developed rapidly using Agile techniques. 

In short, Agile learning affords organizations the flexibility to adapt rather than adopt. With time, Agile learning design is likely to become far more prevalent as a way to prepare organizations to rise to the challenges the future will surely bring.

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