Learning agility in HR practice

Operating in today’s ever-changing and unpredictable environment is a considerable challenge for managers. In order to function effectively in this day and age, it is essential to be able to adapt and learn quickly. Research clearly indicates that learning agility is a determining factor for success.

So what is learning agility in business practice?

What foundations are at the heart of learning agility?

How can learning agility be captured during recruitment processes and/or talent programmes?

What is learning agility in business practice?

The term agile originates from the software development community and, as briefly as possible, refers to the way of working described in 2001 by the pioneers of modern programming. In the Agile Manifesto, its creators defined 12 overarching principles, adherence to which ensures the success and satisfaction of the projects implemented. We can reduce these principles to 5 main points:

  1. Customer satisfaction as a priority – Customer satisfaction is key/priority. This is achieved by delivering a valuable product within a defined timeframe.
  2. Openness to change – means being ready to change requirements even at a late stage of project development. By being open to change, we are able to build our own competitiveness and that of our customers.
  3. Motivating working environment- providing an optimal environment based on mutual respect, effective team collaboration and constant feedback.
  4. Quality – delivering the best possible product, enabling continuity.
  5. Continuous improvement – constant monitoring of the work carried out and a constant search for optimisation opportunities.

As you can see, these tenets have a high level of universality – which is probably why other business environments (outside of IT) have been quick to adapt agile principles to their own daily challenges. From today’s perspective, it is safe to say that the agile approach has even become a philosophy of how to act to guarantee success in times of high volatility, unpredictability and complexity.

In the middle of the first decade of the 2000s, the Korn / Ferry Institute completed research that had been ongoing for more than two decades. This research looked at the determinants of success in business. On the basis of an analysis of more than 1 million respondents – economically active people from various regions of the world – five dimensions were identified which, according to the results, characterised above-average performers. This concept was subsequently named Learning Agility.

What are the foundations of learning agility?

Learning agility

means knowing what to do when I am in an unfamiliar, complex and unpredictable environment.

Learning agility is formed by 5 dimensions. These are:

  • Mental agility – the ability to critically assess situations and solve problems in an unconventional / unique way.
  • People agility – the ability to build relationships with people with different preferences, the ability to manage difficult / ambiguous situations in order to consolidate and work together.
  • Change agility – feeling pleasure in relation to change experienced, continued curiosity and ability to manage discomfort in relation to change experienced.
  • Results agility – delivering results in the first terms by inspiring others appropriately and building confidence in oneself.
  • Self-awareness – the ability to self-reflect – being able to define your strengths and areas for development; being aware of the impact of your own behaviour on others.

What each of these dimensions has in common is an emphasis on the ability to adapt to changing conditions, as well as the ability to learn quickly and translate acquired knowledge in a completely different, previously unknown context.

The concept of learning agility, and thus the 5 defined dimensions, was then tested on another group of people in daily management. On this basis, the Korn / Ferry Institue defined the concept of agile leadership and 7 personality profiles characterising agile managers were described. It is worth noting, however, that each of these profiles has both strengths and areas for development – moreover, the effectiveness of a given managerial profile depends on the culture of the organisation, the stage of development of the company and the specific area.

Profiles of agile leaders

Consistently, according to the Korn / Ferry Institute, we can distinguish the following profiles of agile managers:

  • Problem Solvers – a person who, in an ambiguous situation, takes a close look at the complexity of the problem, explores and develops what has worked so far – while engaging and inspiring others to act. This is one of the most common managerial profiles and the closest to the classic notion of the agile leader.
  • Thought Leaders – a person who seeks constant insight and truth; not afraid to ask difficult questions and test ambiguous hypotheses. This person’s attention is focused on continuously developing the effectiveness of the existing process. Nevertheless, this is a leader who works in the background – does not like to be on a pedestal.
  • Trailblazers – a person who knows exactly what direction to take and is absolutely determined to achieve the set goal (sometimes regardless of the means). Focused on the direction set and confident in her approach. She is not afraid to ‘walk the path’ that most people fear.
  • Champions – like the heroes in the classic story these individuals solve problems in a big way. They are able to handle difficult situations with humour and charm. They focus on both people and results, allowing team members to showcase their own talents.
  • Pillars – a person who puts a lot of effort into creating and implementing highly sophisticated solutions, focusing on inventing improvements rather than drastic change. It is characterised by a combination of insightful thinking, goal orientation and the ability to include others in the effort.
  • Diplomats – when the goal is very ambitious and the situation is a crisis, and thus sensitivity to the environment is required, these are the people who step to the forefront. In such situations, they skilfully assemble a team and adapt their management style to changing conditions.
  • Energisers – success-oriented, extremely hard-working and have the ability to inspire others. They are able to build an engaged team. They always achieve their goals.

So how is it possible to capture ‘learning agility’ during recruitment processes and/or talent programmes?

We all know that we are living in very dynamic times, and therefore there is an increasing need for managers / people who can manage this variability and complexity. But how do we capture the learning agility factor in the people we recruit into our companies or recruit talent into our organisation? Without doubt, this is the biggest challenge that HR departments face on a daily basis.

In dealing with these challenges, psychometric tools come to the rescue, as well as questionnaires that make it possible, in various ways, to capture what is difficult to observe during a brief recruitment interview or an assessment centre. The tools that are used to diagnose learning agility can generally be divided into 3 main categories:

  1. Personality questionnaires (including emotional intelligence questionnaires) – allowing us to describe our candidate’s personality construct. An example of such a tool is the Ostendi Talent Hunter, which makes it possible to diagnose a candidate in terms of their openness to change, their approach to problem solving or their ability to manage diversity.
  2. Competency surveys, based on a 360 / 270 degree methodology – which examine a person’s competences, relevant from an agile management perspective.
  3. Cognitive tests – to test the ability to learn in a changing environment.

However, it is worth remembering that the ability to observe and diagnose by the person who is leading the entire recruitment process or creating the talent programme is equally important. Before choosing a tool to assist in the talent search process, it is worth answering the following questions yourself:

  • At what stage of development is my organisation? Which managerial / high-potential employee profile does the organisation need?
  • Which learning agility dimension is key for my organisation?
  • What behaviours / elements in the CV can indicate that the candidate has a high level of learning agility?

Once we have answered these questions, we can turn to the relevant tools (e.g. Ostendi Talent Hunter) to assist us in an objective assessment.


Author: Bożena Roczniak


Bożena Roczniak

Member of the Board, R&D Director at Ostendi Global. For more than a dozen years she has been supporting the boards of various companies in building their Human Resource Management strategies. She has a unique experience combining more than 16 years of practice in business with 10 years of conducting diagnoses in the field of psychiatry. Bożena has continuously developed her competences, which is each time confirmed by receiving international certificates: ICC coaching, MBTI(R) Practitioner (Mayers-Briggs Type Indiator), use of SLG Thomas tests (Personal Profile Analyzes, Training System Test, EQTest), Insight Discovery™, EQ-I 2.0 and EQ 360 2.0, Ostendi Talent Hunter Practitioner. Due to her experience, Bożena is responsible for the substantive and methodological product development at Ostendi Global.