Transferring the principle of agility to eLearning
Rapid changes in the market and in the development of technologies require fast reactions in the company—nothing new there. However, the approach of transferring the principle of agile working, which has long been a firm fixture in companies with SCRUM, Kanban, etc., to learning culture is relatively new. In this article, you will find out what agile working actually means and which guiding principles underlie it. Find out which requirements you’ll need to meet in order to be able to work and learn in an agile way, and how agile learning can be implemented in your company.
Agility: A departure from rigid processes
Agility in business is more a philosophy than a set methodology. Fundamentally, it is about dissolving rigid processes and countering the rapid changes of our time through flexibility and dynamism. Agile companies believe that employees understand best what they and their departments need, and encourage them to actively contribute. This does not mean doing away with hierarchical levels altogether, but rather that employees should be allowed to act more freely and detached from rigid processes and conservative rules, and be given more room for maneuver and thus more personal responsibility. Agility cannot, therefore, simply be implemented overnight, but instead requires a change in thinking and a mindset based on self-efficacy and the will to develop.
Nice to know: Agile working was originally introduced in the early 2000s by frustrated software developers who found the usual development processes too slow and not customer-focused enough. Based on this, they wrote the Agile Manifesto, the guiding principles of which can be transferred to any area of agile working:
- Individuals and interactions take precedence over processes and tools.
- Functional products take precedence over comprehensive documentation.
- Cooperation with customers takes precedence over contract negotiations.
- Accommodating changes takes precedence over following plans to the letter.
One of the most well-known forms of agile working is the SCRUM method. We don’t want to go into too much detail about it here, but perhaps mentioning it will help those who already know about it to connect the ideas.
What is agile learning?
Agile learning adapts the principles of agile working with the goal of fostering lifelong innovation and adaptability. It’s only logical: The faster technologies, circumstances and thus our working environments change, the faster we have to learn. Consequently, we need dynamic learning methods that do not require a drawn-out organizational stage, but with which we can react immediately to changes.
Agile learning is based on four pillars
Learning is consistently aligned with the employee’s actual work by using work tasks as learning tasks
Organizational orientation towards agile ways of working
Positive learning and error culture
Appropriate mindset of all participants, centered on self-efficacy and development.
The guiding principles of agile learning are the same as those of agile working (agile, demand-driven, quality-driven, action-driven, project-driven), but are defined differently:
Learning tasks are designed to be relevant to individual employees and to serve the needs of the business. Exactly what these needs are is determined by the various stakholders together.
Agile learning is self-directed. The focus is on trying things out and applying and gaining experience through actual everyday work in a real working environment.
Agile learning is guided by qualified personnel (e.g., coaches) to ensure that resources are used effectively and no potential remains undiscovered.
The planning, implementation and feedback cycles are short, so the process can be amended quickly. Participants can therefore abandon less effective learning processes early on, and instead work more intensely those that lead to the desired results.
Agile learning is planned in a binding manner—the time frame is defined in advance, goals are formulated and their achievement is verified.
Implementing agile learning
The four different roles in an agile learning process
The clients are the ones who specify the learning need, formally issue the learning assignment, provide the resources, and accept the results. This role generally falls to senior executives. However, it can also happen that the need for learning is perceived in a completely different part of the company—for example, among individual employees. In such a case, a whole C team can emerge, bringing together members from different departments and/or hierarchy levels. After all, it is usually those who have identified the need that can best assess the learning outcomes.
Learning team (LT)
The learning team consists of at least two people. They do not have to have the same level of experience, but should generally be open to new ideas and learning processes and motivated enough to be truly self-directed learners. Only with the necessary conviction and curiosity about the agile learning process (and, of course, the necessary resources) will the learning team really succeed in coordinating things without being specifically asked.
Methodology specialist (MS)
The methodology specialist is responsible for designing the learning framework, providing the learning team with ideas on appropriate learning methods, and conducting an evaluation at the end. It is important that the methodology specialist is contactable throughout and has sufficient didactic skills to quickly recognize approaches that are less effective.
Technical specialist (TS)
The technical specialist either already has the knowledge that the learning team is trying to acquire or at least has sufficient professional expertise to be able to assess the learning content and outcomes. This is the only way to ensure that they can provide the appropriate sources and give adequate feedback.
The agile learning process
The agile learning process is an arbitrarily frequent repetition of “Planning”, “Sprint”, “Review” and “Retrospective”, starting with kick-off and ending with a kick-out at a predefined point in time.
The kick-off is the issue of the learning assignment by the client (C), e.g. team leaders, management board. In concrete terms, then, the kick-off is when the overarching learning objective is specified. The methodology specialist (MS) introduces all participants to the agile learning process at the kick-off.
During the planning phase, the technical specialist (TS) explains the tasks and defines the next sub-goal. The learning team (LT) plans the learning tasks, schedule, content and methods together with the (MS).
After that, the real learning begins. The (LT) works together to complete the defined learning tasks; the (MS) and (TS) assist as needed.
Once the learning tasks are completed, the (LT) presents its findings in the review. The (TS) assesses the results and gives corresponding feedback.
The retrospective ensures that only the successful methods are carried over into the next cycle and that any uncovered potential is exploited, while methods that are less effective are sifted out.
The kick-out officially ends the agile learning project. It is when the (LT) proves their newly gained competences, the (C) approve the results and the (MS) clarifies whether any actions are needed to close knowledge gaps or to sustainably consolidate the new-found skills.
The two central tools of agile learning
The learning tasks
The learning tasks describe what the learning team should learn, and how these tasks can be embedded into their work context, but not how they should learn. This leaves more scope for self-direction and for testing individual approaches. Acceptance criteria define when the learning task is considered complete, supporting self-monitoring. In addition, the learning tasks provide a list of sources that learners can use if they need technical input.
The term Kanban is Japanese and can be loosely translated as “visual signal”. It helps to keep track of everything. All participants should therefore have access to the Kanban board at all times. Here, people will probably think of Trello first, but a Kanban board consists of five columns from left to right: “Task List,” “To Do,” “In Progress,” “Check,” and “Done”. The individual learning tasks are moved back and forth between these columns depending on their status. The technical specialist is responsible for creating the respective learning tasks including task description, acceptance criteria, and sources. In the end, they are also the person who verifies the results of the learning tasks once they have been moved to “Check”. Only when they meet the acceptance criteria can the learning tasks be moved to the “Done” column.
The foundation of agile learning: Sufficient resources
Agile learning can only work if the necessary resources are available to all participants. The more frequent the reviews, the more agile the stakeholders can be in reacting to positive and negative changes. Or to put it another way: The more reviews, the more the process conforms to the principle of agility. However, more review processes also require more time—time that must be available to those involved during their workday without extending their regular working hours. Otherwise, agility would be at the expense of employees and motivation would drop very quickly. Therefore, be sure to encourage your employees to conduct frequent reviews and carve out the necessary time for this alongside their day-to-day work.
In addition, participants need the necessary means of communication—preferably in different forms—in order to be able to respond to individual preferences and circumstances and to keep barriers to a minimum. Communication channels could include a meeting room that is available on short notice, telephone, internal chat tools (e.g. Slack), and/or free access to video call tools.
Benefits of agile learning
Fast start to learning
Learning can start earlier as the finer details of the learning process do not have to be fully fleshed out beforehand.
Direct influence on the learning process
All participants are equally involved in the process and can contribute their views and experience at the regular reviews and retrospectives.
As the learning tasks are always based on the direct needs of the employees and the company, they are particularly relevant and therefore provide a high level of intrinsic motivation. And we know that the higher the intrinsic motivation to learn, the higher the cognitive performance.
Agile learning offers a high degree of flexibility with respect to technological changes, competitive requirements, and internal and customer needs.
Early detection of errors
Frequent reviews and retrospectives can quickly identify errors, ineffective learning methods, and unexploited potential.
The faster learning processes can be started and optimized, the higher their relevance and in turn the employee’s motivation to learn. And the faster errors are recognized, the faster positive results can be achieved.
The bottom line.
Agile learning is part of an agile work culture and can only be successful if the mindset and resources are right. Only if participants are truly convinced of the principle of agility will they feel the necessary motivation and ownership to keep the agile learning process moving continuously and sustainably. Detailed specifications and learning plans would contradict the whole principle of agility. Once the agile learning process is underway, you and your company will be able to respond to changes and issues much faster than ever before, without having to plan complex training.
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