In the two decades since the Agile Manifesto emerged from a gathering in the mountains of Utah, the Agile approach to software development has given rise to an Agile approach to project management, and learning leaders have taken a shine to this flexible, efficient, and effective way of working.

A team at QualityMinds in Germany has moved beyond Agile project management to the next logical step for L&D professionals and learning leadership: Agile learning.

Foundations of an Agile mindset

Agile software emerged as people used computers for more—and more complex—tasks. As the scope of development projects grew, developers needed production methods that gave them greater flexibility to respond to changing needs—needs that might change while a project is in development!

The software developers who authored the Agile Manifesto prioritized teamwork and collaboration with both teammates and clients, along with ensuring that they used tools and methods that allowed quick response to changes. “Agility,” which is an ability to quickly and nimbly respond to change, perfectly captured these priorities.

In addition, the Agile mindset represented a shift in priorities. It stipulates valuing:

  • Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
  • Working software over comprehensive documentation
  • Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
  • Responding to change over following a plan

The principles of Agile call for, for example, teams to regularly “reflect on how to become more effective”—and change their way of working accordingly. Agility welcomes change and leverages it to the customer’s advantage. Agility values simplicity, technical excellence, and autonomous teams with frequent communication among team members.

Applying Agile to learning

The Agile principle that is perhaps most relevant to Agile Learning is: “Build projects around motivated individuals. Give them the environment and support they need, and trust them to get the job done.”

Imagine what’s possible with motivated learners who have the environment and support they need!

Vera Baum and Manuel Illi, authors of Learners First! An Agile Approach to Learning, point out that, from the Agile perspective, many implicit assumptions of traditional approaches to teaching and learning “are not very helpful or can even be counterproductive today.” These assumptions include someone other than the learner deciding what content—and often which materials—the learner must use, which content to learn, and by what date.

Rather than begin with a set of assumptions or content, the authors suggest starting with several questions that probe who will be learning and how to measure success, as well as who decides what, when, and how someone will learn, and examines the learning process with an eye toward improving efficiency and effectiveness.

“When answering these and similar questions with Agile values, principles, and models in mind,” the authors write, “a surprising and innovative approach can be developed.”

Key differences include:

  • The learner’s existing and needed knowledge is the central focus as learning is shaped into a personal learning path, rather than developing content to fit a fixed curriculum and delivering it to all learners.
  • Learners set individual learning goals; these goals are reviewed regularly with a learning coach, as opposed to a manager setting learning goals that align to company or department goals.
  • Learning is self-organized and can be informal, collaborative, or social versus a formal “go-to-training” approach with a hierarchical instructor-to-learner knowledge-transfer model.
  • Learning, application, and feedback are integrated and ongoing, rather than evaluation occurring through post-training exams.

These differences can boost learners’ motivation, as they have more ownership of their learning process.

Potential benefits of Agile learning

Agile learning is integrated with work and with colleagues, fostering an ongoing learning practice and a learning-focused culture. This also helps ensure “stickiness,” as learners are using new skills and information as they learn it—and learning new skills and information as they need it.

While self-directed learning is not inherently superior to guided or structured learning, it is often highly effective for adult learners in corporate training and fosters strong personal accountability for learning and progress.

Empowering learners to create their own learning paths is highly motivating, as learners can focus on learning skills and information that is relevant to them and helps move them toward their professional goals—and they do not feel that they are wasting time on redundant or unnecessary material.

Ongoing feedback within a professional environment reinforces learning or corrects errors quickly and in a relevant context. Regular review of goals and progress offers opportunities to fine-tune or change direction if the learner’s needs or goals change.

Agile learning works in any size organization

Agile learning emphasizes self-directed and self-organized learning, but learners are not wholly on their own. Each learner works with an Agile learning coach, who also may advise the department or organization on Agile learning.

The role of an Agile learning coach is not intended as a full-time job; instead, it is one of several related roles a person might take on; for instance, in organizations using Agile development, the Scrum master is ideally positioned to serve as an Agile learning coach for members of the team. The roles are complementary, as the Scrum master’s goal is to improve team efficiency, and advances in individual team members’ skills and knowledge would further that goal.

As time goes on, the learning coach’s engagement with an individual learner is reduced as the learner becomes more self-sufficient. And as a team, department, or organization moves deeper into Agile learning, more-experienced learners can guide and assist their peers.

Specific learning content is not developed for and delivered to Agile learners; researching and identifying resources is part of their learning journeys. However, within teams or departments, learning goals will often overlap and repeat. Learners do not have to “reinvent the wheel”; Agile learning coaches also serve a knowledge management and sharing function. They are aware of resources learners have found or created and make them easily available to the entire team.

Thus, over time, as an organization’s learning mindset becomes more Agile, the resources become more readily available, as the knowledge and learning process is embedded within each team and department. Learning is tightly integrated with work, creating and reinforcing a culture of continuous and collaborative learning.

Many organizations have found that adopting Agile learning is a “gateway” to moving the organization toward Agile project management or development. The relationship between a learner and the Agile learning coach—who should not be the learner’s manager or supervisor—is a safe and confidential place to practice becoming more reflective, to try new processes and mindsets, and to make and recover from errors. This experimentation fosters independence and grows learners’ confidence. As learners—who are also team members and employees—learn Agile processes and become both self-reflective and accountable for their own learning, this heightened responsibility naturally spills over into their work.

Learn more

Shifting learning culture or adopting new training strategies can be an uphill climb; learning leaders do not need to undertake this challenge alone. Share what works, and explore the strategies and skills required to navigate the needs of today’s ever-changing workplace with your learning leadership peers.

The Learning Guild’s Learning Leaders Alliance offers a vendor-neutral global community for learning leaders who want to stay ahead of the curve and for aspiring leaders seeking to build their skill sets. The Alliance Membership package includes access to monthly networking and learning opportunities, exclusive digital events, and content curated for today’s modern learning leader, as well as opportunities to attend in-person learning leadership events held around the globe. Our February 7, 2023, LeaderChat features Susanne Ambros, team lead for QualityMinds, describing how her team developed, implemented, and scaled a learner-centered Agile process—and then introduced Agile learning to multiple clients. Join the LLA today so you don’t miss another LeaderChat or event!