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Learning Agility Clearly Linked to Performance and Learning

By Robin Gerrow

In today’s climate, organizations need leaders who can turn on a dime. Identifying, and investing in, those potential leaders early in career or tenure to the organization is important.

Although learning agility--the ability to learn from experiences and then apply that knowledge to new conditions and environments--is starting to be seen as an important construct trait when it comes to identifying organizational leadership, there hasn’t been a lot of work done on how that trait impacts learning and performance over time. Erin Laxson, PhD, a managing consultant with Hogan Assessments, found that curious. After all, organizations were starting to invest in employees who demonstrated behaviors associated with learning agility, but how did that predict future career success for individuals, and in turn how those individuals contributed to their organizations?

In her presentation, “The Impact of Learning Agility on Career Success,” at the 2019 SIOP Annual Conference she took an in-depth look at the links between learning agility and learning and performance—two indicators of career success. 

She used data from a study involving 78 employees from a large, global management firm based in the United States, where participants took part in a 12-month leadership development program. Over the course of the program, both participants and supervisors were surveyed on learning agility as well as learning and performance.

What she found was that there is certainly a link between learning agility and those success indicators, but the impact of that connection did not necessarily increase over time.

“I was able to demonstrate a significant relationship between learning agility and performance and learning, but not the rate at which these factors changed over time,” Laxson said. “In other words, individuals with higher levels of learning agility displayed higher levels of performance and learning, but the trajectories of these changes did not significantly increase over time. The bottom line is that learning agility can help business leaders, human resource and talent management professionals, and supervisors make better people decisions.”

She also sees opportunities in how to measure learning agility and how to use that information in conjunction with more traditional measures.

“Can we use other, well-established constructs to determine individuals who are able and willing to learn from experience and apply the learning to novel or unique situations?” she asked. “My guess is yes. We just need to determine which constructs have the highest predictive power. Also, as of now, there is no universally accepted framework and associated measure of learning agility. Until this exists, practitioners may be better off leveraging well-established measures--such as personality--to understand one’s ability to learn, comfort with ambiguity, goal orientation, and openness to experience. “

Laxson believes there is a lot of potential for organizations to use this in determining how to both recruit and invest in their employees.

“Learning agility can provide supervisors with insight as to how individual team members may adapt to unfamiliar environments,” she said. “There are several practical applications for the use of learning agility, including recruitment, selection, and identification of leadership potential. Supervisors would likely benefit from recruiting, selecting, and/or identifying individuals who demonstrate higher learning agility. These individuals are more likely to demonstrate improved performance and be able to apply their learning in future experiences and jobs. For example, supervisors may use learning agility as a factor when making talent planning decisions—such as succession and mobilization of talent.”

She continued, “When using learning agility to select individuals to differentially invest in development strategies, supervisors can be more confident that those they select to participate will likely be more effective at transferring and utilizing knowledge taught in development initiatives.”

Laxson became interested in this line of research while working on her dissertation. At the same time, she was leading a talent management program at a global engineering, consulting, and management firm. What she saw was a program that was politicized and flawed rather than one that was based on research and best practices.

“It seemed that if we weren’t identifying the ‘right’ talent to differentially invest in, we were unlikely to realize the benefit of the investment we were making,” she said. “Learning agility was a construct that had historically been used to inform the identification and development of high potential talent, so I was naturally inclined to investigate the practical application of it.”

Laxson sees this research as just a beginning in the examination of long-term implications of the relationships between learning agility, learning, and performance.

“Although this study found meaningful results related to indicators of career success, more research needs to be conducted, with a larger sample, to determine the impact of learning agility on these indicators over time,” she said. “Significant longitudinal results, if found, would allow for stronger conclusions to be made regarding learning agility. For example, if organizations are able to identify people who have higher learning agility, they may be quicker to adapt to new jobs, reach higher levels of performance early on, and accelerate learning and performance over time.”


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