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Learning From Our Neighbors: Applying Agile Practices to L&D

If you agree that the main asset of a company is its workforce and the skills they contribute to its cause, then you probably also agree that no company succeeds without an effective Human Resource (HR) department and impactful Learning and Development (L&D). L&D personnel are responsible for ensuring the workforce has and continues to build the skills required to produce a desired product or service, both now and in the future.

More and more L&D departments are moving toward the agile way of working. Many IT departments use the agile methodology to maximize their value delivery. HR and Learning professionals are discovering that, with only a few modifications, an agile approach provides a framework for a consistent, fast, and industry-informed delivery of workforce learning needs. It does this in a way that maximizes value in the most efficient and expedient way. 

The 2020 pandemic and its resulting workforce lockdown forced the business world to pivot. Instead of delivering traditional classroom learning, businesses had to quickly transform that delivery into something that was less dependent on location and time. As classrooms closed and in-person training was cancelled, large companies scrambled to find a way to bring the latest and most relevant skills training to the workforce. More than ever before, businesses needed a safe, fast, but well-considered solution. Those who solved this dilemma achieved a huge competitive advantage over their peers.

Some of these L&D teams discovered that the solution to this problem was sitting next door in their neighboring IT department. They realized that adopting agile practices and ways of working can be extremely helpful in quickly:

  • Establishing learning priorities based on the immediate needs of the workforce
  • Developing or locating (or curating) the required learning
  • Finding a way to deliver learning that is effective, sustainable, and safe

At GP Strategies, the pandemic forced us to face the challenge of daily changes in what was allowed or even possible with finite resources and budget. Using the traditional waterfall method to manage learning development and delivery was of little use because the level of uncertainty and risk was just too high. However, we discovered that, in the midst of all this uncertainty, using the agile way of working kept L&D personnel focused. Using a daily scrum, a framework designed for agile project management, we concentrated on the priorities leading to the delivery of all required training. Subsequent iterations allowed the team to add lower-priority and industry updates in the future as needed. Fostering an agile mindset enabled a faster pivot from the traditional classroom to virtual learning.  It also allows a change from time-consuming development to acquiring industry-approved curated solutions that kept the employees engaged and excited to learn. Adopting an agile mindset kept us focused on our goal of maximizing customer interaction and obtaining the latest and most relevant feedback.  

Industry learning professionals know that increased workforce interaction and feedback help establish the correct priorities and produce a solution with faster client acceptance. This eliminates waste and enables L&D teams to produce solutions that meet the immediate needs of the workforce. They now see these principles embedded in the agile way of working. Using the mindset of relentless improvement, L&D teams continue to modify those solutions for future needs.  

A constant feedback loop between L&D personnel and the workforce they serve reduces the time spent creating elaborate learning solutions and increases their value to the workforce. Smaller updates or releases to existing solutions, delivered in shorter intervals, contain the optimal mix of desired learning features and content. This change results in valuable learning that gets to the learners when they need it, keeping learners on the cutting edge of their respective fields and skill-levels.

While the benefits of using agile seem straight forward, the road to agile L&D is not always smooth. Some organizations start down this road but later decide to revert to their old way of doing things. There are several reasons this occurs, but a reoccurring theme is a lack of perceived value gained from making this change. They see it as just too hard, based on departmental dependencies, or they find it difficult to win over executive support.

To make this work, businesses must decide to switch to the agile ways of working based on their unique situation and business goals. And agile is not right for everyone. However, if businesses decide to switch to this method, they must go into it with their eyes wide open. They must make the necessary commitment and concentrate on the journey rather than on the resistance they are more than likely to receive.

I experience this resistance quite often and overcome it by focusing on making small changes now, with an eye toward the greater change in the future. An example is to implement slight changes rather than a full-blown methodology revision or redesign. A company may simply not be ready for that type of change. It remains true that success breeds success—and with each success, resistance decreases. This is where the term “taking baby steps” comes into play. Experience tells you when to push or opt for a strategic method to initiate needed change.

Other examples of concentrating on the journey are to increase the amount of learner interaction for each L&D project slowly, and to search for an executive champion who is willing to fight for your cause. These examples do not require going through a company-wide L&D redesign. The more successful you are at implementing smaller changes, the more allegiance you will receive from leaders and peers. The pursuit of relentless improvement, no matter the speed of an overall transformation, will always bring it closer to where you want it to be.

Many who take this agile HR journey perceive that learning occurs daily. It is truly a journey and not a single event. HR and learning professionals who are not afraid to risk improvement are often those who reap the greater benefits from their efforts. A primary goal of the business consultant is to assist the client in improving performance and efficiency. It is impossible to do this without recommending solutions that align to this concept and the specified goals of the client. Agile is all about maximizing value and efficiency. It helps produce shorter development times, which enable faster reactions and increased efficiency.

Take a closer look and decide whether your HR L&D personnel could benefit from the agile way of working and its outcomes. Find out whether it aligns to what you want to achieve. Do not be afraid to examine how others are addressing their problems. You may find a solution in the strangest places—and who knows? The solution could be next door. What have been your experiences in delivering value through learning in the pandemic environment? I would love to start a discussion and share ideas of what seems to work for HR L&D departments.

About the Authors

Carl Ramsey
Carl Ramsey is a certified project management professional (PMP) and retired senior military officer where he spent over 30 years leading troops and solving problems. He brings that drive and experience to GP Strategies as a senior business consultant with over 14 years collaborating with clients to solve their most wicked problems while ensuring their current practices produce the greatest business value.

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