​The Importance of Business Agility

12th August 2011

Francis Marshall discusses the importance of ‘business agility’

francis-marshall-400“Organisations, in order to function, need to encourage social exchanges and social learning due to faster rates of business and technological changes.” George Siemens, Canadian theorist.

 One of the most overused phrases in the business lexicon is that of ‘business agility’. It’s almost a ‘must have’ in management speak today and has been embraced as part of corporate mission statements by companies such as IBM, Fujitsu and Oracle.

Yet, that the phrase is so over-used shouldn’t cover up the fact that agility is absolutely crucial to business success or failure in the post-recession UK and particularly in regard to training.

Let me explain more…

According to Wikipedia, business agility is “the ability of a business to adapt rapidly and cost efficiently in response to changes in the business environment”.

This applies to L&D just as it does with any other business function. The L&D department and L&D strategy will always be driven by the environment in which the business exists and it’s up to L&D to react to change rather than have it creep up unannounced.

In the case of the economic slowdown three years ago, however, L&D was found to be cruelly wanting. It was too often defined by large and cumbersome structures, silos of information between offices and staff in different countries, and a training structure not closely enough aligned with corporate goals and not sufficiently robust enough to readily identify the top talent.

So, how can we learn from the recession and become more agile in our L&D strategies?

The post-recession L&D environment needs to reduce its reliance on old systems and processes and become much more agile in addressing changing situations globally. Such changes include greater integration across organisations and a sharing of resources, the requirements for more cross-cultural skills as emerging markets become more prominent, and the continued embracing of new technologies as the demographics of the workplace changes.

Take the issue of informal learning networks – networks that can play a vital role in making companies that much more agile in their learning. They can bring employees together who share common interests, enable learning, communication and knowledge-sharing, and spur on organisations to focus on agility, responsiveness and high performance collaboration.

It’s about valuing individuals and interactions over processes and tools; collaborative technology over bureaucratic documentation, and the ability to respond to change rather than adhere rigidly to existing plans.

This kind of model can have immediate applicability to the world of work where collaboration, when done well, can help organisations and teams become more agile, flexible and adaptable to change.

It’s against this context that the last few years have seen a proliferation of informal networks develop – both internal and external – from the informal learning culture at the Shibuya University in Tokyo (see my February 2010 column in the TJ magazine) through to 43 things, a social networking site based around the concepts of people describing and sharing personal goals, and networks such as the eLearning Network.

These kinds of networks increase the level of empowerment among the learner allowing them to move away from a more traditional manager-led, hierarchical structure, encourage the sharing of best practices, and are highly applicable to the more responsive, decentralised models we are beginning to see in the corporate environment.

So what are the challenges for L&D in helping to encourage this more agile, informal learning approach?

There are undoubtedly potential obstacles. Content must be relevant and appropriate, must not be too fragmented, and L&D should also guard against the dangers of information overload, which can affect productivity.

There is also the difficult balance of trying to semi-formalise informal training so that it is linked to specific skills development and talent management strategies and structured in such a way that it has a measurable impact on individual and organisational performance. This mustn’t be achieved, however, at the expense of the spirit of innovation, collaboration and decentralisation that characterises informal training today.

The recession shone the spotlight on L&D like never before. If we can emerge as a discipline willing to embrace change and help businesses become more agile as they return to growth, we will have much to be proud of.

Go to Training Journal article


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