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Building Learning Agility in Your Organization: The Google Way

Building learning agility in your organization: the Google way.

The world of business is becoming more volatile and complex, and the ability to learn fast and adapt is paramount to survival. The nature of knowledge work has shifted from what existing data points to look for, and where to find them to how to identify novel and unprecedented insights from the exponentially increasing amount and complexity of information available at our fingerprints. The nature of learning has shifted as well from what to learn to how to become a better learner, and learning agility is becoming the next management buzzword. Broadly defined as the ability and willingness to learn from experience and apply the learning in novel, complex situations, the term appears on every consulting company’s website.

An internet search for the topic shows over 14 million entries, large companies use it as one of the high potential competencies, and multiple organizations sell learning agility measurements.

In my recent role leading the global learning strategy at Google, I was responsible for a project to determine how to maximize learning agility in the organization. Research of hundreds of academic articles, conversations with leading academics and consulting organizations taught me quickly that there is no agreement on what learning agility means, nor how to best develop it. Definitions overlap with other popular buzzwords like growth mindset, learning orientation or emotional intelligence. Measurements are inconsistent and yet to be validated.

Learning agility does not need to be overcomplicated. Simply, it’s about knowing what to do, when you do not know what to do. The real question is though, how do we help develop it. How do we equip people with dispositions, skills and mindsets to publicly acqnowledge lack of knowledge, inability to solve a problem, frustration with something they don’t understand? The knee jerk reaction would be to come up with yet another training program, but this is not the solution. Learning is finding out what you don’t know, or what you can’t do and struggling with it. Learning is how we respond to stuckness, disappointments or surprises, when they occur. It requires attending mindfully to each situation at hand, observing and modelling, taking risks, experimenting, failing and learning from the failures. In a nutshell, learning is tough, and frustrating. And it takes time to learn to learn.

We all acknowledge that real learning happens in real life, and not in a classroom, yet, we confuse learning with training. The stereotypical 70/20/10 formula (10% of learning happens through formal training, 20% through coaching and mentoring, and 70% on the job) has become a nice excuse for learning professionals to say that the only thing they can control is training and mentoring programs. L&D  functions are still structured to to help people how to learn some things better, and not how to become better learners. Since the key performance indicators are training hours delivered, feedback scores and budget saved, the focus is on popular “edutainment” classroom training that is  can be clearly timed and organized, enjoyed and budgeted.

So formal training still rules. In 2014, Japanese companies spent an estimated 500 BLN yen (USD 4.3 BLN) on external training, and if we count the cost of internally delivered education and the the cost of time employees spend in the classroom, the amount of money would easily exceed country’s spent on mandatory education. Unfortunately, much of the training feeds participants with outdated content that has not changed in the past fifteen years. They still teach what to look for, and not how to look or what to do when we don’t know what to look for. It promotes rigidity of thinking, passivity towards “experts” and compliance to “expertise”.  It confuses comprehension (ability to talk about something) with competence (ability to do it). And to quote Einstein, “insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”.

What this really calls for is a radical shift in focus in KPIs from programmatic events to slow, relentless, gradual seeding of culture change and habit change. It requires a shift of focus from when and what training is provided, to when and what learning happens. L&D functions need to shift their efforts from content expertise and formal program management to creating platforms and structures to enable people to learn from others, learn from (and in) action and learn from reflection.

The good news is that it’s actually cheaper than formal training. Learning from others can happen in and outside the company. Internally, simple things like creating regular information sharing and lunch-and-learn sessions, identifying and promoting “gurus” who have certain expertise and can teach or coach others, ensuring that managers hold regular 1:1 meetings with their staff and give feedback and coach can do wonders.

Google’s L&D has changed its focus from providing specific training to training employees on how to facilitate and coach others, and supporting volunteers who are willing to do that. Today, over 90% of all training provided is delivered by line employees. Internal coaching program has five distinct categories (management and leadership, career development, sales skills, expectant and new parents, team development and facilitator coaching). g2g (Googler-to-Googler peer-to-peer) program contribution is included in performance evaluation. Externally, the culture of learning from the user and crowd-sourcing programming is in the company’s DNA.

Facilitating learning from experience is also simpler than you may think. Internally, Google has a 20% project rule in place, which means that any employee who meets performance expectations can spend up to 20% of their time on voluntary projects in different teams or functions. “Bungee jumps” or rotations into another team are the direct manager’s discretions. Employees are also encouraged to learn outside through taking quarterly sabbaticals, voluntary work, or taking external courses.

Reflection is supported through an extensive focus on mindfulness. gPause program offers meditation sessions organized by volunteers at regular times. Line employees are qualified to deliver courses on managing your energy and mindfulness. Not to forget coaching, which managers are explicitly evaluated on in their annual upward feedback they receive from direct reports. Reflection on failures and successes is promoted through weekly TgIF (Thanks Google it’s Friday) sessions broadcast globally, and other regular town-hall and all hands meetings.

All these, and many other programs cost a fraction of the classroom training expenditure. They are self-sustainable, curated and delivered by employees. They develop a culture of sharing, modelling what works, giving and receiving feedback. They create engagement through enabling people to build friendships and informal mentoring relationships. And when an opportunity for learning happens, when one fails, struggles or is disappointed, they know how to who to ask for advice, or coaching. So in a nutshell, forget your training programs and focus on structures that help your employees learn from others, learn from experience and learn from action.

Contributed by:

Piotr Feliks Grzywacz | |

In my most recent corporate jobs, I was a learning and organisation development executive at Google and Morgan Stanley. I have over 15 years of experience in coaching senior executives and facilitating strategic organisational development interventions. My experience includes business partnering and relationship management, talent management, leadership development, innovation, change management and technical and functional competency development). I drove large-scale learning strategy and change management projects.

I never stop to learn. My education includes two Master degrees and a unfinished PhD in linguistics, three postgraduate degrees in management consulting, marketing & business administration, and public relations. I am working on my Doctorate of Business Administration in Management Consulting at Henley Business School, UK. I have several counselling and coaching certifications. I love learning languages, social studies, psychology, neuroscience, philosophy and business. I interested in many things, my hobbies range from cooking to shark diving. 

Originally from Poland, I have lived and worked in Germany, Belgium, Holland and Japan. For the past fifteen years I have worked in Asia and the rest of the globe.  

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This entry was posted on Friday, April 17th, 2015 at 11:59 am and is filed under Learning & Development. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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