Learning Agility and the ‘Drive’ to Learn

Jan 2011
Issue 12


With St. Charles Consulting Group clients, we say that we build learning agility. “We enhance an organization’s ability to learn and adapt to rapidly changing circumstances and to thrive in the current business environment.” Our clear focus is on agility because – in this day and age – if individuals or organizations are not agile, they are likely to be left behind.

From a management standpoint, this begs the question, “If agility is so important to business success, how can we encourage members of our workforce to become more agile?” And our contention is: Make them better learners … by nourishing their natural drive to learn.

n an article in CLO Magazine called, “Agile Learning: Thriving in the New Normal” (see link below), Timothy Clark and Conrad Gottfredson suggest that five conditions need to be present for enhanced organizational agility:

  1. Intelligence Function – “the process for gathering, integrating and interpreting intelligence from a variety of domains.”
  1. Learning Mindset – the prevalence of “dynamic learning” – “rapid, adaptive, collaborative and self-directed learning at the moment of need.”
  1. Leadership Behavior – leaders who “model patterns of high-performance learning.”
  1. Organizational Support – an open organization that provides information in ways that support different kinds of learning needs.
  1. Learning Technology – tools that allow for optimal learning to occur – especially those that facilitate informal learning through such modes as performance support, social networking, and flexible content management.

This agile learning framework is solid, and we agree with all components. In the mix of elements, however, the concept that stands out for us is that of “self-directed learning.” In our view, if you have a workforce of self-directed learners, your problems will solve themselves. These “free range” learners will figure out ways to get what they need, and relevant processes and systems will quickly evolve to support them.

The ‘Drive’ to Learn

So, great. Make them better learners. And exactly how do you make that happen? Issue a new policy? Build learning adeptness into the competency model and performance management system? Throw some more SharePoint into the enterprise?

We believe the answer is more systemic than any of those actions, singly or together. For our approach to an answer, we turn to Daniel Pink and his newest book, Drive: The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us.

In a nutshell, Pink contends that our prevailing systems for motivating people (what he calls Motivation 2.0) that rely on “carrots and sticks” are insufficient for our current times. Instead, organizations need to recognize the power of intrinsic motivation in people and to provide an environment that nurtures it. “The innate capacity for self-direction is at the heart of Motivation 3.0.” Motivation 3.0 is characterized as an environment that provides and encourages: autonomy, mastery, and a sense of purpose – an environment where the joy of the work is “its own reward.”

In his Motivation 3.0 toolkit for organizations, Pink offers nine ideas on how to improve:

  1. Try “20 percent time” (with training wheels) – encourage employees to spend 20% of their time working on any project they want.
  2. Encourage peer-to-peer “now that” rewards – empower every person at any time to give $50 to a colleague when they see something exceptional being done.
  3. Conduct an autonomy audit – assess the amount of freedom that your people have.
  4. Take three steps to giving up control – involve people in goal setting, use non-controlling language, and hold office hours.
  5. Play “whose purpose is it anyway” – ask people to answer the question, “What is our organization’s purpose?” and assess the alignment.
  6. Use Reich’s* pronoun test – do employees refer to the company as “they” or “we.” (*Former U.S. labor secretary Robert B. Reich)
  7. Design for intrinsic motivation – create an environment that makes people feel good about being there.
  8. Promote Goldilocks for groups – develop job responsibilities that are “just right”—not too easy and not too hard.
  9. Turn your next off-site into a FedEx Day – devote a day when employees can do anything they want, however and with whomever they’d like. The only requirement is that each person/group needs to “deliver” something at the end of the day – a new idea, a new product prototype, or a new business process.

Interested in creating more agile learners? Then rethink the way that you are motivating your people. Challenging times call for learning-edge thinking and bold, innovative action.


Timothy R. Clark, Conrad A. Gottfredson, “Agile Learning: Thriving in the New Normal,” CLO Magazine(December 2009).

Daniel H. Pink, Drive: The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us, Riverhead Books (2009).

Next month

Leading Globally: What’s it Going to Take to Be Successful?

In 2007, The World Bank forecasted that “global trade in goods and services could rise more than threefold to $27 trillion in 2030. Nearly half of the increase is likely to come from developing countries – countries that only two decades ago provided 14 percent of manufactured imports of rich countries; today supply 40 percent and by 2030 are likely to supply more than 65 percent.” Globalization is making our world smaller and organizations wishing to keep pace with the competition are challenged to produce successful global leaders. So, what is a global leader, and what does it take to lead in a global environment? Next month we take a look at what it takes to lead globally and what organizations can do to identify and develop enterprising global leaders.