Tuesday, March 14, 2017

You say agile and I say agility

Rachel Burnham writes: Last week I had the pleasure of participating in a CIPD Manchester session, in which Andy Lancaster, Head of L&D Content for CIPD spoke on the topic of ‘Delivering Agile Learning: 10 Quick Wins to Support Business Needs at Pace’. Andy spoke about the pace of change plus the range of changes impacting on our organisations, as a prelude to getting us to think about ‘How agile our L&D functions are?’  He then went onto to set out 10 points to enable L&D to be more agile.   I created a Sketchnote to capture the key points from this session and also recorded a short video, using Snapchat, on the event (see under #agileld on Twitter).

Whilst the event was still going on, over on the backchannel on Twitter under the #agileld, a debate was going on fired by the question posed by Paul Duxbury who asked

Is "agile learning" another buzzphrase set to confuse? Do we actually mean applying agile design principles? Genuine Q.’

This question was then picked up and discussed by a number of other Twitterers who explored whether what was being discussed was agile design or something broader, possibly agility within L&D, but also whether this was a muddling use of language.

I confess to having missed this debate during the session, as it would have been good to put this question to Andy.  Whilst I do multi-task – participating in the session, Sketchnoting and recording a Snapchat – are more than enough for me and so I didn’t get to read this debate on the backchannel until after the event.  But afterwards it got me thinking.

What had the session focused on?  And what is in a name – agile design or agility in L&D?   Does it really matter or are we splitting hairs?  It’s almost a cue for a song – a Gershwin song for Fred & Ginger rewritten for the modern era.
My understanding is that agile development  is an approach that was developed in the field of software development as a more effective alternative to a traditional planning heavy led approach, which is often referred to as the waterfall approach. Agile development is an approach that is particularly suitable to complex projects where it can be difficult to specify all the elements at the outset. This approach is now being adopted in other design fields, including in the design of L&D programmes.   Here are a couple of useful introductions to this approach:

So agile development and design, refer to some specific approaches to design, such as focusing on business needs, involving clients throughout the process, creating minimal viable products and multiple iterations.  Looking again at what Andy Lancaster presented in the session, he touches on this in points 1, 2 and 3 of his tips, but then goes broader to suggest a range of other steps.  I think a wider approach than agile design is being explored – it is more about the agility of the L&D team or even our overall responsiveness. 

Owen Ferguson argues in his piece '(Fr)agile' that we are misusing the term ‘agile’ by broadening it out in such away and by doing so run the risk of losing the more specific insights from the agile development field.  

Already I’m hearing L&Ders talking not just of agile L&D, which I understand is the need for the function to work with agility, but I also hear people referring to agile learning, agile learners and agile leaders.  This is definitely a broadening out and a unhelpful fuzzying of language.

There is a risk that in using ‘agile’ in this broad way, some people will misunderstand and over-simplify what is meant by agile and the genuine insights for the design of L&D from agile will be lost.

I think the 10 quick wins set out within the session by Andy Lancaster are all worthy steps for an L&D team to consider – for me it is about responsiveness and about a modern approach to learning that makes effective use of digital technology and the understanding of how people are tackling the everyday challenges they face in their work.  And agile design principles can play a part in helping L&D professionals to achieve this. But let’s keep them distinct and separate.

Rachel Burnham


Burnham L & D Consultancy helps L&D professionals update and refresh their skills.  I am particularly interested in blended learning, the use of digital skills for learning, evaluation and anything that improves the impact of learning on performance. 

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