4 Develop and Foster Agile Learners – The Upskilling Imperative: 5 Ways to Make Learning Core to the Way We Work


Develop and Foster Agile Learners

When the key skill for the modern worker is continuous learning, your entire organization needs access to it. That’s why the most important tenet of a learning culture is that access to learning should be democratized throughout the organization. There can’t be a hierarchy or gatekeeper for who gets to learn.

If organizations expect individuals to commit to developing their growth mindsets and becoming agile learners, management must hold up its end of the deal by creating an environment of freedom, opportunity, and love of learning. Everyone has a part to play in making the culture grow and thrive, and so all employees should also be entitled to avail themselves of all your learning resources.

Learning also must be disassociated from the retribution/reward reputation it has previously had. Continuous learning is core to all jobs now and requires agility.

What It Means to Be an Agile Learner

When I give talks on agile learning, I start by reminding people that their college graduation was referred to as a commencement. As a former schoolteacher, I love the idea that we’re celebrating a new beginning, not marking a finale. To me, nothing better reflects the idea of continuous learning than that. You may be moving from classroom to office, but you’re certainly not done with learning.

Then, I show my audience the graphic in Figure 4.1.

FIGURE 4.1 Can a marketer afford to stop learning?

Even with an educational pedigree that includes Berkeley and Harvard, someone who completed his or her MBA in 1992 never learned anything about today’s most commonly used marketing technologies. And don’t feel smug if you’re a more recent grad; the top curve will keep traveling up and to the right while your formal education gets more and more dated. In 2018, the World Economic Forum estimated that, by 2022, 27 percent of all roles will be jobs that don’t exist yet.1

Rest assured, your existing job is going to change as well. Hence, the upskilling imperative.

Learning agility doesn’t have anything to do with how good or bad your grades were in school. It simply means being able to figure things out when you’re confronted with an unfamiliar situation or problem. On the organizational level, it means operating in a way that empowers employees to access learning 67resources in their moment of need, even as those needs change and evolve, and then letting people engage with learning when, where, and how they prefer.

Modern Elders Need to Learn, Too

I was fortunate enough to share the stage with Chip Conley during one of my learning agility presentations, and his story brings to life the concept of agile learning in a relevant way.

At age 52, Chip was already a successful entrepreneur in the hospitality industry when he got a call from the much younger CEO of Airbnb, Brian Chesky, asking him to join their team and help guide their growth. Despite his greater years of experience, Chip quickly saw he had as much to learn from Chesky as the Airbnb CEO had to learn from him. Maybe more.

Long story short, Chip was inspired to launch what he’s dubbed the Modern Elder movement to evangelize learning agility across the generations and proactively bring colleagues of different ages together to share their knowledge.2 Some call this a mutual mentorship. Either way, it gets to the heart of what’s possible when we lower barriers and open up to learning from each other.

You don’t need a formal mentorship program in place, however, to promote learning agility. You just need to socialize the following three questions among your employees and have them ask themselves regularly where their needs and opportunities lie.

1. What have I learned before?

2. What did I learn today?

3. What do I need to learn next?

These three questions bring a level of discipline to our thinking around learning that allows us to reflect and internalize what’s happening. When we ask, “What have we learned before?,” we’re not expecting to dig back to kindergarten. Instead, in this context, we aim to connect knowledge and expertise employees gained previously to the work they’re engaged in now or are about to embark on. Get them thinking about past projects that are relatable and how prior experiences can inform current work and make it better.

“What have I learned today?” asks employees to take stock of the moment and to draw learning from both the hits and the misses. Here, we want to help people recognize minipivots they can take to get back on track without having to completely change course. More important, it encourages regular introspection to ensure employees are finding ways to get the most out of their workday and not moving through it in zombie mode.

“What should I learn next?” is a little more complicated. People might get hung up on that final question, and there are plenty of ways the L&D team can guide them to possible answers.

Hard Skills? Soft Skills? Who Knows?!?

Let’s get to my last question for driving learning agility: what to learn next.

When it comes to hard skills, individuals and managers know what they need better than anyone sitting in L&D or HR. Functional leaders watch what’s happening in their fields 70and anticipate which tools and technologies their teams have to get to know. Most engineers read industry news to stay abreast of new programming languages and frameworks. Designers can’t fall behind when Adobe changes or adds new tools to Photoshop. Marketers know it’s on them to master the latest flavor of email automation. The role of L&D is to provide access and guide the conversation.

But when it comes to connecting employees to soft skills, regardless of their department or years of experience, the L&D team can really shine. Most people have outdated ideas about soft skills, a.k.a. “human” or “people” skills. These are skills like creativity, leadership, relationship building, giving and receiving feedback, managing teams, and so on. It may seem logical to conclude that you’re either born good at this stuff or you’re not. Fortunately, this idea has been debunked. Carol Dweck’s work on growth mindset uncovers that we can improve in all soft skills if we put in the effort and work through our struggles.

The bigger issues when it comes to improving soft skills are that we’re not as self-aware as we believe, and we don’t always receive the kind of honest, constructive feedback that would give us a clear and accurate assessment of our own soft skills. We don’t know we need to work on them, or we don’t know they’re even teachable skills in the first place. L&D can do more to help managers identify opportunities to build their own soft skills and those of their direct reports.

Laying the Foundation for Continuous Learning

We deliberately devised our slate of courses and workshops to get people thinking about their work through the lens of learning and growth. That starts by training managers to be coaches. And because we teach all employees, but particularly managers, how to give and receive feedback, our managers are equipped with the knowledge and skills to steer those conversations with empathy and good intentions.

Navigate and Coach

An enormous part of a culture of learning is turning managers into coaches and guiding them through the conversations that will entail. At Udemy we double down on both learning opportunities and potential.

To this end, we have made a point of offering two distinct learning opportunities: the Udemy Coach and Career Navigator workshops.

We believe in two overarching leadership philosophies that work together—servant leadership and foundational coaching. A big part of a manager’s role is to be in service to his or her team to enhance and level up performance, and that’s best achieved through coaching. In the Udemy Coach workshop, we work on eliminating directive and prescriptive approaches, which don’t leave room for employee exploration, innovation, and learning, and share coaching methodologies that, instead, help managers bring out the best in their direct reports. Said another way, we help managers empower their teams to grow without telling them exactly what they “should” be doing.

In the Career Navigator workshop, managers learn how to have meaningful career conversations with their employees by reflecting on peak career experiences. Through these conversations, employees better understand what gives them satisfaction, what brings out their best work, and what opportunities are open to them. This workshop is designed to turn every manager into a top-notch career coach, able to partner with employees to help them accelerate their career progression. We deliberately named it Career Navigator because it’s less about identifying specific job functions and titles and more about exploring the many directions a modern career path can take.


Next, you need to give people time to learn. Short for “Drop Everything And Learn,” the DEAL Hour designates a specific time when literally everyone in the company stops whatever they’re doing for a learning activity. At Udemy, that typically means spending an hour engaged with any of the courses in our online marketplace, but the L&D team also picks a handful of courses that people can sign up to take together and discuss among themselves. These groups may stay in touch afterward to track how people are applying what they 73learned and to ask any follow-up questions. They usually have great ideas for the next courses they want to take, too.

One hour a month doesn’t sound like a lot, but it’s a launching pad to more learning time and a bit of a forced reminder for anyone who hasn’t logged into the learning platform for a while. We definitely see increased learning activity after DEAL Hour, as people continue what they started. And that’s the message we want to send, whether there’s a DEAL Hour in sight or not.