What does it mean to have an ‘agile learning culture’?

Learning and development has changed drastically over the past several years. So, what will...

Words by Kieran Howells

On May 12, 2022, a group of HR decision-makers attended a virtual roundtable, hosted by HR Grapevine, in partnership with Hemsley Fraser, to discuss the elements that contribute to creating an agile learning culture within a business. It was chaired by Daniel Morgan, Chief Marketing Officer at learning and development service provider Hemsley Fraser, and Duncan Barrett, the Head of Product at learning and comms platform 5App. The group first discussed the top line findings from Hemsley Fraser’s recent learning and development (L&D) research report, ‘From reactivity to agility – pivoting L&D into a post-pandemic world’. Some of the key points covered in the research included:

  • 82% of respondents were actively participating in hybrid working
  • Both virtual and blended working were the dominant working models in the UK
  • Talent retention, acquisition and onboarding were ranked among the top issues facing most businesses currently
  • When asked what learning innovations respondents wanted to see, ‘soft skills’ development was ranked at number one.

Morgan explained that the majority of businesses are investing in both virtual and blended solutions for the modern hybrid workforce. However, as Barrett noted, the complexities of each organisation’s specific needs led the pair to conclude that no one-size-fits-all approach exists for those looking to ‘level up’ in learning and development.

“Pre-Covid-19, we had a formal learning culture, so convincing stakeholders that an agile learning culture was a huge benefit for us moving forward has been a real challenge”


Focussing on ‘soft skills’

The group initially launched into a conversation around agility – an area that many were seemingly struggling to align with overall business goals. This is especially poignant given the rise in prominence of ‘soft skills’ in the workforce, which can typically include things such as interpersonal and communicative skills. A massive 93% of HR leaders believe these are ‘essential’ skills, according to a study from Deloitte. Seemingly, accelerating L&D opportunities for workers in a fast-paced business environment, where many operate in hybrid work settings and ‘soft skills’ draw focus, is a key challenge that L&D specialists are faced with.

One attendee noted that they had bucked the trend by returning to classroom-based learning, whilst integrating digitised options for those who attend remotely. However, they noted that this format was particularly challenging. “I massively struggled to keep both in-person attendees and digital attendees engaged,” they said.

This sentiment was echoed across the group, many of whom were struggling to ensure that post-Covid-19 activities were truly effective, and delivered what employees needed. Yet as Morgan noted, in many ways the ‘reset’ at the hands of the coronavirus pandemic presented an opportunity to build back better, and create processes that truly work for the modern workforce.

In-person versus digital learning

One attendee noted that the majority of their learning did not take place within the confines of a classroom setting, either in person or digitally. Instead, to meet the agility piece and focus on ‘soft skills’, they opted to regularly send soft-skill-focussed, non-time-sensitive learning opportunities in the form of videos and articles to staff, to read and watch whenever they felt that they had the time to digest them.


“I massively struggled to keep both in-person attendees and digital attendees engaged”

‘Agile learning culture’

The conversation then shifted to creating a true ‘agile learning culture’. As Morgan and Barrett noted, L&D is only truly effective when it’s considered a vital part of any organisation’s culture. This often means the onus is on HR to convince stakeholders to, as one attendee noted, ‘go on the journey with HR’ to create an agile learning culture. “Pre-Covid-19, we had a formal learning culture, so convincing stakeholders that an agile learning culture was a huge benefit for us moving forward has been a real challenge,” the attendee noted.

Elsewhere, another attendee noted that the solution in their own organisation has been to link learning and development to the personal stories of employees, as a way to garner buy-in across the business. “We have a really strong culture, and when you can link the stories that individuals are telling, incentivise stakeholders to share their stories, then we get to a point where learning is more visible and we can start to link that to harder business outcomes,” they said.

Thinking about the ‘how’

The group concluded by talking about the role of purpose within agile learning. As many noted, delivering effective resources in any form may not be effective, if not driven by purpose. “If we’re very clear on what the purpose of what we’re doing is, the ‘how’ of delivering it can flex and change,” one attendee noted. “If we’re really clear on why we’re doing this, and the desired outcome, then the delivery can be a lot more fluid and agile,” they added.

Hemsley Fraser started as a public training course provider in 1991, quickly becoming one of the largest training providers in the UK. Today, they operate in more than 90 countries, and nearly as many languages, with a vast global supply chain of industry experts at their disposal.

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