We’ve all heard phrases like “You’re not studying for school, you’re learning for life” when we were young. The usual response is eye-rolling or plain incomprehension—and as soon as we’re out of school, we just think “YES, no more studying!”

For most youngsters, studying has a negative connotation, probably both due to the educational system itself as well as the fact that free time and other things seem so much more important at that time, or because of exam anxiety. As a matter of fact, many students don’t really know why they need to study certain subjects. And telling them that they are “learning for life” is just too abstract at that age.


New challenges, lifelong learning

In the working world we soon realize that studying and learning will never stop. Yet, one thing usually changes: by then, most of us are glad that’s how things work. In a work environment, continuous learning is a must due to the fast pace and volatility which characterize current times. Employees even expect training opportunities and to learn new things on the job. Our own skills give us job security and, therefore, need to be nurtured and further developed.

Accordingly, the World Economic Forum states in its Future of Jobs Report: „A mindset of agile learning will also be needed on the part of workers as they shift from the routines and limits of today’s jobs to new, previously unimagined futures.“ The term “agile learning” is of special interest here.


Agile learning to counter constant change

Fast-changing (agile) conditions in today’s work world affect all workers and require constant training. According to a 2018 survey by German business network XING (text is German only), 57% of the sample specified that the training opportunities offered by their company did not sufficiently prepare them for the challenges which emerge  from the progress of digitalization.

Now, the question is: Is it the leaders or the employees who are responsible for continuous learning and training?


Let’s take a look at some principles from the Agile Manifesto and the derived principles of agile learning (which Nele Graf, Denise Gramß and Frank Edelkraut describe in their book “Agile Learning”), in order to answer this question:


Extracts of the agile principles from the Agile Manifesto Derived principles of agile learning
Our highest priority is to satisfy the customer through early and continuous delivery of valuable software. Our highest priority is to provide an individual offer for successful learning through “learning on demand.”
We deliver products regularly, preferably in short cycles. Learning is an ongoing process that takes place in the form of microlearning and is reflected upon in an iterative manner. 
All parts of an organization work together. Learning is designed and realized as a multidisciplinary process. 
Build teams around motivated individuals. Give them the resources and support they need, and trust them to get the job done. Peer groups are built around motivated individuals to create the necessary framework that allows the learners to act autonomously.
Working products is the primary measure of progress. Reaching learning objectives is the primary measure of progress.
The best results emerge from self-organizing teams. Social learning, or learning in self-organizing peer groups, yields the best results.
At regular intervals, the team reflects on how to become more effective, then tunes and adjusts its behavior accordingly. At regular intervals, the peer groups reflect on how to become more effective, then tune and adjust their behavior accordingly. [unchanged]


Self-responsibility and self-organization

Just like in agile software development, the two main pillars of agile learning are self-responsibility and self-organization. First, learning objectives are defined in order to learn the right things while maintaining the freedom of self-organization. Social learning in peer groups supports and boosts the learning success.

In a nutshell, agile learning is based on 

  • self-responsibility, 
  • self-organization, 
  • networks,
  • digital learning (“learning on demand“) and
  • individualization.


So, who is responsible for lifelong learning in companies then? The diplomatic answer is: leaders and employees share this responsibility. Whereas leaders need to create the framework for agile learning, employees contribute by acting proactively and bringing the principles to life.


Tips for an agile learning culture

Here’s a handful of practical tips for leaders who want to implement and foster an agile learning culture in their team or company:

  • Allocate a training budget for every team member
  • Delegate the responsibility for their budget to your team members
  • Grant every team member training time
  • Trust your team members to learn the right things
  • Foster and help shape social exchange in the learning process
  • Act as a learning and training coach
  • Be a role model and ambassador for this (agile) learning culture


As a leader, how do you foster lifelong learning in your team? As an employee, do you reckon the training offer in your company prepares you for future challenges?