From Training to Agile Learning Support

In March of 2020, millions of Germans encountered agile learning for the first time. Because of the Covid19 pandemic, they set up their home offices and learned to participate in meetings and conferences virtually. Only a few were familiar with video conferencing tools. Within a few days, they learned how to use the technology on their own. They searched the internet for explanatory videos and online articles, sought help from colleagues by phone and scouted internet forums. This meant that employees had not only arrived in virtual, digital work – but also in agile learning. Although often unaccompanied and with a “bumpy start”.

Such “unplanned” learning needs are becoming more and more frequent. In the dynamic and agile world of companies, employees often need ad-hoc knowledge. Dynamic market developments, changing customer demands, and new technologies require companies to change quickly. Employees are therefore constantly faced with new, previously unknown challenges – for which they need new knowledge quickly, flexibly, individually, and precisely. They learn at the “moment of need” and acquire competence in order to continue working on a task or solve a problem – for example through explanatory videos, online courses, forums, or via chat exchange. This is usually called agile learning. Learners best identify the need themselves, and they know what exactly they need. This is becoming more and more accepted by companies. In the organization and leadership, principles of personal responsibility, empowerment and eye level have long been anchored. This is also reflected in learning.

However, agile learning does not mean that the training planned in the long term by human resource developers loses its importance completely. Planned competence development through broad qualification measures will continue to be necessary. Agile, strongly self-directed and independent learning always makes sense when the company or individual departments move in highly dynamic contexts. In classic areas such as production or accounting, on the other hand, companies tend to rely on controlled qualification programs.

New learning formats, especially digital ones, have made learning and competence building more diverse and colorful. The pedagogical toolbox of successful trainers is bigger than ever. But this does not mean that learning is automatically more efficient today. One example: digital and self-directed learning helps to solve simple problems quickly. For example, employees can use explanatory videos to learn how to use a software solution for video conferencing correctly. However, lessons such as How to negotiate professionally online, for example, cannot be taught through eLearning alone. More is needed, such as face-to-face or online training adapted to the previous knowledge of the participants with practice opportunities and qualified feedback. The same was true in March of 2020 when the home office world was launched. Before virtual meetings could run smoothly, many attempts were taken and many failed too. An agile learning facilitator could assist the employees as a learning coach, and he could act as a learning designer and develop a tutorial with effective learning processes.

Agile learning facilitation supports learners to reach their (learning) goal more efficiently. “Agile” in this context emphasizes that the facilitator is agile (as opposed to long-term planned training). The agile facilitator reacts quickly to emerging needs. He draws from the rich set of learning formats (from classic training in the seminar room to self-directed communities). He uses them to design effective learning processes that are adapted to the current needs. In addition, as a learning coach, he accompanies the learners and supports them individually in building up the competences they need to cope with their specific tasks.

For learning coaches, the focus is on efficiency. On the one hand it is about performance orientation, on the other hand it is about the relevance of knowledge, both central concepts in agile learning support. An example of performance orientation: An employee needs new competences to quickly implement the requirements of a customer. The first question is about performance: What exactly does the employee need this knowledge for? Where exactly is the challenge? What is the purpose of the new competencies? What is the performance goal? Many learners find it difficult to describe the personal challenge they are currently facing. A learning facilitator in the role of a learning coach could help to clarify the performance goal in this situation.

The performance goal leads to the question of which content is helpful. It is about their relevance: Which learning solution is suitable to solve the problem and master the task? This means, for example, in digital learning: which online course really fits the learner’s existing knowledge and mental structure This ensures that the learner does not have to work his way through what he has known for a long time, that he is not overwhelmed by incomprehensible knowledge or that he does not find answers to his specific questions.

Performance orientation and the relevance of content are the first step towards learning success. Learned factual knowledge must become action knowledge. It must arrive sustainably at the workplace. Watching an instructional video is often not enough for this. The knowledge remains “grey theory” and does not find its way into practice; the learner does not implement it in his daily activities and does not turn it into a real competence.

Absorbing knowledge is only one stage when acquiring new competences. Other stages follow; we speak of a learning loop. After learning, the learner tries out the new knowledge. He receives feedback, for example from colleagues, managers or learning guides. Then he improves himself and his work. The learning loop thus leads from the “learning” stage to the “trying out” and “feedback” stages and finally to the “optimization” stage. The more learning loops there are in a learning process, and the more sustainable it becomes, results in the knowledge becoming a competence and is directly transferred into practice.

The problem: If one stage in this loop is missing, the learner gets stuck in the learning process. If he does not receive feedback, for example, he does not feel encouraged and cannot improve. Specialized formats are available for the different stages in this learning loop. Mentoring or peer counselling, for example, can help with feedback. “Do & Reflect” approaches help with the initial implementation of knowledge, practical tasks with future optimization. It is crucial that the framework conditions in the company are geared towards these agile learning processes. Not only the resources and the technology must enable successful learning loops, but also the leadership (feedback from managers), the learning culture, and the strategy of the company.

Successful learning loops often combine fundamentally different learning formats that enable different types of learning in the sense of “blended learning”: “guided and self-directed learning, formal learning and informal learning.

  • Formal-directed formats such as online and face-to-face training sessions. The learner tries out new things under the guidance of a trainer in a protected space and receives feedback.
  • Formal self-paced formats such as learning videos, web-based training or online courses are excellent for learning factual knowledge. The learner follows a learning program, but organizes his learning process himself. Formats such as serious games or augmented reality also belong to this group.
  • Informal-led formats for structured exchange of experience, such as bar camps or collegial consultation. The exchange is guided; however, the responsibility for learning lies with the learners themselves. This also includes formats such as Q&A sessions or daily feedbacks.
  • Informal-self-directed formats, such as exchange in networks, communities of practice or independent search for information via the internet. Trainers are not involved

The opportunity for agile learning lies in a skilful combination of the diverse formats, in the strong performance orientation and in the professionally designed learning loops. All this brings changes for L&D managers as well as for trainers in particular. As far as trainers are concerned: in the concert of different learning formats, classical training in the seminar room continues to play a role, but it is making room for many new formats. Measured in terms of the overall scope of continuing education, classic training will continue to fade into the background. It no longer forms the backbone of continuing education, but is “only” one element in it. Many long-standing trainers are therefore developing into agile learning facilitators. Quite a few experts see the transformation as the future of the coaching profession – although it is not just about new tasks, but about completely new roles. For example:

The classic role of the trainer. The trainer supports online or offline learning and practicing of new skills. In the role of the face-to-face trainer, he also uses methods such as training on the job or shadowing and conducts exchange formats such as the bar camp. Important: Modern trainers can work both digitally and analogue in the seminar room.

The role of the learning video designer. The learning video is the modern flipchart. Creating these learning videos in a way that is suitable for learning is now part of the tools of the trade that every trainer should master (just as moderation writing once was).

The role of the learning coach. Together with the learner, he identifies learning needs and accompanies him as a sparring partner. What is the reason why new competences are needed to improve performance? Which knowledge and which learning formats are relevant to successfully implement learning loops? Which learning paths are suitable for the individual learner? How can he be supported and by whom?

The role of the cultural developer. Learning needs a climate in the organization that is conducive to learning. This ranges from a time budget for learning, trust and an open feedback culture to active support from managers and other stakeholders.

The role of the learning designer. The learning designer combines the different learning formats in such a way that their respective strengths are utilized and weaknesses compensated for – creating an optimal learning process with learning loops. A learning design shows which learning formats are combined and interlinked within a learning process for which contents and with which learning objective. Depending on the target group, the topic and the organizational framework conditions, learning designs can be very different.

This transformation to an agile learning facilitator demands a lot from trainers. In the past, they were the main actor, expert and anchor point in the learning process. They knew what learners needed. Today, the learners themselves are on stage. They know their knowledge needs and they want to learn efficiently and flexibly. The trainer stands on the sidelines and becomes a companion, occasionally a supporting actor. This transformation may be painful for classically minded trainers – especially since it forces many to acquire new competences themselves and prepare for the different roles. But the goal of their work is basically not changing. The learning pathways become more diverse. But their purpose – to make learning possible – remains independent of new formats and media.


Dr. Jürgen Sammet
Dr. Sammet & Wolf