THE BLOG
07/11/2013 06:52 pm ET | Updated Sep 10, 2013

The Most In-Demand 21st Century Business Skill: Learning Agility

Having a diverse skill set is vital in today's interconnected workforce environment, in which no one is working in a silo. Many people find themselves unexpectedly thrown into cross-functional positions because of a variety of elements, namely technology and globalization. These situations can be incredibly challenging for anyone, but they are especially difficult for those who may have been working in the same field and capacity for 20 or 30 years. Because they often overemphasize familiar approaches that have worked in the past, these workers tend to get stuck in their routines. They may even assume they already know everything they need to know, but many young professionals right out of college, who have grown up in a global, technologically-advanced world, possess something their elder counterparts may not - learning agility.

Learning agility is what happens when a lawyer is asked to maintain a robust social media presence or a financial professional is tapped to open a global office even with limited knowledge of the new country's economy or culture, and yet they overcome their lack of experience and discomfort and find a way to simply make it work.

Those who are learning agile know what to do when they don't know what to do. They know the questions to ask, the people to work with to find the answers they need and they are comfortable being uncomfortable. One of the most intimidating things college graduates face when entering their career is the first time they experience something unfamiliar in their chosen career path. Whether it is in the form of an unfamiliar process or protocol, a realization that textbook answers aren't available or something more in-depth, like an entirely foreign concept or a crisis situation, it can be utterly unnerving for a new worker. There are several responses to this situation. Employees may become paralyzed and unable to act/decide. They may become demoralized and lose the confidence that was generated by landing a good job after graduation. They may ignore the new challenge and respond with an approach with which they are familiar. Or, like the lawyer or the financial professional, they may recognize the learning opportunity, adapt themselves to the new situation and enhance their marketability by developing the skills needed to achieve the new task at hand.

While today's young people have grown up in the world of Google with answers at the tips of their fingers, not everyone possesses learning agility. The problem lies with the use and application of information - not its possession. It is something that college professors need to instill more and more in the classroom, as professionals are increasingly working outside of traditional job descriptions. This creates a unique teaching dilemma - how do you teach students how to ask the right questions and think critically? While some may believe these skills are infused at birth - you have them or you don't - the reality is that these skills can be learned. The only approach that works consistently, however, is the use of experience-based learning: putting students in a variety of unfamiliar situations, requiring them to apply the concepts they have discussed in class and assessing their reactions. It is notable that these simulations are less about the results, and more about how students react and what they learn from the situation. Did they ask helpful questions? Did they work cooperatively with their teammates and utilize everyone's perspectives? Did they leverage their strengths to their advantage? Did they show the drive to figure out the problem and then direct a plan of action?

Today's startup culture is forcing many professionals to become agile, when tech developers every day find themselves as CEOs learning how to run a new business as they go. Unfortunately, our education system often expects students to simply provide answers to the questions asked by professors. This underutilizes technology and ill prepares students for the reality of today's work environment. The solution is to make education less comfortable. Rather than postponing the inevitably uncomfortable situation of not knowing what to do in a work environment, students should seek out - and B-schools and professors should eagerly offer - business simulations, projects, applications and experiences that get students out of their comfort zones. We should show them how to find the answer when they may not even know what the question is. By doing so, we will teach them new skills that will make them more effective when the next big opportunity comes calling. The most important skill a graduate can have today is not coding, language ability or a photographic memory. It is learning agility. Be agile and opportunity will follow.