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Human Resources
Jul 2, 2018

Does Learning Agility Decline with Age?

Sponsored Content provided by Dave Hoff - Chief Operating Officer and Executive VP of Leadership Development, EASI Consult

You can’t teach an old dog new tricks. 

I don’t have the energy level at 65 years old that I had at 25. 

Are these cliches actually true? And, even if they are, what do they have to do with learning agility? 

Learning agility is finding yourself in a situation in which you have never been before, not knowing what to do and figuring it out.

There are nine dimensions to Learning Agility, as identified by Dr. Warner Burke, a professor and researcher at Teachers College, Columbia University:

1. Flexibility - Being open to new ideas and proposing new solutions.
2. Speed - Acting on ideas quickly to discard those that aren’t working and accelerate more promising possibilities.
3. Experimenting - Trying out new behaviors (i.e. approaches, ideas) to determine what is effective.
4. Performance Risk Taking - Seeking new activities (i.e., tasks, assignments, roles) that provide opportunities to be challenged.
5. Interpersonal Risk Taking - Confronting differences with others in a way that can generate unique opportunities for learning.
6. Collaborating - Finding ways to work with others that lead to unique learning opportunities.
7. Information Gathering - Using various methods to remain current in one’s area of expertise.
8. Feedback Seeking - Asking others for feedback on one’s ideas and overall performance.
9. Reflecting - Slowing down to evaluate one’s own performance in order to be more effective.
 
With that idiom about “old dogs” – does it mean the older you get, the less likely you are to be in a brand-new situation and have to figure out what to do? 

Speaking for myself – and I am over 65 years old – I have been in more than 100 new situations in the last five years in which I didn’t know what to do and then, figured it out. My wife and I moved to a new city (Wilmington), where we didn’t know a soul (Flexibility). I established my business in Wilmington and greater North Carolina. (Performance Risk Taking). We found and bought a house (Information Gathering).

Initially, all we knew were general areas here in town.  (Flexibility). We joined and did things with the Newcomers and Men’s clubs (Interpersonal Risk Taking and Collaborating). We had to think about the different input we were getting from people and determine what made the most sense for us (Reflecting).  Sometimes we  asked other people for their opinion (Feedback Seeking). 

What we did not do a lot of were Experimenting or demonstrating Speed. There may be some instances where Speed is called upon less often based on age. There are instances in which I can call on Speed as a capability, but not as often as other learning agility dimensions.

The other statement that I mentioned in the opening of this article had to do with energy. If you think of energy, motivation or drive, the overall capacity tends to decline somewhat over time, but the fire, desire and passion are all still there. My stamina or ability to draw on that motivation is not as limitless as it once seemed; it needs to be recharged more often. 

Does that mean that learning agility declines with age? Absolutely not. Like with any of our other work, in God we trust and all others bring data. Our information is anecdotal. We would need a longitudinal study in which we measured learning agility a T1 (25 years of age) and again at T2 (65 years of age)  to see if those scores have changed. If someone had been working on certain dimensions, you would expect those scores to increase over time.
If the person did nothing over the 40 years, you would expect they would stay about the same but not decline. 

Other aspects of our being, like cognitive ability and personality, are fixed earlier in life and tend to be stable over a lifetime. Cognitive ability, or Intelligence Quotient (IQ), tends to be fixed by the age of 6 and remains pretty stable for the rest of a person’s life. Similarly, personality – as measured by an accepted test, like the Jackson or Hogan Personality Test – sees personality as pretty much determined by age 14. It then tends to be stable over the rest of a person’s life. 

To summarize, intelligence and personality are established relatively early in life and don’t change much over the rest of a person’s life. Learning agility is also something a person begins to learn early in life and doesn’t decline over time… but it can also be increased. 

Everyone needs a certain amount of learning ability (smarts) but after that minimum or threshold, greater intelligence does not increase learning agility. The other thing that affects learning agility is motivation. How important is it for you to put yourself in new situations in which you don’t know what to do and figure it out?

For some people that drive or passion never decreases with time. For others, there is a decrease in learning agility’s importance in a person’s life. That person’s capability in a particular dimension will likely not decrease.

It is like a muscle – if you choose not to use it, it is still there but will be more difficult to access. Maintaining or increasing one’s level of learning agility is a choice and not an inevitable function of chronological age.

EASI•Consult® works with Fortune 500 companies, government agencies, and mid-sized corporations to provide customized Talent Management solutions. EASI•Consult’s specialties include leadership assessment, online pre-employment testing, survey research, competency modeling, leadership development, executive coaching, 360-degree feedback, online structured interviews, and EEO hiring compliance. The company is a leader in the field of providing accurate information about people through professional assessment. To learn more about EASI•Consult, visit www.easiconsult.com, email [email protected] or call (800) 922-EASI.

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