Creating the Agile Organization: The Role of Learning and Performance Management

Creating the Agile Organization: The Role of Learning and Performance Management

The following article was published by Bersin by Deloitte WhatWorks® Brief, September 2013.

“The word agility is on the lips of business executives throughout the world as they try to increase their employees’ and organizations’ ability to anticipate change and respond efficiently and effectively. However, many HR executives focus on inserting agility into existing HR processes. Creating the Agile Organization turns its focus on agility itself and asks the question: If agility is the goal, which HR processes should leaders focus on changing first to enable it? The answer: learning and performance management.

According to business executives, agile organizations have the following traits:1

  • Rapid decision-making and execution
  • A high-performance culture
  • The ability to access the right information at the right time

Creating the Agile Organization: The Role of Learning and Performance Management (available to Bersin by Deloitte WhatWorks® members) explains that, unfortunately, these are not traits commonly held in organizations. Slow decision-making, siloed information, and conflicting goals / priorities of different departments all represent barriers to agility.2 While these issues are significant, in some ways they are also superficial. In other words, there are deeper, more subtle challenges organizations face in attempting to become more agile. In fact, a major challenge is organizations are trying to move from a historicalmanagement approach that is highly structured and perceived as more safe to one that is less structured and perceived as more risky (see Figure 1).
Figure 1


There are numerous elements that go into enabling employees and leaders to behave in a more agile fashion—and many of these elements are outside the influence of HR. To that end, HR should first establish a strong collaboration with senior leaders focused on evolving the organization to a more agile model before making changes to processes. Without this agreement, efforts by HR to increase organizational agility are likely to be mostly futile. Assuming HR has this agreement, the question becomes, “Where should HR focus its efforts?” While many talent processes are important, our research indicates there are two levers of talent management that are at the core of agile behaviors: learning and performance management (see Figure 2).

Figure 2
These areas are of utmost importance because they have a substantial effect on individuals’ abilities to act in an agile fashion and to have appropriate incentives that encourage them to do so. Learning enables individuals to anticipate changes as a result of constantly enhancing their understanding of the organization, its markets, and future opportunities and challenges. Further, learning also enables individuals to respond effectively and efficiently to those opportunities and challenges, if that learning can occur in the moment and in response to specific needs. Performance management enables agility by establishing clear goals and reinforcing and rewarding those who respond effectively and efficiently. If performance management does not reinforce the importance of acting with agility but instead emphasizes following the historical plan, then employees will not perform in an agile fashion. Creating the Agile Organization explains where the concept of agility comes from, the traits of an agile organization, and the specific elements of learning and performance management that deserve the most focus. This paper concludes with the creation of the Bersin by Deloitte Agile Talent Management Manifesto (based loosely on the software development world’s Agile Manifesto) —a call to action to focus on the behaviors and approaches that encourage agility over a strict adherence to historical rules and methods.

1 Source: “Organisational agility: How business can survive and thrive in turbulent times.” Economist Intelligence Unit,
The Economist, March 2009,
2 Ibid.”

Written by Erik Marsh