Are you a ‘versatile learning animal’? What Google can teach us about learnability quotient (LQ)

By Clare Grist Taylor

In the era of ‘quotient creep’, the concept of 'learnability quotient' (LQ) is gaining traction.


Former Google CEO, Eric Schmidt, apparently asks himself one question before making any hiring decision: If he were stuck at an airport with the prospective employee, would they be able to hold an interesting conversation? 


We might expect that, at a tech behemoth like Google, senior executives might not take such a direct interest in hiring. Wrong. In their 2014 book How Google Works, Schmidt and his one-time colleague, Jonathan Rosenberg, tell us that, at Google, hiring and retaining the right talent is an absolute top priority. And the reason for this is that the company is powered by the people Schmidt and Rosenberg call “smart creatives”. 


These smart creatives are, unsurprisingly, the very model of employees designed for the age of agile: clever, creative, original and forward thinking; not afraid to try new things and fail; able to embrace rather than avoid flexibility, change and adaptation. And as for how to attract these multi-faceted self-iterators, here’s the rub: 


“Hire them not for the knowledge they possess, but for the things they don't yet know.”


Google’s preference for “versatile learning animals” speaks to an increasingly important way to future-proof our careers: constantly learning new things. Just as agile management techniques are no longer the sole preserve of Silicon Valley, so we could all benefit from the key characteristic of the smart creatives. In an era of quotient ‘creep’ (curiosity (CQ) or spirituality quotient (SQ), anyone?), the concept of LQ ­– learning or learnability quotient – is gaining traction. 


Bridging the gap

This move towards multiple intelligences undoubtedly reflects the fact that we’re operating in a complex and fast-moving world. IQ and EQ still provide the critical underpinning of rational intelligence and emotional awareness, but, increasingly, there’s a feeling that more might be needed to meet the challenges of the future. Developing learnability quotient (LQ) is an important step in bridging that gap. 


LQ refers to our desire and ability to quickly grow and adapt our skillsets throughout our working lives. Like those smart creatives, it’s not about what we already know, but about how quickly we can learn – and how readily we seek out opportunities for development. Like so much else, it’s about having that growth mindset to be open to the new, embrace change and take charge of our own career progression, whether we’re moving up or moving on. 


It’s also designed to give proper meaning to the much-misused phrase, ‘lifelong learning’. With all of us likely to live and work for longer, the need to adapt to change and acquire new skills means that individuals and organisations alike will have to do more than pay lip service to continuous skills development. 


Writing in Harvard Business Review, Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic and Mara Swan contrast the earliest principles of scientific management, designed for productivity through standardisation, with a contemporary work landscape that demands of workers exactly the opposite: “the capacity to keep learning and developing new skills and expertise, even if they are not obviously linked to one’s current job.” For employees today, employability “no longer depends on what they already know, but on what they are likely to learn”.


How to be develop learning agility

It’s a view shared by the Centre for Creative Leadership (CCL). Working with a team from Columbia University, their white paper, Learning About Learning Agility, concludes that “Ultimately, our ability to continuously learn and adapt will determine the extent to which we thrive in today’s turbulent times.” 


The research uses the phrase ‘learning agility’, defined as “a mind-set and corresponding collection of practices that allow leaders to continually develop, grow, and utilize new strategies that will equip them for the increasingly complex problems they face in their organizations.”


It identifies five key attributes of those with a high degree of learning agility, they are: 

  1. Innovative: unafraid to challenge the status quo.
  2. Calm: stoic in the face of difficulty.
  3. Reflective: take time to reflect regularly on their experiences.
  4. Open to challenge: and purposefully put themselves in challenging situations.
  5. Open-minded: and resisting the temptation to become defensive in the face of adversity.

CCL also recommends some tips we can all use to boost our learning agility:

1 Innovate

Rather than choose the first solution that comes to mind, we should challenge ourselves to come up with new solutions – the less traditional, the better. What’s holding us back? How would we behave if those constraints weren’t there? 


2 Perform

Under pressure, we often feel the urge to get things done quickly. But this can close us off both to the wisdom of others and our own experience. Inspiration often comes from the unconscious [LINK to focussed vs diffused]; being open to this can spark new ideas and strengthen performance. 


3 Reflect 

Learning occurs when we take the time to reflect, to shift our thinking beyond merely what happened to ask why things happened the way they did. 


4 Take Risks

Taking on new challenges allows us to develop new skills and perspectives that may become an important part of our repertoire in the future.


5 Don’t Defend

When we enter self-preservation mode and become defensive, we close ourselves off to what could be. Stay open to feedback. 


The obverse of this to think about our learning blockers, the things that get in the way of taking a learning approach or looking for learning opportunities.


Maybe our default is to stick to what we know; maybe we’re reluctant to move outside our comfort zone, or perhaps thinking about our own development goes out of the window when we’re busy. Being conscious and self-aware about what’s getting in the way is the first step to removing those barriers and to staying open to learning new things. 


Can we test for LQ?

If LQ or learning agility is so valuable, then might we be able to test for it, as we do for IQ?


Back in 2005, John Taylor and Adrian Furnham used a chapter in their book, Learning at Work to explore whether it’s possible to assess an individual’s ability to learn, creating an early model around the factors which influence LQ.


They identified three groups of learnability factors, comprising seven sub-categories:

  1. historical (social background; education; age)
  2. stability (cognitive ability; personality) and 
  3. motivational (self-esteem; motivation). 

By constructing a series of questions around these factors and plotting preferences against them, individual LQ patterns could be identified.  


While Taylor and Furnham were clear at the time that this work needed to be much more rigorously tested, it did open up two interesting ideas: that it is indeed possible to measure LQ, and that identifying individual LQ patterns and preferences creates the potential for us to develop our learnability through better self-awareness and a more intentional targeting of learning opportunities. 


The Columbia/CCL researchers also developed an assessment tool to measure their five learning agility facets, and looked at how high learning-agile individuals behave at work. By comparing responses from individuals who also took standard psychological tests around the ‘big five’ personality traits, they found that individuals who scored highly on the five learning attributes shared some interesting traits: high learning-agile individuals tended to be more social, creative, focused, and resilient. 


They were less interested in accommodating others and not afraid to challenge norms. It also seems that high learning-agile behaviours also matter to others: managers valued those who were less defensive and more open to feedback; peers and direct reports valued those who were more reflective and willing to change.


Identifying learning and personality types is not without its perils, nor are personality preferences fixed and rigid. But thinking about your own LQ gives us insight into where our current learning strengths might lie and where more development might be needed. We would also do well to reflect on how our ability to learn impacts on our effectiveness at work, as well as how good a ‘fit’ our current jobs are. 


Employers are increasingly under pressure to create cultures which provide meaningful ways for their people to learn different skills and adapt to new processes and technologies. Leaders will need to be more actively engaged in this than ever before. And while employers need to provide these cultures to be attractive to employees, individuals also need to look to continuous skills development to remain attractive to employers. 


Perhaps we all need to bear in mind some of Henry Ford’s many words of wisdom: "Anyone who stops learning is old, whether at 20 or 80. Anyone who keeps learning stays young". 


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