Not Just for Software: How Agile Learning is Transforming L&D

Shelley Osborne

Head of Learning and Development, Udemy

July 11, 2019

As digital transformation impacts every industry, access to skilled workers is one of the key differentiators of successful companies. For learning and development (L&D) leaders, this digital skills crisis requires a fundamental shift in the way we train and develop our people. 

The traditional waterfall approach to organizational L&D—define, design, deliver—is too slow to implement and doesn’t account for the changing nature of work. L&D leaders must channel an agile approach and modernize their solutions to manage constant disruption and deliver learning and development at the speed of business. In a recent webinar, I shared how we approach agile at Udemy and was joined by David Perring, the Director of Research at Fosway Group, Europe’s top HR research firm. 

David led us through the foundation of agile thinking, why an agile mindset is critical for L&D, how to put agile into context for L&D, and the ways L&D leaders can translate learning priorities into the language of the business. At a high level, the purpose of agile is to deliver continuous value to employees in regular, small increments and use feedback to direct future enhancements. To hear more from David and Fosway Group around agile learning or to understand how we approach agile at Udemy, check out the webinar here. Our attendees asked a lot of great questions during the webinar, but we couldn’t get to them all so we wanted to take the time to respond here:

  • What are the primary differences between agile for L&D and agile for software development teams?
    • While there are many similarities, the two teams definitely have differing needs and approaches. When agile is applied to software, it forces the discipline of managing a backlog by ruthlessly prioritizing competing initiatives, improvements, and fixes. This concept of a product backlog is less applicable in L&D. 
    • L&D is also less likely to constantly be reworking everything we’ve ever built, and there is often a higher likelihood of considering a project, course, or resource complete. As L&D professionals, we could further adopt that mindset and view our work as never really done, or always be on the lookout for areas of improvement. The challenge with that approach is that it may require considerable time, cost, refilming, etc., depending on the initiative. Because of that reality, the iteration and testing phases for agile L&D are critical to ensure the end product won’t require immediate updating.
  • How can I ensure an agile L&D system in a multi-industry organization where our employees don’t have a learning appetite?
    • For an L&D team that’s serving employees in a multi-industry organization, it’s increasingly critical to understand the business needs for each operation. While it’s important for every L&D team to tie learning back to organizational objectives, it becomes crucial when the objectives vary largely throughout the business. Once you understand where learning and development can make the biggest impact, then you can tackle employee engagement.
    • With employees that don’t have a learning appetite, programs must be closely attuned to their specific needs. A personalized approach that serves all versus the one-size-fits-all model can bring employees in and increase their appetite for more. If building personalized programs isn’t scalable for your organization, platforms like Udemy for Business allow L&D teams to move quickly while also offering employees personalized content and learning journeys. 
  • What are the situations where traditional project management would be better suited than the agile approach?
    • With the increasing pace of change, L&D leaders are now required to be agile and iterate to match the speed of our businesses. There may be times when we can borrow from the best of both approaches, but I would challenge us all to look for opportunities to be agile. That being said, there can be exceptions on a case-by-case basis, like initiatives that may have fixed deadlines and no room to experiment. Or there may be programs that don’t have much ambiguity or don’t require feedback. The catch there is that feedback tends to only make something stronger, so making time for iteration and change will pay off in the long run.
  • How do we deal with the performance/needs analysis which traditionally goes at the start of L&D initiatives? 
    • As David explained, there are phases built into the Agile Learning Cycle for analysis and measurement to solve for a needs analysis. To remain agile, it’s important to not get caught up in overwrought processes and documentation during these phases. We still need to hold ourselves accountable and understand the needs and objectives of the business, but once L&D is aligned with the organization, it’s time to test our conclusions and prototype quickly to confirm we’re on the right track.  
    • From there, we can have shorter touch points with stakeholders and iterate quickly based on feedback. My best advice is to just go!
  • Do you think that geographically dispersed L&D teams can adopt agile methodologies? 
    • One of the great aspects of agile is that it’s flexible. As a geographically dispersed team, take the parts of an agile strategy that work well for your environment and company and adopt those. While not everyone may be available to make a morning scrum, think about ways you can make communication more accessible—maybe a virtual standup on Slack or a time that’s doable for the majority of your team.
  • How can we apply agile for the HR professional? 
    • For HR professionals, any program or initiative could benefit from similar testing and agile thinking. The HR function is just as guilty as L&D of the balloon approach, where we spend countless hours creating something before ever testing it or asking stakeholders for input. 
    • David also touched on the need for L&D teams to have a customer-driven mindset when developing learning programs and the exact thing can be said for HR. Today’s employees have come to expect a consumer-grade experience in their day-to-day lives and to help ensure engagement, their experience at work shouldn’t be any different.

I appreciate all the great questions and look forward to seeing you at the next Udemy webinar!

About the author:

Shelley Osborne is Head of L&D at Udemy. She has 14 years of experience in the education sector and corporate learning and development. Previously, Shelley was VP of Learning & Development at Farside HR Solutions, specializing in talent leadership, management training, and soft skills development in the startup space in the San Francisco Bay Area. She has a Master’s degree in Education from the University of Calgary where she specialized in gamification and instructional leadership.

About Udemy for Business:

Udemy for Business is a learning platform that helps companies stay competitive in today’s rapidly changing workplace by offering fresh, relevant on-demand learning content, curated from the Udemy marketplace. Our mission is to help employees do whatever comes next—whether that’s the next project to do, skill to learn, or role to master. We’d love to partner with you on your employee development needs. Get in touch with us at

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