One of the very real advantages of the internet age is that L&D does not have to be the sole producer of learning and development support in organizations. Employees have the ability to find what they need on their own from the internet’s treasure trove of resources, and L&D has the opportunity to curate existing materials to provide learning resources. As with all good things, it’s that simple, and at the same time infinitely more complex.
We intuitively recognize that we all have the capability to be independent learners. The evidence is everywhere – in our propensity to Google for quick answers, to find like-minded people to hang with (and learn from/with) and with whom to share our enthusiasm for hobbies, and to simply “figure it out” by rolling up our sleeves and giving something new a try. The ability to learn is a critical human attribute. While that may be true, it doesn’t necessarily mean that people who have professional development needs will be ready, willing, and able to tackle those without support.
Even in companies that have done a good job of providing ready access to learning materials and curated collections for key job roles, over half of employees reported that learning resources were hard to find, hard to use, and hard to apply (CEB, 2014). That’s a triple whammy that demands our attention.
We don’t have to revert to defaulting to course creation when there is a knowledge or skill development need to be addressed. Taking a curation-first approach is often the most impactful, most flexible, and least expensive solution, but it may need to be accompanied by strategies that scaffold self-directed learning. That is, we may need to provide a little support to help people to identify needs, find resources, learn independently, and apply new knowledge and skill to the work.
We have the good fortune that researchers have been studying self-directed learning for decades from a variety of perspectives. The cache of insightful theory and research on self-directed learning writ large contains nuggets we can use to guide our strategies here.
The Self-Directed Learning Process
Self-directed learning is a process “in which individuals take the initiative, with or without the help of others, in diagnosing their learning needs, formulating learning goals, identifying human and material resources for learning, choosing and implementing appropriate learning strategies, and evaluating those learning outcomes. ~ Malcolm Knowles (1975)
In general, this is how people manage their own learning:
- Identify a learning need. Whether from an external trigger like a job change or disconcerting feedback, or some internal drive, people identify and formulate their own goals for learning (usually informally constructed).
- Make a learning plan. With an idea of what they want to learn, people seek out resources and plan out how they will learn. Instinctually, people look around for readily available resources to help them – perhaps using an internet search, or asking around for somebody who knows the subject matter. For bigger, longer-term needs, people may go so far as to craft their own learning curriculum, identifying multiple resources and strategies.
- Learn and apply. People then consume the identified resources with an eye toward immediate application against the need that prompted the search in the first place. People watch videos, read articles or books, talk to subject matter experts. They also find ways to apply and test out what they have learned, followed by reflection and feedback-seeking so they can fine tune their understanding or skill.
- Self-assess progress. People decide for themselves whether they are “done” learning or need to continue finding and engaging in additional learning activities. This requires self-evaluation as well as persistence to keep learning if needed.
The process described above is of course oversimplified, albeit a good outline of what is going on. It’s easy to see that people need to have the wherewithal to engage – certain dispositions and skills to allow them to successfully navigate the process and achieve their goals.
Self-directed learning is made possible by these individual capabilities and qualities.
- Self-assessment. Ability to discern one’s own strengths and opportunities and to identify learning needs. Includes self-awareness and ability to set clear goals.
- Resourcefulness. Interpersonal and internet savvy to locate people and resources and to set up systems to feed new materials. Includes digital literacy and interpersonal networking skills.
- Planning skills. Ability to sketch and implement a well-thought-out strategy for learning over time; understanding of broad strategies for effective learning.
- Learning skills. Facility engaging in specific effective learning practices; understanding one’s own metacognitive processes. A long list of skills: core learning skills, critical thinking, ability to synthesize, deep reflection, and learning agility among them.
- Self-efficacy. Belief in one’s own ability to learn and grow. Also a degree of personal responsibility and positive orientation.
- Motivation to learn. Impetus to pursue learning projects. A combination of intrinsic motivation, openness to experience, curiosity, and persistence.
If you evaluate the presence or absence of these capabilities and qualities among the learners you want managing their own learning, you can identify what requires bolstering or scaffolding.
Just as importantly, you’ll want to evaluate the degree to which the workplace culture supports self-directed learning. The research has advice on what to look for here as well.
Self-directed learning can thrive when the immediate organizational culture is characterized by the following supports:
Deep interpersonal connections. Learning is very much a social activity, and it requires connections to an array of people for teaching, feedback, coaching, and advice. These relationships are based in rapport, trust, and psychological safety.
Accessibility of high-quality curated resources. Organizations help self-directed learners tremendously by pointing them in the direction of relevant learning materials and supportive people rather than leaving them to discover these for themselves. Because internet resources are so vast, giving people an expertly curated short list can save tremendous time and effort.
Allocated time for learning. People need time and head space to pursue self-directed learning projects, and they themselves will tell you that feels like quite a luxury in today’s demanding workplaces. Allocating time and encouraging its use is a welcome support.
Developmental support for strengthening learning skills. People don’t always have experience managing their own learning to this degree, and may need support developing their learning skills.
Management engagement. Managers can assist with defining goals and making plans, making recommendations for resources, facilitating introductions to helpful people, providing needed equipment, time, and budget, and recognizing learning achievements. But they need to be careful to be supportive, not directive so as to not take away the employee’s self-management.
Employee control over learning processes. Organizations need to limit controls, requirements, and tracking (in likely uncomfortable ways) so that employees are free to direct their own paths. Employees can be accountable for their skill development and performance outcomes rather than for engaging in specific learning activities.
This summary merely displays the highlights of what is necessary for a self-directed learning strategy to be effective. The resources below dig into these elements in much more detail. If you want to support self-directed learning in your organization (or better manage your own learning), deepening your understanding of the dynamics of these learning processes will be exceedingly useful.
If you would like a customized workshop or development program on how to support self-directed learning strategies or on how to develop a self-directed learning plan, please contact me to explore the possibilities.