To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose unto heaven. ~ Ecclesiastes 3:1

When people talk about great achievements in self-directed learning, they often cite examples from extreme sports enthusiasts or intense hobbyists. These voracious learners read up on the subject in any way they can. They take lessons from the greats or ask for their coaching or feedback. They seek out peers with whom to share techniques and discuss possible advances. And they spend hours analyzing others’ work and minutely self-critiquing their own. Through all of these activities, they are able to grow rapidly in their chosen skills.

The same kinds of activities can be pursued when a professional skill is at stake. If a person wants to get really good at writing, for example, they would do well to study key principles that might be shared in books or courses, to find peers to form a writing group, to analyze writing by the greats and compare their own writing against key principles and techniques they find in that analysis. A formal course or workshop can often be the start of advancing a knowledge base or skill, but achieving a degree of facility with that skill requires constantly adding more nuanced understanding through further reading and observation – and also gaining experience and getting feedback. People have to practice in a safe environment.

Mastery doesn’t come from following short tip sheets. It comes from studying key principles at a deep level, actively engaging with peers, meticulously analyzing exemplary work, carefully formulating an image of good quality work, consciously applying learning, and fearlessly obtaining constructive feedback.

All of that takes time over a period of time. And time is a limited and much vied-for resource.

The role of L&D in making time for learning

We like to talk about learning in the flow of work in L&D circles, and there is certainly tremendous learning found in the middle of getting things done. But there are plenty of knowledge areas and skills which require bouts of more concentrated attention. We have to take a step out of the flow of work’s raging river to spend time on the shore learning how to navigate the rapids and planning how to manage challenges.

As learning leaders, the most important thing we can do to cultivate a learning culture and enable self-directed learning is to advocate for time for learning. People need time during the work day to focus on the development of their skills outside of doing work on their projects and tasks. When asked about challenges for professional development, employees consistently cite a lack of time as one of the most obstinate barriers.

Some organizations have figured this out. Maybe they allocate a certain number of hours per year, or a percentage of time every month as dedicated learning time. For example, Novartis aspires to give every employee 5% of their time for learning projects. Other companies or departments might call a halt to meetings in order to invest in learning time for an entire team one afternoon every other week. Pixar regularly takes creative teams on intense learning missions to absorb what they can about culture and needed skills for the movies they are about to create. There’s no one-size-fits-all approach, you’ll need to determine what would work best for each department (or perhaps even each individual). Some learning agendas are best advanced with regular short blocks of time and some are better served with longer concentrated study of a full day or two.

The case for dedicated time for learning

How do you make the case for this investment? In a job market where employees have the upper hand, gaining reputation as an organization that prioritizes development can give you an edge because employees are looking for developmental support. Studies show that companies with the most robust learning cultures have better outcomes. Agility and continuous learning are becoming more prized as an employee characteristic, and individualized learning is certainly one of the ways that organizations nurture that resilience and responsiveness.

Supporting development time can also help to redress inequities among people in the workforce. Giving everyone on-the-clock access to high speed internet, subject matter experts, and quiet time to think can help those whose lives lack some of those core resources in their outside-of-work environments.

As we are in the process of finding a new rhythm for work in a (hopefully soon to be) post-pandemic world, it’s the perfect time to make room for learning in our ongoing tasks.

To everything there is a season…. In addition to giving time over in the seasons to plant, to laugh, to dance, and to love, we need to allocate time to learn.