What happens when you leave people to their own devices, without learning and development (L&D) courses being imposed on them? Do they stop learning, go “native” and have fun, just like mice when the cat’s away? The answer may surprise you, as Judith Christian-Carter explains.

All human beings have been born with an innate ability and desire to learn; if this was not the case then our race would have died out long ago. However, L&D managers often make assumptions about what employees need to learn, how they learn and where or when they learn. So, just how tuned in are they to how people learn when they are left to their own devices?

A survey conducted in April 2014 by Towards Maturity (a community interest company) of 2000 people from a range of private sector companies, provides some useful insights. The data was gathered between May and October 2013. The people surveyed undertook a number of job roles, including senior manager, sales and customer service roles, all of whom had been in their roles for varying amounts of time. The results obtained can therefore be deemed to be representative of the population in question.

Learning in the private sector workplace

When it comes to learning what they need for their jobs, 88% said that they liked to learn at their own pace. The top five ways that they considered to be either essential or very useful in order to learn what they needed for their jobs were:

  • 86% from working in collaboration with other team members

  • 83% from general conversations and meetings

  • 70% from Google/search/web resources

  • 70% with support from managers

  • 64% from classroom courses.

More than 50% of people also said that support from a coach/buddy (62%), internal company documents (59%), job aids/checklists (55%) and self-paced eLearning courses (51%) were very useful. All of which appears to place classroom-based learning in a new context.

Using technology to support learning

It would seem that people working in the private sector are also using various technologies to access resources to help them to do their job, with 43% saying that accessing learning from their mobile is essential or very useful, where:

  • 90% use their own work computer

  • 62% use their own computer at home

  • 41% use their own mobile phone

  • 32% use their work mobile phone

  • 24% use their own tablet device

  • 23% use their own computer at work

  • 7% use their work tablet device.

With continued talk about digital natives vs digital immigrants, and the belief that using technology still proves to be a barrier for older workers, these findings seem to disprove such conjecture when it comes to the private sector.

When are people learning?

A staggering 54% of people said that they liked to be able to learn on the go and, furthermore, 62% confirmed that their manager made time for them to learn at work. When it comes to spending time using work-related apps and websites from mobile devices, people did so:

  • 51% at the point when they needed them the most

  • 44% at evenings and weekends

  • 27% at their desks

  • 27% during breaks

  • 25% at lunchtimes

  • 24% on their way to/from work

  • 21% whenever they were alerted to updated information

  • 10% when travelling to see clients.

It would seem, therefore, that for many people, learning what they need is not confined to formal, classroom-based courses but is taking place more and more at any time, both during and outside the working day.

The use of social media

Once again, the results here are quite surprising, with 84% of people willing to use technology to share knowledge and help others to learn. In addition, 65% also said that they were motivated by using technologies that allowed them to network and learn with others. Indeed, when it comes to learning, staff are four times more likely to go to YouTube for this than their own in-house social network!

While it needs to be accepted that the prevailing culture in private sector organisations is somewhat different to that in the public sector, it is apparent that the use of social media is alive and well, and is being used by many private sector employees for learning.

What is working with online learning?

Who influences private sector staff when it comes to engaging with online learning? A total of 40% said that they were influenced by their line manager, with only 6% saying that were influenced by someone from L&D. Furthermore, 32% said that no encouragement was needed, and 16% said that the opinion of work colleagues was the best encouragement to learn online.

These findings also need to be taken in light of the fact that 82% of people were responsible for managing their own learning and development, with 75% only too happy to engage with online learning without prompting. Plus, 48% said that they learned more by finding things out for themselves than from classroom or formal classes. Therefore, learning online appears to be well embedded in the private sector and its use has very little to do with the L&D function.

The L&D perspective

It is interesting to compare these findings with those from another survey, also conducted by Towards Maturity, of L&D professionals:

  • 23% thought that learners had the confidence to manage their own development

  • 15% said that they encouraged people to use their own mobile devices to access learning

  • 44% let learners choose to learn at places convenient to them

  • 18% thought that staff knew how to connect in a productive manner in order to share knowledge

  • 16% said that managers made time for staff to learn on the job

  • 69% said that they were developing online learning in-house, but only 38% felt they had the skills to do it.

These findings highlight, in an extremely stark manner, the disconnect between how private sector staff are learning in reality, and the perceptions of L&D professionals.

Addressing the imbalance

For the L&D function in any organisation, irrespective of sector, staff (ie the learners) are its customers. The days when this function controlled and dictated what people should learn, how they should learn, and when and where they would learn, are rapidly disappearing into the mists of time. People will use whatever tools are at their disposal to learn what they need in order to increase their workplace performance. Access to numerous technologies, particularly information technology, means that staff in a variety of job roles, regardless of age, will use these to learn what they need.

L&D functions now have an important decision to make. Do they hand over the control of learning to their customers or do they continue to assume that they know best and run the risk of dying out?

Those that decide on the former course of action will need to devise appropriate strategies for supporting the learning of all job holders, the use of media for delivering learning, and the new/different skills that will be required by all members of the L&D team.

Last reviewed 3 June 2014