Last reviewed 19 May 2020

Judith Christian-Carter, learning consultant, takes a look at how organisations can move from directed learning to self-directed learning and the role that L&D can play in this transformation.

Allowing people to be in total control of their own learning may sound like a utopian vision but some organisations have already made great strides in putting in place the means by which this can be achieved. However, it is not an all or nothing strategy for both organisations and the L&D function.

Having a sound Learning and Development (L&D) strategy, together with clear and deliverable processes to give individuals desirable levels of autonomous learning, have been shown to be essential by those organisations with high performing learning cultures. Sharing these achievements with other organisations is now an important requirement.

The directed to self-directed learning spectrum

It would be incorrect to say that the L&D function in organisations are either in total control of each individual’s learning process, or they are not. There are many different ways in which L&D functions are able to and do support more autonomy in the workplace. At a generalised level, three main approaches to learning in organisations can be determined.

  1. Managed learning, where:

    1. learning goals are defined by the manager

    2. learning is organised and managed by the L&D function

    3. performance is tracked by the manager.

  2. Supported learning, where:

    1. learning goals are defined by the individual

    2. learning is organised by the individual

    3. learning is supported by both the L&D function and the manager

    4. performance is tracked by the manager.

  3. Autonomous learning, where:

    1. learning goals are defined by the individual

    2. learning is organised by the individual

    3. learning is supported by both the L&D function and the manager

    4. performance is tracked by the individual.

In many organisations the approach to learning is often a mixture of two or even three of the above. While it is dangerous and often unproductive to try and pigeon-hole an organisation’s approach to learning in one of the three categories above, it is important to be realistic and honest about where the organisation does lie on the directed to self-directed learning spectrum. Once the organisation’s position has been determined, it is then possible to see what additional ways can be introduced to promote and support self-directed learning.

Managed learning

Where learning is managed, organisations:

  • define what every individual must learn and do in order to achieve a defined goal

  • design a (one-size-fits-all) course and make sure that everyone undertakes it

  • provide a collection/pathway of specific curated/created resources from which an individual can chose in order to achieve a defined goal.

Most L&D professionals would recognise the above description as being the traditional role of L&D. However, a certain level of flexibility and autonomy can still be achieved within such a managed learning environment, by providing a collection/pathway of learning resources from which individuals can select to achieve a defined goal in a way that suits them best. For example, this could involve acquiring a new body of knowledge or skills relevant to the organisation, or by using appropriate resources to solve a work-based task, such as performance support tools. All these resources can be created internally or curated from other external sources, such as the Web.

Supported learning

Where learning is supported, organisations:

  • adopt a formal process of professional self-development, helping individuals to identify and document their own performance goals, identify sources and evidence of achievement

  • offer a collection of curated and created resources, and events to support a range of professional/organisational goals

  • promote a wide range of external (eg Web-based) formal, informal and social possibilities for achieving goals.

For organisations that already encourage individuals to take responsibility for their own self-development, learning support can be provided in a number of different ways. Apart from identifying relevant resources that will help individuals to achieve the organisation’s goals, they may also need help in developing the underpinning learning skills in order to get the most out of them. Likewise, people can be encouraged to engage in some daily learning using informal and/or social Web resources and then sharing anything relevant they come across with others.

Autonomous learning

Where learning is autonomous, organisations:

  • encourage individuals to build a habit of daily learning (typically 20–30+ minutes)

  • develop modern learning skills to search, curate, subscribe, sense, share, track and manage each individual’s learning

  • support individual needs through a bespoke Learning Centre/booking system and Help Desk service

  • allow all individuals to take sole responsibility for their own self-improvement, learning and development to meet both current and future needs.

Even where individuals are in total control of their own learning, self-improvement and development, the L&D function still has an important role to play. People will still need support with their learning, albeit on a more ad hoc basis, and this can be provided by the L&D function in the form of a Help Desk. Apart from addressing the various learning needs of individuals, a Help Desk service can also be used to identify resources to help people achieve their professional goals as well as to promote connections between individuals.

The modern learning experience

“There are many reasons learning struggles to make an impact on the business. The top challenge is that learning leaders don’t know how to measure learning in a way that demonstrates the impact even exists. They also have difficulty aligning learning with outcomes, as well as engaging learners.” (Brandon Hall Group, 2019*).

The need for the L&D function to be strategic is now greater than ever before. No matter at which point organisations are on the directed to self-directed learning spectrum, it is vital that there is a learning strategy which not only supports in total the needs of the organisation, but also reflects what modern learning is all about, ranging from how individuals are treated and supported, to how technology will be used to work for the organisation.

The world of work has changed vastly over the last 40-years. A knowledge economy is now prevalent, patterns of working are now extremely flexible, the average job tenure has become shorter with wage levels remaining flat or decreasing, levels of employee engagement are low, yet with the advent of the Web, social media, smart mobile devices and the “always-on Internet”, the pace of life both at work and at home has accelerated for the vast majority of employees.

Today, a “one-size-fits-all” approach when it comes to learning is not only outmoded but it is also doomed to fail. There is now substantial and solid evidence that the more individuals have responsibility for their own improvement, learning and development, the more effective and engaged they will become to everyone’s benefit. The need for all organisations to move along the directed to self-directed learning spectrum is clear, as is the role that the L&D function needs to play in this process, especially with regard to the support it needs to provide to every employee.

*The Future is Now: Learning Strategy 2020, Brandon Hall Group, 2019