L&D Best Practices

5 Ways to Build Self-Directed Learning

Jennifer Juo

HR and L&D Insights Writer at Udemy for Business

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L&D Best Practices

March 6, 2018

There is much discussion about the need for constant reskilling due to rapid technological change and automation. But how can L&D help employees learn continuously? Self-directed learning will be critical to lifelong learning, according to Mirjam Neelen, Learning Advisory Manager in Dublin, Ireland. I had the opportunity to hear Mirjam Neelen speak at the Learning Technologies conference in London.

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Here are some of the insights she and Patti Shank shared during their talk and on Mirjam’s popular blog 3 Star Learning Experiences on the topic of self-directed learning.

Rapid changes in technology mean continuous learning is critical

40% of employers are reporting major talent shortages, according to research from Manpower Group. There are a number of reasons for this, from the obsolescence or decline of certain jobs like parking attendants or bank tellers to the emergence of new jobs like blogger or Artificial Intelligence (AI) software developer. And even jobs that don’t fit into either of those categories are still undergoing major changes. There’s an increasing reliance on technology across a wide range of fields. These changes mean that employees must learn on their own quickly. In this new era, it’s not enough for L&D to push learning. Instead, employees themselves will have to become better “self-directed learners.”

Why Self-Directed Learning (SDL) is key

What is self-directed learning? In her collaborative blog with Paul A. Kirschner, 3 Star Learning Experiences, Mirjam refers to the following definition from Malcolm Knowles: Self-directed learning is “a process in which individuals take 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 learning outcomes.” Or, in other words, Mirjam summarizes: “Self-directed learners are ready, willing, and able to independently prepare, execute, and complete their learning.”

According to Mirjam, self-directed learning is necessary in the modern working environment. She writes: “Employees must constantly learn, improve, and adapt to economic, societal and technological changes in order to not become obsolete – mostly because where they work will continually change their work practices in order to be more productive and/or competitive.” She continues, “self-directed learning is an essential competency needed by this type of employee.”

But the fact that the modern workplace requires self-directed learning doesn’t mean that employees are automatically able to carry it out. It requires being able to know what you need to learn, how to learn it, and being able to judge whether you’ve learned it – and these are not easy tasks. Of course, it’s much more effective when learners have support and resources to help them. Mirjam shares 5 ways you can encourage and promote self-directed learning at your organization.

5 tips to promote self-directed learning at your organization

1. Build and communicate a shared vision to employees at all levels

First, you can support self-directed learning by clearly communicating organizational goals and needs so your employees can better align their personal vision to these goals. These personal visions serve as a starting point for individual employees to lay out their work-related and learning goals for the year. Personal statements also hold individual employees accountable. By tying their personal vision to the larger organizational vision, learning can be better aligned with business outcomes as well. For example, a digital marketing employee might focus on improving their search engine optimization (SEO) skills to help increase their work-related goals and their organization’s goals of increasing overall brand awareness and website traffic through Google Search.

To help leverage personal visions to promote self-directed learning, Mirjam suggests designing processes and strategies to help managers and employees tie their learning goals to organizational needs, relate organizational needs to work-related tasks, analyze projects or tasks within those needs, and identify learning opportunities within them.

2. Foster collaboration, interaction, and teamwork

In order to encourage collaboration, teamwork, and shared responsibility, you can strive to create an environment of mutual respect so individuals are willing to share with others. Encourage employees to network and exchange ideas with their peers to gather data, expand their expertise, and learn from each other. Provide online and offline communities for employees to discuss how they pursue their learning goals with their peers. This can help them rely on their peers’ learning success stories as inspiration for their own. Peers may also recommend courses to each other and nudge each other to learn. Mentors can also help employees identify learning opportunities and strategies.

3. Empower employees through participatory work processes

Make sure employees have the information, job-related knowledge, and authority to accomplish their work. Look for ways to delegate responsibility to employees and enhance employee participation in developing, planning, and evaluating their work-related projects as well as their personal learning projects.

Managers should facilitate learning by asking thought-provoking questions rather than giving directive commands on specific issues to encourage employees to derive their own solutions and to transfer ownership to them. The goal is to coach the development of individual competence and enable employees to take self-directed actions. The more self-directed your work environment is, the more likely your employees will be self-directed learners as well.

4. Encourage and provide opportunities for continuous learning

Employees are increasingly expected to take ownership of their own continuous learning. Organizations will need to provide the right processes and strategies to promote learning at the individual, team, and organizational level. For example, organizations can schedule “Learning Hours” every month so employees have the space and time to learn. See 9 Steps to Overcome the Biggest Obstacle to Learning: Time.

To promote continuous learning, it’s also important to support errors, mistakes, and risk-taking. You’ll also want to encourage experimentation and recognize the differences in employees’ career goals, performance expectations, and development needs. Provide support to help employees track their progress, gather and offer feedback, and take time to reflect on their progress through personal logs or cohort groups.

5. Use relevant technologies

Organizations also need to provide a tech-enabled environment that fosters learning including open communication and information systems, digital learning platforms, and social media tools. Use technologies like on-demand online learning platforms to make it easy for employees to self-serve when it comes to learning. Select digital learning platforms that offer engaging content with consumer-like user experiences. If learning mimics how employees shop or watch movies, they will be more likely to gravitate to learn on their own. Provide training on the use of digital tools, and be sure to gather feedback on the accessibility and ease of use. See How Getty Images Promotes Self-Directed Learning to Keep Pace with Innovation.

Anticipating next steps with self-directed learning

As our understanding of self-directed learning develops, there will be an increased need to balance individual and organizational learning with business tasks and processes. Looking to the future challenges in this field, Mirjam outlines the following new research areas: better understanding what self-directed learning is and how it occurs, figuring out how to best support it in the workplace, determining how to measure it, and understanding how to train learners to become better at it.

It’s an exciting time for learning in the workplace – as more research on self-directed learning becomes available, learning professionals will be able to play a critical role in applying this new strategy to reskill their workforce.

For more on how to promote self-directed learning at your organization, read Mirjam’s blog.

Mirjam Neelen is a Learning Experience Design Expert and a Learning and Development Consultant with over 10 years of industry experience, working at companies such as Google and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. She is currently working as a Learning Advisory Manager at Accenture, based in Dublin, Ireland.
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.

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