These days, self-directed learning (SDL) is a must in the workplace. With millennials making up most of the workforce, controlling each and every person’s learning and development plan is quite a challenge, if not downright impossible. The modern employee grew up with constant and unrestricted access to information and this gradually lead to the creation of a culture of self-directed learning through content such as forum posts, specialized Facebook groups and YouTube how-to videos.

Employees tend to perform better when they feel empowered, have a say in their work and understand the added value of the tasks they are asked to perform. Still many companies aren’t really at ease with this approach to learning as they feel it might not be the shortest path to achieving business goals. They couldn’t be more wrong.

By allowing people to have a say in what, how and when they learn something, an organization proves that it has great confidence in its workers. This investment of trust will undoubtedly pay off in innovation, loyalty and productivity.

What is self-directed learning

Even though the name explains itself, there is the need for a more elaborate definition of the concept. The internet site dedicated entirely to the subject writes: “In self-directed learning (SDL), the individual takes the initiative and the responsibility for what occurs. Individuals select, manage, and assess their own learning activities, which can be pursued at any time, in any place, through any means, at any age… For the individual, SDL involves initiating personal challenge activities and developing the personal qualities to pursue them successfully.”

Self-directed learning, in fewer and simpler words, is learning that an individual gets to direct. Basically, instead of participating in a learning plan that somebody designed to ensure that the company goals are met, each employee can choose what outcome is most important — or attainable, for that matter — and work towards it by engaging in learning when, how and on what subject matter they see fit.

Of course this means that the goal might be personal improvement rather than an organizational objective but as stated above, in the long run that is also beneficial for the company because a happy employee is a loyal and effective one.

What’s in it for the organization

When employees have the time and freedom to work on their own projects and develop personal interests, chances are that they will come up with something that measurably improves the organization as a whole.

There has been a lot of talk about how employee engagement affects company results, and Harvard Business Review even made a study. This showed that the top three success factors that business leaders see as key to company success are:

  • achieving a high level of customer service,
  • effective communication, and
  • achieving a high level of employee engagement and strong executive leadership (tied for third place).

This places employee engagement as a top-three business priority. Still, the study showed there’s much room for improvement. Just 24 percent of respondents said that they considered most of their employees highly engaged. Nearly half (48 percent) believed that their companies comprised a similar mix of engaged/disengaged employees relative to their competition; and 28 percent felt that there were too many disengaged employees.

There were vast differences in perceptions among high and low prioritizers in how they perceived engagement as well. A full 51 percent of low prioritizers felt that their companies had too many disengaged employees in them, compared with only 22 percent of high prioritizers feeling that way. Conversely, only 4 percent of low prioritizers felt that most employees were highly engaged, while 31 percent of high prioritizers agreed with that statement. So the gulf between high and low prioritizers shows a clear linkage between what gets focused on and perceived outcomes.

Building a culture of self-direction

So with the need for employee engagement in mind, self-directed learning seems like an easy and not overly expensive solution.

Of course there is always the option of sending off all employees to the Bahamas for a few days of fun and drinks in the sun but that is expensive, hard to organize and it would only work for company goals if they involved having hangover employees dreaming of the tropical weather on a cold Monday morning. Perhaps creating an organizational culture of self-direction, though it might not sound as amusing, is the way to go.

Since traditional classroom training can’t exactly offer a very wide range of topics and it’s generally time consuming, an online learning platform hosting numerous and varied resources can prove the most effective option. It is important for people to have both access and time so even if they can login from anywhere, it is only fair that a certain amount of work time be given to that – for example a Friday afternoon.

Self-directed learning does not annul the need for trainers, mentors and specialists so meetings, workshops or just short Q&A sessions; all these can prove just as valuable as online resources. The development of new technologies and the accessibility of the internet from virtually anywhere have also given way to a new type of valued information, one that is group-verified and validated by popular opinion. Especially the younger employees will trust this over stale specialized information so integration of social media in all its aspects will greatly improve and speed up the learning process.

Also, employee contributions to your learning curriculum (an employee-driven learning economy) will lead to better adoption and a better interaction and support between colleagues.

Self-directed learning works — a real-life example

Teams that like each other and are continuously learning and developing their skills will perform in varied and constantly-evolving environments. Furthermore, self-directed learning provides greater engagement and improved employee loyalty.

When Tom Millar joined the iomart Group as training manager, he decided to introduce an online learning management system, working with line managers to devise various structured staff development programs based around an online catalog of 15,000 business, professional effectiveness and technical courses. He decided that employees should be in control of what, how and when they learn. In his own words:

We wanted to empower people and make them feel they could direct their own learning efforts. People are much more engaged if they feel they’re in control and can learn about topics that interest them and suit their goals rather than just being told what to do.

The change in learning approach did show results. Glasgow-based iomart became a preferred employer for a number of Scottish universities. “They’re very positive about us as we offer solid learning and development. It also really helps with engagement, particularly among younger staff doing junior jobs in first and second line support. So our staff retention rates are very high at about 98%,” Millar concluded in his interview.

Wouldn’t you like that kind of employee loyalty for your business?

Author: Roxana M

Roxana is a learning and development professional with over 10 years experience in corporate training.