Power to the Learner: Why Give Your Employees Control over Their Learning

When you need to learn how to bake cookies for a family reunion, you usually don’t sign up for courses in culinary school, right? You google a two-three minute video on YouTube, follow easy steps, spending an hour or so cooking–and voila! Everything is ready. You had a difficult taskyou found a quick solution. This is the world of self-directed learning. 

The same goes for corporate training. L&D professionals do their best to modernize and facilitate employee training by tapping into learning platforms that offer similar experiences people usually have on the web. In other words, they make training easily accessible, interactive, bite-sized, social, and, most importantly, personalized. The point is that it’s not enough anymore. In fact, catering to all of your employees’ needs actually means giving them control over their learning. Because who knows employees’ needs better than they themselves? That’s where self-directed learning can work in your favor.

Self-directed learning: the history and psychology behind it

Self-directed learning (SDL) in its broadest meaning is an approach to learning that lets learners define their needs, set goals, choose relevant resources and tools, and conduct a retrospective analysis of their learning outcomes.

Back to antiquity

In fact, everything new is well-forgotten old. The basics of self-directed learning were known as early as in classical antiquity, when self-study was an important part of the lives of such Greek philosophers as Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. Socrates was a particular proponent of the pedagogical idea of self-cognition. He believed that there was no need to offer ready-made solutions to students. Instead, the goal was to encourage learners to find answers themselves, as “an unexamined life is not worth living.” Supporters of self-directed learning also included Alexander the Great, Caesar, and Descartes. However, substantiated research papers date back to the 1970s, when first attempts to study SDL in adult learning were made. In 1975, Malcolm Shepherd Knowles, an American educator, described self-directed learning as “a process in which individuals take the initiative, with or without the help of other, to diagnose their learning needs, formulate learning goals, identify resources for learning, select and implement learning strategies, and evaluate learning outcomes.”

So what is the fuss all about? Why talk about self-directed learning now if it came into play so long ago?

Rapid changes in learning and development

Disruptive technologies change the workplace, information gets old very quickly, so the need to maintain highly-qualified and forward-minded teams has never been so urgent. Mandatory annual training has fallen into oblivion. Moreover, not all learning platforms offer an employee-centric approach that takes into account various constituents, such as the professional learning goals of each employee, the company’s business needs, the improvement of everyday operational and performance activities, and the like.

The role of L&D professionals is also changing. Now the essence of their job is to provide employees with all necessary tools and resources that will lead to high job performance and improve the employee experience. If we consider learning as an essential tool for the successful completion of job-related tasks, then how we can make it more efficient? One way is to use your learning platform with the principles of self-directed learning in mind.

Rethinking the necessity of control over learning

Before we go any further, let’s find out why SDL is essential. It will be easier to show its benefits by comparing employees’ control over their learning to the act of steering a ship. Taking the helm keeps your eyes on the horizon, allowing you to change heading and keeps you busy. Most importantly, it gives you a sense of control over these elements. And control means active participation and, as a result, motivation. The same goes for learning. You see the horizon (the goal) and can choose or vary the means that will lead you to this goal (heading). Even if the weather changes (e.g. new tasks, work conditions, job responsibilities), you can change the route that will lead you to the final goal. In other words, no matter what changes come your way, you have flexibility in choosing the right path.

Within this framework, self-directed learning is about offering the right tools and resources at the right time to ensure that employees have everything available to succeed on their own.

Designing experiences, not content

One more important thing we can’t neglect is the psychological aspect of how employees perceive training. Usually, people don’t like to break out of their comfort zone. They know how things go at work; they are accustomed to certain job routines; and then they suddenly hear, “You have to take a mandatory training course.” It means the disruption of their work. It means staying at work longer to catch up. And “the mandatory” part leaves no other options for them.

“Jordan”, sales manager, may think, “Why should I learn how to design strategic sales plans if I’ve been doing it successfully for the last five years? I’d better learn more about modern approaches to managing my sales team more effectively to hit sales targets.”

“ELearning is often boring because we’re obsessed with designing information when instead we should be designing experiences,” says Cathy Moore, a training designer whose ideas have been used by organizations like Microsoft, Pfizer, and Barclays. If L&D leaders stick to this advice, then learning will become much more efficient. Give some freedom to employees to decide what matters most to them. If you are not sure whether they have a point or if they doubt what exactly they should learn or what skills to develop, performance-based learning will help you out. With a modern learning platform that processes relevant performance and operational data, you will be able to see your employees’ knowledge and skills gaps and eliminate them in time. This will give your employees more confidence and motivation in what they do, enhancing their experience.

When you give control wisely, both your company and your employees win

The Deloitte 2017 Global Human Capital Trends report concludes that one of the organization’s current roles is to create an environment that allows employees to constantly learn and relearn through self-directed professional development. For this reason, managers should give employees more autonomy, and not only in learning, as professional development also presupposes other work aspects.

Steps to give your employees more autonomy

  1. Pay heed to employees’ future professional needs

Tom Brown, VP of HR Americas and APAC at eBay, says that workforce roles and responsibilities will be more fluid in the years to come. Moreover, the only way to stay employable in the future is to become a lifelong learner. For this reason, the professional development of employees is crucial. Listen to your employees; let them decide how to learn and what to learn. Ask them how they see themselves in your company in a few years to help build their career ladder. Offering personalized, relevant training for your people means taking care of your talent pool within the company as well as attracting other promising candidates while minimizing any business disruptions.

  1. Allow them to prioritize tasks and projects (when possible)

One more way to grant more autonomy is by giving your employee the choice of which tasks should be prioritized. Of course, it doesn’t mean that this can be applied to any situation (especially when tasks are of unequal difficulty or if there’s an urgent project to be finished), and it shouldn’t cancel deadlines. But if your employees are able to choose what tasks or projects they can do first, it will improve their job satisfaction level and thus boost performance.

  1. Foster workplace flexibility

According to workplace trends statistics, 75% of employees ranked workplace flexibility as their top benefit. This means that employees want not only more control over what they do but also to have a choice in deciding when and where they can work. Your focus should be on the results. If your employees work better early in the morning or if their peak productivity comes after 5 pm, make the most out of it. If someone prefers to work at home, cafe, or any other place, don’t ignore it. Once again, if it’s possible for your company, allow your employees to make their own schedule and choose a place to make work more enjoyable and productive.

  1. See employees as your business partners

The one-way conversation, the purpose of which is to give negative feedback about employees’ possible failures, won’t do any good. Give your employees the possibility to have a say. If they encounter difficulties in the workplace, there can be various reasons for this: toxic culture, outdated tools, lack of relevant resources, poorly-trained managers, etc. Knowing what’s going on and being able to offer your help when necessary will make your employees more productive and loyal.

By following these simple guidelines, your company will produce engaged and highly-productive employees who will contribute to your business growth. Let’s take a closer look at the benefits both sides can get thanks to employees’ self-directed professional development.

Benefits your company and employees get if autonomy is provided

  1. Increased collaboration across your company that leads to innovation and business growth. When you listen to your employees, when their managers and other leaders are actively involved in the workflow, when there’s an opportunity to openly share new ideas, learned skills, and knowledge, to discuss job-related issues, and to seek solutions together, your company becomes a place that rallies everyone to work together, generate new ideas, and improve competitive advantages of your business.
  2. Engaged and loyal employees who’ll take care of your company’s future. When employees have control over their learning and can enjoy some autonomy in their work routine, they become more engaged and motivated. The retention of well-trained talent will future-proof your company and differentiate it from competitors. Moreover, engaged employees are true “explorers” and independent lifelong learners who will enrich your company with valuable knowledge and skills.

Three cases that require self-directed learning

If you think that too much autonomy and self-directed learning will create chaos in your company, don’t panic. We’re not talking about anarchy. There are cases when handing over the reins to your employees is well worth it.

  1. Solving just-in-time performance issues

It’s not a secret that most job roles require employees to fit the whole library in their brain. Since the amount of knowledge is overwhelming and information is constantly updating, there’s no need to learn everything. To ensure smooth workflow, your employees need to be able to solve just-in-time work issues. It means that whenever they encounter some difficulties, they should be provided with immediate answers. This can be done via personalized performance-based training. Having 24/7 access to relevant information, your employees will become more productive and engaged.

  1. Ensuring better learning styles accommodation  

Everybody knows that there are auditory learners and visual learners. Some people learn information faster by watching a video, while others prefer learning by doing or shadowing more experienced colleagues. One can learn very quickly, while someone else might need more time to process the material. Thanks to a learning platform tailored to your employees’ needs, you will be able to overcome these issues. Your employees will be able to choose how to acquire training content as well as when and where to learn, with the option to review a previous topic if needed.

  1. Avoiding misunderstandings across various departments

Your engineering department has just launched a new product with an incredible set of features. Your marketing and sales departments are ready to show it to people. The question is, are they able to do so the right way? Can they describe advantages of the product, explain how it’s used and what benefits it can bring, if they don’t understand “the technical jargon”? To be able to communicate across departments and teams, your employees sometimes need to know more topics than their job role comprises. So your employees should decide what other topics to learn to be able to cooperate with other teams well.

Self-directed learning is a great way to provide your employees with more autonomy in what they do. When you listen to your people and consider their professional needs, your company gains highly-skilled, loyal, and productive employees who will ensure high competitive advantages for your company.

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