Not long ago, I was in a conversation with colleagues on the subject of self-directed learning. People had a lot to say, but I found it odd that the talk kept turning to “conferences” as if that were the primary avenue through which workers voluntarily, intentionally learn. But self-directed learning can take a lot of forms, often in combination. Think about a time you wanted to do something like a home improvement project—say, adding a deck to your house. Maybe you got some books from the library, or looked at YouTube videos, or talked to some friends who’d done similar work. Or maybe you did attend a formal event like a workshop at a local building supply store. Maybe you did all of the above. But I bet you did more than just wake up with no knowledge of deck-building whatsoever, load up on expensive lumber, and start sawing without doing some learning first.

Workwise? I have a recent example. It’s no secret that I love social media. Lately I’ve seen a need in my workplace for our HR folks to become more skilled at using social tools for recruiting. This has a pretty natural fit with a lot of my work anyway, so I’ve devoted a good deal of time to basic research, like Googling for innovative examples and accessing articles in online business publications. Those directed me to particular sites and accounts. I didn’t see much of anything surprising on LinkedIn but was wowed by some examples from Instagram and Snapchat. That led to more research on branding and how organizations convey culture, particularly through the use of images. As I am already a sometime participant in the Society for Human Resource Management’s #NextChat, I’ve popped in there more often, as related topics are usually on the table.

What does the research say?

These two aren’t just isolated examples, either. University of Toronto professor Allen Tough spent decades studying adults and self-directed learning, and he found that the average North American adult undertakes eight self-directed learning projects a year of about 104 hours each (see References). Sometimes they’re related to personal goals, like home improvement. Sometimes they’re related to work goals, like my work with recruiting. Maybe it’s just pursuit of an interest. Maybe they’re assigned by an organization that suggests developing an interest or skill with little prescription of how to do it. Maybe it’s anticipation of a future need.

Those who’ve seen the film “Hidden Figures” (and if you haven’t, why not?) will remember the story of Dorothy Vaughan. Vaughan, recognizing the coming advent of machine computing, taught herself FORTRAN (from books) and then taught it to her staff. When the need emerged in the workplace, she was ready to fill it—and she later led the programming area of the Analysis and Computation Division at Langley Air Force Base.

How can L&D support self-directed learning?

So what do we do to support self-directed learning? Work with IT to make sure channels—like YouTube—are open. Let workers know what resources are available: subscriptions, access to libraries, expertise, and talent pools in other areas of the organization. I recently found out that a sister division in my own organization has, for the past four years, had a subscription to products from a big consulting firm with lots of online resources and even the option for personal contact with in-house experts. Make things easy to find. Jane Hart writes of the shift from content provider to learning concierge, where L&D staff work as individual performance consultants to source learning resources both within and outside the workplace, and help workers connect with others in the organization or the industry. Talk to workers about what’s coming to their industries: new software or new tools or new ways of working. Educate your knowledge workers about ideas around personal knowledge management. See my column on “Causing Serendipity” for ideas around putting information where people can find it. And rather than worry so much about tracking learning objects accessed and counting courses finished, help people show their work so it becomes more visible to management. I know how to make management aware of my new interest in and knowledge of using social tools for recruiting, even though that’s something that may not get immediate use. Could your workers say the same?

What else? Recognize that, for whatever reason, motivated adults can do fine at setting learning goals, choosing resources, and evaluating their outcomes. As ever, building in time and space for employees to occasionally pursue their own learning can serve as a great motivator and benefit.


Piskurich, George M. Getting the Most from Online Learning. San Francisco, CA: Pfeiffer, 2004.