I try to participate in two or three Twitter chats every week. They’re a quick, fun way to engage in topical conversation with L&D pros from around the world. They were especially helpful early in my career, as they helped me break out of my corporate silo and engage with the larger professional community. My favorite chats are #lrnchat (Thursdays at 8:30 PM ET) and #GuildChat Fridays at 2:00 PM ET).

This column originated in the #GuildChat on Friday, July 7, 2017. The topic: Learning Independence. A dozen or so L&D folks were discussing the idea of autonomy in workplace learning when Anthony Altieri dropped this gem:



Anthony perfectly explained L&D’s relationship with self-directed learning in under 140 characters.

Corporate learning is always brimming with seemingly innovative and trendy ideas. Sure, many tech-driven concepts, like adaptive learning and mixed realities, are just now coming into reach for corporate learning. But, when you look at some of the other big trends nowadays, you’ll notice that they aren’t really all that new. Rather, the world around L&D continues to shift, causing a variety of long-standing but also long-ignored principles to rise to the surface. This includes microlearning, brain science, and self-directed learning. As Anthony so unflinchingly pointed out, we’ve never had control over what people learn at work. While L&D has historically decided what formal learning opportunities have been made available, how those opportunities are used (or not used) has always been up to the individual.

Figure 1: Self-directed learners set their own way (Pexels) 

Why self-directed learning? Why now?

If people have always had a measure of autonomy in their learning, why am I suddenly hearing about the desire to shift toward self-directed learning so much? Well, there are several factors at play. First, employees have unprecedented access to “alternative” development resources thanks to the likes of Google and YouTube. L&D is finally recognizing the impact this is having on the highly valued course library. Corporate learning tech is also following suit to match the recommendation-driven, high-volume choice experience used by consumer content platforms, such as Netflix. Finally, there’s the issue of scale. Businesses are hunting for increasingly agile skill sets to stay competitive. To keep pace and demonstrate value, L&D must find ways to provide flexible learning opportunities for a myriad of roles without substantial costs or administration. This has led to the rise of concepts like learning paths and content aggregation.

It’s not that simple

Let the record show that I am all for the idea of self-directed learning. I agree that L&D never owned learning, and employee enablement and accountability are fundamental principles in a strong learning ecosystem. However, the unfortunate truth is that these concepts often conflict with the way work is actually done. Learning paths and curated resources sound great, but, in real life, it’s going to take more than a shift in L&D strategy to enable autonomous development. Rather than simply buying a new platform or restructuring the content library, L&D must take a step back and assess the full working environment to determine the right fit for self-directed learning.

Here are six considerations L&D must address before venturing down the path of strategic self-directed learning.

1. Time

I have yet to hear a stakeholder say, “Our people have plenty of extra time for learning.” Rather, people are time-starved and overwhelmed—regardless of status, role, or industry. Plus, people can only be expected to dedicate so much time to their professional development. Sure, some may make an extra effort and use personal time to improve their skills, but that can’t be the norm.

Focused self-directed learning—besides that which naturally takes place on the job—requires time. Time can only be made available if managers prioritize long-term development over short-term tasks. This could be as simple as providing time for employees to reflect and discuss successes and challenges of the day, or it could involve more formal training activities. While L&D cannot control how time is allocated within the workplace, we can influence managers by making a business case for autonomous development.

2. Rules

There may also be rules to consider with regard to how employees use their time for development. For example, if you work in the United States and support hourly employees, you are likely limited to time spent on the clock. This makes the business case for autonomous development even more critical. Too often, deskless employees have limited learning options due to the constraints of their roles and company staffing practices. These folks are your future managers and deserve the same opportunities as knowledge workers who have greater control over their time and capacity.

In some cases, you may be able to offer self-directed learning opportunities to deskless employees away from the workplace by setting firm guidelines. For example, using a disclaimer on your learning platform login screen may pass accountability for the time spent to the employee (as long as your lawyers and labor union agree, of course). Regardless, people’s time and choice must be respected as part of the development process.

3. Expectations

An employee may aspire to become the next department manager or marketing assistant. However, they may not understand exactly what skills are required to be successful in a desired role. Therefore, the organization must provide clear expectations with regard to knowledge and capability requirements. This clarity must go beyond the typical job description or competency list and detail exactly what a person must be able to do in order to take on a specific position. And, because role requirements are moving targets due to the nature of modern business, these expectations must be consistently maintained in order to guide ongoing autonomous learning efforts.

4. Access

Gary Wise makes a great point in his post  “Self-Directed Learning or Self-Directed Performance?” It’s a mistake to approach the concept of autonomous learning as just another way to serve up formal training. Rather, L&D must enable employees from the “ground” up, starting with their ability to solve problems in the moment of need. This is where curation can enable self-directed performance, as L&D can help reduce the amount of time and effort needed to find information that has the potential to immediately improve business outcomes. From this foundation, L&D can enable the subsequent layers of learning to address a performance challenge, including structured training when necessary.

5. Feedback

The Dunning-Kruger effect: People often think they are better at something than they really are. Do you have a friend who claims to be an amazing driver but is constantly swerving and braking hard every time you catch a ride? This effect is especially powerful in the workplace when management fails to provide a consistent, objective definition for “good” performance, leaving it open to individual interpretation. To benefit from self-directed learning, employees must receive clear and consistent feedback regarding their performance. While this feedback should come from a variety of sources, especially managers and peers, L&D can promote the overall value of feedback within the organization. L&D can also provide tactical support, including examples of good performance for individual comparison as well as training for those who observe and coach on-the-job behaviors. This will help employees identify the gaps between their role expectations and their current performance and enable them to select the right-fit development opportunities.

6. Freedom

For self-directed learning to take hold, L&D must let go. We can’t funnel every development opportunity through “approved channels.” We can’t track every little thing people do to make themselves better. They’re already going around us. We must meet them where they are and provide the support necessary for people to take action on their own. While this will certainly include resource creation and curation, L&D strategy must also include the freedom to choose. Rather than focus on the journey people take to develop themselves (completions and test scores), L&D must focus on the end result—performance capability—and allow people to get there in the ways that best suit them.

As human beings, we are hardwired to learn. Employees will take it upon themselves to solve problems and develop their skills regardless of support they receive from L&D. We must accept this as the not-so-new normal of workplace learning and adjust our strategies accordingly. We can’t make the same mistake we’ve made with past learning trends (social, mobile, gamification, etc.) and simply give our old tactics a new, trendy look. We must let go of our implausible ownership of the learning process and instead focus on enabling autonomous learning through clear expectations, consistent feedback, and accessible resources. People have always self-directed their learning. L&D just hasn’t always been there to help out.

For even more great thoughts on self-directed learning, check out this post from the eLearning Coach, Connie Malamed.