Empower Employees through Self-Directed Learning in the Workplace

Helping employees do their best work requires a lot of work. No single action a company takes can take care of all their needs, especially with training.

What does that mean?

Self-directed learning is essential to encourage but it shouldn’t be done instead of formal training but rather in addition to. That’s right, employees still need directed training for various parts of their job but for some training self-directed learning is a great solution and will empower them to do their best work.

Workplaces rapidly change and technology rapidly changes. And not just the technology changes but the processes when using it also changes. So, empowering employees to take charge of their learning journey is a great way to deal with rapid change.

Self-directed learning is achieved when employees have the resources to take learning in their organization into their own hands. The expectation isn’t for them to take hold of all learning but rather those parts they can (which is the majority).

Self-directed learning is a philosophy that encourages individuals to take ownership of their learning process. With the right resources, it allows them to acquire new knowledge and skills based on their unique job needs and interests.

When employees find the solution to their problem or learn new skills themselves, that’s self-directed learning.

There’s always been a huge component of learning in the workplace that is self-directed. But it’s more recently come to the attention of the Learning & Development world that there needs to be some coordination and curation to make sure employees have the right resources to help themselves.

So, while it’s not a traditional top-down approach, where managers or trainers often dictate learning, there’s still some coordination and curating required. The power is put mainly in the hands of employees, giving them the autonomy to choose what, when, and how they learn.

But why is self-directed learning so important in the workplace? The answer lies in its ability to foster a culture of continuous growth and adaptability. By encouraging employees to pursue their own learning goals or even simply find their own answers to their problems, organizations can tap into the vast potential of their workforce, unlocking creativity, innovation, and a sense of purpose.

It also can save a lot of time and money on help desk calls. This is an important part of what we do for organizations.

It empowers individuals to explore new ways of doing things, broaden their skill set, and be more independent in their job. We’ll explore the world of self-directed learning and some strategies that can help organizations empower their employees to embrace this powerful approach.

When employees can find help for problems they experience it saves your organization money.

From creating a supportive learning environment to providing access to resources and tools, you’ll find practical tips and insights on how to cultivate a culture of self-directed learning in your workplace.

Before we get into all of that, let’s take a look at what self-directed learning is and what it might look like in the workplace.

What Is Self-Directed Learning In The Workplace?

Self-directed learning in the workplace refers to the process of employees taking control of their learning and development. It might mean external resources are curated and made available in a Learning Experience Platform (LXP) or it could simply mean employees have access to Udemy for Business and LinkedIn Learning.

It could even be that your company has a great knowledge base with a powerful search that makes it easy to find resources. This doesn’t mean PDFs are uploaded to the knowledge base, though, as that is rarely sufficiently searchable.

In the end, self-directed learning empowers individuals to choose what, when, and how they learn based on their unique needs and interests. It likely changes day to day and depending on the task they need too.

This approach recognizes that employees are motivated to learn when they have a sense of ownership and autonomy over their learning journey. It allows them to explore topics that are relevant to their roles or career aspirations, fostering a culture of continuous growth and adaptability within the organization.

Autonomy is something that every employee values and self-directed learning gives autonomy to employees.

As far as corporate technical training goes, it applies there too. Some formal training is likely needed for company systems but only enough to get employees started with the basics and processes without breaking anything. After that level of skill is achieved then it could be up to employees to find the resources they need to accomplish a task in a system.

Self-directed learning can take virtually any form necessary. It can even be in the form of traditional training as long as it’s something the employees initiate themselves.

That means it could include online courses, webinars, reading books or articles, attending conferences or workshops, participating in communities of practice, or engaging in hands-on projects.

A lot of self-directed learning can even happen through socializing either in person or through an enterprise social network where employees can share their knowledge with employee-generated content. The key is that employees have the freedom to select the most effective learning methods for themselves.

Here’s a good example of what self-directed learning might look like in the workplace:

Jason, a customer service representative, took the initiative to improve his communication skills by enrolling in an online course on active listening and conflict resolution. Through self-directed learning, he acquired valuable techniques and strategies that enabled him to effectively handle challenging customer interactions, resulting in increased customer satisfaction and positive feedback from his supervisors.

Now that you have a better handle on what self-directed learning looks like in the workplace, what about some of the benefits of it?

The Benefits of Self-Directed Learning in the Workplace

When employees are empowered in their role then they’re more capable than ever. Being self-directed will ensure employees can do their best work and bring many benefits to your organization.

These are some of the benefits you’ll see when your organization has a learning culture and encourages self-directed learning and autonomy.

  • Increased Motivation: When employees have control over their learning journey, they’re more motivated to acquire new knowledge and skills. This intrinsic motivation leads to higher engagement levels and a greater sense of fulfillment. Happy employee, happy boss.
  • Customized Learning Experience: Individuals can tailor their learning experience according to their specific needs and interests. They can focus on areas that directly impact their job performance or career goals.
  • Flexibility: There’s more flexibility to learn at their own pace and at times that suit them best. This promotes work-life balance and reduces stress associated with rigid training schedules.
  • Continuous Improvement: Self-directed learning fosters a culture of continuous improvement within the organization. Employees are encouraged to stay updated with industry trends, acquire new skills, and adapt to changing job requirements.
  • Financial: While more resources may need to be allocated for curating and creating resources for employees to use, fewer resources are needed on the help desk. Instead of simply calling for help employees will begin to find resources they need to solve their problem (as long as those resources exist).
  • Time: When employees are finding their own help and taking their careers into their own hands, less time is needed from leaders. If the right resources aren’t available then it could take more time but overall if L&D does a good job then the resources should be available or it should be easier to find the right person to ask a question.

This is just a basic list of some of the benefits. When employees are empowered they’re typically happier in their jobs. Happier employees mean less turnover as well as more efficient work and dedication to your company.

Just be sure not to think that self-directed learning replaces formal learning or that your company doesn’t need to provide anything. It’s in addition to rather than instead of.

In Addition To, Not Instead Of

It’s important to note that self-directed learning should not replace traditional training methods entirely. New employees are a great example of why formal training is still required. It’s because many employees don’t know what they don’t know. If you don’t know what you don’t know then you can’t go searching for help because you simply don’t know.

So, instead, self-directed learning should complement formal training. While self-directed learning empowers employees to take control of their learning, there may still be instances where formal training programs or workshops are necessary. This is especially true with onboarding.

Self-directed learning will never take the place of formal learning, it’s complementary.

For example, certain technical skills or compliance training may require a structured approach to ensure consistency and standardization across the organization. In such cases, self-directed learning can be used as a supplement to reinforce and apply the knowledge gained from formal training.

Always make sure self-directed learning is in addition to, not instead of formal training.

But your employees act so dependent on you and the help desk. How do you encourage them to break that cycle and take learning and solving problems into their own hands?

How To Encourage Self-Directed Learning

Sometimes employees don’t simply direct their learning. It can be easier to pick up the phone and call the help desk rather than search for help. There’s no way to replace the help desk completely but the ideal solution is that employees make an effort to find an answer to their question before asking.

These are some methods that can make it easier to promote self-directed learning in your organization. While there will still be a cultural shift of change that must be managed, these will make it a bit easier.

Providing Access to Resources and Tools

This is the first step in encouraging self-directed learning is to actually have somewhere employees can access resources and help themselves. You can’t simply say “Here’s a browser, good luck.”

A powerful knowledge base that has a good search is a great place to start. That means it’s completely searchable even inside the content itself. If you put a PDF document in an article and the system doesn’t parse and search that content then it’s useless. And no, metadata doesn’t cut it for a replacement for being completely searchable.

It’s not self-invented learning, it’s self-directed learning. That means resources must be provided.

It could be provide a good Learning Experience Platform also which combines resources from various places. That means it should consolidate any services your company has such as Udemy for Business or LinkedIn Learning.

There are also ways to allow employees to help themselves inside of business applications. We use a Digital Adoption Platform (DAP) to offer contextual help inside of applications. This is a great way to make sure employees have access to the most recent help that is searchable without leaving the app. There are several ways to provide contextual help and we’ve laid out a few we’ve used.

With the resources in place, another way to encourage self-directed is to set clear learning goals.

Setting Clear Learning Goals

Even though it’s called self-directed learning, it’s still necessary for leadership to play a part in it all. Having employees set their own learning goals but reviewing them with their manager is a great way to do this.

It could be as simple as a quarterly training plan where employees get to decide what they want to grow at. They ultimately get to decide how they go about doing that, directing their learning journey.

However, there are additional ways that leadership can make it easier and help foster that overall self-directed learning mindset including:

  • Cultivate a Growth Mindset: Encourage employees to embrace a growth mindset by emphasizing that intelligence and abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work. This mindset promotes a desire for continuous learning and improvement.
  • Provide Supportive Leadership: Leaders play a crucial role in empowering employees to take charge of their learning journey. They should provide guidance, resources, and opportunities for growth while trusting their team members’ ability to make informed decisions about their own development.
  • Foster Collaboration: Create opportunities for employees to collaborate with peers or mentors who can provide guidance and support in their learning endeavors. Peer-to-peer knowledge sharing can be invaluable in fostering a culture of self-directed learning. An enterprise social network is a great place to foster this with distributed workplaces or remote workplaces.

One last way to encourage self-directed learning is by making it easy.

Make It Easy

This one goes back to the first method but makes it a bit more specific. It should be nearly as easy as picking up the phone to find resources to learn from. That means all resources should be in one place rather than scattered across multiple web pages or knowledge bases.

To emphasize the searchability part of things, make everything searchable, not just through metadata but rather the entire content. If a job aid is in a PDF document and your platform can’t search that document, put the information right in the platform to make it searchable.

For employees to find solutions to their issues themselves it needs to be beyond easy.

There should be virtually no barrier at all for employees to find resources to help them figure out problems and grow their careers. There’s no excuse at all to have help distributed across multiple platforms and in many different locations.

The more barriers you put up for employees to find what they need, the less likely they’ll become self-directed in their learning.

Overcoming Challenges and Roadblocks

Implementing self-directed learning in the workplace may come with its own set of challenges. Here are some common roadblocks and strategies for overcoming them:

  • Lack of Time: Employees may struggle to find time for self-directed learning amidst their daily work responsibilities. Organizations can address this challenge by incorporating dedicated learning time into employees’ schedules or allowing flexible work arrangements that accommodate learning activities.
  • Lack of Awareness: Some employees may not be aware of the available resources or how to navigate self-directed learning opportunities. Organizations should proactively communicate the benefits of self-directed learning and provide guidance on accessing relevant resources.
  • Leadership: Sometimes leadership is the barrier to innovating with self-directed leadership. Maybe the sponsor is on board and wants to encourage employees but front-line managers are not. Be sure everyone is on board for change and if they’re not then corrective action should be taken.

Everyone in the organization needs to be on the same page. One person says “yes use this great resource” and another says “this resource is bad don’t use it” won’t help. Everyone from the top to the bottom needs to be on the same page.

If the platform for getting help and finding resources is bad, make sure that’s resolved first. A quality platform must be implemented before it’s promoted as the best location for employees to go to find help.

Measuring and Evaluating Learning Outcomes

Sometimes the good ol’ fashion way is the best way. For self-directed learning, it may mean employees have a training plan that they create themselves and review with their direct manager. When following up the manager can ask what the outcomes are and document that information.

Sometimes that’s the best way to evaluate learning outcomes and the only way no matter how manual it is. Sometimes it’s possible to evaluate the effectiveness in other ways too. It could be gathering survey information which is something we always do in contextual help.

Gathering data, feedback, and direct input from employees are all good ways to evaluate learning outcomes.

Raw numbers can also help guide evaluating the usefulness and effectiveness of resources. Is a help article being viewed a lot or is it not being viewed at all? For those resources that aren’t being viewed, you can then evaluate if it’s simply not helpful, uses the wrong terminology, or needs some other adjustment.

By using different pieces of information you can piece together a more holistic view of how self-directed resources are being used.

Sustaining a Culture of Self-Directed Learning

It’s not likely that any organization can simply declare they want all employees to be self-directed learners and it simply happens. It’s an ongoing process and a change that can take a lot of effort to make.

Not only is it a process to implement, but it also must be sustained and become part of the company culture. If enough care isn’t used then employees could simply fall back into old ways of depending on others to help them with everything.

There are some ways you can keep up a culture of self-directed learning, though. Here are a few:

  • Recognize and Celebrate Learning Achievements: Acknowledge and celebrate employees’ learning achievements to reinforce the value of self-directed learning. This can be done through internal communications, recognition programs, or showcasing success stories. Or simply use the recognition features built into many enterprise social networks such as Viva Engage.
Posting praise on Microsoft Viva Engage to encourage self-directed learning.
  • Encourage Peer Learning: Foster a culture of knowledge sharing by encouraging employees to share their expertise with colleagues. This can be done through lunch-and-learn sessions, mentorship programs, or online communities where employees can exchange ideas and insights. Communities of Practice that meet regularly are a great way to share and help encourage self-directed learning.

Wrap Up

While self-directed learning will never take the place of formal training, they complement each other well. Self-directed learning is a powerful approach that empowers employees to take control of their learning journey.

By embracing this philosophy as part of their employee’s growth, organizations can tap into the full potential of their workforce and foster a culture of continuous growth and adaptability. To encourage self-directed learning in the workplace, organizations should provide access to resources and tools, set clear learning goals, overcome challenges, measure outcomes, and sustain a supportive environment.

By doing so, they can empower their employees to thrive in today’s rapidly changing business landscape. If you’d like to discuss how to create a plan for empowering self-directed learning in your organization, schedule a free consultation. Our professional instructional design consultants can help work with you to enable a culture of continuous improvement and employee growth in your organization.

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