How to Introduce a Self-Directed Learning Program into Your Organization

Big Think Edge | October 10, 2017

Self-Directed Learning (SDL) initiatives make employees pick and choose what they learn and when. Enabling employees to learn independently rather than from a formal training schedule offers benefits that can be hard to ignore, such as:

  • Faster Employee Learning. Rather than having to wait for a formal training program to be assembled on a subject, employees can simply start learning on their own schedule—saving time.
  • More Flexible Learning Opportunities. Formal learning programs tend to be linear. Learners get things one lesson at a time—whether they need that lesson or not. SDL allows learners to study what is of the most interest or use to them. This increases flexibility of training so you don’t have employees wasting time and energy in remedial training they don’t need.
  • Increased Engagement with Learning. Avoiding wasting time on remedial lessons actually boosts learning results. As noted in research cited by the Association for Psychological Science (APS), “the active nature of self-directed learning also helps us in encoding information and retaining it over time.” The sense of control that SDL provides helps learners engage more with what they study, improving their long-term retention of information.

For an SDL program to be effective, employees have to be both able to effectively guide their own development and sufficiently motivated to do so. This can be a major issue for SDL. As the APS article states, “we’re not always optimal self-directed learners. The many cognitive biases and heuristics that we rely on to help us make decisions can also influence what information we pay attention to and, ultimately, learn.”

The question is, “how can your organization introduce a self-directed learning program so it actually has a positive impact?”

Here are a few things that your organization may be able to do to ensure effective implementation of your self-directed learning initiative:

1) Create a List of Desired Skills and Share it with Employees

Even though you might not be using a formal training regimen, you still want to make sure that employees are using their learning time to gain knowledge and skills that will actually benefit the organization. For example, if you’re part of a Fintech firm specializing in business apps, odds are that you don’t need all of your staff to know how to use physics simulation software.

To help ensure that employees are studying things that actually matter to your organization, it may be useful to create a list or chart detailing all of the skills that your organization needs. This list helps you see what skills gaps there are in your organization.

By making this chart public for all employees to see, self-directed learners can prioritize the most important skills that your organization needs.

For example, a manufacturing company might have skills like 3D printer operation/maintenance, welding, or product packaging and shipment as mission-critical skills for fulfilling customer orders. If only one employee had any of these skills, then orders couldn’t be fulfilled should that one person be missing.

With a chart or list of desired skills, you can encourage more employees to learn these critical skills and create some overlap in skill sets so one employee’s absence doesn’t affect operations.

2) Incentivize Learning New Skills

Simply having a “skills wanted” list may help, but you may need to incentivize employees to pick up the most desirable skills—especially if said skills take a lot of time and effort to master.

There are a number of ways to encourage employees to use self-directed learning time to master specific skills, such as:

  • Tying Critical Skills to Pay Increases. Some organizations incentivize the learning of new skills by tying important skills to permanent pay increases—the more important/difficult the skill, the bigger the raise. While some employees may not be motivated by pay alone, this method of incentivizing learning can still be effective.
  • Highlighting Opportunities for Internal Mobility. Some workers may be more motivated to learn new things if it gives them the chance to shake things up. Highlighting how specific skills can allow workers to switch departments or move up the ladder can make them more interested in using SDL time to master those skills.
  • Making Skills Acquisition Competitive. A few organizations have had success with creating lists that show not only the most desired skills in the organization, but who has what skills. By publicly sharing these skill matrix charts, employees can see who has the most valuable skills—encouraging some healthy competition.

Any of these strategies can help motivate employees to learn new skills. In fact, it’s possible to use several of these strategies in combination to motivate different employees.

3) Make Learning Resources Readily Available

Because self-directed learning programs rely heavily on the employees to take the initiative for training, it’s important to remove obstacles to training. Any difficulties that employees experience in accessing training resources, such as not knowing where to start, limited copies of a text/seats for a webinar, or restricted access times can stop SDL before it begins.

Making sure that employees have a place to start with any training they may need to take as well as ready access to training resources is a must if SDL is to be successful.

One easy fix is to use online learning resources, such as short-form videos in custom learning modules, to deliver key lessons to employees. Pre-recorded lessons on an online platform can be accessed at any time—no need to wait for a live lecture. However, it’s important to make sure that the online learning platform either provides enough virtual “seats” for each lesson or doesn’t enforce a seat limit so all of your employees can access the lesson at any time.

Additionally, designing custom courses around each skill your organization needs for various jobs and roles ensures that employees have a clear start and end point for their self-directed learning efforts. This helps remove the “I don’t know where to start” obstacle from SDL.

While there are no guarantees that having employees direct their own learning efforts will work 100% of the time, SDL can be invaluable for building employee skills, confidence and drive.

Do you have everything you need to successfully introduce a self-directed learning program to your employees? Make sure your employees have access to the right learning resources with Big Think Edge!

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