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Self-directed learning achieves best results

Release Date

21 October 2013


‘Learning factories’ that rely on standardised ‘best practice’ techniques are actually unlikely to achieve the best practice results organisations hope for. Self-directed learning by employees is far more effective, because they can use the techniques that work best for them.

Many ways to learn best

According to Mark Moore, Director of Excelerated Performance International, there are no ‘good’ or ‘bad’ ways to learn, people vary widely in their preference of methods and it is a matter of them discovering and using the methods that work best for them. People often don’t realise when they are learning, and don’t realise what they have learned until sometime afterwards.

‘Learning factories’ don’t work

A recent survey by Kelly Services that claimed that 90% of employees have either left or considered leaving their jobs during the past 12 months. Moore says this indicates that employees are willing to take matters into their own hands, and therefore herding them into standard ‘learning factory’ types of courses is wasteful and doesn’t engage them.

Organisations need to find a balance between meeting the requirements of compliance and regulation while trying to encourage creativity, innovation, use of judgment and high standards of customer service. To be productive, employees have to be happy, interested in their work, able to use their strengths and take pride in their work.

Show commitment to the individual

Another dilemma for organisations is that learning initiatives often show more commitment to the needs of the organisation than individual employees. Structures that result from this may actually prevent learning from occurring. There should be a ‘win/win’ approach, as both parties stand to gain from employee learning. It is important therefore to display care for employees’ needs, and recognise and support them to learn.

A recommended initial approach is to ask each employee to compare ‘where are you now’ with ‘where do you want to head to’, and emphasise the importance of employees continuing to improve their ability, skills and value to both themselves and the business.

Pitfalls of an ‘accountability culture’

Moore said that many organisations spoon-feed employees the need to take ownership and show accountability for learning, but then they fail to provide a culture and environment to support doing it. Micromanagement is often a cause of the problems, and it is sometimes hard to work out whom employees are ‘accountable’ to.

Learning is not done to people, it is done BY them. It involves shifts in awareness and can include both positive and negative emotions, eg some learning results from fear and mistakes.

Moore recommends using the ‘win/win’ sales pitch up-front. The selling has to go to both employees and their line managers, as the latter often block learning, eg by trying to focus employees on ‘meeting targets’ instead. The aim is to persuade employees to volunteer for learning activities for their own reasons, but at the same time allowing the organisation to benefit from it as well.

Overcoming fear of learning

While they may have dreams, some are fearful of taking the first step. Moore suggests the following approach:

  • Ask them, ‘what’s the worst thing that can happen’?
  • Try to find out why they are afraid. Encourage them to learn more about the issue, eg by obtaining actual statistics.
  • Arrange for them to meet someone who has already been through the process.
  • Provide assistance via coaching and appropriate tools.
  • Encourage them to take an initial ‘baby step’. For example, if there is a fear of public speaking, arrange for the employee to make an initial presentation to a small group of 3-5 people only.

Moore recommends that employees be assisted to do their own return-on-investment analysis of their learning activities (eg extra revenue earned, cost/time saved, etc). There are commercially available tools to help with this.


Larry Forsyth is a Senior Manager, WHS & HR Consulting Services with Australian Business Consulting & Solutions. If you have any questions, please contact him on 07 3842 2210 or larry.forsyth@australianbusiness.com.au

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