In our constantly changing world, continuous learning is crucial for any organization. When time is of the essence, it can be difficult to facilitate formal courses and programs. In such cases, it becomes the learners’ responsibility to allocate the information and resources they need to propel their professional development forward. This scenario is becoming more common in the modern workplace, and employers and learners are now showing more interest in self-directed forms of learning. However, according to a Towards Maturity study in 2017, only a quarter of L&D leaders feel they have successfully supported self-directed learning (SDL) in their organizations.

I recently had the opportunity to interview Catherine Lombardozzi, L&D consultant at Learning 4 Learning Professionals and author of Self-directed Learning: Essential Strategy for a Rapidly Changing World, to get a more in-depth analysis of the current and future states of SDL and how it will affect both learners and leaders.

Megan Dybczak: Tell me a little about your background, and how you became interested in self-directed learning.

Catherine Lombardozzi: I have been a learning professional for my entire career, and I am a bit of a theory geek. When new initiatives or techniques begin to rise in prominence, my instinct is to find the theory, research, and case studies that help me to understand the next new thing so that I have the deep knowledge I need to work with my clients and help them succeed.

When L&D first started to become more actively interested in informal, social, and experiential learning (a few decades ago!), it was clear to me that we would be relying on people to be more self-directed. That became even more imperative when we embraced the notion of curating resources instead of designing courses. When I wrote Learning Environments by Design (2015)—which is about how to deliberately curate a variety of resources and activities to support specific development goals—I included a chapter on self-directed learning so that people could understand what might need to be in place for these strategies to work.

MD: Why are organizations today pivoting to self-directed learning initiatives?

CL: For organizations, it is a response to the speed of change. I think they need employees to manage their own development, and they are willing to dedicate resources to supporting their efforts. Organizations recognize that resources, people, and activities that can support learning are abundant—especially to anyone with an internet connection—so it’s entirely possible for people to find what they need without L&D having to create a formal course. It is less resource-intensive to curate resources than it is to design programs from scratch. SDL is often seen as more personal, more efficient, and more up-to-date than formal learning.

Here’s another interesting point. As I was writing the research report, it felt odd in some ways to focus on what the organization can do to support SDL. People are pivoting to SDL as well—they are choosing to pursue their own learning goals independent of their organizations. That may be because they’re changing careers, they’re pursuing non-work learning projects, or they’re not getting the support they need from those who should be helping them to develop.

And isn’t self-directed learning, by definition, something that people do for themselves? It might be more important to address people directly—to inform them about what they need to do to effectively manage their learning. That’s another paper altogether. Some of my work involves coaching professionals to define and achieve their learning goals, and in those interactions, I am often coaching on the “wherewithal” that was identified in the research report—helping them to develop the deep skills and qualities that allow them to thrive in learning on their own.

MD: What are the benefits of self-directed learning?

CL: Self-directed learning is often more targeted, more personal, more efficient, and more impactful. It enables people to develop capabilities as they need them. And it helps people to make career changes and learn personal pursuits without having to involve their managers or other formal guides in that process. To me, self-directed learning feels empowering and stimulating—it’s part of what allows humans to thrive in a provocative, fascinating, challenging, and rapidly changing world.

MD: What are the most common reasons why companies avoid or resist self-directed learning?

CL: Organizations like to keep track of learning and development activities, and self-directed learning isn’t amenable to that. More importantly, companies need to ensure their employees are indeed attaining needed capabilities and it feels risky to not take a direct hand in people’s development. In some instances, organizations worry that people will learn the wrong thing, or learn it badly, with negative consequences falling on the organization as well as the individual. Some L&D organizations are leery as well—they are concerned that their profiles will be lessened—that they’ll be replaced by Google or any number of other algorithmic tools that purport to direct people to what they need very efficiently.

MD: How can L&D leaders best support self-directed learning?

CL: The self-directed learning research report named seven specific environmental supports for self-directed learning, and L&D leaders will do well to ensure these supports are in place.

Deep interpersonal connections. L&D leaders can collaborate to cultivate a learning culture that encourages people to help one another and creates an atmosphere of psychological safety. They can also actively help people connect with others who can support their learning.

Accessibility of high-quality curated resources. L&D should curate resources for high-impact skills in the organization so people can quickly access learning resources when they need them.

Allocated time for learning. I would love to see L&D leaders advocate for dedicated time for learning—in whatever fashion is best for their particular organization and its employees. We can start with our own departments—setting aside a specific amount of time for people to work on their learning projects, perhaps holding a “study hall” for all on a regular basis.

Developmental support for strengthening learning skills. L&D can make learn-to-learn resources available to the organization, and perhaps have an ongoing communication or microlearning effort to strengthen learning skills. Many people are used to having learning plans devised for them, and they may need to learn how to effectively self-direct. However, Arun Pradhan, who has done a lot of work in this area, cautions that we’ll be more successful if learn-to-learn programs are connected to specific business initiatives and not offered as a stand-alone topic.

Management engagement. As part of leadership development efforts, L&D can help prepare managers for their role in supporting, but not taking over, their employee’s ongoing growth and development. Strengthening employee development and coaching skills might be a good place to start if this is not already on your leader development agenda.

Employee control over learning processes. This is the hard one. If employees are to be encouraged to self-direct their learning, we can’t impose our own goals, requirements, and constraints on what they do. It’s best to hold people accountable for skill advancement rather than holding them accountable for proving they undertook learning activities.

MD: How have recent events like the global pandemic affected self-directed learning?

CL: Oh, my—in so many ways. It certainly raised the profile of SDL, with so many people needing to upskill very quickly and a limited number of organizational resources to go around in supporting them. The pandemic affected people differently, and their needs for SDL had diverse drivers.

Many people lost their jobs, and it’s not clear they are going to get them back. They may need to reskill for different roles in the future, and without an employer, it’s up to them to figure out what they want to learn and how.

Other people found their jobs change dramatically, needing to interact virtually, use tools that were unfamiliar, and take on new roles and tasks. So they had to jump in to get themselves up to speed.

Some folks actually found themselves with time on their hands—they were getting paid, but the work wasn’t filling up as much time as before. These folks could embark on addressing their development goals and advance their skill sets while the work was on pause.

I had a call with one such learning professional early on in the shutdown. She had actually been laid off, although she expected she would get to go back to work when retail opened back up again. But in the meantime, she took advantage of the time to do some research and find learning resources to better position herself for higher-level L&D roles in her future. Good for her!

MD: What in your opinion is the future of self-directed learning?

CL: Humans are learners. Learning is what allows us to flourish. When the need arises, people figure out how to gain the appropriate knowledge base and skill. That will most certainly continue into the future, as the speed of change is not slowing down. I think we will continue to experiment with ways that technology can support our efforts, and there is no shortage of exciting technology on the horizon that will be fun to engage for learning purposes.

My dream is that we make it possible for people to dedicate more time to learning, to support career changes that come more often, upskilling as roles change, and even to learn more about personal interest topics and skills to enrich our lives. Having grown up on Star Trek, I have a utopian vision of people being enabled and encouraged to not only master their jobs, but pursue other interests for the intellectual exercise and pleasure they bring.

Even with all the stress of being locked down in our homes these last few months, people took time to reevaluate and consider their life goals and choices, and I think we’re looking to not “go back to normal” but instead make some changes for the better. I believe self-directed learning will be part of what’s needed to achieve our new vision for our lives.

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Dive deeper into the three principal dynamics of self-directed learning by downloading your free copy of Catherine’s research report, Self-directed Learning: Essential Strategy for a Rapidly Changing World.

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