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Self-Directed Learning

Andrew Heather 

February 6, 2015

Does self-directed learning (SDL) signal the end of formal training and development? Is it time to convert the classrooms into conference rooms, put the whiteboard markers in the supplies closet, and recycle the flipcharts once and for all? Speaking from the non-manufacturing arena in which I have worked for nearly 20 years, I believe the answer is yes, with two notable exceptions.

To begin with, a working definition of SDL is in order. Educator and author Maurice Gibbons offers a clear, concise definition of SDL: “In self-directed learning, the individual takes the initiative and the responsibility for what occurs. Individuals select, manage, and assess their own learning activities, which can be pursued at any time, in any place, through any means, at any age.”

While self-directed learners may choose to attend formal training events in which the structure and timing are dictated by others, training consultant Dana Skiff notes that “…the vast majority of learning done by a self-directed learner involves informal learning-like methods.”

Gibbons adds that “…self-direction is much more than a few technical steps. It also involves your attitudes, drives, focus, and even your lifestyle.”  This is helpful, because it gets to the heart of why SDL has become the predominant learning method of choice: control.

In my corporate experience, employees are increasingly pressed for time to meet productivity expectations, while, at the same time, building essential working relationships across the enterprise. When faced with a knowledge or skill “gap,” they seek a learning option that is laser focused on their needs and delivered as efficiently as possible. Scheduled training events and structured e-learning courses take control away from the employee-learner; thus, they are often considered less convenient or, worse, less relevant.

Put bluntly, employees are motivated to “close the gap,” but losing control over content and timing is a heavy price to pay. Thanks to the ubiquitous nature of the Internet (supported by massive search engines like Google and social media sites like LinkedIn) and the ever-improving capabilities of personal devices, they don’t have to. Because the Web’s vast global network of people and information resources covers seemingly every topic imaginable, via multiple media, to satisfy different learning styles, self-directed learners are empowered to take charge of their learning.

SDL, a “tidal wave” powered by the Web and advanced personal devices, has indeed left formal training in its wake. Despite many casualties, two areas that will likely survive are high-level leadership development and sales training. High-level leadership development programs will continue to be delivered conventionally, in part because they are a rite of passage. Invitation lists are restricted and the number of seats is limited, all of which contributes to a feeling of having “arrived” as a member of a special group within the company: “management.” Company executives often participate as speakers, and the training content/design quality are often at a higher level than a company’s standard offerings. In fact, research firm Bersin by Deloitte reported in February 2014 that the top area of training spend is management and leadership (35 percent of spending). All told, who would decline an invitation to participate, no matter how busy?

Sales training delivered in person will also continue via traditional training methods, largely because of the nature of the work. Employees who deliver inaccurate product information or use non-compliant sales tactics would put the company at risk. Sales certifications as part of larger sales training events are best done face-to-face, to enable effective coaching and to build motivation and commitment.

Excluding the areas noted above, formal training has been crushed by the force of SDL, in my opinion. Recasting the role of the training function to address this reality and understanding related career implications for T&D professionals like me are important topics for another day.

Do you agree that formal training has been swept away by the “tidal wave” of self-directed learning? Join in the discussion below!

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3 comments on “Self-Directed Learning”:

  1. KHAIRI LOTFI wrote:

    This is not actually to write a comment right now. Just to indicate my willingness to join the group.
    I once had a three-week training at Sterling University, UK, (back in 1993) and it centered on SDL. I might contribute later, when I feel ready for that.

  2. Denis wrote:

    More and more people have less and less time and inclination to sit thru presentations, even interactive ones. I work in a church environment that relies heavily on volunteers. These wonderful folks work all day and have very little time for extended training seminars. I’m looking to provide them with content training with feedback opportunities that they can listen to or watch on their own time and then provide them with “mentoring” or coaching interactive sessions.

  3. Jim Sanderson wrote:

    Ameet… I agree. In our world of rapid change the need for SDL is coming of age and only those individuals who embrace it will thrive and prosper. Communications technology is evolving rapidly and even traditional education k12 and post high school education will either adapt or become a thing of the past. Entrepreneurship is on the rise and with it business models that will provide innovation as the rule instead of the exception in all industries private and public. The time-tested principles will still provide needed anchors; constancy amid change. However, how those principles are applied will be determined by ever changing circumstance; and rapid change dictates the need for agile learning, learning that requires individuals to step up and take responsibility.