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To Learn Or Not To Learn (On Your Own)

9 April 2013

± minute read

    To Learn Or Not To Learn (On Your Own)
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"The only learning which significantly influences behaviour is self-discovered, self-appropriated learning."

CARL ROGERS The rapidly changing world of work generates a continuous flow of new information to which we need to adjust. Globalisation and technological developments challenge us on a daily basis to cope with these changes, and for many organisations, lack of access to the right skills is becoming a problem. Also, the world of work no longer offers us jobs that we can pursue over one lifetime. Most of us are likely to be required to make several job shifts during our working lives. Briscoe and Hall, gurus in the field of careers, mention that although this new world of work may offer opportunities for greater self-fulfilment, career success (and for that matter, success of organisations) will greatly depend on the continuous updating of knowledge and skills. The time lapse between knowledge acquisition and obsolescence is becoming smaller, therefore new ways of learning, in addition to formal training, need to be explored. Self-directed learning may offer a solution to attempts to adjust to these challenges. Research has shown that self-directed learners are better able to adapt to changes in their environments, to actualise their potential as leaders, and to remain resilient in the face of career-related or educational challenges and obstacles.

What is self-directed learning?

Malcolm Knowles, one of the pioneers of self-directed learning defined this concept as a process in which the individual initiates learning, makes decisions about specific training and development experiences, and how these will be structured. The learner selects and carries out his or her own learning goals, objectives, methods and means to ensure that these goals are met. Self-directed learning becomes powerful when you take a systematic approach to it. This means taking time to decide:

  • what knowledge, skills or understanding you need in order to move on, or take on new responsibilities;
  • how you will acquire these skills, what learning options will work best for you;
  • what evidence will show that you have gained the knowledge, skills and understanding aimed for. What differences will be observable? How will others know that you have arrived at this level?

How relevant is self-directed learning in my organisation?

President and founder of Corporate Training Consultants, Dana Skiff, says that self-directed learning is relevant to any workplace where learning is required. This includes all industries, professions or organisations of any size. According to Skiff, it is particularly relevant in situations where:

  • Learning must occur quickly in response to performance problems, sudden changes in business strategy or in fields where information and knowledge change quickly. Self-directed learning enables employees to respond immediately to a perceived learning need that they have recognised as the result of a change in their work environment.
  • Employees have special or unique individual career development needs. Being self-directed in their learning helps employees to address a specific skill or knowledge deficiency or weakness they need to minimise if they hope to be promoted into a position they desire.
  • It is economically and practically impossible for organisations to respond to all employee learning needs. At some point additional organisational resources can no longer provide a good return on investment.
  • Employee engagement is an issue or concern. Employee involvement in their own learning (read: self-directed learning) has been shown to increase employee engagement.
  • Formal organisational start-up training efforts are not sufficient or adequate to meet training needs of employees. Self-directed learning would be a way of temporarily meeting high-priority, on-going training needs.

How do we benefit from self-directed learning?

Organisations greatly benefit from employees who are self-directed learners. Such employees are expected to keep up to date with developments in their respective fields of work, they take responsibility for their own career and professional development and they are open to changes in the work environment. Self-directed learners are responsible, purposeful, resourceful, self-accepting, and self-disciplined and can rely on their own judgment. If you are a self-directed learner, you can also gain much from working in organisations that promote this type of learning. Such organisations can be expected to be more responsive to your specific learning needs, to allow greater flexibility in terms of work schedules, and to encourage you to update your skills and knowledge. In turn, you may develop meta-skills for approaching and solving problems beyond your immediate assignments, become more self-confident, and more independent in solving work-related problems. Self-directed learning means that you can work in your preferred learning style, learn from your own work experiences, and develop yourself as an active and skilful learner

Whose responsibility is it after all?

Draw up a learning contract

Brockett and Hiemstra, specialists in the field of adult learning, describe an interaction between internal and external factors as influencing self-directed learning. On the one hand, the individual accepts the primary responsibility for the planning, implementation and evaluation of his or her learning, while on the other hand, the organisation needs to provide for the right environment that fosters self-directed learning attempts. One way in which your organisation can support your own learning efforts, is by allowing you to draw up a learning contract. Daniel R. Tobin summarises this as follows:

  1. Specify the company's business goals and how your individual work contributes to their achievement.
  2. Specify how you must change your work to help the company achieve its goals.
  3. Specify what you need to learn in order to make those changes.
  4. Develop a learning plan, including:
    • What you need to learn.
    • What learning resources you will use.
    • A schedule of learning activities.
  5. Specify measures of learning achievement.
  6. Develop a plan for how you will apply your learning to your job.
  7. Specify what changes in business results are expected from the application of your learning to the job.

About the Author

Karina de Bruin is the Managing Director of JvR Academy


Briscoe, J. P. & Hall, D. T. (2006). The interplay of boundaryless and protean careers: Combinations and implications. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 4-18. Brockett, R. G. & Hiemstra, R. (1991). Self-direction in adult learning. Perspectives on theory, research, and practice. London: Routledge. Knowles, M. S. (1975). Self-directed learning. New York: Association Press. McNamara, C. Strong value of self-directed learning in the workplace: How supervisors and learners gain leaps in learning. Skiff, D. Self-directed learning. www.selfdirectedlearning.org Tobin, D. R. Take responsibility for your own learning. http://www.tobincls.com/responsibility.htm Photo Credit: marfis75 via Compfight cc

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