April 15, 2024

How People Teams can Boost Employee Engagement with Self-Directed Learning

Max Kurton

What’s the best learning experience you can remember? 

If you’re like 80% of people in Charles Jennings behavioral science experiment, it’s probably not from a classroom or formal training setting. Often, the things we learn independently, whether that’s listening to a fascinating podcast or quizzing a colleague with a different skill set, are more memorable and engaging than the things we’re simply told

That’s why the trend for self-directed learning is gathering pace. When People teams champion this autonomous approach to learning, it can help employees feel more engaged with their work and more confident, empowering them to be more innovative and to drive results at their organization.

But many organizations still hesitate to adopt self-directed learning despite all the known benefits to the business. Mainly because there is a lack of understanding of how to implement it in the right way so that it benefits both the employee and the employer.

In this blog, we’ll look at:

1. How self-directed learning is linked to higher performance

2. How to offer self-directed learning to your employees with real impact

3. Common misconceptions about self-directed learning

4. What happens when we make employees the CEO of their own role

What is self-directed learning, exactly?

Self-directed learning is when employees take an active role in setting their own development goals and learning targets. Usually, this is done with the support of a manager, but the employee is encouraged to take ownership of the activity.

For example, imagine a customer success team member who wants to learn the fundamentals of data analysis to become more confident working with customer data. Together with their manager, they choose a few relevant courses to support their learning over the next quarter. 

Meanwhile, another team member independently selects a course in digital marketing as a way to make a lateral career move. Both team members are engaged in self-directed L&D.

To encourage these scenarios, People teams can be proactive about building an autonomous learning culture, as we’ll discuss below. First, let’s find out why self-directed learning is a growing trend.

How self-directed learning is linked to higher performance

“Folks who are self-motivated to learn, those are the best learners,” says Gianna Driver, Chief Human Resources Officer (CHRO) at Exabeam. “They prioritize it. They think: 'The company is investing in my growth, so I want to improve and better myself.' When learning is optional, you find that people prioritize it more, and you get people who are serious about it.”

Self-directed learning allows employees to take a more active role in finding development opportunities that challenge them, upskill them, and energize them to succeed. In turn, that could even reduce employee turnover and have numerous other benefits for your people and the business. Here’s why:

It satisfies our need for autonomy

If you’ve ever been micro-managed or worked in any kind of restrictive environment, you’ll understand how quickly motivation can deteriorate in these conditions. 

Giving people a certain level of ownership over their development encourages employee engagement and can even help individuals learn how to make better, more confident decisions at work. Research from PWC links autonomy to stronger job performance, higher job satisfaction, and greater commitment to the organization. 

The learning is more relevant

Nobody knows a sales executive’s job better than a sales executive and their manager. Neither the People Team, CEO, or any other senior leader at your organization knows exactly what learning materials that exec needs to plug their individual skills gaps and meet their developmental goals.

With self-directed learning, employees and managers are empowered to identify their L&D priorities and act on the individual and departmental skills gaps. They get to choose the resources that most effectively meet those needs while moving toward their career goals. Of course, this doesn’t have to replace any prescribed compliance training—it just complements it.

It’ll boost your employee value proposition

A lack of career advancement and L&D opportunities made 35% of people leave their jobs in 2021. That means a significant proportion of people are looking for exactly those things in their next role (potentially at your organization). 

An L&D offering that supports autonomous development and is therefore highly relevant to each individual’s role is a huge bonus for your employee value proposition (EVP). Your EVP is what will attract people to the job, and keep them engaged with it long-term.

🧠Worried about turnover in the tech industry? Find out why tech companies need to rethink their EVP

Performance and job satisfaction could get a boost

Research conducted by Josh Bersin reveals that employees who devote a lot of time to learning are more likely to report greater confidence (21%), productivity (39%), and a willingness to take on more responsibilities (23%).

“There’s a clear relationship between time spent learning and a person’s career satisfaction, career prospects, and general happiness,” says Josh. “People who either have the time or make the time to educate themselves are performing at higher levels.”

When combined with a tailored career progression plan, self-directed learning can provide purpose and help individuals feel supported in their careers. Facilitating peer-led and group learning can encourage a sense of belonging, as well as more cross-functional, connected teams.

Greater job satisfaction, a sense of purpose, and a feeling of belonging can improve employee retention. If people feel more productive and ready to take on responsibility, you could also see a higher ROI on L&D investments. 

How to offer self-directed learning with real impact

When a company has strong employee experience, revenue and profits also rise by over 50%. So, there’s a real incentive for organizations to deliver autonomous learning opportunities that improve the employee experience—now let’s see how it’s done.

Deliver a structured 360° review process

It’s important for performance reviews to happen regularly, following a structure that can be used to track progress over time. While managers are responsible for delivering reviews, People teams can:

1. Roll out a clear performance management and career development framework

2. Establish a calendar for regular reviews

3. Involve feedback from the employee, employer, and other colleagues (aka a 360° review)

4. Set clear targets that relate to business goals and link specific learning targets to them

In 360° reviews, managers don’t just deliver feedback. They guide employees as they review their own performance and gather feedback from colleagues to identify skill gaps and areas of improvement. 

Together, the manager and employee will set learning objectives based on what they need to perform in their jobs today and what they need to meet their long-term career goals. This makes performance reviews feel less one-sided and can give employees the chance to shape their own development while being guided by a manager.

Offer diverse learning resources

What works for your junior engineers won’t be the same as what works for your senior designer. Not only do they need different skills to do their jobs, but they probably have different learning preferences and priorities, too. For example, some people learn better from audiobooks or videos than they do from books or courses.

Likewise, for a strong learning culture, it’s important that employees get a combination of individual, 1:1, and group learning. Autonomous learning isn’t a case of rolling out an LXP subscription and leaving people to it. 

Provide opportunities to develop soft skills

Companies often prioritize certifications and technical skills in their L&D strategy. Of course, this is important, but competitive teams aren’t just made up of individuals with talent. They’re also great at managing, collaborating, and negotiating—among many other soft skills.

“In one’s career, the biggest jump in terms of developmental need comes when you’re an individual contributor who then becomes a first-time manager,” Gianna observes. That’s because the technical skills that made them successful ICs might not be as relevant to managing a team. 

Without soft skills, people can struggle with collaboration, communication, and delegation, which can cause friction and workflow blocks. As Gianna says, it’s especially important to support first-time managers in developing soft skills. After all, they’re the people that shape the culture of your organization. 

Soft skills develop important interpersonal traits that can turn talented individuals into successful high-performers. An L&D marketplace like Learnerbly can help your people find resources that teach soft skills in almost any format, including audiobooks, e-learning subscriptions, mentorship, and videos.

Let people learn things outside their function

It can be tempting to encourage learning only when there’s a clear cost benefit for the organization. For example, upskilling a marketing exec in search engine optimization (SEO) so they can generate more website traffic. But this can lead to a transactional, top-down approach to learning that doesn’t allow individuals to think broadly about their development.

When people are free to learn transferable skills, they become better equipped to support other departments when cover is needed. Plus, their wider knowledge base may improve their ability to problem-solve and think creatively.

Provide transparent individual learning stipends

Some exec teams can be hesitant to broadcast the company’s L&D budget. Of course, they want their people to learn, but can they really be trusted to spend that money wisely? 

The problem is, if you don’t advocate for the opportunities available, then only the most outspoken team members get access to L&D. Meanwhile, the majority of the company either doesn’t know what’s available or doesn’t feel comfortable asking for it. 

However, when L&D is more widely accessible, this results in more learning, smaller skills gaps, and stronger performance across the organization. That’s why Learnerbly supports transparent learning budgets, meaning your people can see exactly what they have to spend. In our experience, this leads to higher learning engagement and more relevant learning because people spend more time making sure each resource is worth the cost.

🧠 Find out how to make your L&D budgets more effective. Get the e-book.

Analyze learning engagement data and keep iterating

The workforce is always evolving, so People strategies need to be adaptable. Delivering an impactful L&D program depends on your ability to measure its performance and iterate on it as your business goals and employees' needs change.

Analyzing L&D engagement and learner sentiments will show you what’s working and what needs improving. This data will set benchmarks as you adjust your strategies for best performance and demonstrate their success to the leadership team.

Tracking learning engagement is the first step. That’s easy to do if you use a learning platform like Learnerbly, where you’ll receive engagement reports that show metrics like budget utilization. Alongside the data you get from Learnerbly, be sure to track metrics that you can relate to the wider company KPIs so you can measure the ROI of your L&D initiatives. 

For example, you could track other employee metrics like attrition and net promoter score (eNPS) to see if autonomous L&D is impacting employee satisfaction. This will also help demonstrate their value to the C-suite and get buy-in for future L&D programs.

Debunking the myths around self-directed learning

Some leaders may be reluctant to commit to self-directed learning. They already have a basic compliance training program and it’s safer to stick to what they know. Here are some of the biggest myths holding leaders back:

Learning can’t be tied back to business objectives

People team’s budgets are always under scrutiny because your C-Suite needs to know exactly how your work ties into the wider goals of the business. That’s why data is key to a successful self-directed learning initiative.

When employees get placed in the driving seat of their own learning, they don’t do it without guidance. It’s up to People teams to equip managers with the business context they need to collaborate with employees and facilitate self-directed learning in a way that supports wider business objectives.

For example, it helps to establish a robust performance review system and conduct a skills gap analysis for every department. This will help you identify which skills are essential to business performance and encourage managers to work with employees to balance their priorities.

Not only that, but self-directed learning can help employees feel valued and supported to grow. This isn’t just a nice-to-have, since employee satisfaction is vital for productivity and contributes to your EVP in the same way a well-being program or an unlimited paid time off scheme does.

💡Pro tip: When employees know which skills to prioritize, they can easily search their learning goals in a marketplace like Learnerbly and get AI recommendations for relevant resources.

Self-directed learning isn’t collaborative

It’s called self-directed learning because it hands ownership to the employee. That doesn’t mean it’s done in isolation.

Firstly, it’s particularly important for employees to have the support of their manager as they prioritize and set goals. They get to explore their interests and choose resources that suit their learning preferences while collaborating with the manager to keep their learning relevant to their role and the wider business objectives. 

Self-directed learning can also be social. For example, with Learnerbly, your people can choose to share their resource requests with their peers, and managers can even create learning playlists so that everyone can get inspired by each other’s learning.

Employees can be encouraged to deliver as well as participate in, learning. Let’s say a researcher is trying to raise their profile internally and apply for management positions. 

They set a personal goal to practice their own leadership skills while improving data literacy at the company by teaming up with a data analyst and providing presentations and Q&A sessions. Not only does this align with the business’s digital strategy, but it also encourages a culture of collaborative, peer-to-peer learning across the organization—without the cost of an external trainer.

Employees will take their skills and leave

It’s always a risk that your L&D program will be so good that someone hits their development goals using company resources—and then gets a great new job elsewhere. But that’s not a good enough reason to deprive people of engaging, relevant learning opportunities.  

This mindset is a barrier to innovation and prevents organizations from creating a supportive, challenging work environment that makes employees glad to stay for longer. A strong learning culture can foster a sense of belonging, which is fundamental to employee retention.

What happens when we make employees the CEO of their own role?

Look at 20 job descriptions from different organizations, and 19 of them will have words like “ownership” or “accountability” listed in their company values. Leaders want employees to act like owners and drive their work forward in line with the company’s strategic goals. Self-directed learning is one way to embed this highly autonomous working culture.

When that culture is successful, employees take intelligent risks, are more effective collaborators, and become more motivated and committed in their roles. L&D isn’t the only way to get there, but self-directed learning can help provide the confidence and skills employees need to step up and act like the CEOs of their own roles.

To build a culture of self-directed learning, facilitate a collaborative review process in which individuals are encouraged to identify their skills gaps and career goals.

It also helps to provide a wide range of resources to suit every type of learning path. Try an L&D platform like Learnerbly, which has access to multi-modal resources from over 200 quality learning providers. With Learnerbly, your people get complete transparency over their learning budgets and are empowered to choose the learning materials that inspire them.

Speak to us today to learn more about employee engagement and self-directed learning.

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