How to Facilitate a Culture of Self-Driven Learning

Critical steps organizations must take to give informal learning the active support necessary to drive successful performance outcomes.

Research reveals that workers today spend an average 505 hours a year learning: 484 informally and 21 formally. So although a limited training budget might mean scaling back on the hours spent in seminars, classes, and workshops, that doesn't mean employees can't learn in other ways. 

Informal learning empowers employees to go out into the world to find their own learning content. From podcasts to blogs to online videos, people have the power to learn in more ways and places than ever before. But while learners today have 24/7 access to technology-enabled, just-in-time learning, Learning and Development (L&D) leaders can’t just let it ride and expect results. 

The Truth About Informal Learning                                           

Informal, online learning has the power to grow individuals, the business, and the results of L&D programs. But too frequently, it simply does not live up to its promise or its potential—largely because of a hands-off, “build it and they will come” approach. 

No matter the type of learning, employees need a healthy dose of support and structure. And to get the most value out of informal learning, Learning leaders must start by ingraining the drive to find information and learn on an ongoing basis into an organization’s culture.

But how exactly do you foster this culture of continuous development and facilitate self-driven learning that moves the needle on performance? 

Embracing a Culture of Continuous Development

Ever since “Google” became a verb, most people in the workplace are relatively competent at finding what they need. But there are a few critical steps organizations must take to give informal learning the active support necessary to drive successful performance outcomes. 

Learning leaders can develop an organizational mindset that prioritizes continuous development by incorporating aspects of learning and development into the organization’s mission statement and annual goal-setting process. Since managers have the greatest direct impact on employees, it’s also vital to ensure managers have the resources and training they need to nurture employee-led learning. Encourage managers to “make space” for employees to pursue learning at work by not overloading them with tasks or assigning learning tasks outright. 

Managers can get into the informal learning game by having employees set learning objectives during goal-setting discussions, as well as utilizing one-to-one meetings to coach employees to continue their self-directed learning. Asking questions such as, “What did you learn when you weren’t looking for it?” and “How can you make yourself aware of learning that happened unintentionally?” can help employees further develop their motivation and appetite to learn independently. By setting departmental training budgets to be spent on MOOCs (massive open online courses), subscription-only journals, or paid industry news sources, managers also can demonstrate their commitment to continuous learning.

Informal Learning Experiences with Measurable Impact

Informal learning frees learners to explore beyond employer-directed training, but it still needs to support the needs of the broader organization. After all, what is the goal of learning and development if not to improve business outcomes? 

While it’s imperative to demonstrate the tangible business impact of any L&D initiative, it’s here that informal learning typically presents challenges. It’s the very nature of informal learning that makes it so valuable to employees—and what makes it such a beast to tackle for L&D leaders who still need to measure learning effectiveness. How do you embrace employees’ thirst for informal learning andtrack and measure it all—without destroying what makes employee-led learning so effective? 

To give informal learning the structure needed to flourish, provide a place where employees can share “found” content. Whether that’s a learning tech platform or another online location, having a central place where learners can share, rate, follow, and collaborate on content enables employees to efficiently find the most relevant resources. 

It’s a uniquely human trait to want to share what we learn with others—and to keep track of information for future reference. By tracking all informal learning in a centralized location, organizations can help support learner-driven development, while also gaining access to the analytics and reporting needed to demonstrate the business impact of informal learning.

Enabling Learning Without Boundaries

Informal learning is not a new idea—people have been learning “on the job” for centuries. Information on any topic or skill is now just a click away for anybody with a smartphone, and your employees already are going to Google, YouTube, blogs, books, and podcasts to get the answers they need. Information is ubiquitous and informal learning is the name of the game.

But while employees are taking advantage of self-driven education, organizations historically have not been very good at harnessing its full potential to connect learning to performance and improve business outcomes. By actively creating an organizational culture that puts employees in the driver’s seat of their own development—and leveraging technology to organize, track, and measure informal learning—organizations can truly empower employees to learn without boundaries.

As the chief people officer of Saba Software, Debbie Shotwell is responsible for human resources, learning and development, employee communications, and community relations.Shotwell brings more than 25 years of passion and experience building high-performance teams and cultures that deliver results. She is a Certified Compensation Professional (CCP), a member of the Society for Human Resources Management (SHRM) and has been featured on Inc.comForbes, and the SHRM blog. She is the recipient of the National Association of Professional Women’s Humanitarian Award, and has served on the board of directors of Pleasanton Partners in Education and 101 Best and Brightest.

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