Self Directed Learning

It’s Saturday and I’m thinking about leadership development mid-afternoon. Something about that equation isn’t right.

As an internal practitioner, I’m faced with some challenges. The learning and development I help facilitate needs to be relevant, responsive, and meets people’s myriad of needs. I need to be mindful of how technology can help support learning, and in turn how various vendors are bringing this technology to market. I also need to remain mindful of how our understanding of how learning happens in humans is becoming more and more advanced.

In a recent post I wrote about leadership development not being up to par and how specifically I didn’t know what the answer was.

So let’s make some assumptions for a moment. Front line managers will always need a formal training process which guides them through a journey of self development and improving their general management skills and behaviours. Senior managers tend to be given a more developed version of that training. Directors and Executive teams tend to go for the MBA or Exec coaching approach.

I’m currently putting some thought to how to support our senior managers with their leadership development. What I’m trying to get my head round is how to decide what content, and what delivery methods will work best for them. Content is in abundance in this area, delivery methodologies are varied, and there is the added nuance that their needs will be different. They’re a skilled bunch, this is why they’re at the level they are. They’re keen to receive some development, and are open to ideas. Blank canvas anyone?

Essentially I’m toying around with how to enable an organic form of learning which still meets business needs.

I’m thinking this needs to fall into two camps. One is about the content, and the other is about the delivery choices.

Facilitated Learning

In order for this organic process to work, I’m wondering if there still needs to be some facilitation from me. Do I still need to control what this programme looks like, and remain the arbiter of the realm. I have just as much of an ego as anyone else, and what to be able to say my big brain (hold the jokes folks) came up with the bright idea.

What I’d like to do is the following. I want to hold a session where I present what content could potentially form the programme. We then have an open discussion about which parts are more relevant and require more focus, and which can be self-directed. The parts identified as needing more focus will become a workshop, or a masterclass, or a course. The other areas will be open to self-directed learning process.

I also want to be explicitly clear about what this self-directed learning actually means, and have a discussion about how that learning is captured, shared and available for scrutiny. By scrutiny I don’t mean assessment of the learning, but being able to interrogate what learning actually took place, and how they have noticed a development of their skills, knowledge or behaviour.

The Content

From the content what I’m aiming for is to have an agreed set of topics which everyone wants to receive some formal instruction on. I also want to explore how that topic is delivered. As I’ve alluded, some topics may require a masterclass session. Some may require a full day’s course or workshop. Some topics may even require a formal qualification. There are two important considerations here. The first is that it’s the people identifying what that learning looks like. I just need to present options for making the learning happen. The second is that they identify which parts of the topic require this formal instruction.

Self Directed Learning

This is the piece which I think captures this whole unknown area of ‘social learning’ and ‘content curation’ which is being banded around by many ‘expert’ L&Ders. Once we’ve discovered which content doesn’t require formal instruction, we can then open up the options for what this self directed learning needs to cover. Leading on from there, this naturally becomes an individual choice about how they receive that learning. We (royal) are well aware of the plethora media and content sites available online for a range of learning. Naturally there will also be other (non-digital) options available too – books, journals, coaching, mentoring, etc.

I think it’s important in the context of a programme of learning that even though this self directed learning may ordinarily naturally happen, what I’m trying to go for is making the informal formal. That’s a complete contradiction in terms, but it’s the only way I can think of describing what I’m thinking. The informal learning is respective to the natural learning style of the individual. We agree how they will capture that learning, share it, and make it open for scrutiny. That scrutiny could happen with anyone the person identifies as being someone who could help evaluate if the self directed learning was effective or not.

Logistics and Boundaries

There’s a natural tension here. This organic approach in its truest sense means that there should be no boundaries. Business needs, though, will demand that there is some clarity about the programme’s objectives, a time period it will be complete it, and how we evaluate the effectiveness of this approach.

As far as I’m concerned these aren’t barriers to success. They’re just natural expectations which need to be considered and managed. I’m cool with that.

Published by

Sukh Pabial

I'm an occupational psychologist by profession and am passionate about all things learning and development, creating holistic learning solutions and using positive psychology in the workforce.

6 thoughts on “Self Directed Learning”

  1. Hi Sukh,

    Not for the first time you’ve said something that I really connect with and so I’m sharing some of my own thoughts in support of your thinking so far….

    On Facilitated Learning, bearing in mind I (that’s me as part of Clear Thinking) come at these kind of challenges from an external perspective, we’ve taken a similar approach to the one you describe here and have presented a range of content options for the learners (and their line managers) to explore and choose from.

    Interestingly we’ve found that the success of this approach depends on the self-awareness of the learners and there being some alignment between their own perception and the way their manager sees them in terms of their performance and their development needs. There’s a risk they choose content that doesn’t necessarily address the business needs and then there are expectations that need to be handled.

    You mention ‘scrutiny’ around learning and the form it takes. We’ve experimented with using Reflection Notes to make this happen with varying degrees of success. It gave some learners the right structure to think through their learning and provided evidence of improvement for the programme. It didn’t work brilliantly for everyone though but if we were to do it again in that way we would probably execute it differently and link it more closely to programme outcomes.

    I wonder if peer learning options within the content could be incorporated somehow for consideration? Are there experts or exemplars who can share what they know? Can you help them to expose their unconscious competence through the programme and let them see what they are really good at then use it for others to model?

    For the point on Self Directed Learning, if each of the people in your Senior Management population was a freelancer how would you expect them to prove they were up to the job? There’s something about outputs but also about their continuous upskilling and development. Freelancers who continually update their skills seem to be perceived positively in the marketplace, and I can see how that could become part of the mind-set of the people in the Senior Management team, allowing them to genuinely take the initiative for their learning.

    I see a natural flow of discussion with your Senior Managers in the way your thoughts have been presented in your blog, from exploring content options with them, then on to options for getting that content to them, then naturally falling out of that is the learning that can be self-directed.

    I love the situation you describe….how fabulous to have a blank canvas to work with and be innovative with!

  2. Sorry this is going to be quick, and Bev has really articulated this well.


    action learning principles and can you build on the exemplars to guide certain discussion, and has the added bonus of them taking responsibility and accountability for each others development

    its about improving performance so maybe conversations about their current challenges and what they can do to improve the business performance and their own impact on the business. Seems to keep cropping up at the moment “what do I have to do to make the boat go faster?”

    in terms of business imperative, then include it as a measure of their own performance that they engage in learning and have to account for the impact

    Hope that helps, back to the grind…..

  3. Sorry Sukh – I think your premise is wrong. To suggest that:
    Front line managers will always need a formal training process which guides them through a journey of self development and improving their general management skills and behaviours.

    Is, in my opinion incorrect. Have a look here:

    All we do by creating conformity is limit innovation and maintain the management assumed (not best) practice which permeates our organisations.

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