The Move to Learner-Centric or Self-Directed Learning: Don’t Be Fooled by the Current Hype!

The Move to Learner-Centric or Self-Directed Learning: Don’t Be Fooled by the Current Hype!

By Dave Vance

In just the last month I have seen more and more about the wonderful new world of learner-centric or self-directed learning and it is really beginning to worry me. Article after article talks about the need for companies to stop trying to direct employee learning and instead shift to a role of curator and enabler to make it easier for employees to find whatever learning interests them. Here is what concerns me.

First, the history is wrong. Each article begins by stating that in the “old days” corporate L&D departments directed all the learning for all the employees. This is patently false. At Caterpillar we certainly never dreamed of directing, prescribing or controlling ALL of the learning for ALL of the employees. And I have never met a CLO or L&D department head who believed it was their mission to control all the learning in their company. So, what are these authors talking about? Yes, working with senior company leaders we did develop learning to address particular needs and help accomplish company goals. Yes, we did have orientation programs where we provided helpful learning to new employees who otherwise would not have a clue about what they needed to know. Yes, we had compliance-related learning. And, yes, we provided a number of general education courses and suites of online learning for employees to access to further their own development.  And we also facilitated the creation of individual development plans using required, suggested and discretionary formal and informal learning. But we never even entertained the notion that we, as a corporate university, would prescribe all the formal learning for all the employees or that we would control all the informal learning. The concept itself is ridiculous. So, let’s begin by getting our history right.

Second, the notion that employees always know best and should be left to choose all their own learning is equally ridiculous. Many employees new to a company or position simply don’t know what they need to know. Why wouldn’t the business want to provide direction? A needs analysis may even indicate that experienced employees lack some important skills, knowledge or capability to perform at the desired level. Why wouldn’t the business want to provide that learning to the appropriate employees? Now, it should go without saying that L&D professionals should of course use all the tools available and appropriate to meet the need. So, the “old days” of reliance solely on instructor-led learning should be behind us as should use of only formal learning. Even 10 years ago at Caterpillar we had 35,000 employees actively engaged in 2000 communities of practice and we always considered performance support tools. So, by all means, make full use of all the new learning openly available on the internet both in your business -directed learning and in your employee -directed learning. But don’t stop providing business-directed learning to employees where it makes sense.

Third, the “new role” for L&D is a move in the wrong direction and it is clearly a demotion. Some now suggest that L&D should play a more passive role and simply respond to the desires of employees.  Basically, L&D leaders should find out what employees want and give them more of it. This is fine if the mission of L&D is simply to help boost employee engagement. But our mission should be much, much more. Yes, we can help increase employee engagement by providing or facilitating more learning opportunities, but we are also in the best position to help our companies achieve their business goals. This requires strategic partnerships with the businesses resulting in business-centric or employer-directed learning. More than any other department in a company, L&D is in a unique position to help the company achieve most of its goals by becoming a valued, trusted, strategic business partner. Advocates of self-directed learning appear to be going in the opposite direction and focus only on supporting the goal of engagement or other HR-related goals like retention. HR goals are not the same as business goals like increasing sales, reducing costs, or improving quality. L&D leaders should strive to support BOTH business goals and HR goals – not simply HR goals. So, it would be a huge mistake for L&D to move away from a very active role supporting the company’s business goals to a more passive role supporting only HR goals. I would also suspect that the budget and staffing for an L&D department that moves away from actively supporting business goals will eventually be cut 50%-75% in line with their new nonstrategic, passive role focused only on one HR goal.

Let’s get the discussion going on this topic. Let’s identify where self-directed learning makes sense and where business-directed learning makes sense. Let’s not get carried away by the current hype.

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