Self-Directed or Employer-Managed Learning: A False Choice?

With arguments pushing for one side or the other, blogger David Vance asks why learning leaders can't embrace both.

There have been numerous articles recently extolling the benefit of employee-directed learning and suggesting that it is the wave of the future. These authors believe the old model of an employer directing the employee’s learning is dead. Like many issues, I disagree that we have to pick one model or the other. Why not have both?

First, some authors go so far as to claim that in the past employers managed all the employee’s learning. They claim employers decided what the employees needed, when they needed it and how it would be delivered. While training departments in many organizations did work with goal owners (the employer) to provide training to help achieve the owner’s goals such as sales or safety training, it was certainly never the case that the learning and development department provided or directed all of the employee’s learning.

I never heard a single chief learning officer or vice president of training say it was their mission to provide all the knowledge employees needed. It was understood that the L&D department had an important role to play, providing the basic skills necessary for ability and in many cases additional skills to go beyond to higher levels of proficiency. But it was also understood that employees would learn on the job through experience, in the workplace through mentors, outside the workplace from other activities and reading, and often from taking additional college courses. No one would be so arrogant as to assume that the L&D department could “control” all the learning that takes place in an organization or over an employee’s career. So the supposed “old model” in need of replacement never existed to begin with.

Second, why wouldn’t the employer want to direct some learning for employees? Think of a new employee to a company or to a position. The new employee doesn’t know what they need to know. If they are good, they will be able to pick it up over time on their own, but why wait? Doesn’t it make more sense to advance the learning processes by suggesting or requiring some learning so the employee will become competent much more quickly?

Likewise, there will be situations where experienced employees need additional training to become even better at their job. For example, the head of sales may believe that a course in consultative selling skills would greatly benefit some in the sales force, or the CEO may believe that leaders would benefit from some structured leadership training. Formal training does not preclude the sales staff or leaders from learning on their own and indeed they should. Formal learning simply makes sense when a group has a similar need, there are specific objectives to be met, and there is some urgency to achieving the desired level of proficiency.

So why not take advantage of both employer and employee-directed learning? Encourage employees to take advantage of all the great content available now and easily accessible outside the employee’s organization, especially for their own unique interests. Likewise, encourage informal learning within the organization like knowledge sharing and mentorship.

A good L&D department would actively facilitate both types of learning and support them with processes and structure. At the same, though, continue to provide formal training to meet specific needs of the business. Better yet, look for opportunities to recommend truly blended approaches combining the elements of all three for truly powerful learning.