Empowered and Engaged: The Case for Self-directed Learning in the Workplace

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Data Society
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September 2023
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Because learner engagement is the most powerful driver of upskilling success, learners who take the wheel in their own training journeys are destined for great outcomes. Self-directed learning empowers professionals to leverage the latest training tools while shaping learning experiences that align with their personal learning preferences, styles, needs, and goals. This approach to workforce training motivates learners to invest fully in their training, ultimately helping organizations and their employees stay current in a changing environment.

The Impact of Self-directed Learning

In his 1975 book, Malcolm S. Knowles, an education professional whose work focused on adult learning, described self-directed learning as a process in which learners serve as the primary agents of their education by identifying their own needs, establishing goals, determining the resources and approaches that will be most effective for them, and assessing their progress. Self-directed learning recognizes that, in many ways, the clearest perspective on what makes for an effective learning experience is from the individual learner’s seat. 

Self-directed learners plot the course of their own training odysseys, selecting the cohorts, formats, and classroom environments that they believe will most effectively support their professional development and help them cultivate the skills most relevant to their roles. By giving learners the tools to align their learning programs with their personal needs, interests, and preferences, organizations can eliminate some of the guesswork that L&D (learning and development) professionals often face when they make decisions about how to implement training that works for diverse teams. The result is learners who are more motivated and engaged in the process of learning and L&D teams who can focus more on providing workforces with a breadth of training options.

Self-directed Learning Versus Solitary Learning

Far from an endeavor learners pursue in isolation, self-directed learning can be most effective when learners incorporate cohort-based, instructor-led training into their learning pathways. In fact, self-directed learners can also benefit from participation in communities of practice, mentorships, and other relationships that reinforce their training and help them apply their skills to real-world situations.

Similarly, self-directed learning does not mean learning in the absence of organizational support and resources. To the contrary, it is an approach that can reconcile two seemingly contradictory attitudes toward the role of employers in workforce training. Research has found that 65 percent of workers believe employer-provided upskilling is very important when evaluating a potential new job. Happily, it seems that many employers are ramping up their investment in workforce training. According to SHRM’s 2022 Workplace Learning and Development Trends report, more than two-thirds of organizations surveyed said they expected their L&D budgets to increase in the following year.


Still, research has also found that 74 percent of workers think it’s their own responsibility to upskill, rather than relying on their employer, and 31 percent of workers report that they’d like to have more control over elements of their training programs, such as matching training methods to their learning style and content to their professional goals. With self-guided learning, learners can exercise this initiative and steer themselves toward their development goals by designing their own learning programs with the training resources their employers provide. An ideal scenario for workplace training is one in which organizations work with individual employees to encourage and support their learning pathways by offering a wide selection of training opportunities, helping L&D teams support their workforces more effectively. In addition, professionals who have both instructional and industry expertise can offer learners a helpful perspective as they map out customized learning pathways that will propel them toward their goals.

Self-directed Learning in Today’s Work Environments

Self-directed learning allows individuals to pick and choose from various training formats and delivery methods to customize a learning journey that suits their schedules, upskilling needs, interests, and learning styles. This adaptability is especially valuable to workers in an era of rapidly evolving technologies, emerging industry challenges, and dynamic workplace environments. For example, self-directed learning can accommodate on-site, hybrid, and remote workers. It also fosters the resilience that workers will increasingly need by allowing them to take advantage of the latest, most relevant content they need for their current and future roles. In addition, learners acting as the primary agents in their training experiences can engage in professional development opportunities that they find personally meaningful and useful, which leads to increased employee satisfaction and retention. 

There are also several ways in which self-directed learning can help organizations address current issues related to employee engagement and retention. Employee burnout and dissatisfaction with professional development opportunities are among the concerns that many organizations share when it comes to maintaining a healthy and productive workforce. In addition, 92 percent of employees agree that well-planned training programs positively impact their engagement. Self-directed learning, which gives employees the power to shape training experiences that suit their interests, schedules, and needs, can help workers satisfy their appetites for fulfilling training experiences that boost—rather than further drain—their inner resources.

Taking Charge of Professional Growth to Meet Future Needs

In an era of abundant new training resources, the learner remains the most critical driver of upskilling success. Today’s L&D teams and workplace learners alike face heightened upskilling needs as well as a variety of options to meet these needs. At the same time, there is support for the notion that organizations can help employees achieve greater fulfillment in the current workforce by encouraging them to take a more holistic, self-guided approach to professional development. By empowering learners to set their own goals and determine which resources and pathways they will need to reach them, organizations can increase employee engagement and help their teams get the most out of their upskilling experiences.

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