How to achieve self-directed learning in the workplace (benefits, challenges and tips)

June 8, 2021
June 26, 2023
Learning And Development

By the time we’ve entered the workplace, a lot of our perceptions around learning have shifted significantly. We’re no longer happy to be spoon-fed information or locked in classrooms for hours on end, we want freedom around how we learn and when/where we do it. In essence, we want self-directed learning!

LinkedIn’s 2019 Workplace Learning Report revealed that over 40% of Gen Z and Millennials and more than 30% of Gen X and Boomers wanted “fully self-directed and independent learning” and there’s a fair chance that those numbers have risen since that report was published.

But what does that mean for people in the workplace? What exactly is the idea of self-directed learning? Well, it’s essentially the idea that you determine your learning goals, work out what you need to learn and determine whether you’ve achieved it – or you at least have a far greater say in that learning process.

The benefits of self-directed learning at work

The benefits of Self-directed learning at work


You can’t underestimate the impact of more control and autonomy on someone’s motivation. But in the case of self-directed learning, you’re actually giving people the chance to shape their own motivation and context by giving them the reins around learning. And in the same way that autonomy makes people more productive and engaged in their work, that greater control over learning can light a greater fire under people to build knowledge!

Learn more and learn better

The scientific argument is that people who take the initiative not only learn more things but they learn better – so they’re more likely to retain information, for example.  And, motivation aside, we’ll hopefully cover some of the reasons that might be in the rest of this section. But before we ditch the motivation idea completely, it’s worth noting that people who are more motivated to learn independently stand a better chance of keeping up with the latest trends and developments.

Flexibility around formats

One of the best things about self-directed learning is that we can seek out the types and sources of content that suit us best. When we’re sent off for an event or signed up to a course, we’re at the mercy of the instructor or the provider when it comes to the resources.

If you’re an avid YouTube watcher, see what’s on there around what you’d like to learn! Prefer listening to podcasts, do the same. The point is that you can search for the content you think will match your learning process or style and you can take a trial and error approach for seeing what truly works.

Setting your own schedule

One of the best arguments for self-directed learning is that people can do it when it suits them but also when they need it most. Application of what we learn on training courses is often one of the biggest hurdles, because they’re disconnected from where we work. We might finish a course and wait months for an opportunity to put it into practice.

When we’ve got the tools for self-directed learning at our fingertips, we can take action in our moments of need and when we’re most motivated to learn. That’s often known as learning in the flow of work and we’ve got a full guide on that topic and why it’s so important.

Empowering people and helping them specialise

We’ve alluded to a lot of this already but by giving people more control over how they learn you’re empowering them to make more decisions when it comes to their career development! And part of that is the idea that they can build on the specific specialist skills that advance them as people and employees. Self-directed learning allows people to follow their passion and curiosity down those specialist pathways.

Cutting back on the costs of more traditional learning methods

It’s a bit of a generalisation, but if you compare self-directed learning with the more formal and in-person styles of training, the one we’re discussing in this post is less costly from a time and money perspective. Especially if we’re comparing it to taking someone out of the office for a few days to head off for a course. As we’ve already discussed, self-directed learning is far more closely linked to our workflow and the moments where learning is so crucial.

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The challenges of self-directed learning

It would be wrong of us to pretend that it’s as simple as giving people the freedom to learn independently and with the click of a finger they’re learning effectively.

Some people might need more structure, which you can achieve by having conversations and check-ins with them to set and assess goals. Others might struggle to find the time to learn, as they would in the traditional training sense, which would require you again to structure it or have those conversations.

For some, it could be difficult to set goals and find direction – and that where good leadership and mentoring enters the picture. While you could find that some people are following their bias to certain providers or formats too often and need a nudge towards wider sources.

Tools and strategies for self-directed learning at work

Tools and strategies for self-directed learning at work

It’s all well and good knowing what self-directed learning is and all of the amazing benefits, but how do you get people to buy in and ensure that it becomes part of your company’s culture? Here are a few ideas that might help:

Introduce it in a slow and steady fashion

This is especially important if self-directed learning is a completely new concept for your company. You can’t rip up the rulebook right away and remove the structure people have been used to, that’s unlikely to get them buying in.

Instead, manage the change slowly and in a controlled fashion by encouraging people to undertake some self-directed learning every week or two and then discuss the exercise with them. Having those conversations will help you nip any reservations in the bud early on and shape the process into something that works for all parties.

Set an example and lead from the top

One of the best ways to drive a culture or behaviour change is to ensure business leaders are taking the same actions and making sure that’s visible to everyone else. For example, if one of your values is for people to be open and honest about mistakes, it’s beneficial if employees can see the CEO engaging in the same behaviour. And the same principle can be applied to self-directed learning.

Encourage people to connect with each other

Now, this is a good example for two reasons. The first is similar to leading by example because when we see our colleagues using and benefiting from something, we’re more likely to buy into it. If they’re talking fondly about the benefits of self-directed learning, they might convert others and become advocates for the cause. And the second reason is social learning, in this case, what people can learn from each other about how they’re learning independently, where they’re finding information and so on.

Set up regular meetings with your learners

Think of them as troubleshooting sessions where you understand the barriers and challenges people are facing in the realms of self-directed learning. Whether that’s steering them in the right direction to reach their goals or helping them recognise potential blind spots in how they’re learning. These are particularly useful for those people that still need some structure when it comes to their development.

Get the right learning process and platform in place with the right resources

One of the biggest barriers to self-directed learning is that people don’t know where to find and capture knowledge and content that will help them develop. In many organisations, this is a result of scattered resources, stored across various platforms, apps, tools and desktops.

Unfortunately, that’s not only a massive productivity killer day to day, it makes it challenging to find knowledge in the moments people need them.

And that’s why we created one front door for all of your learning in HowNow, a central brain to store, share and find your company’s job aids and resources. By bringing all your scattered resources together in the same place people are able to save or share knowledge and you’re driving that culture where resources are available on-demand, whenever people need them.

You know what? It might be easier if we just show you! We’ll gladly give you a tour around HowNow, focusing on those self-directed learning capabilities! Just fill in this form and we’ll be in touch.

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