Employee-led learning: Allowing workers to stray from the beaten path
Giving employees the power and responsibility to direct their growth can be an effective way to engage and upskill, experts say.
As employers begin to realize that every employee learns differently, they're increasingly encouraging workers to take charge of their own professional development. Instead of mandating cookie-cutter training, companies are shifting toward employee-led learning, which challenges the assumption that staff are unaware of their needs and unable to create and follow a path to fulfill them.
For businesses, the notion that employees are capable of creating a path to their own growth is somewhat foreign. Many are accustomed to directing employee learning, structuring generic paths. For some, the path moves too quickly, leading to frustration and an aversion to future training. For others, the path is too slow and doesn't challenge them or help them achieve their goals. Employee-led learning allows staff to design their own plan, which can result in an experience that resonates and inspires future growth.
Why the shift to employee-led learning? Companies are looking at agile workplace models and seeing the benefit of on-demand information and adaptation. For learners, the need to keep pace with change in a personalized way is driving the shift. The idea is that employees are often in the best position to know what they need to perform and address the needs of their customers. Allowing them control of their own development is not only empowering, but also can create a pathway to learning unencumbered by paperwork and red tape.
“They have a shared experience,” Julie Hiipakka, learning research leader at Deloitte Consulting, LLP told HR Dive via email, “and in-depth understanding of what good performance is and what gets in the way.” Deloitte’s data shows learners lean toward informal learning: one reason for this is the shrinking half-life of knowledge and skills, which is driving a need for speed in all learning processes.
Employees are accustomed to accessing learning on their own terms off the job; videos and other how-to media are instantly accessible. Access to this type of intuitive searching and learning on the job is more efficient and effective than the alternative, experts say.
“Today we see the rise of the Digital Learner,” Thomas Handcock, practice leader, recruiting leadership council at Gartner, told HR Dive in an email. “She is empowered, connected, and impatient.” The organization's Developing the Digital Learner report shows that 76% of employees say they'll do what it takes to learn effectively; 69% regularly seek out new ways of doing their work from their coworkers and 66% expect to learn new information on demand.
Employees may be at the helm, but this type of training isn’t open-ended. Admins and managers will still need to keep an eye on how frequently staffers are accessing and completing coursework. Rather than restrict and direct, however, guidelines and boundaries may be the way to keep staffers on the right path. Bersin’s HILO Maturity Model and Top Findings discusses how organizational responsibility involves everyone, from executives to employees, as well as L&D.
For Handcock, oversight and frequency shouldn’t be the focus. “It is about relevance, rather than amount/cadence," she said. “More learning activity is not inherently better. Productive learning should be the goal.”
An employee-led training model won’t be absolute. Some training, particularly safety and compliance, will still be mandatory. Training on safe use of machinery, for example, must be completed before work has begun. But for career growth, skill building and professional and personal development, the model can allow for personalization based on level of interest and individual decision making. For some businesses, allowing access to online coursework can be limitless. For others, a variety of classes in a wealth of areas can keep the focus to coursework that benefits the business as well as the employee.
What’s the downside?
In many cases, responding to employee learning demand means bombarding staff members with overwhelming amounts of content. They may have to navigate through an endless amount of choices, some of which may not have been vetted in the rush to provide.
The morass can be off-putting and counter-productive, experts say. The shift to employee-led learning has to focus on material that’s relevant, accessible and, most importantly, used. L&D must approach employee-led learning as providing a workable path to accessible growth, rather than merely opening up volumes of content.
To inspire self-direction, a culture of continuous learning and development must come from the highest levels of the organization. “It’s important to see learning as a fundamental aspect to performance, and continuous development enables that.” Hiipakka said. “To encourage this thinking, leaders can explicitly communicate how learning is part of everyone’s job, and show how it supports the organization’s mission, strategy and goals.”
Saying, demonstrating and reinforcing this narrative to every employee — from seasoned senior leaders to entry-level new hires — is essential to support a culture of learning that can address the needs of the employee and the business today and well into the future.