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Supporting employees to become autonomous learners

Sophia Wichtowska
2020-02-20

In the last 30 years, research shows that the number of companies offering remote working options had tripled. In this rapidly shifting workplace environment, autonomy is becoming a necessity, rather than a nice to have. 

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This need for a more autonomous approach also applies to workplace learning. Traditionally, facilitators led professional development opportunities and guided groups of employees to develop knowledge or set of skills. 

In the digital age, learning opportunities are available to participants as and when they need them, which presents the opportunity for employees to lead their learning, and drive progress from the bottom up. Research suggests that informal rather than formal learning accounts for up to 75 percent of learning within organizations

The question is, how can those responsible for workplace training help employees develop the skills needed for autonomous learning? 

What are the benefits of autonomous learning?

The Ethics Centre describes autonomy as “the idea that every person is in control of their thoughts and actions and can be motivated by ‘internal’ forces like choice and reflection.” 

In this sense, autonomy is a philosophical concept, rather than a skill that employees can develop. However, individuals can become more autonomous in their approach when they develop specific soft skills, such as self-confidence and problem-solving.

On a systemic level, this level of independent thought can be challenging, particularly in a large organization. Nevertheless, autonomous work is a necessary part of progress, and organizations need to embrace it to keep up with the pace of change. 

While sometimes difficult to manage, encouraging autonomy also gives employees the headspace and confidence they need to make creative contributions - an equally essential skill in today’s work landscape. 

How to encourage autonomous learning in the workplace

1. Build a culture of trust

Before learners can start to direct their learning and make the process autonomous, organization leaders need to develop the appropriate learning culture. This process includes building trust between team members at all levels. 

Towards Maturity (now Emerald Group), an organization assessing the effective implementation of learning innovation describes how organizations can achieve this using their “Transformation Curve” roadmap. They summarise the journey into four stages: Optimizing Training, Taking Control, Letting Go, and Sharing Responsibility. 

When organizations make learning and development a priority, ensure that the appropriate systems and processes are in place, and train employees in using these systems, they can begin to relinquish control. They can trust employees to make appropriate decisions for their development that will also benefit the organization as a whole. 

2. Develop problem-solving skills

Perhaps the most important soft skill to develop in becoming an autonomous learner is problem-solving. In schools, teachers aim to strike a balance between encouraging students to ask questions and making their way forward independently. As adults, we continue this balancing act: developing problem-solving skills is a lifelong process. 

3. Encourage collaboration 

Autonomous learning isn’t the same as independent learning. While an employee may have identified an area of their work that needs development, they may need to collaborate with others to learn new skills or find answers.  According to the 70:20:10 model for learning and development, 20 percent of knowledge acquisition happens through speaking and interacting with others. Encourage employees to ask questions and speak with their team members about the courses they are taking, or skills they are developing. 

Professional discourse can also be an excellent marker for whether or not employees are both engaged in learning and benefiting from it. Listen in to the informal conversations in the corridors (where appropriate!) and gauge the level of interest. 

4. Make failure a part of the process

Being open to learning something new is about having the confidence to take risks. If you fear failure, you are unlikely to engage with learning, because the risk of not understanding a new concept is high.  When we don’t know how to do something, we need to put ourselves out there to build the skill or find answers. 

Failure and learning from mistakes are all part of this process, and making learners aware of this can be helpful. When those in leadership model and openness to failure and making mistakes, this will filter down to the rest of the organization.   

5. Provide engaging, personalized content

Personalizing learning is the difference between content being engaging or boring. Content needs to address an individual’s learning needs as accurately as possible, and advancing technology is helping to simplify this process.

If employees have access to learning content that is both engaging and appropriate to their needs, autonomous learning becomes a natural process.  As ideas or questions spring to mind, they will have the necessary tools and information to hand.

If they can select content and develop in areas they have chosen themselves, they will be more motivated and interested in the subject matter. The success of any learning and development strategy rests on how engaged employees are in the process, at it is crucial to keep track of this continually. 

A one stop shop for all things training, Go1 makes it easy to compare the best training options available, and find the right resources for your professional development, compliance and business training needs. 

Encourage your learners to own their personal development training, by giving them the flexibility to search and select courses that reflect their professional interests. This helps your employees take the learning outside of the workplace, so they can access it whenever and wherever they want.

Go1 helps millions of people in thousands of organizations engage in learning that is relevant, effective and inspiring.
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