News and Comment

Isn’t it time for more self-managed learning?

Wednesday 15 June 2011


Everywhere I hear the phrase ‘more for less’, a sign of growing pressure for significantly increased results from fewer resources, including ‘human resources’. If we accept that staff in cash-strapped public bodies need to take greater responsibility for their own learning, how can this be made to be a positive experience?

At first glance there might seem to be a natural case for organisations to invest in their people, particularly in learning and development. However, there is a big ‘but’: organisations that are under financial pressure often look to cut training and development budgets, perhaps because they are a soft target or that key decision-makers remain unconvinced about the correlation between expenditure on training and development and pay-off for organisations (and presumably for individuals). This may be because individuals learn but then don’t successfully transfer their learning into meeting organisational demands. It could also be simply that the learning feels ‘forced’ onto individuals who then go through the motions of learning rather than embracing it.

The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development states that it is essential that individuals should be: ‘helped to take on greater responsibility for their own development and growth’. A laudable aim, but the question is: how?

Self-managed learning (SML) is about individuals managing their own learning. It includes people taking responsibility for decisions about the what/how/when/where and (fundamentally) why they learn. If individuals are supported in this process then a situation is created where learning is both owned by the individual and integrated with organisational needs. Personnel Today spells it out succinctly:

‘Many businesses set themselves up for immediate failure by spending more time thinking about the content of … learning programmes and not enough on supporting and nurturing the culture of the business and the individuals who are expected to complete it.’

Everyone manages their own learning to some extent but it’s evident from work done in this area over 20 or more years that just telling people to take charge of their learning can be very inefficient. Helping a person manage their own learning means a) that the learner may feel more passionate about the subject and the benefits that are likely to accrue personally and organizationally and, b) that the person can access a wide range of opportunities for learning, which may include:

  • reading
  • learning from others
  • e-learning
  • mini-secondments
  • projects
  • learning and development programmes
  • being coached/mentored

Crucial success factors

So there are two crucial factors for successful self-managed learning. One is that individuals have the support to understand and to feel a personal sense of commitment to what is required by the organisation. The second is that individuals understand the parameters of self-managed learning, which means the extent to which there are any constraints on the what/how/when/where of their learning.

I’ve personally experienced the power of SML as a learner and as a facilitator of development. We need to move away from unstructured, unplanned learning that is very inefficient. Isn’t the time right for a less ‘sheep-dip’ way of learning to support organisational change?