Why the time is right for self-managed learning

by Viv Cole on May 31, 2017

In 1990 Peter Senge published “The Fifth Discipline” , giving a compelling vision of how companies could transform into learning organisations. The ideas chime with many L&D professionals, but adoption by business has been patchy. As both Towards Maturity and Bersin have recently launched reports on self-managed learning, it reminded me of a project I led on self-managed learning at the turn of the century which crashed and burned*/ was ahead of its time* (* = delete according how you kind you are). In the spirit of opening up things that didn’t go quite to plan so that others can learn from them, here’s the story, what I learned and why I believe self-managed learning is now ready to come back stronger.

The story

L&D’s board sponsor had read The Fifth Discipline and was inspired to move the culture towards becoming a learning organisation. There were a few strands to this initiative, I was in charge of the self-managed learning workstream. I worked with external consultants to produce a self-managed learning product which had 3 elements:

Personal Development Workbook folder Continuous learning skills, tactics for personal development, competency frameworks, appraisal guidance and models for identifying career goals
Personal Learning Record Templates to help people capture learning, set goals, distil feedback and deal with typical career challenges
Online development activities Advice and practice activities for core management skills

Here’s what it looked like:

Self managed learning

I can still recreate the smell of the leather folders at will in my mind’s nose…

Our communications plan involved meeting various stakeholders and potential champions within the firm to sell the business benefits of the initiative. This would be backed up by ring-fencing time on courses for junior staff to introduce and get learners to start using the product.

For the launch to leaders and managers, I and L&D colleagues travelled around different offices delivering workshops to sell the benefits of self-managed learning. We gave out the folders in the hopeful anticipation that staff would be carrying around their Personal Learning Records and using them day to day.

A key part of the ethos of the roll-out was that it was voluntary. We were aiming to put a practical structure around the processes that successful people already tacitly used, whilst respecting that everyone has different levels of career ambition and planned duration with the organisation.

Some of the more ambitious managers adopted it enthusiastically and judging by their subsequent career success they gained tangible benefit from it. However the majority of people did not adopt it voluntarily. After 18 months those parts of the product which could be were absorbed into the mandatory performance management system and the rest was left to gather dust.

5 things I learned

  1. Even if something is massively in your self-interest, habits are hard to break and re-make e.g. we know that healthy eating is good for us, but most of us can be swayed by a well turned out piece of cake.
  2. Many of the day to day pressures of working life are about maximising deliverables in the short term (or coping with email). It takes significant energy and trust to get people to be more long term by swimming against the tide of short termism.
  3. The fact that it was L&D going around the country running the roll-out workshops, rather than the business leaders was a warning sign that we had failed to buy-in the business leaders enough to invest much political capital if the change process met resistance.
  4. I spent about 80% of my time and energy on making sure the product was as good as possible and 20% on the comms. Swapping those percentages would have been far wiser.
  5. People are at the receiving end of so many mandatory initiatives or distractions from their day to day work that making something voluntary is quite idealistic – voluntary is better, but arguably it needs leadership to ‘walk the talk’ even more than for mandatory initiatives.

5 reasons why self-managed learning can gain traction now

  1. Although there are certain core programmes that L&D is always likely to own/provide, the world is too VUCA for L&D to forecast specific and popular learning needs in time to commission large scale solutions with a 2-3 month lead time.
  2. People are already carrying a smartphone around with them. An app or apps can fulfil the functions that the Personal Learning Record did and more (and remind you!) and the rest of the background content can be accessed via the internet.
  3. The habits of being a purposeful self-managed learner are increasingly similar to what proactive people are now doing in their personal lives e.g. myfitnesspal, duolingo, fitbit – it’s a smaller gap for individuals and organisational cultures to leap.
  4. As the pressure for L&D to do more with less budget continues, improving learners’ capacity to self-manage learning will result in more workplace transfer of learning and hence return on L&D investment.
  5. As the average time per employer reduces, it makes more and more sense for the employee to plan and manage their own careers. Organisations which support that are more likely to attract and maintain talent (although individuals may still want to do this in their own way rather than feeling that it’s a corporate obligation).

The intellectual case for promoting self-managed learning is as powerful as it was when Senge wrote his book. The practical challenge is making it happen. If you’d like to discuss how I can help you make it happen, I’d love to hear from you.


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