Date: 07/08/18 | Duration: 00:17:59

Self-directed learning is nothing new. As early as 1840, self-development has been celebrated and today, with the rise of new technologies and social platforms, self-directed learning is more accessible and relevant than ever before. So why are many organisations resistant to the idea of self-directed learning?

Self-directed learning represents a move away from traditional, classroom-based learning, empowering individuals to take charge of their own learning needs. It allows learners to proceed at their own pace, according to their own needs and in a style that suits them. However, it is not without its challenges.

In this episode we explore what self-directed learning looks like in today’s organisations and what challenges and opportunities it offers for both the individuals and their businesses. We ask how L&D professionals can best support self-directed learners and what conditions are necessary for self-directed learning to be successful in an organisation.

Philippa Lamb: 30 years ago a Canadian academic published a study that challenged all the old ideas about how we learn new things. Alan Tough argued that adults just didn’t need formally certified educators because they learnt perfectly well by themselves. But self-directed learning in the workplace isn’t quite as simple as that. Even though with digital it’s easier than it’s ever been for people to find stuff out learning and development professionals still need to balance autonomous learning with the organisation’s objectives and that balance isn’t always easy to find.

Virgin Media discovered that for themselves three years ago when they launched an online portal management academy as part of their self-directed learning strategy.

David Chivers:-Month by month you could go in and look at the users of that academy: there were four people in there pretty much every month because we’d done that very much, you remember the film Field of Dreams with Kevin Costner ‘if you build it they will come’ we’d gone right well there's a great digital portal everyone will use that now won't they?

PL: And they didn’t come.

DC: And nobody went there because we hadn’t built what they needed. The learning that was on there was kind of standard learning, a little bit of our tools, so we needed to build it for the learner, with the learner to draw them in.

PL: For the learner, with the learner says David Chivers there. He's head of Learning Operations at Virgin Media, but how to do that? Let’s start by getting back to basics and talking to a couple of experts. Barbara Thompson is from PA Consulting and David Hayden is an L&D consultant with the CIPD. I asked them both for a definition of self-directed learning.

Barbara Thompson: It means two things. It’s one that you’re providing the framework, the resources, to enable people to do what they're doing naturally and from the bottom up perspective it’s that they have the time and the support to be able to follow their passions and dreams and motivations.

David Hayden: I think from my perspective one of the things that it clearly isn’t is anarchy within learning. So I think sometimes self-directed learning has been translated as people then often do whatever they want to do.

PL: A free for all…

DH: Absolutely.

PL: …with your budget.

DH: And absolutely it’s not that, like you say it’s about a framework.

PL: Because it’s as Barbara said it’s this idea of enabling people to do what they already want to do in order to do their work better, be more productive, whatever it is and I'm wondering, because this is all we’re hearing about now self-directed learning, everyone’s talking about it. Social learning obviously is part of it but self-directed learning is this the flipside of the constant change environment, that it’s really the only sort of learning that can quite keep pace with the pace of change?

BT: I'm not sure actually. I think it has always been pervasive, it always exists and the degree to which the organisation understands full motivations and attitudes will never be as pronounced as what the individual would know about that.

PL: But that's what I mean really that people know what they need to know don't they?

BT Yeah absolutely. So it will always be there bubbling up but it’s the degree to which L&D can join their party rather than L&D saying, ‘Well come and join ours.’

PL: And while fostering a learning culture is vital the learning that goes on does need to walk in step with the business’s aims and objectives. At Virgin Media that was the challenge that triggered a complete overhaul of their L&D strategy.

DC: So this was a big push for us in Virgin Media. So for a number of years we’ve not really aligned any of our learning function to our business priorities, so over the last couple of years we've gone through a bit of a transformation where we have brought in some additional roles that are business partnering roles that work and sit as part of the senior leadership teams in each of our divisions to understand their direction, where they’re trying to go, and then to start to build the learning programmes and support tools and devices that will sit behind that so that we’re more aligned to where they’re trying to go as an organisation.

PL: That's interesting can we dig into the detail of that a bit? So you've got people across the organisation who are tasked with this idea of thinking about business imperatives and how that should translate into learning…

DC: Yeah.

PL: …bring them together and then?

DC: Absolutely. So we’ve got six people who sit across the division and they are actually targeted on the business performance of their divisions as well as their L&D outputs as well. So the success of that division will determine whether they’re successful as well. So that's a key driver for those individuals.

PL: So they’re invested.

DC: It makes sure they’re invested in everything having an end result. But the biggest thing for us is measuring any learning that we do from an ROI perspective and not just what a lot of learning professionals are great at doing the level one and level two feedback and understanding whether people enjoyed the course or learnt something but actually that next level of learning transfer – are we seeing that happening in the business, are people taking the things that they’ve learnt, either online, digitally or in face to face programmes and implementing them? And then is

that impacting the key business measures? So are we actually starting to drive customer satisfaction? Are we actually driving better sales? Are we actually driving quicker turnaround in terms of faults that we’re fixing etc.? So if those aren’t turning and the dial on those isn’t improving we look to then go back and say, ‘Okay how do we alter those learning programmes? How do we improve them to start to turn those down?’

PL: Okay so backtracking a bit to objectives that’s the sort of thing you’re talking so do you set, what a specific number of objectives or objectives around each department? How does it all come together into a strategy?

DC: Generally people will set around eight objectives a year. Four of those will be business aligned so they’ll be about where is my division going. So if I'm setting up a customer support division for instance it’ll be about four significant objectives as to what that division wants to achieve this year.

PL: And what might they be?

DC: So those would be anything from customer satisfaction for instance. So one of the biggest drivers in our organisation and across our industry is MPS. So we’re always looking to drive that up and ensure our customers are happier with the service that we provide them. So typically you would see that sort of measure in their objectives on an annual basis. So four that are business aligned, then there'll usually be a couple that are around the learning programmes that they’re pushing out and bringing some sort of innovation or future technology into those programmes. And then there'll usually be a couple of individual objectives for individuals as well to push up.

PL: Okay so they know what they want to achieve and in terms of delivering the learning and encouraging the learning how does that then work on from that process?

DC: Yes, so lots of different ways in Virgin Media we do this. So we have lots of different sites. So our main portal is a site called iDiscover which we’ve built internally with our own resource. So we use that to communicate extensively to the workforce but more than anything we also believe in a relentless pursuit of engagement and comms in a physical manner as well. We have a lot of contact centres and we have a lot of our people out there in the road. So we encourage our learning professionals, and there are quite a few of us there's around 140 learning professionals in Virgin Media, to actually get out and be involved in team meetings and scrums that they have in contact centres; directors’ meetings to promote some of the learning that's going on and how it’s going to benefit their overall performance.

PL: For Barbara and David it’s less important to align with specific business objectives than to provide a framework, a business context. But without clear objectives how do you measure impact? Well they both agree that's all about gathering and sharing stories.

DH: I think it’s looking at where things are going really well and analysing what’s going on here, how has this happened?

PL: How do we get to here?

DH: How are we getting here, yeah, and finding out actually people are doing some of this stuff off their own bat and being engaged. So okay how can we then not only celebrate that but sow the seeds in places where it’s not going so well.

PL: Yes but the whole process is more sophisticated isn’t it than it ever used to be and more subtle in terms of how you’re evaluating it and what it’s actually bringing to your organisation? And what I'm interested in is how you capture those stories of getting from A to Z and share that because that must surely be part of the process mustn’t it?

BT: So to give you an example of one of the techniques that we use we get people to draw a graph for three or six or twelve months and say what are the things that are dragged down or enhanced performance, articulate what those are and then that's when people start talking about their story. So they might say, ‘Oh I watched a fantastic TED talk and it really helped reframe X, Y, Z. Or I had a conversation with a peer. And that's how you surface some of their stories. And then what we do is we go a little bit further because we like stories to be much more user-centred rather than stories that's driven out from the centre. So we say then, ‘How did that impact you? How did that contribute to X, Y and Z?’ And we’ll zone in on that particular sequence of events and we’ll have that as a user story that we can talk about learning in a 70, 20, 10 frame.

PL: And how do you then distribute that?

BT: We have an informal system where we’re able to upload videos, or we might show them, well we do advocate showing them within the classroom experience as well, so it might be that you’re talking about a particular theme, wouldn’t it be great that you can then bring in a video story about how someone has developed in this way. So it’s to think about how you can use it in a number of different guises.

PL: And selling this approach at every level of the organisation can make the difference between success and failure.

BT: If we create the tools and we support people with the tools to help them with this the missing bit is line manager support. So I've been in situations where I've walked past someone who was looking at, it just so happened to be a TED talk and someone said, ‘Oh you've got the time to be doing that haven’t you got a job to do?’

PL: That must have made you sigh!

BT: Well it did make me sigh because it’s to be applauded that anyone would want to take out time when everyone’s incredibly time poor to want to look at something to help them do something better but if you don't create a parallel culture to support that then that's an absolute pitfall.

PL: Just a couple of years ago Virgin Media L&D was 80% face to face – not any more!

DC: We’ve gone on a big transformation to take on board a lot more digital because a lot of our learnings, particularly in some of those volume contact centre places that I talked about are used to an instant search and finding an instant solution plus they

don't have a lot of time off the phones because we want them talking to our customers and serving our customers. So we’ve had to build bite-size learning because that's what they’ve asked for. So we do a lot more videos; we do a lot more animations; we do a lot more infographics, stuff that they consume in two to three minutes, between calls with customers, can just upskill themselves on any challenges that they’re facing throughout the day as well.

PL: So you’re tracking all that obviously about who’s doing what, how do you encourage them to do it?

DC: Ah ha it’s a good question. So we encourage through trying to get off on the right foot to start with. So when people are inducted we talk a great deal about the learning that we want them to do but we also talk about the options available to them, the career paths that are there for them. So if you took my own function for instance it’s a learning function, around - I don't know the exact figures - but around 70% of the people that work in our learning function started with us as a contact centre agent or a salesperson or a technician or an apprentice, which is just fabulous. So we are all about internal growth and a lot of what we do is get them to think about their career paths and where they want to go longer term.

PL: That's interesting okay so they see the wins for themselves as well as the wider organisation. Is there an argument that self-directed learning generally benefits the individual sometimes at the expense of the organisation?

DC: Yeah I don't disagree with that, yeah absolutely. There are times, and you can look back through some of the tracking that we’ve done over the years of some of our programmes where we sent people on things like MBAs and the programmes that they wanted to do and shortly afterwards they’ve left. And many organisations will have the same story and actually that's a failing for us as an organisation because 1) there's nothing wrong with they going on that programme but have we actually asked the question as to how much it’s going to benefit us as well as them because that's what the key is to really successful learning it’s something that's going to drive business performance and enhance the individual in the way that they work.

PL: So how does that work then if an individual goes to a line manager and says ‘I want to do x,’ are there protocols around that sort of questioning now?

DC: Historically no, yes there are now. So previously it was very much there's a budget that each division has and you kind of dip into the budget and if someone says yes, happy days! Now we have a lot more governance around that.

PL: When it comes to that idea of drawing people in and encouraging this self-directed element of learning David and his team constantly monitor how individual learning elements are going down, be it video, infographic or whatever. And they tweak their output as that data comes in.

DC: It’s all about how well they’re landing so we’ll look at user stats; we’ll look at time on a site, so we have some great videos that are three to five minute in length, some five minute videos really are the key ones that we first launched and when we launched them out there they were used and lots of people were going on to them but everybody started switching off at about three minutes 20, so no one watched

them to the end. So why are we producing a five minute video that nobody’s going to get to the end to. So we’ll go back and we’ll go, ‘Okay let’s refine that and if there's some great points in that last minute and a half let’s draw them in so they’re into a three minute video and we’ll time it.

PL: Interesting so analytics are key.

DC: Hugely.

PL: Let’s talk a bit more about measuring outcomes from this how do you do that?

DC: So a lot of it is based on the individual programmes that we’re building so we don't have a set of generic measurements for L&D that are, here’s our success measures as such, what we’ll do is for each programme that we build we’ll set the success measures for that up front. We’ll say, ‘Okay what’s our target where do we want to get to? And what do we think this learning intervention can do?’ So if it’s NPS is currently at 25% and we want to get to 35% is learning going to get us there? I can tell you now no! But maybe learning can get us 1% of the way. So we’ll say, ‘Okay let’s see if we can get 1% of the way.’

PL: So you are setting targets?

DC: And we’ll track on that. Absolutely we set targets for ourselves and we don't always reach them, we’re realistic about that but we learn from when we haven’t reached them.

PL: Yeah how tough is that because it’s quite tricky isn’t it designing those things and setting… I mean it’s a bit of a guessing game isn’t it setting a target?

DC: Yeah.

PL: And obviously if you set them too low then it’s meaningless.

DC: Yeah absolutely. It is very much a guessing game but one of the things that I would stress we’ve brought into our learning culture is, and a phrase that I use all the time is embrace failure. So we miss targets all the time.

PL: But that's okay with management?

DC: And I'm okay with that yeah but the whole management might not be as pleased with it but as long as we can see that we’re then looking to take that information of where we’ve missed and build on it and improve for the future then that's the positive step. For many, many years we had no targets, many of our learning programmes didn’t have set learning objectives in them, so actually being able to measure anything was non-existent. So we’re a giant step from where we were and management are accepting of that because we’re very lucky that we’re an organisation that's got a culture of innovation, creativity, challenging the norm. So sometimes we get things wrong because that's kind of the organisation that we are as long as we learn from it then that's positive.

PL: Great but what about the pitfalls and when you’re walking that tightrope between hands on and hands off there will be pitfalls.

BT: If it’s left as a wild west approach, by that I mean that you don't provide help people with the context, if you don't help people perhaps with a framework in which they can access things, if the experience is really poor and people are having to click 50 times to access self-directed then what you just do is you just switch people off and of course we’re adults it’s absolutely fine for people to go and look at things in their own time which might not have the organisational context but in some curricular areas, if you take safety as an example, you want it to be very tailored based on the needs of the business. So the pitfalls are if you make it hellish for people then guess what they’re going to go outside and do those things.

DH: The pitfalls are around how we label it, so if we label it as the next big thing then it’s not going to work; the other thing didn’t work so why would this thing work?

PL: So is the trick not to label it at all, you don't call it anything?

DH: Yeah absolutely. We’ve spent a lot of time basically saying we control learning. We’ll control what you train in. So it is pushing against a tide of all those years of control around that. In some organisations we’ve allowed people to abdicate their development tools.

PL: All a bit paternalistic.

DH: Absolutely and people come to events, whether it’s online, whether it’s face to face, in a passive way expecting to have something done to them rather than involving and engaging in a lot of organisations.

PL: Harnessing everyone’s innate natural curiosity sits at the heart of a self-directed learning culture but as Virgin’s David Chivers happily admits L&D has to keep learning too.

DC: We get it wrong all the time. I guess the best example of us getting it wrong is we launched a load of online videos for our technical community, so these are engineers that dig up the roads and lay the cable that allows us to connect to our customers and these were brilliant videos, I mean they were amazing because we built them all ourselves as these brilliant animated videos of people talking about how the network works and faults that could go wrong, and put them all out there and made a big song and dance of it, got into all these meetings and the engineers came back and said, ‘these are great. These are really good. We love these. We can never watch them.’

PL: Why.

DC: We said to ourselves why, yeah. Because they’re in vans driving around on the road so how can they watch a video? So they said, ‘Do you know what would be great is if you could turn these into podcasts.’ So now we do a series of podcasts that our engineers can listen to.

PL: Audio podcasts?

DC: Yeah absolutely, that they can listen to in the van when they’re moving between customers. So that's an example of us being directed by the learner as to the type of solution we provide as well.

PL: The CIPD has fact sheets on a whole range of people topics, check out the ones on digital learning and learning methods for places to start plus there's a mooc platform FutureLearn where there are two self-directed online courses if you’d like to dive a little deeper.

Next month productivity, how do top tier organisations get such great performance out of their people? Thanks for listening.