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Building a Self-Directed Organization

Dr. Tom Tonkin

Principal, Thought Leadership & Advisory Services

There are two critical challenges the modern Chief Learning Officer (CLO) faces. The first is that our educational system continues to manufacture dependent learners or learners that require direction, an authority figure and continuous specific feedback. The second challenge is that most private and public sectors take much of their learning cues from formal educational institutions. Though we are in a stage of focusing on the adult learner, many of the strategies and processes we utilize emanate from traditional educational paradigms.

Dissecting these two issues, we can conclude that they are not sustainable. If organizations need to continue to cater to dependent learners, not only are the learners themselves stagnant, but the company will also be outperformed by those who are less dependent. Second, by continuing to adopt the same educational paradigms, we will continue to enforce the dependent learning habits of our employees, and the cycle will continue.

Breaking the Mold

To break the cycle, the main intervention we need is to understand the self-directed stages of an employee, and how to move the employee through these stages.

Gerald Grow provides a framework for our understanding of how to assess a particular learner and a compatible teacher. I use both ’learner’ and ’teacher’ to suggest that these are nominal placeholders for employee and supervisor. The following is a quick summary of each of the stages of Grow’s self-directed learner model.

  • Stage One - Dependent - A dependent learner is one that requires a very direct set of instructions that usually come through informational lectures and repetitive drills. Dependent learners also expect immediate feedback on their performance, and flourish with a teacher that has authority in the subject matter.
  • Stage Two - Interested - Interested learners start to understand their purpose for learning but still require guided discussions, as well as specific learning goals. Instead of requiring informational lectures, now they move through inspiring discourses. An interested learner does well when the teacher plays the role of motivator or guide—one that touches on emotional need to learn.
  • Stage Three - Involved - Involved learners are now maturing in their learning prowess as they have an appreciation for the greater picture of what they're learning and why. They do well with facilitator/learner discussions as well as group projects. They like their teachers to be more of facilitators that allow learners to be more independent.
  • Stage Four - Self-Directed- A self-directed learner is one that is capable and motivated to take on whatever is required as it pertains to learning a subject. Often, self-directed learners are lifelong learners that enjoy the learning experience even without purpose; they transcend that need. They enjoy independent study as well as creating work products such as white papers. They do well with teachers that are more consultants and resources.

Understanding each one of these stages helps us, subjectively, qualify ourselves as well as others around us to a learning stage. The interesting thing about self-directed skills is that they are not immutable. We can shape people to become more self-directed. I would also place an extra word of caution, as the goal is not to necessarily reach stage four for any given individual, but for them to be able to improve and maximize their potential. Moving from stage one to stage two is a huge accomplishment and should be celebrated.

A corollary to this relationship between the learner and the teacher explains why some employees flourish better under one leader versus another. The key takeaway to this corollary is that we must understand how to best align our learner to the teacher, or at least the teacher's behavior, as it comes to leading the employee. A dependent learner that has a teacher that is more of a consultant will not perform well and ultimately will become discouraged, making the teacher frustrated as well. That relationship would suffer, and the performance of the employee would never materialize. Aligning teacher-learner expectations is the key to improving overall organizational performance.

Intervention in Practice

It's fair to state that I will not have enough time to develop a comprehensive intervention plan to overcome learning dependency; however, I can provide a few areas for consideration for those that are looking to move to a more independent learning structure.

  • Assessment - Self-direction is something that is not only observable, but also quantitatively measurable. Thus, I would suggest assessing everyone in your organization so that they may understand their particular learning dependency style. There are several good assessments on the market.
  • Intervention - Through detailed research in this topic area, we know that the number one way to ameliorate the dependent learner state is to equip line managers. Thus, you should institute a training curriculum that allows the manager to identify each employee's self-directed state and to provide the guidance and support needed to move an employee to higher levels of self-direction.
  • Development Plans - Lastly, each employee should have a self-directed development plan that helps the employee understand how to learn better, not necessarily what to learn. Most corporate training development plans lead to special content matters as well as subject areas for improvement. Those are certainly necessary; however, tailoring the delivery can improve the employee's self-directed skills.

Get in touch with one of our experts to explore how we can tailor our solutions to your organization's needs.

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