How self-directed learning can be counterproductive if not done strategically

There is no doubt AI has its part to play in today’s L&D but, says Mike Baker, line manager intervention and the human touch continue to be irreplaceable

Imagine yourself in a sweet shop. With so much on offer, you can be paralysed with indecision, then go ahead and grab a random selection of treats – or maybe just your favourite one and later wish you’d picked slightly differently. 

In a self-directed learning scenario, it can feel similar – so much choice, where should the learner start? What is the right content for that moment in time? 

Self-directed learning has been a powerful strategy for many organisations as it gives learners a sense of control over their development, so that they feel empowered to direct their own professional growth. Employees can build and manage their learning experience based on their personal needs and interests. 

But opening a rich library of learning content to all employees, giving unlimited access and expecting their curiosity to drive their personal growth – and in turn the organisation’s evolution – isn’t enough. In fact, it could have a negative impact and create chaos, rather than learning harmony, between the business and the individual. 

The era of career adventure

Today’s world of work is incredibly dynamic. Now more than ever, a smart, self-directed learning strategy has the potential to fuel organisational growth. It’s about closing the gap between what an employee wants and what the company needs. 

A career ladder is no longer the norm. There are often multiple routes of progression, as well as opportunities for employees to pivot, using transferable skills in a new or adapted role that fits the current needs of the business. A person’s career can take many twists and turns – and it can be within an organisation itself through a clever internal mobility approach tied to learning and progression. 

The disruption generative artificial intelligence (AI) has had on companies in 2023 has had an impact on many. It has helped bring efficiencies to the workforce, which remoulds people’s roles, taking away monotonous tasks and increasing the emphasis on activity that requires a human touch. There are also many organisations that have developed their service and product offering in the age of AI, which again impacts the workforce. This brings an increased and more urgent need for businesses to have to rejig teams, as well as upskill or reskill employees. 

AI is both the challenge and the solution 

As much as AI technology has created challenges for the workforce, it is also the major driver of change and innovation. The AI transformation that many organisations are undergoing will cut across all departments, in many ways – and that includes HR and L&D. 

As we know, AI has the power to analyse and make conclusions on millions of data points and, in a learning setting, that becomes hugely powerful. Everyone has a unique set of skills, career history and interests. AI has the power to help guide individuals on a path unique to them, by understanding career routes taken by others before them, opportunities in the organisations and the potential of the individual. Traditionally, line managers would have this responsibility, but as careers are rarely linear AI can assist in guiding and inspiring people, showing managers and individuals what’s possible and transforming career progression. 

The workforce wants this technology. According to Cornerstone’s 2023 Talent Mobility Study, 80 per cent of employees admitted to preferring to use self-service technology to explore career opportunities. It ties back to the feeling of empowerment over their career and growth. But it’s not just about technology doing all the work. Cornerstone’s research found that 50 per cent of employees believe a manager who provides them with career opportunities could improve an unsatisfactory work situation. So, as much as AI does much of the heavy lifting, for self-directed learning and career discussions to be impactful, they require a human touch and a strong relationship between people and their line managers. 

Self-directed learning without a strategy

As with my earlier analogy, if you open a sweet shop of learning content with no strategic approach to back it, your people will soon run into challenges. Their handpicked selection may not be useful in their career progression, causing difficult conversations with line managers. They may just ignore invitations to learning opportunities, thinking it all too much. Or they may get lost in the content and get frustrated. It’s a no-win situation for all involved – the people, the managers and the organisation. 

Like many things in life, instant gratification is great but when something tracks to a bigger goal, there is more satisfaction to be had. AI has the power to curate the perfect selection of learning content, show how this fuels an individual’s career trajectory and help make conversations between people and their managers more motivating and positive. This, in turn, creates an organisation that is more resilient, has more sustainable talent pipelines and is able to make structural changes faster and data driven. Self-directed learning performed correctly and strategically has huge ripple effects.  

Mike Baker is group VP for sales and account management EMEA at Cornerstone