How to Support Self-Directed Learning in a Learning Organisation

Mirjam Neelen & Paul A. Kirschner

Employees must constantly learn, improve, and adapt to economic, societal and technological changes in order to not become obsolete – mostly because where they work continually change their work practices in order to be more productive and/or competitive. This learning can be formal, non-formal or informal (see for example Van Merriënboer, Kirschner, Paas, Sloep, & Caniëls, 2009) and, thus, knowledge workers, who are often the focus of workplace learning[1], must be able to learn informally.

To this end, self-directed learning (SDL) is an essential competency needed by this type of employee. Rana and colleagues (2015) state that the relationship between SDL and a learning organisation is symbiotic. A learning organisation is “an organisation which learns powerfully and collectively and is continually transforming itself to better collect, manage, and use knowledge for corporate success” (p 3), which is essential from a competitiveness perspective. This symbiosis refers to the idea that an organisation’s mission, vision, goals, values, culture, norms, and work environment influences the extent to which SDL take places within the organisation while SDL in the learning organisation must account for fulfilling the learning needs of both the individual and the organisation.

It’s quite an assumption that employees first, are capable of effectively directing their own learning and second, are proactive enough to do so. It’s not that easy! In this blog, we explore the role that SDL plays in today’s learning organisation and how L&D can best support it.

What exactly is SDL?

SDL includes knowing what you need to learn, how to learn it, and being able to judge if you’ve learnt it. It assumes that learners have a role in selecting those learning tasks that fit their learning needs (Loyens, Magda, & Rikers, 2008). The concept of SDL originated in adult education and workplace learning, and plays an important role in on‐demand learning where learners select learning tasks and so shape their own learning trajectories. Supporting the development of SDL skills has been shown to have positive learning effects in, for example, secondary vocational education (Kicken, Brand‐Gruwel, Van Merriënboer, & Slot, 2009b).


SDL in the Learning Organisation

In a learning organisation, learning requirements and processes are usually not very well-structured or formally defined. Though sometimes formal intentional learning experiences might be required, employees often (need to) learn as a by-product of their work, which generally is informal.

Though the phrase “work is learning and learning is work” is quite popular (e.g. see Charles Jennings blog here and Mirjam’s discussion with Jennings at the end of the blog), it’s not that simple. For example, performance goals are often related to performance appraisals. It’s not very likely that employees are truly open to learning (as opposed to performing) if they know their bonus is not based on this. Also, completing a work project or task successfully, doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ve learned anything. Something can only be defined as learning if you would be able to show a behaviour that you couldn’t carry out previously again, and again, and…; you get the point. This is where SDL processes are critical as they can support the focus on actual learning as a by-product of work.

Rana and colleagues explore five practices that are aimed at promoting SDL in the learning organisation (see figure 1). The explanations on the left hand side are added by us.


Figure 1. Practices aimed at promoting SDL in the learning organisation (Rana et al., 2015)

How to support SDL in the learning organisation

Rana and colleagues don’t only outline the recommended practices to support SDL in a learning organisation as outlined in Figure 1, they also give examples. In Table 1 below, we have aligned these examples with their suggested practices and we have added some recommendations based on our own expertise as well.

Practices How to support this practice in the workplace
Building and communicating a shared vision to employees at all levels Clearly communicate organisational goals and needs.

Make procedures and expectations that are associated with the goals of the learning organisation transparent by clearly communicating and providing access to these rules, norms, and expectations.

Design processes/strategies that help managers and employees to:

  • align learning goals to organisational needs;
  • relate organisational needs to work-related tasks;
  • analyse projects and/or tasks within those needs and
  • identify learning opportunities within them.

Help managers and employees identify if their goals are sufficiently challenging.

Fostering collaboration, interaction, and team work Design work tasks that foster collaboration, teamwork, and shared responsibility.

Create a climate of mutual respect, collaboration, and support so that individuals are willing to share with others.

Encourage employees to network and communicate with their colleagues in order to exchange ideas and perspectives, gather relevant data and information, and expand their skills and expertise.

Enrich members’ sense of belonging to these communities by encouraging the exchange of ideas and information, creating time and space for sharing stories and expertise.

Set up ways to share challenging projects and tasks so that employees can get assigned appropriate ones that support achieving their learning goals.

Set up a mentor structure. Mentors can help employees to identify learning opportunities and strategies.

Support employees in discussing how they pursue their learning goals with their peers. This can help them rely on their peers’ successful learning activities as guidance for their own.

Empowering employees through participatory work processes Provide employees with information, rewards, job-related knowledge, and authority to go about doing their work.

Use a participative leadership style and delegate responsibility to employees.

Enhance employee participation in the developing, planning, and evaluating their personal learning projects

Facilitate learning, including asking thought-provoking questions, to encourage employees to derive their own solutions, transferring ownership to them, and serving as valuable resources to them

Enable employees to take self-directed actions and create an environment for ownership, supporting members in being responsible for their own performance, transferring ownership for work to relevant employees, and coaching the development of individual capability and competence.

Encouraging and providing opportunities for continuous learning Support a culture that accepts errors and mistakes allowing employees to take risks.

Provide resources that help managers and employees create durable and flexible access to important information (e.g. through feeds, curation).

Provide resources that explain general effective learning strategies, such as spaced and variable practice.

Encourage experimentation, recognising and praising learners, rewarding learning, spreading the word about new learnings, and applying new learnings in different places throughout the organisation.

Recognise individual differences and understand employees’ career goals, performance expectations, and development needs.

Support employees finding ways to self-assess (e.g. in collaboration with their peers).

Suggest ways for employees to track their project or task progress (e.g., through logs) including things like “don’t focus just on outcome, also on process!”.

Design strategies to implement and support a culture of feedback (peers, manager, mentor, clients).

Help managers and employees plan conscious time to reflect (self and with others) continuously on progress (e.g., they can use set points in time, such as mid- or after project to reflect on outcome and process

Use relevant technologies Promote SDL by designing seminars, webinars, and e-learning modules that provide opportunities to customise learning

Build a technological infrastructure and platforms on which employees can engage in SDL

Provide training on the use of digital tools and strive to obtain feedback from members for the purpose of improving access and ease of use of these tools

Use what’s out there, such as MOOCs, online platforms (Moodle, Google Docs, Wikispaces), content curation tools, and so forth.

Table 1. Practices and examples on how to support them in a learning organisation

As we can see in the table, a lot can be done to support SDL in a learning organisation but it’s far from simple. One of the main challenges is that learners can be easily misled as to whether learning has been achieved. This will make them overconfident and unable to assess their own learning and performance effectively. Also, what people tend to believe about activities that are and aren’t effective for learning are (very!) often at odds with reality. To that point, learning professionals in the workplace have a critical role to play in order to support employees in applying effective SDL strategies. SDL is a tough nut to crack but it has to be done, even if it will only be done through baby steps!


Kicken, W., Brand-Gruwel, S., Van Merriënboer, J. J. G., & Slot, W. (2009). The effects of portfolio-based advice on the development of self-directed learning skills in secondary vocational education. Educational Technology Research and Development 57, 439-460.

Loyens, S. M. M., Magda, J., & Rikers, R. M. J. P. (2008). Self-directed learning in problem-based learning and its relationships with self-regulated learning. Educational Psychology Review, 20, 411-427.

Rana, S., Ardichvili, A., & Poesello, D. (2016). Promoting self-directed learning in a learning organization: tools and practices. European Journal of Training and Development, 40, 470-489.

Saks, K., & Leijen, A., (2014). Distinghuishing self-directed and self-regulated learning and measuring them in the e-learning context. Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences, 112, 190-198.

Tousignant, M., & DesMarchais, J. E. (2002). Accuracy of student self-assessment ability compared to their own performance in a problem-based learning medical program: a correlation study. Advances in Health Science Education Theory and Practice, 7, 19-27.

Van Merriënboer, J. J. G., & Sluijsmans, D. M. A. (2009). Toward a synthesis of cognitive load theory, four-component instructional design, and self-directed learning. Educational Psychology Review, 21, 55-66.

Van Merriënboer, J. J. G., Kirschner, P. A., Paas, F., Sloep, P. B., & Caniëls, M. C. J. (2009). Towards an integrated approach for research on lifelong learning. Educational Technology Magazine, 49(3), 3-15.

[1] As a side note: We wonder what % of the workforce actually are knowledge workers. We have found percentages between around 20 and 40%, meaning that we’re still overlooking over half of the workforce when we discuss “learning in the workplace”.


15 thoughts on “How to Support Self-Directed Learning in a Learning Organisation

  1. Joitske (@joitske) says:

    What a Nice blog and interesting model! It helped me see that self- directed learning is on fact about conscious learning and not serendipitous learning. I dislike the word materials ofcourse 🙂 in the first graph- i think iT should be learning actvities or processes. Lastly the goals of the Organization are quite central but in reality there may be quite Some friction between the sdl learners interest and the Organization.


    • 3starlearningexperiences says:

      Hi Joitske, yes it is indeed about conscious learning. Your point around friction between individual learning desires/needs and organisational objectives is totally true. I will think about your points around materials etc because I can see that the terminology and focus in learning for professional development purposes are slightly different. I always translate them in my head but that might’nt be obvious to the reader ;).


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