Why A Hands-Off Approach to Learning Is Best

Old School trainingWhat’s the best way to help employees gain the important skills they need to help your organization grow? More and more the answer is: let them take control.

Innovative companies are moving away from the traditional learning and development model where management decides which seminars and classes have the “corporate stamp of approval,” then sends employees off-site to learn the approved skills. Sound familiar?

Before co-founding Pluralsight, I spent a decade teaching for these sorts of top-down programs, and I saw their shortcomings first-hand.

This mass approach to training was never perfect. While attendees sat together and got the same information, almost all of them were working with very different technology stacks, pieced together from unique providers, to meet each organization’s needs.

Off-site classroom training is presented with a one-size-fits-all approach. It’s simply not practical to address individual scenarios in a group setting. Attendees have to figure out how to customize the training to fit their organization’s particular solution after the class is over.

 And to make matters worse, this approach often means that skills are acquired when it was convenient for the trainer, not when employees need them. Often, training lags the need to learn by months and, in some cases, years.

Training: from top down to bottom up

But over the past few years, we’ve witnessed a steady shift from this top-down approach to a new model where organizations provide resources to employees, then let them take control of the learning and development plan. This new learning mindset is an approach to learning that can pay big dividends.

Paul Morgan, the head of learning and development for Telefonica, recently compared this new training approach to how people solve their own problems at home.

Today, when people encounter a problem away from work, their first response is to turn to Google or YouTube. Often they find exactly what they need to solve their problem, whether it’s a recipe for beef brisket or step-by-step guidance for fixing a washing machine. (If you have eight minutes, you may find what Paul has to say interesting).

Innovative companies are discovering this autonomous approach also delivers in the workplace. They’re encouraging employees to take control and learn the skills they need when they need them. It might work like this:

Imagine one of your employees has been tasked with setting up a code repository. This is something she’s never done before. Knowing she needs more information before she starts, she turns to an online training resource to learn how to do it, then works with a mentor to complete the work.

Because your employee is empowered to solve the problem on her own, she accomplishes the task without requesting time and resources for a multi-day offsite training seminar. Entire teams can function the same way, learning and sharing as questions and problems come up.

Paul suggests this is exactly how employees should learn new skills. The role of the organization is simply to ensure the employee has quality resources to turn to when employees need them.

And self-directed learning has other benefits as well. Author Dan Pink, in his book, “Drive: The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us,” suggests that autonomy is a powerful tool for improving employee performance and increasing satisfaction at work:

A sense of autonomy has a powerful effect on individual performance and attitude. According to a cluster of recent behavioral studies, autonomous motivation promotes greater conceptual understanding… higher productivity, less burnout and greater levels of psychological wellbeing.

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Is L&D becoming less relevant?

But what about your learning and development team? Doesn’t this autonomous approach make them obsolete? No. If anything, it makes them more important. Instead of providing outdated training models that don’t scale or support the whole team, this new approach requires L&D leaders to get serious about solving bigger business problems. They need to figure out how to provide solutions that will work for problems the organization hasn’t even identified yet. They need to listen to employees and hear what’s working and what’s not.

This doesn’t mean your L&D team has to create and provide the solutions. In fact, this just isn’t possible any more — if it ever was. Instead, take a page from Telefonica’s book and partner with other organizations that specialize in the kinds of skill development your company needs. Then make those resources available to the right people and set an expectation that employees should use them whenever necessary — even on work time.

This shift from top-down training programs to employee-driven learning will require a real cultural shift for many organizations. You are surrendering control in exchange for more engaged employees, more targeted skill development and better learning outcomes.

Giving employees the resources to solve problems and improve business performance isn’t solely an investment in your employees, it’s an investment that will drive business value and grow your entire organization. One that will pay huge dividends in the coming years.

Aaron Skonnard

Aaron Skonnard co-founded Pluralsight in 2004 with a small team of internationally renowned software developers to change the way technologists learn. As CEO, Aaron focuses on Pluralsight’s business strategy, future direction, product development, strategic partnerships and management of senior staff. Prior to founding Pluralsight, Aaron was a software developer and computer science teacher. He learned to code on his family's Apple II computer as a boy, and the experience shaped his lifelong passion for computer science.