Self-managed learning: a breakthrough or a cop-out?

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Several of the daily papers have recently featured articles raising questions about the rise of self-managed learning in the workplace. What seems to be at issue is whether employers are using it as a cop-out, in order to shed some of the responsibility for developing staff, or whether it is a real chance for employees to access and define relevant and useful learning for themselves.

The Sunday Times last week canvassed opinion from consultancy firm Strategic Developments International, who have undertaken work with companies looking to move to an employee-centred approach to development. Chairman Ian Cunningham, co-author of Gower publication Self-Managed Learning in Action puts forward a two component approach, consisting of a contract for learning created by the individual and an action learning set to act as a support mechanism. This method was used at Healthcare company the PPP group, who got staff to meet together in groups of five or six on a regular basis over 18 months to discuss and follow through their planned learning. Using the learning set provided opportunities to role play and experience feedback to support the formal learning being undertaken.

But what if employers don't want to see it through properly? The Guardian tells of companies (un-named) which allocate a set amount of money to individuals to attend training sessions of their choice, but the danger here is that the money will simply be spent because it's there, rather than targeting it where it's needed. Training is often offered as a perk or sweetener, but what about the often-lauded requirement that any training undertaken should fall into line with the needs of the business, as demonstrated by hundreds of Investors in People-qualified companies?

One key effect of developing self-managed learning in the workplace is that the role of the Training Department will change considerably. Training Officers and Administrators could find themselves in far more of an advisory role, working one-on-one to marry up the needs of individuals with those of the business and helping to quide the learner through the plethora of learning options on offer, and overseeing or facilitating action learning sets alongside this. Where companies can afford to or wish to offer additional funds for unspecified personal development for staff (the Body Shop is one much-quoted example), it's less clear whether Training Departments need to be involved in selecting the learning activity, or simply to tie up invoices and maintain individual training records at the other end.

The Government has declared itself an enthusiastic supporter of personalised learning, and has put its money where its mouth is with the advent of Individual Learning Accounts. But this raises a bigger question about who should be funding what, and why. Courses which lead to qualifications over a considerable period of time are a fair-sized commitment for companies to shoulder, with possibly no guarantee that the student will remain with the company at the end of the study period. Companies are increasingly introducing penalty clauses for those who benefit from an employer's time and money, but then leave to take their newly-acquired knowledge elsewhere.

Removing the company culture where learning is something which is allocated to you to undertake in the form of a stand-alone training course and replacing it with a more proactive approach has to be commended. The challenge for those responsible for training within companies is going to be creating a smooth transition to a situation where employees are keen to take on full responsibility for their own development. This week's online workshop will actually be looking at this in greater detail, exploring the issues behind helping people create their own learning plans. Please do come along, or add a comment below if you'd like to share any experiences of self-managed learning in the workplace with other TrainingZONE members.

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