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Companies, Employees Beginning to Embrace Autonomous Learning


by SIOP Administrative Office

Companies, Employees Beginning to Embrace Autonomous Learning

New book in SIOP’s Organizational Frontier Series advances understanding of self-directed learning and how organizations can support them

As employees adapt to fast-changing, technology-driven workplaces more and more of them are relying on their own initiative to acquire the skills and knowledge needed to enhance their performance and contribute to organizational success.

It’s called autonomous learning and a new volume in the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology’s Organizational Frontiers Series delves deeply into autonomous learning and how it can impact both individuals and organizations.

The recently-released book is entitled “Autonomous Learning in the Workplace,” and is published by Routledge, which produces a line of management and leadership volumes.

Editors Jill Ellingson, who teaches human resource management at Kansas University, and Raymond Noe, a management professor at Ohio State University, have assembled some of the top thought leaders in psychology and business to contribute chapters providing research-based insights regarding both the nature and potential for autonomous learning in the workplace.

“Our hope is that this volume will provide a useful starting point to understand autonomous learning as well as to stimulate research that can inform practice about how to best design and create conditions for effective autonomous learning,” the editors said.

Traditionally, organizations and researchers have focused on learning that occurs through formal training and development programs and there is great value in them for organizations, Ellingson and Noe write in their introduction. In fact, instructor-led training continues to be the most frequently used training methods.

Nevertheless, the realities of today’s workplace suggest it is difficult, if not impossible, for organizations to rely mainly on formal programs for developing human capital, according to the editors.  Attention is shifting to how employees are developing their skills and acquiring knowledge outside of formal training and development programs and that is called autonomous learning (AL).

“Autonomous learning is voluntary; something an individual engages in on his or her own accord,” said Ellingson. “It is not required by the organization rather it is truly autonomous in that the person seeks out opportunities to develop themselves.”

Although self-initiated and occurring outside of training, AL is still grounded in on-the-job experience and requires learners to assume primary responsibility for seeking information and feedback.

The focus is to create human capital, through unstructured learning that will result in employees’ gaining information that builds knowledge or skills relevant to their jobs or careers, said Ellingson.

Though the impetus for self-directed learning does not come from the organization, Ellingson notes that it is in the organization’s best interests to facilitate that kind of development in their employees.

Support for autonomous learning can be beneficial to organizations in terms of employee engagement and commitment to the company. Ellingson also points out that AL has the potential to lower investment in formal training programs.

Although not considered formal or structured training and development, AL is closely related to informal training including intentional events by organizations meant to foster learning, such as job rotation, job shadowing, lunch-and-learns, coaching, mentoring, 360-degree feedback and stretch assignments, the authors write.

The rewards for individuals opting to pursue AL include opportunities to acquire new knowledge and skills, possible promotions and better compensation, enhanced self-esteem, and feeling of meaningfulness.

However, autonomous learning is not for everyone, Ellingson acknowledges.  Characteristics of individuals seeking AL include strong cognitive, interpersonal and problem-solving abilities, attitudes, openness to experience and change, and conscientiousness and motivation to manage one’s career.

“A person may have all these characteristics, but if AL is going to be effective the learner is going to need feedback,” she said. “An entire chapter of the book is devoted to feedback, both positive and negative.”

Little learning can occur in the absence of feedback. It is needed to inform the employee if he or she is on the right track, she added.

“When an employee is attempting to learn autonomously outside of traditional training and review contexts, their willingness to seek feedback, their capacity to be open to the feedback they get, and their ability to find advisors who provide honest and meaningful criticism will all determine their success,” the chapter’s authors, Eleanor Williams of Indiana University and Joyce Ehrlinger of Washington State University said.

“This volume should be of great value to those of different interests or needs including researchers, those who might want to personally engage in AL in the workplace and especially those who are in a position to create or shape the social or organizational context where AL might bear fruit,” Richard Klimoski, editor for SIOP’s Organizational Frontiers Series, wrote in the Foreword.