If you provide your people with self-directed learning – that is, training programs and materials that they can access on their own as they see fit – will they take responsibility for improving themselves? Or do you have to make them take their medicine?

And, more to the point, if you do offer these resources, will you see an improvement in performance?

Research from the University of South Florida (Tampa, FL) and Bryant University (Smithfield, RI) offers some insight into these questions, as well as the larger question of what makes self-directed training effective.

Voluntary or mandatory?
A study published in 2008, for example, looked at 392 salespeople in the financial services industry and examined the impact of mandatory and voluntary self-directed learning programs.

The study found that self-directed learning does improve performance (as measured by supervisors’ performance evaluations) – but only if it’s voluntary.

That last part is a little surprising. We’ve all seen plenty of examples of organizations offering self-study materials that never get used. And you might think that employees would blow off their training if you left it all up to them – especially if they’re busy, bottom-line-oriented sales reps, as in this study.

But the research found that learners will engage on their own – and because they’re engaging by choice, they seem to get more out of it.

Encourage, don’t require
However, if you think these findings mean that all you have to do is build it and they will come, think again.

While you shouldn’t force people to engage in self-directed learning, the research shows that it’s critically important for organizations to do all they can to encourage its use. People will use self-directed learning only if they see that their bosses and organization are committed to it.

The manager’s role
Here are some implications for managers, per study author Stefanie Boyer:

Show that you’re serious about learning. Employees will take their cue from management: If managers are publicly committed to the process, and actively help people make the most of it, they’ll get better outcomes.

Coach people through the process. Self-directed learning doesn’t come naturally to everyone. Managers need to take an active coaching role to help people use it effectively. For example, they should track who’s engaging and who’s not, and follow up with those who aren’t. And they should keep their ear to the ground to learn what issues people are struggling with and guide them toward the appropriate resources.

Ask for feedback. Managers should encourage their people to give them feedback, and use that feedback to improve the process – for example, by seeking out good content on relevant issues and weeding out material that isn’t working. Not only will the learning improve, but employees will feel more ownership if they have input into the program.

Boyer, S., (2008). Self-directed learning: Measures and models for salesperson training and development. Graduate School Theses and Dissertations.

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