apple on stack of books; organizations that promote continuous learning are more competitive

The Benefits of Self-directed Learning

By Kelly Cave & Julia Borges

Organizations face various challenges in today’s dynamic and complex world. With constantly changing technology, markets, and social trends, organizations must quickly learn and adapt in order to remain competitive within their markets. This increase in the importance of continuous learning has encouraged many organizations to transform themselves into learning organizations. A learning organization is an organization that places a high importance on learning and continuous improvement within their culture. This can be done by creating a supportive environment, implementing concrete learning processes, and encouraging leadership that reinforces learning (Garvin, Edmondson, & Gino, 2008). Whichever processes, methods, or practices leaders use to foster this type of culture, they all have a common goal: they want their team members to embrace continuous learning as a career-long process (Ellinger, 2004). As organizations work to become learning organizations, the more learning capability at the individual level becomes critical for success (Ellinger, 2004).

The science of learning has been studied for nearly 100 years, and there have been numerous studies done on the effectiveness of various types of learning styles, methods, and processes (Merriam, 2001). While there are many out there, we are going to focus on the learning strategy Guglielmino and Guglielmino (2001) claim to be the cornerstone of the learning organization: self-directed learning. Self-directed learning is process in which individuals take initiative, with or without the help of others, in diagnosing their learning needs, formulating learning goals, identifying human and material resources for learning, choosing and implementing appropriate learning strategies, and evaluating learning outcomes (Knowles, 1975). In essence, self-directed learning gives team members autonomy in their own learning process.

What are the benefits of self-directed learning?

There is a reason why many organizations are adopting this learning method – self-directed learning has many benefits:
1.) Cognitive and skill retention: Self-directed learning components within trainings have been shown to improve both cognitive and skill retention. When people seek out information, they are more likely to retain it, rather than when they are instructed to learn about something.
2.) Job satisfaction: It is no question that autonomy contributes to overall job satisfaction. Combining that with the ability to choose your learning method, process, and goals builds on people’s satisfaction within their roles.
3.) Job performance: Previous research has linked self-directed learning with increases in job performance. Team members apply what they learn on-the-job, thus leading to increases in performance.
4.) Competitive advantage: In the modern workplace, skills and knowledge have become perishable. Self-directed learning helps team members stay on top of the most up-to-date information, which provides their organization with a competitive advantage.
5.) Training Costs: Self-directed learning has also been linked to savings associated with training costs. This is likely because team members no longer rely on formal trainings to initiative learning – they are self-motivated.

How can I implement self-directed learning in my company?

While all organizations are unique in culture, processes, and goals, we have provided a list of various ways self-directed learning can be implemented:

1.) Performance evaluation processes: Instead of having team members’ goals set for them, allow them to contribute to the development of their goals, benchmarks, and plan to get there. While this is done best with proper coaching, it allows a greater degree of autonomy and control for team members and their performance.
2.) Learning method: While organizations have specific goals for their team members’ topics of learning, they can still allow their team members to choose their learning methods, or ways of learning about this topic. These learning methods can be in the form of experiential learning, researching, course enrollment, or training. This is best done when team members are offered resources to support their learning process.
3.) Project selection: Allowing team members to choose which projects they contribute to can also a form of self-directed learning, especially if they have limited experience with certain projects. While this may only be feasible some of the time, it allows your team members the autonomy to choose where they want to contribute and what they want to learn about.
4.) Scheduling: Allotting time for team members to engage in self-directed learning will convey the message that your organization values continuous learning and will encourage team members to take the time to learn.

Self-directed learning is an extremely effective tool that can be used in organizations who are looking to implement a culture of continuous improvement and learning. Living in a world where skills and knowledge are constantly evolving, it is crucial that organizations create a learning culture and understand the most effective tools to do so. While all organizations are unique in their cultures, processes, markets, and goals, there are various ways self-directed learning can be implemented to create a culture that fosters learning, continuous improvement, and autonomy for their team members.


Ellinger, A. D. (2004). The concept of self-directed learning and its implications for human resource development. Advances in developing human resources, 6(2), 158-177.

Garvin, D. A., Edmondson, A. C., & Gino, F. (2008). Is yours a learning organization? Harvard business review, 86(3), 109.

Guglielmino, P. J., & Guglielmino, L. M. (2001). Moving toward a distributed learning model based on self-managed learning. SAM Advanced Management Journal, 66(3), 36.

Knowles, M. S. (1975). Self-directed learning: A guide for learners and teachers.

Merriam, S. B. (2001). Andragogy and self‐directed learning: Pillars of adult learning theory. New directions for adult and continuing education, 2001(89), 3-14.


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