The learning professional's role in self-service learning is to
help learners make learning more effective, efficient, productive,
innovative, and fun.
This is the era of self-service. We pump our own gas, file our own
taxes online, tally and bag our own groceries, and do our own bank
transactions. At work we do our own word processing and
correspondence, plan our own travel, and create our own boarding
passes. These are recent self-managed processes that, for better or
worse, save time and money and enable us to customize for our
situation and needs.
The self-service era extends to workplace learning and performance,
too. The ubiquity and variety of learning resources available
without professional filtering by learning and organization
development professionals, librarians, or experts has opened a
global idea and expertise candy shop for anyone with a need,
question, problem, or dream. Looking for information or people with
expertise? Google it. Need a reference book, or article? Download
it in 30 seconds to your Kindle, iPad, or smartphone. Want more
personal instruction about something? Go to the website of the
company, association, or thought leader that deals with the problem
area and access a podcast or find a specialist. Think there might
be a learning game for your mobile device? Go to an app store. If
that doesnt do it, Ask Jeeves.
Self-service learning is not something we have to tell people to
dothey are already there. In fact, people everywhere have been
managing their own learning since the beginning of time. Some of
that learning is accidentalwe learn from mistakes, through
accidents, or by surprise when we are focusing on something else.
And some of that learning is intentionalplanned and focused on
helping us achieve a dream, solve a problem, or reach a goal.
In this article, I will focus on intentional self-service learning
because it can be better, more productive, more fulfilling, more
cost-effective, and more fun. Beyond this, I will focus on
intentional, self-managed learning because
- we know from research that most learning is managed by the
learner, not someone else
- the tools and resources for self-managed learning are
multiplying and proliferating
- even though self-managed learning is the main way people learn,
it is often unconscious and, therefore, not as efficient and
productive as it could be
- it is a great frontier for focus by professional learning
facilitators who want to significantly increase and accelerate the
return on learning investments.
How adults learn
What we know from experience and research is this: even when we
provide extraordinary professionally managed training and
education, other-led experiences are only a tiny portion of any
individuals learning portfolio. Allen Tough, an amazing source of
insight about how adults learn, conducted the original research on
According to the conclusions in his 1971 landmark book, The Adults
Learning Projects, 70 percent of an individuals intentional
learning is solely self-managed. For 20 percent, informal helpers
(for example, managers, mentors, co-workers, friends, and the
retail clerk) significantly shape a learners direction. Only about
5 percent of all adult learning is managed by learning
professionals, and the remaining 5 percent is managed by other
means such as self-paced learning materials. The amount of
conscious learning that is managed by professionals is probably
less today, and the amount that is guided by the individual or
untrained helpers is probably greater.
Even though the vast majority of an adults learning is
self-managed, the focus at work primarily has been on learning that
is orchestrated by the learning professional. But there is a vast
new frontierWhat if we could get inside that 70 percent or more of
learning that people manage themselves? What if we could, with
little investment, ramp up the impact and precision of
self-directed learning? Toughs and others early investigations into
self-directed learning are consistent with the conclusions of my
There are important areas where self-managed learning breaks down.
People have trouble, for example, clarifying what they want to
learn. They dont always use the best resources. Their
information-processing skills can be improved. They dont really
know what the process is to develop a new skill or to rise above an
outmoded attitude, belief, or value. People run into plateaus and
obstacles and get discouraged or quit. They dont always use
third-party help in the best possible way. And learners dont
declare victory when they have achieved a learning goal; rather,
they blur one learning project into another as one learning project
fades and others begin.
If we could help learners manage their learning, I speculate that
there would be as much as a 500 percent increase in benefits due to
clearer intentions, selection of better resources, better
information processing and concentration, more focused learning,
greater learning transfer, and ultimately better results. Also, the
more we know about that learner-led dynamic, the better we can
support itboth as learning professionals and informal helpers.
Six phases of the learning process
What happens when learners realize that they want to learn
something? They may not call it learning, but instead express their
need as a statement that begins with I want to get better at, I
want to get ready to, I want to know more about, or I want to be
As soon as this need emergesin whatever formthe learner moves out
of the comfort zone of daily life and becomes conscious, energized,
and perhaps somewhat ego-threatened or incompetent. There is a
question, a need, an imperfection. A potential learning journey
opens up, which must pass through these phases:
1. State a starting-point visionan end state to achieve.
2. Find resources.
3. Process the information.
4. Turn information into learning.
5. Turn learning into action.
6. Turn action into results.
State a starting-point vision
The intentional learning journey starts with a conscious need. This
awakens energy in the learner. Whatever its source, the important
outcome of this phase is some kind of vision of a future that is
different from today. The learner imaginatively steps into a
desired future and envisions how it will be different in action and
However, many people start with visions that are too broad or too
reactive to problems (for example, I want to be a better
communicator or I want to show the boss that I am really
competent). The conscious and skilled learner recognizes the need
to go beyond these platitudes and explores and shapes a vision
powerful enough to motivate the learning work that lies ahead.
At this stage, learning professionals and informal helpers can help
learners both shape their vision and feel excited about the
personal and larger benefit of pursuing it. If there are
connections to a larger organizational or social vision, this is a
good time for professional helpers to assist in creating that link.
In the search for the best resources, learners must recognize and
move beyond biases that may narrow their chances for success. For
example, learning style preferences may steer them toward some
resources and away from others that may be better for realizing
their vision. Or learners may reach out to the most accessible or
familiar information sources rather than casting a broader net to
find the best for their needs. Internet searches also are tainted
because they are stacked in favor of resources that pay for ranking
position. Learners have to sometimes take extra time to expand
their scan and verify the quality of the information and support
they will rely on to achieve their goals.
Thus, learners need to have basic resource scanning skills. Here
are helpful rules for learners:
- Know your thinking/learning style and how it supports and
biases you. For example, conceptual people might prefer reading
books and articles, while an action-focused person might want to
talk with others who know how to do what it is he wants to learn.
Gravitate toward what will make your learning easierbut also be
open to new sources.
- Be careful about grabbing the first resource you find. Be open
to reaching beyond your comfort zone to access people, interactive
and web-based media, social media sources, print, games, and so on.
- Watch the credibility of your learning resources. Dont assume
that because one person or example says how you should do
something, thats the way you should do it. Be discriminating.
- Professionals and helpers can assist with this process by
screening resources, helping with search strategies, and
encouraging stretch beyond biases.
Process the information
In this stage, learners and information resources meet. Learners
attend a class, participate in a webinar, read a book, delve into a
case study, or enter a programmed learning experience. However,
their attention may wander as their concentration shifts to the
work that isnt finished or family matters. In addition, the
learners may not have consciously developed the best techniques for
the resource: they multitask during a webinar; start to read the
book from front to back; or participate in an experiment and try to
select the right answer rather than asking what if and learning
from what happens when they deliberately select the wrong option.
They may enter a dialogue and try to win rather than explore.
Every kind of learning resource requires different processing
strategies from people who want to truly mine them for learning.
However, few people realize that they need to play the learning
resources to optimize their learning. This is a skill that the
conscious and competent learner develops and refines throughout
Related to this is another information-processing capability:
concentration. We cannot own what we do not process. In our age of
distraction, it is easy to blame our memories for not delivering
results. However, for intentional learning to matter, it has to
enter our awareness. Competent learners are vigilant about their
concentration and know how to focus attention by creating learning
questions and reconnecting with their longer term vision.
The implication for informal helpers and learning professionals is
clear: help learners use the resources to optimize learning. This
means helping them break the need to get the right answer, capture
all the notes, or read the book or article from front to back.
Learners must interact as partners with their learning resources by
asking questions, exploring alternatives, and challenging
Turn information into learning
Lets assume that the learner has allowed some new information in.
There are four possible ways that information becomes imbedded for
potential use and is, thus, learned.
New knowledge. When we internalize new data, concepts, and models,
we can pull them from memory whenever the situation requires it.
The ability to internalize and remember is important for achieving
this learning outcome. Learners can test the acquisition of this
level of learning with knowledge tests and by working on problems
where such knowledge will be useful.
New or enhanced skills. As a result of exposure to and the
processing of new information, learners may want to hone a new way
of thinking, acting, or responding. To internalize and develop a
skill, learners need to practice it, refine it, be able to deal
with it and move beyond plateaus, and self-motivate long enough to
become proficient. The effective learner is able to manage this
skill-development process through the inevitable peaks and valleys.
A shift in values, beliefs, and intentions. As a result of their
exposure to new information and experiences, learners may realize
that their worldview is deficient or needs to be modified. They may
realize, for example, that they used to think competitively but now
see that they have to be more inclusive and collaborative. It is
not easy to make an affective shift, but the aware and competent
learner recognizes when this is an important learning outcome and
uses self-assessment, self-reward, and self-behavior modification
methods to ensure that the new mindset becomes ubiquitous.
A creative outcome. Finally, new and creative ideas and solutions
are a frequent learning result. The most competent learners
consciously look for new connections. They may use deliberate
creativity-evoking techniques while processing informationsuch as
asking, What if I tried this technique in a completely different
setting? When learners think this way, they become true
co-designers of the learning experience.
Astute and committed professionals and informal helpers realize
that these four kinds of learning outcomes are possible, and they
know how to support the different processes associated with each.
Anyone designing a formal learning or training experience should
state their objectives in each of these four categories because it
unleashes a broader array of design and support options.
Turn learning into action
Learning is an extremely personal experience even though it may
involve significant social support. Any individual can move through
Phases 1-4 and yet, while learning, not use what hes learned. This
is because the larger environment in which he lives and works
inevitably presents barriers and challenges that can make it
difficult to put new capabilities into action.
Imagine that learners have in fact internalized new knowledge, are
capable of using a new skill, have adopted a new way of thinking,
or have identified something creative and exciting to do. They now
have to turn learning into action, but the environment may not be
ready for new behaviors because their personal changes may disturb
Competent learners anticipate some of this and help prepare others
for the changes they will bring into the larger system. They talk
with key people about their learning goals before starting their
journey. Competent learners also may help change some of the
processes and systems around themexpanding the benefits of their
learning project to the larger system. Learners who are astute
systems thinkers have an advantage in this and the next phase.
Included in this merging of personal and contextual change is the
realization that there will be prickly times due to pushback,
failures, or trial and error. Tolerance for this is a key success
factor in this phase.
Learning professionals and informal helpers must assist learners to
re-enter the environment where they will use the learning. Support
changes in others who can bolster or hinder new behaviors. If you
are in a position to re-engineer processes, structures, or systems,
do so. Provide air cover for trial and error and the inevitable
bumps and grinds that accompany change processes.
Turn action into results
At this point in the learning process, the learner runs headlong
into all of the system and organization design factors that mediate
between what she does and how it benefits the organization. It is
possible that the learner has found great information, processed it
well, turned it into personal learning, and also changed how things
work on the ground. Yet the resultsfinancial, customer, process
improvements, and cost savingshave not emerged.
Obviously, as the impact moves from personal vision to systemic
results (Phases 1-6), the overall power of the individual
diminishes. However, the individuals role still is vital because a
small group of motivated people can change the course of events.
Thus, there is a continuum to manage: the environment is under my
control versus the environment is way beyond my control.
When an individual faces this crossroads, she must decide whether
to go it alone or expand action to changing the surrounding system
(Phase 5). When the desired results do or do not occur, the astute
learner takes actioneither to celebrate and help imbed the changes
that have brought on success or to explore what else needs to
happen for important results to occur.
At this point, the process cycles back to Phase 1, and the magic of
the learning process takes a new intentional direction.
Implications for formal and informal learning
While learning is fundamentally a personal process and is
ultimately self-managed, it also is influenced by powerful social
factors and supported to some degree in all phases by others (see
table on page 40). Given this, I propose three hypotheses:
- If learners can be educated and supported to take charge of
their learning, learning will expand.
- If the people around the learner in their natural environment
can recognize the learning phases and facilitate learning to the
next phase, then the learning and results will expand.
- If the organizations professional HR or training and
development function takes responsibility for helping individuals
become more conscious of and develop their learning proficiency and
for better preparing informal helpers (managers, mentors, and
co-workers), then the impact of all intentional learning will
exponentially expandwith major cost-benefit returns for the
organization and society.
The teaching and training part of the learning and development
field has expanded and become much more sophisticated over the
yearsthere are better designs for formal learning and a
proliferation of designed learning resources and experiences.
However, there has been little ongoing attention to influencing the
quality of the learners processes and awareness or to helping
informal helpers do a better job to support the six learning
As Tough observed in a 2003 interview, much of the focus continues
to be on education rather than learning:
Theres a danger in educators trying to help out as an educator,
taking control of the process. I dont mean that educators should
keep their hands off this process totally. I dont take this
position, but I would like to see educators recognizing that theyre
not the center of the process. Rather, its the learner and the
learning that are the center and the educator fits into that as do
a lot of other people and a lot of other resources. Many adult
educators do make that transition in their own teaching and it is
very exciting when they do that. Some never manage to do it.
Its time to reach into the biggest part of the learning icebergthe
self-managed, self-service part. What incredible impact, results,
payoffs, and deep satisfaction await if we can unleash what is pent