Developing Empowered Learners

By Cathy Fyock, SPHR May 1, 2013
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Learning has developed a bad reputation, perhaps as a result of those painfully boring lectures we all endured in school, those grueling exams or pop quizzes we took or those long hours of memorizing information we’ve never once had the opportunity to use. But think about how you felt when you were learning to tie your shoes, drive a car or master a new hobby. Didn’t you have an insatiable curiosity about that skill that would serve you well or provide hours of entertainment?

How do organizations create a culture that fosters employees’ intense intellectual curiosity so that they, and their companies, can maintain their relevance, adapt to change and survive despite competitive market forces? Here are five ways to create a culture of empowered learners:

Make the learning applicable to employees’ jobs. Corporate learning often focuses on theories instead of building practical skills that can be immediately applied to one’s job. And too often supervisors and leaders don’t reinforce the learning; worse yet, they exhibit behaviors that counter it. To create empowered learners, show them how they will be able to improve their efficiency and effectiveness, increase safety or reduce errors through training or their own self-directed learning. Reinforce learning by having leaders consistently model the skills that have been taught to their employees and show that they, too, are always learning and developing themselves.

Consider experiential learning and get out of the classroom. My seventh-grade teacher, Mrs. Reynolds, was a master at experiential learning. Although she did do lectures occasionally, her focus was on creating a wealth of experiences that would involve her students in real, exciting ways. She understood that we were more likely to learn and remember the experience, as opposed to a classroom lecture, and that we would be able to apply the learning to our world as one who had participated in something new.

A large percentage of information in corporate development programs is delivered through classroom settings, not via real-world experiences. Adult learners could be energized and engaged through activities such as writing a blog, participating in a group exercise, visiting vendors and volunteering. Often, these activities are never even considered to be part of the formal development initiatives, particularly those for leaders—but they should be.

Encourage connection with others. Learning doesn’t have to come from a trainer or senior leader. Some of the best lessons are learned from colleagues and peers. Empowered learners should know how to select a coach when they need help and how to establish a sustainable working relationship with a mentor when they need guidance. Napoleon Hill, author of the best-seller Think and Grow Rich and the related motivational philosophy of personal achievement, suggests creating MasterMind groups as a way for like-minded professionals to come together to brainstorm, gain advice and share issues they’re facing. Accountability Teams, in which two or more people gather to hold one another accountable for taking action or changing behaviors, may also be a powerful tool for professional and personal growth. Empowered learners must be given the tools to collaborate with others to craft their own unique learning experience.

Make it personal. One size does not fit all when it comes to professional development. Organizations may offer classes on key issues that seem to be needed by some, but invariably these classes will not resonate with others. A personalized approach to development that begins with a thorough needs assessment is critical to building a plan that is enthusiastically embraced by individuals with unique learning needs.

Build on strengths. Research continues to tell us that we can get our biggest bang for our development bucks by focusing on the strengths of our people, not on their weaknesses. Further, Gallup survey research indicates that strengths-based organizations have more engaged employees and are better able to become learning organizations.

Allowing employees the opportunity to develop their own learning path is a way to connect them with their passion and energy and get them to build on the strengths that have contributed to their success. Having engaged learners creates engaged employees and high-performing organizations. The key to building a learning organization is to create a culture that systematically develops leaders by empowering employees to control their own learning and development.

Cathy Fyock, CSP, SPHR, is a senior HR/business advisor at the HR and benefits consulting firm Kushner & Company. She can be reached at cathy.fyock@kushnerco.comor (502) 445-6539.

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