5 Questions To Give You The Advantage Over Competitors

by | Sep 27, 2016

Imagine a world where your team isn’t ready for the future, where innovation has passed your company by, and where the skills your people possess now don’t mean a thing. Sound like a nightmare scenario? According to one study, it could be less than five years away.

If you want to succeed, you need to allow your employees to bring their own learning to the table. They’ll go out and research, come up with ideas, and find ways to innovate in their field. You’ll support them in a number of ways. The result is an organic company that’s not playing catch-up with the industry, but instead drives trends.

Self-driven learning is powerful stuff. It led to the creation of Gmail at Google, and it can lead to great things for your company — including the job skills needed for the future. This blog will teach you how to harness that power. Sit down with the employees who want to learn, and answer our five questions. The result is a learning plan that meets everyone’s needs.

5 Questions That Drive Innovation

Question 1: What will the employee learn?

At Newsletter Pro, we have a set of Core Values that we live and work by. One of them is Multiply Native Genius. That means we find out what our team members are naturally good at, and build on those talents for a stronger company. A good self-driven learning program will capitalize on that principle. Ask your learners what they want to learn and — just as important — how that learning will benefit the company.

multiply native genius

Learners often know exactly what they want to study. In most cases, they want to improve their job skills and add new ones. Research, training courses, and seminars are all examples of this. If Phil is a graphic designer interested in a new design program, he may want to attend a training course. Great — Phil’s a master at InDesign, and programs like that are certainly his “native genius.” He’ll also be able to train his fellow designers and help the company decide if they want to buy the new program.

Others may be interested in learning incentives but don’t know exactly what they want to study. You can help them find an appropriate subject. What’s their native genius? What are their career goals and job skills? Is there anything the company is interested in but hasn’t had time to pursue? Don’t be afraid to send them out to do some more research and come back with a clearer idea — after all, that’s what self-driven learning is all about.

You may need to help focus the learning.

Consider this scenario:

If Susie is a software developer hard at work on a calendar application, she might be interested in the ways time has been kept over the centuries. Her team lead thinks that’s interesting, but it’s a little hazy. Susie suggests a course on the history of timekeeping devices, but wants her business to pay the tuition. While that’s a clearer plan, her lead still isn’t sure what value the company will receive.


Susie asks for a week and then comes to the team with data on the fascination with watches in today’s popular culture. She suggests taking what she learns from the class and using it to build digital timepieces into the calendar application. If that goes well, maybe they’ll design a mechanical watch app for the smartwatches on the market today. That’s more than enough for her lead, who tells her to go ahead with the project.

Susie’s lead has an important job in this process — they’ve identified the application of Suzie’s learning and how it relates to the work. If you don’t see the value the self-directed study brings to the company, then you can’t back it up with company time or resources.

Question 2: What’s the timeline?

Everyone learns at a different pace, and some subjects will be easier to tackle than others. Talk to the learner and come up with a weekly goal for time spent on the learning project. Then set a deadline on a the entire thing. At this point, the learner will demonstrate evidence of success and will be evaluated and rewarded for their learning.

SMART goal

At Newsletter Pro, we have “SMART” goals. All team members are invited — but never required — to help with achieving these goals, which always involve serious self-directed learning. This gives them a chance to apply their “native genius” to what they’re studying.

When someone signs on to work toward one of the SMART goals, we set up a regular schedule for check-ins to see how things are going. You should do the same with your own learners.

During a check-in, we will …

  • Ask about progress.
  • Make sure the learner has the resources they need.
  • Help them narrow their learning focus if needed.
  • Talk about evidence of success (EOS).
  • Address pain points.
  • Get a general feel for how the learning is going.
  • Set goals for the next check-in.

Check-ins are valuable for both parties, but remember — they are not opportunities to micro-manage learning. “Don’t second-guess … unless it’s absolutely necessary,” writes Marshall Goldsmith for the Harvard Business Review. “This only undermines their confidence and keeps them from sharing future ideas.”

That’s a hard temptation to resist, especially if you’re concerned that the learning is not going to benefit your company very much. If it sounds like the learning is going off track, be honest with the employee. You don’t have to make them learn something else, but you can always ask where the project is headed and how the end result will benefit you.

What happens after that is between you and the employee. If they ask you to trust them, you probably should — but you make it clear that at the end, they’ll need to communicate the value of their results. Otherwise, they may not be rewarded or allowed to take on future self-directed learning projects.

Question 3: What resources does the learner need from the company?

Adult learning expert Professor Roger Hiemstra says the manager or trainer “is not just a classroom teacher,” but also “a counselor, consultant, tutor, and resource locator.” When your employees undertake self-driven learning that will benefit the company, they may need some resources from you. Your time during regular check-ins is one example of a resource, but there are many others.

continued learning

For example, let’s say Joe works in the IT field. Joe feels that artificial intelligence might be a huge piece of an upcoming project, and he wants to learn more. He might want any of the following resources:

  • Training at a seminar
  • A book on a coding language from the company library
  • A meeting with an industry elite who’s driving emergent trends
  • His tuition paid for a certification program
  • Access to “paid” databases
  • To be paid for his time, or to learn “on the clock.”
  • To use his own devices while learning at work
  • To have access to company information and resources from work or home

At this stage, the idea is to figure out which resources Joe will need and that are appropriate to the work he’s doing. This is a chance to hash it all out. For example, if Joe wants to access company files from his own devices or at home, how will he make sure privileged information stays secure?

Of all the items on that list, the one about learning “on the clock” is the biggest dilemma. Google embraced the concept with “Google Fridays,” which led to Gmail (among other ventures). Here at Newsletter Pro, we do pay people to undertake self-driven learning on SMART goals. But we also manage those projects more closely than usual, and if you’re going to allow learning on the clock, you may want to as well.

With any resource, err on the side of giving more, not less. Still, don’t hesitate to ask your learners to demonstrate need for the resources — just like they have to demonstrate the value of their learning to the company.

Question 4: What will be the evidence of success?

Evidence of success takes many forms. Phil, the designer, will have a certificate from his training course that says he knows how to use the new design program. Susie’s course on timekeeping will allow her to give a “Googler to Googler”-style presentation to her whole team. And Joe from IT can write a paper on AI to share with the company.

Notice a common thread? Your learners will all have different EOS’s, but all of that evidence benefits both the company and the learner. A great bring-your-own learning plan hinges on a solid piece of evidence that the learning succeeded.

time management

Many programs have the learners share what they learned with co-workers. Reports, talks, or “best practice” suggestions are all good examples. This process forces the learner to organize and make sense of what they learned. It also helps them “learn by teaching,” which one study found “increased communication skills” and heightened “the motivation, depth, and level” of learning achievement. Plus, their whole team gets to learn what they did!

There are other ways to measure the success of a learning program. At the end of Susie’s timekeeping class, she may sit down with a few other developers to create the virtual timepieces they agreed upon at the outset. They’ll model a virtual sundial — a manual clock the user can “wind,” and an hourglass that responds to the way the user holds a mobile device.

Remember, the team lead didn’t tell Susie to do this — that wouldn’t be self-driven. Instead, they asked her to come up with a way that the education would benefit the company, and then act on it. You should do the same. Encourage self-driven learning, but also encourage your learners to demonstrate how the learning will benefit the business, and give them the resources to do so.

Question 5: How will learning be rewarded?

In most cases, employees who make themselves more valuable are simply helping their chances of a promotion or raise. If, for example, someone at Newsletter Pro really knocks SMART goals out of the ballpark, it will be noticed during their next quarterly review — along with other aspects of their job performance — and has the potential to influence an employee’s position with the company.

Reward training

Paying for class tuition or certification is another great way to reward self-driven learners. Phil’s training with the new design software means he’s more valuable to the company — not only does he know more than he did before, but he can also work faster with the new software and train the other graphic designers in its use. If he ever leaves the shop, he gets to keep the certification anyway, and he didn’t have to pay for it. For now, he’ll bring that expertise back to his shop, and his boss is happy to foot the bill for it. Everybody benefits.

If someone is learning “on the clock,” then being paid to learn is a reward in and of itself. You’ll need to track the time spent on learning, make sure their regular workload gets completed, and have a culture where this learning is encouraged but not required. At Newsletter Pro, we strongly believe in the motto “promote from within.” Those SMART goals don’t just help the company, they also help our employees learn new skills — skills that might be valuable in a more senior position.

Want an easy way to reward self-driven learning? Take what the employee has learned seriously. Say Joe from IT comes back with suggestions for how his team should tackle their projects. Business writer John Izzo conducted studies about employee input. He found that a big reason employees don’t offer input is fear of “leaders dismissing ideas without exploring these ideas.”

The best way Joe’s company can reward him is to take his suggestions into account and try to implement them. Your learners will come back with all kinds of ideas. Some will be big — like Gmail — and some will be little. This is a huge part of self-driven learning, and if you’re open to those suggestions, your company can become more organized, more efficient, and more cutting-edge.

Bring It All In

Before I wrap this up, I want to point out one final thing about self-directed learning:

Not every employee will be a good self-directed learner, and that’s not a bad thing.

Many people learn well this way, but some don’t. Just as some of us are more auditory learners, and others would rather read information, there will be excellent employees out there who will learn better with the traditional didactic method — a teacher at the head of the room.

Because of this, self-directed learning is not a replacement for important training. When you have information that everyone needs to know — from safety material to internal business practices — you need to have that information available in a traditional format. That way it’s fair to your employees who aren’t self-directed learners. Professor Hiemstra says “There will be times when utilizing an individualized teaching approach … may not be appropriate or expedient.” Required training is one of those times.

When you want your employees to develop new skills and push boundaries, a strong self-directed learning program is the way to go. Will your company be the one without the skills for the future? Or will it decide which skills are needed for that future? The answer to that lies in self-directed learning.

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