October 2009 Vol. 236 No. 10


Self-Directed Learning: A Key Ingredient for a Comprehensive Training Curriculum

Dana Skiff, Corporate Training Consultants, and Paul Beckendorf, Energy Experts International

The importance of a competent, well-trained workforce in sustaining a competitive business edge is well understood. This article introduces the notion of self-directed learning as a viable approach to complementing gas utility training programs to enhance their competitive advantage.

Overall, gas utilities provide excellent training for their employees through well designed courses and workshops. These sponsored programs cover such areas as on-boarding, job specific duties and responsibilities, safety procedures, and management. When an organization drives learning with sponsored programs, the employee is told what to do learn to properly do the job, in accordance with organizational and industry standards. Typically these sponsored programs are complemented by on-the-job training (OJT).

Such training has been deemed adequate by the utilities. But, is it really? We would suggest that it is fine as far as it goes, but more can be done, as alluded to in a recent edition of the comic strip, Frazz. Talking about training, Frazz’s friend laments: “Half of what I learn, I’m going to forget. The other half will become obsolete.” While this comic strip observation is accurate, the problem is not unique to utilities. The problem is inherent in all sponsored training programs due to the very nature of formal training itself. People tend to forget what they don’t frequently use or apply.

In addition, over time, new knowledge and skill deficiencies emerge. Some of the “new” learning needs are met by on-the-job training. As a result, employees frequently only need to learn portions of a topic as their work experience has already provided them partial knowledge and/or skill sets. As employees grow and mature in their jobs, their learning becomes increasing unique to themselves as individual learners. At this point, employee learning is very idiosyncratic, i.e., very specific to the unique needs of each individual employee.

The challenge facing utilities is how to identify and cost-effectively respond to these individual learning needs. Certainly it is both impracticable and cost-prohibitive for a utility to assume the responsibility for designing formal training programs to meet such a disparate variety of individual needs. How, then, is a utility to respond? We suggest the concept of self-directed learning (SDL) is a viable option.

By SDL we mean:
A process by which individual employees take the initiative in diagnosing their own learning needs, formulate their own learning goals, identify resources for learning, choose and implement an appropriate learning strategy and evaluate their own learning outcomes.

SDL complements sponsored training programs by enabling employees to fill in their individual “learning voids.” The employee identifies areas where skills have been forgotten, skill proficiencies are inadequate, or there are new things to learn. With SDL, the learner drives the learning and is responsible for designing, planning and conducting his own learning.

Let’s look at an example of how SDL might work at a gas utility. A Gas Engineer with four years of experience in distribution design work is assigned to work as a Project Manager (PM). Since this is the Gas Engineer’s first experience with project management, his company has provided him with formal Project Management training. In addition, the utility assigns the PM an SDL Coach who knows his background and is familiar with project management work. The SDL Coach meets with the PM to assess his new workload and experience. Subsequent to this meeting the PM, with input from the SDL Coach, identifies the following topics he would like to learn more about:

  • Spend time with, and shadow other more experienced PMs.
  • Brush up on the use of MS Project software.
  • Develop negotiation skills.
  • Get some training and experience in public speaking.

Because he already knows something about each of these topics, he doesn’t need to go through formal training programs in these areas. He just needs to tweak his learning in accommodate his new role as PM.

The SDL Coach and the new PM meet to create learning project plans for each of the four topics. Learning project plans describe the learning objective, resources and learning activities to be used and how the learning will be documented. The SDL Coach follows up periodically with the PM to see how the learning projects are progressing, and whether additional assistance and/or resources are needed. While some of this learning might happen through OJT, it would to tend occur by accident rather than by design. However, with SDL the learning is fast-tracked, specific, and monitored by the SDL Coach. SDL works best where it is supported and nurtured by the organization.

The benefits of the SDL approach are several:

  • Costs are minimal.
  • Learning is specific to the needs of the individual.
  • Learning is timelier.
  • Retention is higher because learning occurs as the individual uses it in the workplace.
  • Employee engagement is enhanced.
  • Employee feels empowered to manage his own training plan.

The key success factors in implementing a SDL learning program include the following:

  1. Learning is valued and supported by the organization.
  2. Employees are comfortable with SDL. Because learning in our society is predominately passive (i.e., teacher-centered) from elementary school through college and continued in the corporate training arena, most adults are not inclined toward SDL. Such skills, once learned, are not hard to maintain in a supportive work environment.
  3. SDL coaches, to support the SDL employee in the creation of a Learning Project Plan and facilitate the implementation of the learning project, are essential.

SDL is not new to the world of corporate training. However, it remains largely undiscovered in many industry areas, including utilities. At its zenith, Motorola University sponsored SDL at its pager facility. While training programs, such as IBM’s, allow employees to select training modules or programs they would like to study, selecting from a list of predetermined learning bites does not constitute true SDL. SDL is about responsibility and accountability of determining your learning needs and developing your own learning plan. It is a new paradigm for approaching workplace learning where the individual employee, not the organization, is responsible for determining what will be learned, when it will be learned and how it will be learned.

While not a panacea for all training/learning concerns, SDL is a viable alternative to meeting the unique learning needs of gas utility employees who wish to enhance their technical expertise, or managerial and leadership skills.

If you would like to learn more about Self Directed Learning, visit www.selfdirectedlearning.org.

Biographical Information

Dana Skiff has been involved in adult learning and corporate training for over 30 years working with organizations in the fields of business, energy, higher education and government. Prior to founding Corporate Training Consultants, Inc. 17 years ago, he served as a director of training for a medium size business, a senior education manager for Arthur Andersen and a faculty member at Northwestern University. His professional passion is the transfer of learning to the job and increasing the efficiency and cost-effectiveness of workplace learning. He holds a doctorate in adult education from Boston University. Contact him at dskiff@enhancedtraining.com.

Paul Beckendorf is a 38 year veteran of the natural gas industry. He is currently Senior VP and General Manager with the consulting company Energy Experts International, Inc. In 2006, he concluded a 12 year career with the Gas Technology Institute (GTI), where he was Managing Director of the Distribution Delivery Sector. Prior to joining GTI, he spent 23 years at Pacific Gas & Electric Company (PG&E) in a variety of gas and electric operations, engineering and leadership positions. He holds a BSME from San Jose State University. Contact him at pbeckendorf@eeintl.com.


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