Practical Experience with Self-Directed Learning in Business and Industry Human Resource Development

(Lucy M. Guglielmino, Paul J. Guglielmino)

Chapter Five in

Overcoming Resistance to Self-Direction in Adult Learning

Roger Hiemstra and Ralph G. Brockett (Editors)

New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education

Number 64, Winter 1994

Jossey-Bass Publishers

Ralph B. Brockett, University of Tennessee, Knoxville, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF

Alan B. Knox, University of Wisconsin, Madison, CONSULTING EDITOR


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Major factors supporting the increased use of self-direction in learning strategies in business and industry are presented, and the types of application are explored, with special emphasis on techniques for overcoming resistance to the new approaches.

Practical Experience with Self-Directed Learning in Business and Industry Human Resource Development

Lucy M. Guglielmino, Paul J. Guglielmino

There appear to be three major factors contributing to the increased interest in self-direction in learning in business and industry: unprecedented rates of technological and societal change that require increased flexibility and continuous learning, trends toward self-directed teams in the workplace, and research findings that consistently demonstrate a positive relationship between readiness for self-directed learning and performance.

Responding to these factors and other influences, human resource development (HRD) units in business and industry have begun to experiment with a variety of means of promoting self-direction in learning within their organizations (Motorola, Inc., n.d.). Richard Durr, manager of engineering and quality training for Motorola's Paging Products groups, provides a strong rationale for this position: "Self-directed approaches to training and development mesh with the philosophy of the learning organization. Gary Tooker, Motorola's president and chief operating officer, has pointed out that our continued success depends on our ability to hire and retain employees at every level who are 'motivated, bright, flexible, able to interact with their associates in participative and problem-solving teams and capable of continuous learning as our workplace changes.' Stand-up training is not the way to accomplish that goal" (phone conversation with the author, Oct. 1993).

In recent years, a wide spectrum of the business community has shown increased interest in self-direction in learning (SDL). Certainly not all companies are as advanced as Motorola; in fact, Motorola represents the leading edge in the adoption and adaptation of self-directed learning strategies. Winner of

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the prestigious and highly competitive Malcolm Baldrige award for exemplifying a company-wide commitment to quality, Motorola has recently dubbed itself "the learning company."

Some of the company literature reflects one reason for the business community's growing interest in self-direction in learning. With the increasing pace of change, it is no longer possible to train an employee to perform a finite number of job tasks. Motorola expects its employees to change and grow, assessing new developments (and needs for learning), determining how to gain the needed information and skills to make necessary adjustments, and moving on to the next challenge. While Motorola may be among the first companies to recognize the type of employee needed to deal with the rapid changes in this age of information and technology, it is far from unique in terms of the need to deal with the reality of constant, accelerating change.

In The Futurist, Cetron and Davis (1991) predict that today's technical knowledge will be only one percent of that available in the year 2050. This prediction alone implies a dramatic increase in training needs; but other experts predict that, in addition to rapid technological change, the trend toward changing jobs and careers will also continue. In Workplace 2000, Boyett (1991) foresees the average American entering the workforce in the 1990s working in ten or more different types of jobs and at least five different companies before retirement. Imagine some of the implications of this degree of change:

Those companies still relying largely on traditional "canned" training approaches may find themselves investing large amounts of funds in development costs only to realize that the materials are obsolete before or shortly after they are printed.

If more reliance is placed on stand-up trainers using a more interactive, fluid format, the obsolescence problem will be less severe, but cost is still a major issue. Training costs, in terms of both trainer salaries and trainee time, are rising at the same time more training is needed to deal with the rapid changes.

In some specializations, the rate of change is so rapid and the number to be trained so small that it is not feasible to use traditional approaches to training and development.

The rate of change during this era of rapidly expanding information and technology has been a major factor in the exploration of self-directed learning as a training and development option. Two other factors have also had a strong impact: the movement toward the use of self-directed teams to increase productivity, and research findings linking high levels of readiness for self-directed learning with higher job performance.

Current business literature chronicles the success of work teams as a means of motivating and energizing individuals and thus increasing productivity (Spencer, 1993). An in-depth examination of teams involving interviews with several hundred individuals working in fifty teams within thirty different companies and organizations led Katzenbach and Smith (1993) to observe that committed, effective teams naturally integrate performance and learning. These

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teams seek out what they need to know to get their jobs done, translating long-term goals into definable performance goals and then gathering the information and developing the skills necessary to meet those highly relevant goals. Comparing this description with Knowles' (1980) definition of the self-directed learning process, the similarities are striking. Just as Knowles contends that self-directed learning is more relevant and effective than traditional teaching, Katzenbach and Smith (1993) assert that teams functioning in this way not only produce superior team accomplishments and company-wide performance, but also spark individual development. Wellins, Byham, and Wilson (1991) state that self-directed work teams improve quality, customer service, and productivity, often dramatically, and that at least 26 percent of all organizations now make some use of self-directed work teams.

The third factor supporting the use of SDL strategies in business and industry is the discovery of a link between job performance and level of readiness for self-directed learning as measured by the Self-Directed Learning Readiness Scale (SDLRS). The SDLRS is a self-report inventory designed to assess a complex of characteristics supportive of self-directed learning (attitudes, perceptions, abilities). It has been translated into eight languages and used in more than twenty countries, with the majority of use, until recent years, in educational settings. Most of the evidence of the link between SDLRS scores and job performance comes from three large studies conducted in major corporations. In 1980, Guglielmino and Guglielmino (1982) conducted a study in one of AT&T's operating companies, testing 753 individuals. In 1985, the study was replicated with a sample of 655 employees from the Hong Kong Telephone Company (Roberts, 1986). Most recently, Durr (1992) tested 606 Motorola employees. Each of these studies documented a significant positive relationship between performance ratings and SDLRS scores, a relationship that was significantly stronger for individuals whose jobs involved a high degree of change and required higher levels of creativity and problem solving. These studies support the logical assumption that workers who receive satisfactory and above-average performance ratings are those who are able to recognize needs for learning presented by a changing environment and devise means of obtaining the new information and skills needed to maintain performance and competitive position: they are self-directed learners.

Massive technological and societal changes, combined with the trend toward the use of self-directed teams, and research findings indicating a link between performance and readiness for self-directed learning have all contributed to the upsurge of interest in SDL in business and industry How, then, have companies promoted the use of SDL strategies in the workplace? The logical first step is to provide resources for self-directed learning at the job site. A study conducted in the highly technological aerospace industry (Rymell and Newsom, 1981) revealed that engineers were spending an average of 1,702 hours per year on learning projects, more than twice the number of hours devoted to learning projects by the average individual (816).

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Not surprisingly, nearly half of the hours were spent on work-related projects; however, many of the employees reported difficulties and delays caused by inability to locate necessary information and other human and material resources for learning. Rymell concluded that employers benefit greatly from the self-directed learning of their employees, but do not always provide assistance, recognition, and resources to promote work-related self-directed learning. He points out that providing learning resources and support systems for self-directed learning would be likely to produce even greater gains for the company. Increasingly, companies are developing learning resource centers for their employees or expanding existing centers and staffing them with trained facilitators to assist in the location of needed information, materials, and services. A suggested list of resources for such a center was detailed several years ago (Guglielmino and Guglielmino, 1988), and an updated version is given here:

Data-search capabilities and assistance to retrieve specialized information from books and periodicals. Lockheed's on-line Dialog system, for example, allows the user to enter key words and immediately receive lists and abstracts of articles and books on the topic requested. Those used most frequently by the employees could be housed in the resource center; many already are in corporate libraries. In many companies, such as IBM, the entire data retrieval system is available at the employee's desk.

Audiovisual materials catalogued by topic. Many companies already own significant numbers of films and videotapes that are used in group training. In a learning resource center these would be available for individual use as well. Other companies are firm supporters of audiotaped instructional materials, especially for individuals in sales or others who travel a great deal. Cassette tapes can turn employee travel time into prime learning time.

Computer-assisted instructional materials and self-instructional texts. A wide variety of computer-assisted educational programs are now available, ranging from simple tutorials to interactive laser disk systems incorporating video and multiple-response capabilities such as touch screens. Their self-pacing and branching based on level of expertise, and their immediate feedback, make them valuable additions to a learning resource center. Many excellent self-instructional texts are also available, and many have been custom designed for specific areas of need, especially in health-care settings.

An index of individuals within the organization with expertise in specific areas. Access to one individual who is expert in a particular area can be worth more than dozens of books, articles, and videotapes. An index of this type becomes more important, of course, as the size of the organization increases and multiple sites are developed. The index can be tailored to the needs of the organization, expanding to include a regional or national listing if needed.

An index of available workshops, training sessions, and courses arranged by topic. These group training opportunities, once considered the heart of training and development, will remain an important training and development medium, but will become only one among many resources available for the self-directed learner. All locally available group training opportunities would

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be indexed, and most major corporations will include access to EDVENT, a computer data base offering current information on programs, courses, conferences and workshops available throughout the United States and Canada. Many will also offer teleconferencing opportunities via satellite.

Consultation on learning plans and resources. The learning resource center would be staffed by facilitators who are familiar with the center's materials and data bases, as well as with self-directed learning processes. They would be available to discuss the individual's learning needs, assist in developing a learning plan (if necessary), and provide guidance in locating learning resources.

Facilities conducive to learning. Ideally, the learning resource center would provide a pleasant environment for learning. Individual study carrels, reading areas, areas for viewing videotapes or filmstrips or listening to cassettes, computers for utilizing computer-assisted instruction programs or other specialized software housed in the learning resource center, and small meeting rooms for group discussions are components that should be considered. Proper lighting is critical, and furnishings, color, plants, and layout should all be chosen with the creation of a comfortable learning environment in mind (see, for example, Hiemstra, 1991).

Four Strategies for Overcoming Resistance to Self-Direction in HRD Settings

Regardless of the quality of resources available, and the fact that much self-directed learning is already occurring in business and industry, attempts to promote widespread adoption of SDL strategies in business may be met with barriers ranging from apathy to outright resistance.

Awareness of Company Support for SDL. Sunoco management recognized that an essential element in the wider employment of SDL strategies in their organization was an awareness that this learning approach was strongly supported by the company: They therefore decided to provide orientation sessions for managers to familiarize them with the process, the company's commitment to it, and the resources available to managers and employees. (These resources included SDL facilitators who could assist in the location of needed information and materials.) Similar orientation sessions were incorporated into the initial training sessions for all new employees (J. Tuck, interview with the author, March 1986).

Internal Promotion. To maximize the use of SDL strategies, several companies have made strong efforts to provide reminders of the resources available: new videotapes or other self-study resources are highlighted in employee newsletters; presentations describing resources of particular interest are made at department or division meetings; the CEO or division chief mentions the money-saving innovation that began with a customized data search. Attractive posters or displays of learning resources are set up in high-traffic areas near entrances or time clocks, and in areas where traditional classroom training is conducted. Instructors of traditional training sessions can also point out

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resource center materials that can enhance or expand the knowledge gained or help correct problems that surfaced, such as difficulties with writing or oral communication.

Easy Access. Through links with electronic data bases, many employees now are able to access and download an almost unlimited range of information without leaving their own desks. Modems connect them to university libraries or directly to resources such as EDVENT.

Many other specialized data bases exist as well; for example, Bisline, a Florida pilot project for the U.S. Census Bureau, allows subscribers on-line access to business and economic data from the United States and several other countries. Custom searches can also be ordered. The cost of links with such systems is often minimal and sometimes free. Companies that invest in these communication links for their employees are vastly expanding their resources for self-directed learning.

Formalization of the Use of SDL Strategies. Some companies have formalized the use of SDL strategies by incorporating contracts for self-directed learning into annual performance appraisal and planning meetings. Among them are Sunoco (J. Tuck, interview with the author, March 1986) and Motorola (R. Durr, phone conversation with the author, Oct. 1993).

Motorola has long been recognized for its commitment to continued learning for employees, requiring that each employee participate in a minimum of forty hours of training per year, but the corporation has recently made an even stronger commitment to reinforcing the value of SDL to the learning organization. In a pilot project in Boynton Beach, Florida, Motorola is now validating self-directed learning projects as a means of fulfilling the education requirement. Richard Durr, manager of engineering and quality training for the paging products group, comments on the benefits, both realized and potential: "The training is done in their place, at their time, at their speed. We have a twenty-four-hour operation in manufacturing where that can be a real plus. Using a self-directed approach also opens doors to a lot more training opportunities that we don't have available in a classroom format and allows us to serve smaller numbers with needed training. Our pilot project has been quite successful, and we are planning a major expansion of the learning laboratory" (personal communication with the author, Oct. 1993).


Organizational and technological change has forced many companies around the world to reexamine the way things are learned by employees. The float time of knowledge has had to become less in order for companies in this global economy to remain competitive. In essence, we have entered into a period of just-in-time training.

Many leading organizations are discovering that self-directed learning offers a means of remaining competitive in an era of increasing change. This

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approach to learning is tailor-made for today's environment. Its advantages are significant:

The learner manages the learning process in terms of what is to be learned, when it is to be learned, and how it is to be learned.

The learning is timed to coincide with the need to learn.

The learner is more motivated, as a general rule.

The costs of learning are greatly reduced.

The learning is more relevant, efficient, and effective.

While changed methods always meet with some resistance, the forces supporting increased use of SDL strategies in business and industry appear strong and unlikely to be diverted. The combination of economy and productivity resulting from the use of SDL strategies is likely to lead to a major and lasting change in the way training and development takes place in the leading organizations--the "learning organizations"--of this century and the next.


Boyett, J. H. Workplace 2000: The Revolution Reshaping American Business. New York: Dutton, 1991.

Cetron, M., and Davis, O. "Fifty Trends Shaping the World." The Futurist, Sept./Oct. 1991, pp. 11-21.

Durr, R. E. "An Examination of Readiness for Self-Directed Learning and Selected Personnel Variables at a Large Midwestern Electronics Development Manufacturing Corporation." Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Department of Educational Leadership, Florida Atlantic University, 1992.

Guglielmino, L. M., and Guglielmino, P. J. "Self-Directed Learning in Business and Industry: An Information Age Imperative." In H. B. Long and Associates, Self-Directed Learning: Application and Theory. Athens: Lifelong Learning Research/Publication Project, Department of Adult Education, University of Georgia, 1988.

Guglielmino, P. J., and Guglielmino, L. M. An Examination of the Relationship Between Self-directed Learning Readiness and Job Performance in a Major Utility. Unpublished research report, Guglielmino and Associates, 1982.

Hiemstra, R. (ed.). Creating Environments for Effective Adult Learning. New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, no. 50. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1991.

Katzenbach, J., and Smith, D. The Wisdom of Teams: Creating the High-Performance Organization. Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 1993.

Knowles, M. S. The Modern Practice of Adult Education: From Pedagogy to Andragogy. (Revised ed.) New York: Cambridge, 1980.

Motorola, Inc. The Crisis in American Education. Schaumburg, Ill.: Motorola, Inc., n.d.

Roberts, D. G. "A Study of the Use of the Self-Directed Learning Readiness Scale as Related to Selected Organization Variables. " Dissertation Abstracts International, 47, 1218A. Doctoral dissertation, University of Missouri at Kansas City, 1986.

Rymell, R., and Newsom, R. "Self-Directed Learning and HRD." Training and Development Journal, 1981, 35, 50-52.

Spencer, K. L. "Review of The Wisdom of Teams: Creating the High-Performance Organization." Academy of Management Executive, 1993, 7, 100-102.

Wellins, R. S., Byham, W. C., and Wilson, J. M. Empowered Teams: Creating Self-Directed Work Groups that Improve Quality, Productivity, and Participation. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1991.


Lucy M. Guglielmino is professor of adult and community education and chair of the Department of Educational Leadership at Florida Atlantic University

Paul J. Guglielmino is director of the Stuart James Research Center in Florida Atlantic University's College of Business and is assistant professor of management.

June, 2001

-- Return to Roger Hiemstra's opening page

-- Return to the Overcoming Resistance to Self-Direction in Adult Learning Contents page

-- Go to Editor's Notes, Chapter One, Chapter Two, Chapter Three, Chapter Four, Chapter Six, Chapter Seven, Chapter Eight, Chapter Nine, Chapter Ten, Chapter Eleven or The Index.