Using Technology to Provide Self-directed Learning Options for Power Utility Employees

(Thomas D. Phelan)

Chapter Seven 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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Career advisement via electronic mail, coupled with accessible databases of job descriptions, local college programs, and regional learning providers, facilitates self-directed learning for career management at Niagara Mohawk Power Corporation.

Using Technology to Provide Self-directed Learning Options for Power Utility Employees

Thomas D. Phelan

For years, human resource specialists in corporations have paid attention to the career paths of employees and implemented corresponding training and education programs. More recently, the focus has been on matching in-house and corporate-supported training and education to business plans. In addition, downsizing has left fewer human resource specialists to be concerned with employees' careers, and many employees are now responsible for managing their own careers (Sturman, 1990). With the new emphasis on employee-directed career management, the need for self-directed learners in corporate settings has become greater. In short, employees need to take charge of their futures, and corporations can help by providing the kinds of learner support systems that self-directed learners require.

Though human resource specialists may be able to predict a corporation's skill needs for the next few years, they typically do not know the true interests and desires of individual employees with regard to career development. Thus, most employees need career development techniques that help them determine their career paths and estimate the skills a corporation will need so they can direct their own training and education toward meeting future challenges. Self-directed learners therefore will have a distinct advantage in preparing for the careers of the near and distant future.

Personal Computer Facilitation of Self-Directed Career Management

At Niagara Mohawk Power Corporation in upstate New York, the personal computer (PC) has proven to be an effective tool for providing employee-paced

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methods of accessing career and educational information. At Niagara Mohawk, all employees are offered the opportunity to attend a general career development workshop consisting of two four-hour sessions one week apart, focusing on the fundamental principles of career development. The workshop is highly interactive, providing employees with an opportunity to develop networks with others. Spouses and significant others are invited to attend. Some employees bring older sons and daughters, especially those about to enter college or the job market.

PC-based tools are used in various ways to facilitate the workshop. For example, seven to ten days prior to the first session, participants are sent a preworkshop package containing the input sheets for a PC-based assessment tool called "Successful Career Planning" (Bonnstetter, 1989). The data are collected and entered into a computer by career development staff between the first and second sessions. Software created by Bonnstetter (1989) produces an eight to twelve-page individualized profile based on the DISC instrument developed from Marston's work (1928). The instrument draws its name from the first letter of the first word in four defined areas that are examined: Drive-Challenge, Influencing-Contacts, Steadiness-Consistency, and Compliance-Constraints. The profile focuses on employee feelings about the present work environment and an ideal environment.

The benefit to corporations in using such an assessment lies in improved employee attitudes. Employees who understand their strengths and how those strengths contribute to success in their jobs are more apt to feel satisfaction in their present positions. "If your current employer offers what you want, you will probably be more committed to the organization and will work harder" (Fox, 1992, p.12). However, without the assistance of a PC, processing the reports in narrative form and in a timely fashion would be impossible. Niagara Mohawk's Career Development personnel have processed over a thousand profiles, delivering each to the individual employee at the second session of the workshop.

As employees enter the investigation stage of career development, personal computers also play a role as they look for specific information about the corporation and any requirements for future jobs. Once employees understand the requirements, they want information about strategies they can use to gain the appropriate skills, knowledge, and competencies through on-the-job training, job enrichment, or formal education. To facilitate the necessary planning process, Niagara Mohawk's Career Development unit has designed a career resource system using PC-based, user-friendly programs. The system helps career development specialists answer specific questions about training and educational opportunities.

For example, when employees need information about local college or, university programs, they can use the internally developed "Guide to Colleges and Universities Within Our Service Territory." This guide lists key information about nearly sixty institutions of higher learning located in the company's upstate New York service territory, including a regional index, maps, and glos-

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sary of college terms. It is organized by the company's eight corporate regions with the goal of providing employees information about colleges within an hour's drive of home or work.

The entire guide is available through a PC. Employees can access information quickly through the system and then request printed copies. This includes such information as name and mailing address of the college, phone numbers, contact persons, type of institution, calendar, admissions, degree and certificate programs, special programs (adult or nontraditional programs), tuition information, and financial aid opportunities. Employees advance through each screen at their own pace. They can choose to limit their selection to colleges located close to home or to look at information about colleges in any or all of the eight regions. The information is updated annually.

In addition to general college catalogue information, PCs are utilized to provide a database of schedules for college classes and also for high school and regional vocational-technical classes. Through a partnership with the Regional Learning Service, a Syracuse-based career counseling organization, Niagara Mohawk provides employees a computer-based schedule of such courses throughout the five-county region surrounding its corporate headquarters. They can locate classes by course title or subject. The information displayed includes school, location, schedule, costs, and contact person with a phone number. These data are updated every three months.

An additional feature of the program is called Distance Learn. Provided by the State University of New York's Regents College, Distance Learn is an index to college and university distance learning courses across the country. Again, employees search for courses by topic and are provided with information about media necessary to participate in the course, the school offering the course, a contact person's name and address, and the Regents College equivalent of the course for credit purposes. This is very useful for employees seeking to study at home or to complete degree requirements when prior study has been fragmented or stretched over a long period of time.

Another career information service offered in PC-based format is a database of 750 managerial job descriptions. Employees select managerial jobs within the corporation from a published alphabetical index or a screen menu, and a complete job description including knowledge, competencies, and skills required for the position is printed.

At Niagara Mohawk there is also one mainframe application that has been recently established for assisting employees with career development advisement. Many employees have been E-mail users via the mainframe for department communication purposes. The advisement began when Career Development staff posted an E-mail message to all graduates of a general career development workshop, informing them of an opportunity to raise questions with career development specialists via E-mail. Response was immediate. Face-to-face career advisement sessions are still offered when requested or deemed necessary but the popularity of E-mail advisement has saved the Career Development Department considerable travel time and expense.

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Although not currently used at Niagara Mohawk, there is another PC based system that appears very promising for self-directed learners. This is the on-line course catalogue offered by Nova Southeastern University's Center for Computing and Information Sciences. Nova Southeastern offers college courses across the country via various nontraditional delivery techniques. Specialists there have made their entire eighty-page course catalogue available over the Internet. An interested person can send an E-mail request to to receive the catalogue. The entire process is automated and receipt of the catalogue takes less than a half-hour. As this innovation becomes replicated by other institutions, self-directed learners will be further assisted in their efforts to locate appropriate learning experiences.

Career Development and Self-Directed Learning

This career development program also provides employees at all levels of the organization with knowledge and skills basic to a career management process. The process has five steps: assessment, investigation, matching, choosing developmental targets, and "Managing Your Career With P-O-W-E-R" (Sturman, 1991). All five process components involve the presentation of choices to participants so they can see there is more than one way to develop a career.

Actually, there are many ways to manage or develop a career. For each employee, determining best how to contribute to a corporation's overall mission is the goal of career development efforts. The desired result is sometimes called "Job Fit." Employees want satisfaction and recognition from their jobs. At Niagara Mohawk, career development is defined as a systematized approach to having the right people in the right jobs at the right time, while providing opportunities for growth and development. This is a win-win situation for both the organization and the people involved, who both benefit when employees are satisfied and productive.

Assessment. In the assessment phase of the process, employees are exposed to twelve different self-assessment tools, such as the Successful Career Planning assessment tool discussed earlier, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (Myers, 1987), Career Codes (Holland, 1985), and Career Anchor (Schein, 1985). These measures provide a comprehensive assessment and a range of choices for each employee to consider. The idea is that, before investigating career opportunities, employees should first understand themselves, their needs, and their desires. It is also important to identify development needs not yet satisfied such as specific college degrees or technical skills.

Investigation. Following the assessment component, participants investigate the organization. Although some career development workshops teach employees how to investigate other industries as well as their home industry, the workshop at Niagara Mohawk is concerned only with investigating career opportunities within the corporation. Employees can certainly adapt the process to situations outside the organization, but the intention is to develop people for internal business needs.

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After providing information on investigation methods such as networking and informal interviewing, specific job information is provided to employees. A listing of nearly 750 management job titles is presented to participants, who can request copies of job descriptions for those in which they are most interested. Here the PC plays a big role. In a single laptop, all 750 job descriptions and salary ranges are loaded and ready to print from a menu. Employees are provided with job descriptions either on the spot or within a week of the request. In addition, lists of union positions are included and employees can request copies of the most recent posting of any job and review the qualifications. Formal training requirements for all these positions are indexed and also available.

The organization chart, fifty-three pages in length, is also presented, offering with opportunities for identifying key managers in departments of an employee's choice. Employees are given an opportunity to study the organization's structure and help identify areas of growth and reduction. Lively workshop discussions and an idea-stimulation technique (Pike, 1990) encourage participants to investigate the possibility of future openings. The activity encourages self-directedness as each participant is required to address personal views of the corporation and its future and share ideas with others. It also emphasizes the need to assess the corporate situation before bidding for a new position.

Matching. The transition from investigation to matching is a very natural step. After assessing personal strengths and development needs and investigating the opportunities within the corporation, a natural question is, Where will my special contributions fit in? Matching is the process by which employees discover the best job fit and in a self-directed manner determine corresponding training and educational needs. In this component, employees are also asked to select a career strategy that will position them for a move toward greater career satisfaction, recognition, and contribution.

Choosing Developmental Targets. Choosing a developmental target is the next component. Here employees are discouraged from choosing a target that is too narrow, such as the job held by a specific individual. Instead they are encouraged to plan their development around job families and identify transferable skills applicable to a range of positions. This not only provides for career choice flexibility, but helps employees understand the corporation's bigger picture. In the long run, they are more valuable to the organization because of this broader preparation and understanding.

Managing Your Career with P-O-W-E-R. Once the target or area of greatest need is identified, employees are encouraged to manage their careers with "P-O-W-E-R" (Sturman, 1991). The "P" stands for planning development, "O" is for obtaining input from others, "W" is for working the plan, "E" is for evaluating results, and "R" is for revising as needed. Executing such a plan is complex due to a number of variables. Items that might change include such factors as the company's direction and the employee's educational plans, finances, family responsibilities, and skills valued. The important thing for employees to realize as they manage their own career development

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is that change will occur. A career plan must be monitored frequently and adjusted accordingly.

Importance of Self-Directed Learning

Self-directed learning in such a process has a distinct advantage. As noted earlier, corporations are becoming increasingly less able to do career planning for all employees. The matching of individual strengths, interests, and satisfactions normally must be done by an individual employee. Thus, charting educational and training plans becomes a highly individual matter.

In essence, career development is one area where corporations must encourage self-directed learning and be willing to support it. A career development workshop program is one positive step. A well-publicized in-house training program, accessible to all employees, is another. Tuition assistance programs can also increase self-directed learning because the in-house training program is extended by the resources of the educative community (Hiemstra, 1993) and self-directed employees can choose from a multitude of instructional providers. In the case of Niagara Mohawk, the Aid to Education program opens doors to the nearly sixty colleges and universities within the company's service territory, but does not restrict employees to them.

Career counseling is another way for the corporation to support self-directed learning. At Niagara Mohawk a number of self-directed learners set up career advisement sessions or contact career development specialists by Email with their questions. By seeking out this information, they are demonstrating their self-directed learning skills.

Overcoming Resistance to Self-Directed Learning

When employees are faced with career planning in difficult times, they need to acquire knowledge, skills, and competencies, sometimes under great pressure. The more choices they have, the better able they are to match educational opportunities to their individual learning styles. For adult learners this is critical to sustaining interest and enhancing retention. At Niagara Mohawk self-directed learning has been fostered by increased choice; technology also has played a major role in providing various choices in career development.

In essence, the PC environment helped employees become more self-directed and overcome some of the resistance they had to learning about career choices. There also was some resistance to self-directed learning in terms of management apprehensions about employees controlling their own career development. All that was required was convincing managers to allow the use of technology by those for whom it is the best choice.

The result has been gratifying. The on-line college and university index, has received an increasing number of users, resulting in more returning to school. Career development questions via E-mail have been surprising both in number and in content with a greater depth and breadth in the

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content of messages than anticipated. The system has even been expanded recently to include computer-mediated discussion groups in the customer service area and on-line academic support groups for participants in an in-house electrical engineering master's degree program.


In summary, corporations are changing rapidly and, in many cases, downsizing. Corporate employees are in a scramble to gear up for future performance demands. The quest for knowledge is underway, and the path is highly individual. Self-directed learners will be the survivors. Only individual employees can make the choices appropriate to their individual learning styles and lifestyles. Corporations cannot do it for them.

They can pave the way by supporting self-directed learning in the ways presented above. Corporations have an opportunity to use computer technology to meet the needs of self-directed learners at a time when the motivation to learn, retrain, and survive in the corporate world is unprecedented. Corporate managers need only realize that self-directed learners may be their most valuable resource.


Bonnstetter, W. Successful Career Planning. Scottsdale, Ariz.: Target, 1989.

Fox, P. G. Thriving in Tough Times. Hawthorne, N.J.: Career Press, 1992.

Hiemstra, R. The Educative Community: Linking the Community, Education, and Family (3rd Edition). Baldwinsville, N.Y.: HiTree Press, 1997. [On-line]. Available: /commindx.html.

Holland, J. L. Making Vocational Choices: A Theory of Careers. Englewood Cliffs, N. J.: Prentice Hall, 1985.

Marston, W. M. The Emotions of Normal People. London: Paul, Trench, Trubner, 1928.

Myers, I. B. Introduction to Type: A Description of the Theory and Applications of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. Palo Alto, Calif.: Consulting Psychologists Press, 1987.

Pike, R. Creative Training Techniques Handbook. Minneapolis, Minn.: Lakewood Books, 1990. Schein, E. H. Career Anchors: Discovering Your Real Values. San Diego: University Associates, 1985.

Sturman, G. M. If You Knew Who You Were . . . You Could Be Who You Are! Greenwich, Conn.: Bierman House, 1990.

Sturman, G. M. Managing Your Career With Power. Greenwich, Conn.: Bierman House, 1991.


Thomas D. Phelan is an emergency planning specialist at Niagara Mohawk Power Corporation, Syracuse, New York.

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.