Autonomous learners

When was the last course you took? How about e-learning? When was it designed? Was it current? Did it reflect your current reality? Was it useful?

One of the limitations of instructional design is the assumption that a program can be designed and built based on the initial  specifications. Assuming you know everything at the start of a complex development project is rather arrogant. Arrogance is believing that the perfect system can be engineered on the first try.

Instead, the principles of communicating, focusing on simplicity, releasing often, and testing often are all applicable to developing good instructional programs. A culture of perpetual Beta is critical. Perpetual Beta means we never get to the final release and that our learning will never stop. Connected organizations realize they will never reach some future point where everything stabilizes and they don’t need to learn or do anything new.


While good instruction from the organization is important, fostering autonomous learners is the more important side of the organizational learning relationship. A significant portion of the workforce has not been able to develop the skills to learn for themselves or are blocked from doing so inside their organizations. What many lack are tools, methods, and practices to learn and to take action. In addition, autonomous learners face many barriers on the job, particularly the pervasive attitude that you must look busy or you’re not working. We are trained early in life to look to authority for direction in learning and work. The idea that there is a right answer or an expert with the right answer begins in our schools and continues into many organizations.

When we move away from a “design it first, then build it” mindset, we can then engage everyone in critical and systems thinking. Workers in connected workplaces must be passionate, adaptive, innovative, and collaborative. The way to begin is to first become autonomous learners.

Developing practical methods, like PKM, is a start on the path to autonomy. A major premise of PKM is that it is personal and there are many ways to practice it.  We need to think and talk about work differently. For example, dropping the notion of being paid for time is one way to start this change.  An hourly wage implies that people are interchangeable, but no two minds are the same. Many of our human resource practices should be questioned and dropped. Here are some ways that HR or L&D can support autonomous workers:

  • Think and act at a macro level (what to do) and leave the micro (how to do it) to each worker or team. The little stuff is changing too fast.
  • Engage with social media and understand how they work. Knowledge networks are too important to be left to IT, communications, or outside vendors.
  • Use tools like enterprise social networks to make work easier or more effective. Let the network solve problems for you.
  • Make yourself and your function redundant and prepare for the next challenge. If your work can be standardized, it will be automated. Teach people how to fish and move on to the next challenge. If you’re maintaining a steady state then you’ve failed to evolve with the organization and the environment.

According to anthropologist Michael Wesch, “when media change, then human relationships change”. People of all ages are now digital content creators, no longer satisfied with being supplied with learning programs but creating tutorials, job aids, and explanatory videos for each other. Access to much of the world’s information, coupled with online professional social communities has turned us into grazers and foragers, no longer content to feed our intellect only at the corporate trough. This empowerment outside the organization is changing how workers value and perceive professional development inside.

Autonomous learners have a new set of needs. HR and L&D have to evolve to support these. Arrogance is assuming you know the answers.

5 Responses to “Autonomous learners”

  1. philip browning


    I wonder whether there is merit is connecting PKM with the VRM movement see: and the principles of VRM.

    Both are about personal agency.

    I believe Jon Husband recently attended one of the first meet ups of in London which is very much along the principles of VRM. There are familiar advocates . And you have also blogged previously about the fatal flaws in the walled garden (silo) approach of current enterprise social network implementations.

    Regards, Philip.


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