learning and development

A Comprehensive Guide to Employee-led Development

Employee-led development promotes employee engagement, increases productivity, and improves talent retention. Embrace it to bolster organizational flexibility.

Matthew Reeves

CEO of Together

Published on 

February 1, 2024

Updated on 

Time to Read

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Alvin Toffler, the American futurist known for his commentary on the digital revolution, once said, "The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn." What has since been termed “learning agility” is equally important for organizations that wish to display organizational flexibility. Technology is disrupting, redefining, and restructuring the workplace ever-increasingly. 

So, how does HR keep up with the need to upskill and reskill employees while ensuring they remain engaged and motivated? The automatic response of many organizations has been to double down on traditional training and development initiatives. Yet, a 2022 SHRM study identified a lack of career development and advancement as the second highest reason for employee turnover after compensation. 

The reality is that traditional methods place the burden of employee development on managers who are already overworked. As a result, they lead to bottlenecks and frustration. A more successful but counter-intuitive approach is for management to relinquish control for employee empowerment. Such adaptive leadership frees the way for employees to take ownership of their career paths themselves. Employee-led development has been shown to boost employee engagement, increase skill acquisition, and positively impact organizational adaptability.

What is employee-led development?

Traditional development models focused on the organization's needs, which were decided by management – a top-down approach. Employees had little say in the content or method of training, which was mostly led by an instructor in a classroom setting. This method was structured, standardized, and focused on a one-size-fits-all approach.

The evolution from this to employee-led development, or self-directed learning, reflects organizational paradigms shifting towards more personalized, dynamic, and learner-centric approaches. It's a move made possible by technology, initially e-learning

Online courses, webinars, and digital resources provided more flexibility for employees to engage in learning at their own pace. More recently, the advent of AI has facilitated responsive personalization of learning paths and career advancement.  

Employee-led development acknowledges individuals' unique learning needs based on their skills, experience, preferences, and aspirations. It allows organizations to maximize this diverse potential within their workforce through employee empowerment. 

In employee-led development, management provides employees with guidance, support, and a development structure. Within the parameters of this structure, employees are free to experiment and pursue what suits them. And today’s employees do, indeed, embrace the challenge. They understand that, as distinguished talent retention experts Beverly Kaye and Julie Winkle-Giulioni point out in their book Help Them Grow or Watch Them Go, “Learning agility is the new job security.” 

eBook Your L&D Playbook for Unlocking Employee-led Growth 

Benefits of employee-led development

Employee-led development offers all the benefits of traditional training and more:

  1. Higher engagement

A Udemy study of workplace boredom found that over 40% of American office workers are bored (or disengaged,) making them twice as likely to leave. 80% of those surveyed felt that learning new skills would help them become more engaged, improving talent retention. 

  1. Improved job satisfaction and loyalty

Deci and Ryan’s research, which resulted in the Self-Determination Theory (SDT) of motivation, tells us autonomy (not reward) gives us the highest sense of well-being and satisfaction. Employees feel valued and respected when they are allowed a say in their tasks, who they work with, and how they achieve their goals. Employee empowerment concerning career paths feeds this need for autonomy, which helps ensure job satisfaction and improves talent retention.

  1. More attractive to talent

Glassdoor reports that 77% of workers will consider an organization's culture before applying to work there. Employee-led development and a culture of continuous learning and career advancement can be a significant drawcard in knowledge-worker industries with talent scarcity.

  1. Increased talent development, productivity, and innovation

IBM found a significant correlation between training and productivity. It reported that the highest-performing companies regularly trained 84% of their employees. Whereas in the worst-performing companies, only 16% of employees received regular training. 

Where employees "on the floor" can direct their development, there's a greater chance of them uncovering innovative and creative solutions. Top-down training, on the other hand, merely ensures old solutions are rehashed, demonstrating poor organizational flexibility. An excellent example is how AdSense for content and Google News were conceived and prototyped by Google employees utilizing their 20% “self-directed” work time. In-house talent development can be cheaper than recruiting outsiders who come with hefty recruitment fees, take time to "ramp up," and may not be a good fit.

Key components of employee-led development

Employee-led development can take many forms, but all implementations will have these three key components in common:

1. Individualized learning paths

Individualized learning paths involve creating personalized development plans for each employee based on their skills, interests, and career goals. This can be achieved through assessments, discussions, and feedback sessions between employees and managers. Employees take ownership of their learning journey from the start, setting personal development goals, identifying relevant resources, and actively seeking opportunities for continuous skill development.

Personalized development plans depend on flexible training methods, recognizing that individuals have different learning preferences. Options may include online courses, workshops, mentorship programs, and on-the-job training.

2. Skill acquisition and continuous learning

Regularly analyzing the gaps between current and desired skill sets ensures continuous skill development. This can be done through performance evaluations, skills assessments, self-evaluations, or other feedback mechanisms. Employees and their managers work collaboratively to identify areas for improvement and growth.

Employee-led development is synonymous with a culture of continuous learning, where learning is viewed as an ongoing process rather than a series of one-time events. Providing access to learning resources, encouraging knowledge-sharing, and acknowledging learning efforts all promote a culture of continuous learning.

3. Career advancement opportunities

Providing employees with clarity on potential career paths within the organization is essential. This empowers them to set realistic career goals and understand what is needed for advancement. Providing employees with opportunities to explore different roles and departments can support internal mobility and improve talent retention. Regular feedback and recognition for achievements contribute to employee motivation. Recognizing and rewarding employees for their development efforts and accomplishments can boost morale and create a positive environment that encourages further growth.

Strategies for implementing employee-led development initiatives 

Transitioning to employee-led development will require HR to take active steps to prepare the organization and its people. After that, HR will facilitate and support individualized learning paths, using various tools and technologies that enable agile learning within a corporate setting.

1. Uncover skills and competencies requirements

HR should develop a transparent career path framework to encourage and facilitate internal mobility. Outline the various roles and responsibilities within the organization, providing the skills and competencies required for each. The framework will empower employees to identify internal growth opportunities and where to focus their development efforts.

Peer-to-peer mentoring programs can play a supportive role in clarifying job requirements and sharing lived experiences. Nobody knows a job better than the person doing it. However, in fast-paced industries, HR can be challenged to manage such programs manually. Keeping track of changing role requirements and personalized career paths to create suitable mentor matches can be overwhelming. Together’s mentoring platform solves this, enabling real-time and continuous skill development at scale.

💪 Read our guide on 8 Employee Competencies Your Teams Need in 2024

2. Promote self-awareness and accountability.

The organization’s ethos of self-directed learning should be explained as part of the onboarding process. The sooner employees understand that they are responsible for their growth and development, albeit with the support of HR and their peers, the sooner they can begin the journey.

Regular skills assessments can help employees measure their progress, identify strengths, and highlight areas for improvement. Use surveys, self-assessment tools, and performance evaluations to gather data on existing skills. Scheduling regular feedback sessions with employees to share the findings is a constructive way to promote employee empowerment. 

3. Set development goals and objectives

Encourage employees to set personal development goals aligned with their career aspirations. Establish a framework for creating Individual Development Plans (IDPs) that outline specific actions, timelines, and resources required for skill development. 

Employee-led development isn’t about relinquishing total control. Junior employees, in particular, will still need some high-level direction. HR can help by allocating dedicated time for employees to focus on learning and development during work hours. And by asking the right questions to prompt general objectives. How these are achieved is then up to the employee.

4. Make development opportunities and resources available

It's essential HR recognizes that employees have different learning preferences. Offer diverse learning resources, including online courses, workshops, mentorship programs, and access to relevant literature. Provide flexibility in learning methods to accommodate everyone’s needs. Consider blending traditional training programs with virtual, on-the-job, and experiential learning opportunities. Ensure these resources and opportunities are easily accessible and well-promoted within the organization. Investing in technology solutions like an LMS (learning management system) and mentoring platforms like Together will help ensure this. Employees can access learning material as and when it suits them.

🥇 Read how leading companies are leveraging mentoring programs to accelerate business growth.

5. Encourage peer learning and collaboration

Foster a collaborative environment where employees can share knowledge, mentor each other, and collaborate on projects. Establish forums or platforms for employees to connect and exchange ideas and best practices. Together’s pairing algorithms will ensure meaningful matches, whether it is one-to-one or group relationships you wish to build - facilitating instant communication between mentors and mentees. Use templated meeting agendas to focus employees on how they can grow. Topics include goal setting, career growth, embracing change, productivity, work-life balance, and more. Each agenda opens up new learning opportunities. 

6. Recognize and reward self-development

Create a supportive environment that values and prioritizes professional growth and career advancement. Acknowledge and reward employees for their learning achievements and contributions to the organization's goals. To be effective, recognition should be specific and timely. Highlight the employee’s precise achievement and how it impacts the team and organization. When people feel seen and appreciated, they are more likely to volunteer for stretch assignments and seek further development opportunities. Together supports progress monitoring, adjusting learning paths as needed.

🗒️ Read our guide on How To Write Employee Spotlight Questions (Plus Formats)

7. Evaluate and adjust initiatives

Regularly assess the effectiveness of your self-directed learning and talent development initiatives through surveys, feedback sessions, and key performance indicators. Use the insights gained to adjust and improve the program, setting the example for agile learning. Together’s data-driven insights on mentoring sessions are valuable indicators of learning effectiveness.

How to overcome resistance to employee-led development initiatives

Resistance to employee-led development initiatives can arise from various sources, both employees and management. Addressing these factors is crucial for the successful implementation of such programs. Here are some common resistance factors and strategies to overcome them:

  • Lack of awareness and understanding: Communicate the purpose, benefits, and goals of employee-led, agile learning initiatives clearly. Consider town hall sessions that allow people to express concerns and ask questions. Make informational materials available.
  • Fear of Change: Acknowledge and address the fear of change by emphasizing the positive aspects and potential opportunities that come with self-directed learning. Highlight success stories and the impact on career growth and job satisfaction.
  • Perceived Lack of Time: Implementing an employee-led talent development structure will involve commitment and, initially, extra work. Emphasize its long-term benefits, for example, how it will free up management and prevent bottlenecks. And how investing time in their development will improve employees' job satisfaction and wages. Commit to integrating learning opportunities into regular work processes where possible.
  • Resistance to Technology: Provide training and support for employees who may be resistant to using new technologies for learning. Emphasize the convenience and flexibility that technologies, such as Together, offer. 

Lean on mentorship programs to unlock employee-led development 

You can unlock your workforce's full potential and embrace a lifelong learning culture through employee-led development. And watch your organization thrive, outpacing competitors in a fierce business landscape, as it becomes learning agile

Peer-to-peer mentorship, or Colleague Connect programs, as we call them at Together are critical to employee-led development, offering employees knowledge-sharing and learning opportunities they can’t access through traditional training. 

Reach out to schedule a demo and embrace personalized learning through effective mentoring with our suite of tools and resources.

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