Learner-Driven Learning

In the automotive industry, we used to talk a lot about “control.”  We designed processes to try to “control” the customer, we taught new sales associates various control techniques like “follow me,” “sit here,” and “sign this.”  Having control of our customers was the biggest myth in the car business and the joke was on us.  The customer always had control; 75% left without buying!  Now finally, technology is forcing the industry to accept and even embrace giving the control to consumers.  Automotive retailers who allow the customers to buy the way they want to buy will reap great benefits of improved productivity, reduced costs and loyal customers.

The same is true for learning.  Letting learners learn, not only the way they want to learn but also what they want to learn, will reap similar great benefits.


Eilif Trondsen, who spent 20 years at theStanford Research Institute and another 15 at Strategic Business Insights and wrote about The Future of Corporate Learning: Towards a Learner-Driven Model.  He goes beyond what we all know about the benefits of informal learning and discusses Demand-Driven learning.

He includes the following in the New Corporate Learning Model:

  • Growing supply of more granular, high quality content
  • Nano-degrees and stackable certificates
  • Easy, anywhere access to content
  • Smarter, more work contextualized learning design
  • More learner-driven and friendly learning

Jeffrey A. Roth took it to the next step in his 2012 Training Industry article The Future of Training: Learner-Driven Process.   Personalized Learning Environmentsallowing the learner to select what they need to learn and how they want to learn it.  Cheryl Lasse, a Managing Partner atSkillDirector, has written about this extensively.  Her recent post Why Employees Taking Charge of Their Learning is Good for You is just one example.

My first big “ah ha” moment was when Angel Green, who at the time was a Learning Strategist for Allen Interactions, convinced me to get sales associates involved and engaged very early in the initial design of a negotiation skills blended learning program.  These sales associates were more than SMEs we were using for content validation, they took us in a whole new direction; telling us “this is not what we need to learn, what we need to learn is THIS.”  In the end, the new blended learning program gave us a greater than 20% increase in productivity, profitability and employee retention.

For me, it was a life-altering revelation.  Yes, life-altering.  Well at least my work-life.  You see, that was about the same time a great colleague of mine, Dean Estep, gave me a book by Ken Blanchard; Know Can Do.  Ken’s great book on why people don’t put their know-how into action.  Why don’t they apply “what they learn” on the job?  We know they learned it because we taught it to them!  He brings out three factors that reduce the likelihood of applying what you “learn” on the job.

  1. Information Overload
  2. Negative Filtering
  3. Lack of Follow-Up

Something struck me when reading the section on Negative Filtering.  We were contributing to our learners negative filtering by teaching them what we thought was best or what we thought they had to learn, instead of or while ignoring what they knew they had to learn and what they wanted to learn.  Forcing them to learn something that they didn’t see value in while not giving them the learning they craved.  Sounds like a simple remedy.  It’s not, because the “experts” at corporate might have to realize and accept that in many things they’ve been wrong for a long time.

Let me give you another example where we put this into practice.  For years we provided our sales managers with great process training.  Receiving accolades that it was the best in the auto industry.  Yet we struggled mightily with process execution.

We gathered a group of our high-performing managers from around the country for a two-day brainstorming session.  We were so concerned that we wanted the design to be driven by them, we even hired an outside consultant, Chris Bintliff, who at the time was the Creative Director and Learning Strategist for wslash.  Chris did an amazing job of letting them tell us what it takes to be a successful and struggling sales manager.  In the end it wasn’t process training that they said was most important it was leadership and management skills.  Duh!

Try getting $500,000 in your learning budget approved for “soft skills” without it being a demand from your learners.  We expanded the group to include even more managers from our stores and worked closely with them during the design and development.  Again, they contributed so much more than content, they drove the design.  Now their leadership development program is being rolled out across the country.

This is not a trend.  Learner-driven classrooms are growing a whole new generation of workers who are being taught to take control of their own learning from a very young age.  Back in 2006 Barry Bearswrote the book Learner-Driven Schools.  Likewise, Chris Watkins has been a champion of Learner-Driven Learning in our education system.  One of his many articles is Learners in the Driving Seat where he uses a metaphor of taking a journey in your car for how we need to look at learning.

Before starting:

  • Where do we want to get to?
  • Which way should we go?
  • Has someone got a map?
  • Or shall we make up our own route?
  • Is there anything to remember from previous journeys?
  • Do we need to take any equipment?

On the road:

  • How’s it going?
  • Are we on the right track?
  • Do we need to change direction?
  • Shall we check back on the map?
  • Has anyone gone another way?
  • Corner, look out!

Journey’s end:

  • Where did we get to?
  • Is this the place we planned?
  • Maybe it’s better!
  • Shall we take a photo/send a postcard?
  • Did anyone get here by another route?
  • Where next?

 Next Steps

So where will you go next?  Will you give over control of their learning to your learners?  Do you want increased engagement, productivity and profitability?  If so, reach out to me for more guidance on how you can transform learning in your organization.

Ken Gregson


[email protected]