Following is an excerpt from our new book, Minds at Work: Managing for Success in the Knowledge Economy (Chapter Five).

There is a moment in the movie The Matrix when Trinity says, “I need to know how to fly a helicopter!” She plugs a jack directly into her brain and downloads the skills. Plugging in to what she needed to learn was as direct and fast as the screenwriters could imagine…

In a managing minds company, it is critical that employees take responsibility for their own learning, Minds-at-work-150 pulling the information they need when and where they need it. Malcolm Knowles, a leader in the field of adult learning, defined this as self-directed learning:

In its broadest meaning, self-directed learning describes a process in which individuals take the initiative, with or without the help of others, in diagnosing their learning needs, formulating learning goals, identifying human and material resources for learning, choosing and implementing appropriate learning strategies, and evaluating learning outcomes.

Self-directed learners are people who get intrinsic rewards from their ability to locate, curate, share, and communicate what they have learned independently. Extrinsic rewards—more money, awards and plaques, additional perks and power—might have worked in the indus­trial economy, but in a knowledge economy, intrinsic rewards work best. Creating an environment in which people who are self-directed learners can achieve those intrinsic rewards is essential.

According to Daniel Pink, there are three key elements necessary to create this environment. The first is the ability to work when and where an employee wants; no micromanaging allowed! Minds can work in an office space or a virtual space. A level of autonomy is necessary for people to do their best work. Being left alone with the problem or chal­lenge and having the freedom to work it out is the best way to kick-start the self-directed learner’s process.

Second, self-directed learners must believe that it is a stretch to get from the problem to the solution. They live for the challenge that makes them draw upon as many parts of their brain as they can to pull the rabbit out of the hat. Straining their resources as they reach for the solution to a problem is energizing, and provides a sense of mastery over the subject.

The third element is finding a sense of purpose in what they are doing. Working in the service of a larger mission or goal completes the trifecta for a self-directed learner. Pink uses the example of programmers providing open source code for no pay because they were motivated by the idea of providing free software for the world. Autonomy, mastery, and purpose enable and empower the self-directed learner.

While we believe that people should take full responsibility for their own learning, we also recognize that many people do not have this abil­ity. They need to move from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset. They need to learn how to learn independently and get over years of learning in an educational system that spoon-fed them what they were supposed to learn. They will need help identifying their learning needs, finding and using resources (including computer technology), practicing and reinforcing learning, and evaluating results.

What if the people working for you are not yet self-directed? In this case, your responsibility is to help them learn how to learn. People need guidance and support from their managers to become self-di­rected. Every manager has a key role to play in making it possible for their direct reports to develop the knowledge and skills they need to be successful in their work. Managers need to set the expectation for self-directed learning and then create the conditions for people to learn independently. The complementary roles of managers and employees [are contrasted in the following table:]

Manager Role

Learner Role

Have a growth mindset

Develop a growth mindset

Hire for ability and motivation to learn

Be actively learning how to learn

Help learners identify strengths and weaknesses

Identify personal strengths and weaknesses

Encourage employee learning

Learn continuously

Make it safe to learn

Take risks and learn from successes and failures

Create opportunities for people to learn individually and in groups

Take advantage of opportunities to learn as individuals, and with and from others

Make technology available to learners

Learn how to use technology to learn

Give feedback effectively

Receive feedback effectively

Co-create and co-curate information with learners

Co-create and co-curate information with their managers

Convey high expectations for learning

Strive to do their best and exceed expectations of managers

Recognize and reward learning

Use recognition and rewards to further learning

The relationship between managers and their employees needs to start with a growth mindset. This belief needs to be shared by managers and employees. You want people who make learning part of the way they work, who are constantly assessing their strengths and weaknesses and seeking out the knowledge and skills that will position them to be more successful. Managers should encourage this and create a safe environment where people can be open about their strengths and weak­nesses without being criticized or judged.

You want opportunities for people to learn, and apply newly acquired knowledge and skills to important work on the job. People can arrange some opportunities for themselves, but this requires managers to give permission, make time, and provide the resources to apply what they learn.

According to a 2014 Gallup poll, managers who cannot or will not provide feedback “fail to engage 98 percent of employees.” That’s not a typo—98 percent. You need to give performance feedback in a help­ful and productive way. You want people to hear and understand that feedback and make use of it to learn and improve their performance. This must be more than an annual performance review. Performance feedback, positive and negative, should be given at every opportunity throughout the year.

Managers should have high but realistic expectations for the people with whom they work. People should be clear about these expectations and how they are linked to performance. This gives them a clear direc­tion and path to performance improvement, which motivates learning and the application of that learning.

Managers should recognize and reward the impact of what people learn on achieving the goals of the organization. This could include public statements about the learner’s success, a promotion, new respon­sibilities, or special compensation. Whatever it is, learners need to see clearly how what they learned resulted in this expression of apprecia­tion. The key is to publicly acknowledge the way learners (individuals and teams) have adopted and adapted knowledge to make the company smarter.