Learning is everywhere. With the explosion of online content, the opportunities for learning have never been so big, so diverse – and so exciting. Of course, with a range of approaches to learning, it’s important to understand what’s appropriate and when. Understanding training delivery formats is a challenging but interesting task. You need to understand your customers (the learners) implicitly.

This task is especially challenging in the technology sector, partly due to the pace of change. How can you develop good learning products when the industry changes so quickly? Managing this level of complexity makes understanding different learning approaches essential. One way to simplify this task is to understand the difference between self-directed and guided learning.

Self-Directed Learning in the Technology Sector

Technology professionals are notoriously independent. In fact, learning to solve problems themselves is an integral part of what it means to be an engineer. This tendency toward independence means that, by and large, if you’re responsible for the learning and development of engineers, you likely don’t need to worry about encouraging self-directed learning – they’re probably already doing it themselves.

Instead, ensure that they have the time and resources they need to actually do that learning. Developers often know what resources they like to use, so forcing them to use specific resources is at best a waste of time and at worst a sure-fire way to lose the support of the very people you’re trying to support.

Self-directed learning for technology professionals can be broadly categorized in two areas: planning and research and problem-solving.

Planning and Research

Planning and research is a part of the learning cycle that’s often overlooked, because it often happens casually, away from work or during moments that look and feel like leisure time. Technology professionals use news sites and community forums to find out what’s actually happening in their field, whether it’s learning a new tool, a new methodology or a new approach that’s starting to gain traction.

This type of learning also involves research or assessment. Say, for example, an individual reads an article about Golang, a programming language that has seen rapid growth over the past 18 months. They will need to do some research to understand the key features of Golang, how it compares with other languages and what people are actually using it for. Without this research, learning won’t happen at all.

Problem-Solving

For many technology professionals, problem-solving is what they do. Yes, they write code, but ultimately, the essence of their job is solving problems. In this case, problem-solving is about finding a quick solution. It could be something relatively small, like fixing a tiny piece of code, or it could be a more complex project, like writing a simple application. What unites both use cases is intentionality: The learner knows what they want to achieve, and they simply need a solution to put it into place.

When problem-solving, developers often use community support; that’s why online technology communities like Stack Overflow are so popular. Again, it’s important to note that this sort of learning is always self-directed; you can’t guide it in the way that you do for more traditional training.

Guided Learning in the Technology Sector

Self-directed learning accounts for much of the learning in technical professions, but guided learning still has a place. Ultimately, guided learning in the technology sector is all about community. It should never feel pedagogical.

It’s essential for employers to understand the importance of conferences – if possible, by providing space in the budget for them. It’s not only an effective way of engaging development and engineering teams, but it also cultivates a culture that embraces and is curious about technology. Conferences are the tip of a pyramid that cascades down into local technology meetups and peer support. Encouraging a culture of guided learning can be hugely beneficial. Just as the open source projects that today are the building blocks of much corporate software are largely maintained by teams of volunteers, there’s a whole world of technology training that organizations take advantage of without much of a financial investment.

Traditional Guided Learning

Online courses are particularly popular with technology professionals, but it’s important to remember that they should occupy just a portion of the learning journey. Courses are useful when employees need to learn a specific set of skills. That level of specificity is difficult in a changing environment like software engineering, but in certain areas, it can be useful. For example, for certain disciplines or methodologies like DevOps, a modality like a webinar can provide technology professionals with a structured approach that covers the fundamentals.

Of course, this sort of information can also be learned through a self-directed approach – there’s no shortage of books and blog posts on DevOps. However, guided learning can provide a more comprehensive look at the topic; rather than sifting through resources, with a formal course, learners have the confidence that they’re learning everything they need from a single authority on the subject. If the session is interactive, even better. Because technology deals with potentially complex and contested topics (i.e., where there’s often no agreed-upon best practice), formal courses are a valuable part of the learning experience.

Being Flexible

Much debate around technical skills is reductive. From teaching children to code to retraining employees, it often feels like learning technology skills simply means processing a set of rules about how to do something. In reality, technology changes quickly – and there’s never one correct way to do something. Organizations must understand this unique aspect of the technology sector as well as the learning process, from planning to implementation.

The independence of technology professionals is an asset. Let’s encourage it and support them to continue to make good decisions.

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