A New Look at Workplace Learning

Key Takeaways:

  • Employees acquire over fifty percent of their knowledge and skills not in formal, structured mandatory training programs, but rather through self-initiated learning (Bear et al., 2008; The Group for Organizational Effectiveness, 2014)
  • Organizations should ensure that managers understand the benefits of autonomous learning and the various forms it can take, including activities such as reading books, searching information online, experimenting, observing and talking with colleagues, watching videos and participating in online courses.
  • Managers should not rely entirely on autonomous learning as the sole means for employees to acquire knowledge and skills, because what they learn may be inaccurate.

Employee learning is no longer limited to the training courses offered by the organization or those employees are required to attend. One estimate is that employees acquire over fifty percent of their knowledge and skills not in formal, structured mandatory training programs, but rather through self-initiated learning (Bear et al., 2008). Employees in today’s workplace have unprecedented access and control over what, when and how they learn (Noe, Clarke, & Klein, 2014; Training Industry Report, 2019). Recognizing the increased emphasis on self-initiated learning, scholars have introduced a new learning construct: autonomous learning. Autonomous learning refers to learning that is independently initiated, directed or guided by the learner, not mandated by the organization, and in the interest of acquiring job or career-related knowledge or skills (Kraiger, 2017; Noe & Ellingson, 2017).

There are three broad forms of autonomous learning that employees engage in to acquire new knowledge or skills: Self-learning, interaction-based learning and seeking structured learning opportunities. Self-learning refers to employees engaging in autonomous learning by observation, experimentation, and accessing factual information sources such as journals and books. These actions are solitary in the sense that employees engage in these actions by themselves as solo learners. Interaction-based learning refers to autonomous learning by interacting with other individuals such as colleagues, supervisors or mentors. This includes the feedback/reflection-based learning, vicarious learning and learning from others. Seeking structured learning activities refers to autonomous learning by identifying and participating in face-to-face activities such as courses and lectures and technology-enabled activities such as watching online modules or videos or seeking out and enrolling into web-based open courses or formal education programs. This form of autonomous learning is more structured and organized than self-learning and interaction-based learning.

Based on the results of interviews with hospitalists, my co-authors and I gained a deeper understanding of autonomous learning outcomes. For example, tacit knowledge is the most valuable type of knowledge acquired from autonomous learning. This knowledge is more applicable and more easily transferred to work than the explicit knowledge acquired from attending mandatory training programs. Positive affect from autonomous learning stems from not only benefits received, but also perceived benefits that their autonomous learning brings to other people (e.g., patients) in the work environment. In the case of negative affect, autonomous learning carries risks that can induce feelings of fear, anger, frustration or shame. We also found that employees were at times subject to imperfect knowledge that was either incorrect or dysfunctional in some way. The potential risk of acquiring imperfect knowledge particularly within high-stakes occupation, such as medical care, can be quite detrimental to employees’ motivation to learning as they weigh the consequences of a misstep.

In conclusion, the experience of autonomous learning can be reinforcing when personal benefits follow, but that it can also be delimited by a poor learning experience. Managers should create opportunities to facilitate employees’ informal learning, but they should be cautious of relying entirely on an autonomous learning strategy for employee learning and development, given the potential for negative outcomes associated with autonomous learning such as incorrect information and employees’ negative emotions. 

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Bear, D. J., Tompson, H. B., Morrison, C. L., Vickers, M., Paradise, A., Czarnowsky, M., Soyars, M., & King, K. (2008). Tapping the potential of informal learning. An ASTD research study. Alexandria, VA: American Society for Training and Development.

Kraiger, K. (2017). Reflections and future directions. In J. E. Ellingson & R. A. Noe (Eds.), Autonomous learning in the workplace (pp. 307-323). New York, NY: Taylor & Francis.

 Noe, R. A. & Ellingson, J. E. (2017). Autonomous learning in the workplace: An introduction. In J. E. Ellingson & R. A. Noe (Eds.), Autonomous learning in the workplace (pp. 1-12). New York, NY: Taylor & Francis.

Noe, R. A., Clarke, A. D., & Klein, H. J. (2014). Learning in the twenty-first-century workplace. Annual Review of Organizational Psychology and Organizational Behavior, 1, 245-275.

The Group for Organizational Effectiveness. (2014). Accelerating On-the-job-Learning, White Paper, 1-11.

Training. 2019, November/December. 2019 Training industry report.  Retrieved from https://trainingmag.com/sites/default/files/2019_industry_report.pdf

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