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Developing Proficiency in HR: Self-Directed Learning

A man is working on a laptop in front of a group of people.

The following is excerpted from Chapter 3 of Developing Proficiency in HR: 7 Self-Directed Learning Activities for HR Professionals (SHRM, 2016), written by Debra Cohen, Ph.D., former senior vice president for SHRM.

Learning and change for adult professionals best occur through experience and reflection. Experiential activities place people directly within a concrete situation and allows them to apply what they are learning in a more effective way. As a result, HR practitioners need to become active partners in learning new concepts or in developing and strengthening new behaviors. Activities that engage individuals in actual, ongoing work can serve as a powerful mechanism for behavior change. Experience in and of itself may not be the sole mechanism for learning, but reflection on the experience can yield wisdom and insight that will be invaluable in effective development of one's knowledge, skills, abilities, and other characteristics (KSAOs).

The common denominator for the techniques and approaches recommended in Developing Proficiency in HR: 7 Self-directed Learning Activities for HR Professionals is that they are self-directed or self-initiated with respect to learning and development. This means that the individual is taking responsibility for all aspects of learning and development. Through your own initiative, you select and manage your learning activities, and you evaluate, sometimes with the help of others, and assess your progress. Self-directed learning does not mean that learning activities are done solely by oneself, nor does it mean that all activities are decided on and executed without assistance. The final decision of who is involved is typically owned by the learner, but the choices of what is done, when, and how can certainly be done with consultation. Self-directed learners are typically motivated, tend to be persistent, are independent, are usually self-disciplined, set their goals and remain goal oriented, and develop more self-confidence over time.

While there are many formal and informal mechanisms for learning, the following chapters focus on seven self-managed activities that you can do alone or with colleagues and supporters. You may find other activities useful and can certainly add them to your arsenal of development endeavors. Many of these activities are designed for HR professionals to incorporate into their everyday activities. Others may take a little more planning and preparation work. With all of these activities, the adult learner will need to be "ready" to learn and will need to approach the activity with thought and deliberation. The following activities will be included.


Role-playing is a learning activity that involves changing your behavior or assuming a role for the purpose of learning or teaching something new. One or more "players" take on a role or persona and are essentially given permission to act in a way that they might not normally act.


Networking is both an art and a science. It has the overall purpose of building professional relationships. Networking, at its core, is an exchange between two people and typically involves the cultivation of long-term and productive relationships.

Case Studies

The case study method can help HR professionals develop their analytical and problem-solving skills by presenting a story or a case, real or fictitious, about people, organizations, or situations that have been faced. The chosen scenario resonates with readers, prompting discussion and analysis to take place.

Purposeful Discussion

The Socratic method is often thought of as a form of teaching or as a teaching tactic. It can be a powerful method for directing the learner toward critical thinking. And while Socrates focused on moral education, this method can be applied to learning more about oneself and how to critically evaluate KSAOs with intent as well as to developing KSAOs based on evaluation. Purposeful discussion can lead to learning and understanding which behaviors are successful in which circumstances and which may be less successful.

Purposeful Observation

Observation involves careful watching or listening. The art of observation can be formal or informal and is driven by someone's own volition. Observation involves taking note of certain facts or behaviors and recognizing patterns—or the lack of patterns. It may involve making a mental note of something or actually taking notes.


To volunteer is often considered an altruistic activity in which an individual or group provides services for no financial gain—often in the community rather than in an organization. Volunteering is also well known for skill development, and is often intended to promote improvement in an individual's quality of life due to the altruistic nature of the activity. In this way, volunteering may have positive benefits for the volunteer as well as for the person or group served.


A portfolio is a tangible collection of items that demonstrate what you know and what you're able to do. A portfolio can be useful to help identify the significant things you've accomplished and, above all, where and how you've developed your competencies. More importantly, a portfolio can help identify where you have gaps and where you have strengths.

Debra Cohen, Ph.D., SHRM-SCP, is consultant/president with Deb Cohen, LLC and former senior vice president for knowledge development at SHRM.

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