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Calgary-based Eileen Dooley, vice-president of VF Career Management, is a career-transition specialist.

Employee engagement has been a buzzword for the past few years now. The biggest problem with the concept, however, is determining whose responsibility it is to get employees engaged, and what this truly means from a head, heart and hands perspective. Too often, there is a misconception that it is solely up to the employer to engage employees.

While there are many things an employer can, and should, do to help make employees feel engaged in the work of the business, there is an equal – and perhaps greater – role for employees to be actively seeking opportunities to learn and develop on their own.

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Indeed, employees with interests beyond the business is a win-win for both sides. Employers benefit from people who think across disciplines and have a wider spectrum of perspectives, and employees can better see the fit between their work and the wider world when they actively look for connections to things that interest them.

Offer community, not just learning

In cost-constrained times, fewer employers have the latitude to send employees off to interesting conferences and seminars. The response often is to cut external training entirely, or to emphasize Web-based learning that helps meet the knowledge requirements of employees. But it does little to engage the all-important social side of learning, which serves to improve both retention and better application of the learning being done.

Fortunately, there are several low-cost ways for employers to stimulate the creation of learning communities within the business. Higher-potential employees are often champing at the bit to help engage others and spread knowledge and can feel empowered to do so on their own initiative when employers send the signal that this is valued, and give employees time within their day to pursue such options.

A blending of Web-based and classroom instruction combined with employee-initiated learning communities can focus on key business questions that employers want employees to be engaged in, but don't know how – such as product or service improvements, or developing new lines of business.

Employees often have powerful perspectives on these issues, but no employer-sanctioned place to share their ideas apart from quarterly town halls that don't give adequate time and scope to go deeper.

Employees need to take control

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Even with the best of employers, an employee needs to remember that your career is yours to manage. This principle extends to continual learning. Lifelong learning, however, is not only about employer-supported conferences or enrolling in an MBA program. Instead, continual learning can be very simple, cost-effective [even free] and, importantly, time-effective.

Starting with the formal route, most local universities, technical institutes and colleges offer adult-learning programs for a wide range of subjects. The advantage of this route is that individual courses and programs can be taken for educational credit and certificates, which demonstrate a personal commitment to self-development. Increasingly, some institutions offer online versions of their programs that combine occasional learning days with online study.

For those seeking the flexibility of online study with the structure and depth of a traditional course, there are many organizations offering Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs, offering access to literally thousands of quality courses from universities across the globe.

Any course may have thousands of students, allowing for rich interactions with different viewpoints. For a modest fee, some offer the option of doing additional marked assignments to qualify for a course certificate and academic credit. Many professional bodies in various fields also offer courses through these routes, or through their own systems.

If you're looking for opportunities to network as well as learn, consider local events such as TEDx talks, which are conducted in almost every major Canadian city and many small ones. These talks offer multidisciplinary content such as the online TED videos, combined with the opportunity to interact with others. Similarly, many local universities and colleges now offer talk series to showcase their faculty members.

Ultimately, the message is to take control. Lifelong learners demonstrate a wider set of perspectives and have the skill to strike up interesting conversations based on the experiences they have engaged in. Never depend on your employer to give you learning opportunities. Find your own, or create them.

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