Red running shoes, climbing, bright blue metal stairs

In a business environment where the tasks at hand are constant, known entities, professional development is a relatively straightforward process.  Understand what skills are required to do your current job or your next job well.  Undertake training activity to fill the identified knowledge gaps.  Improve. Progress.

But this kind of stability is far from what we have now. What should we do then with professional development, at times of constant business shock and disruptive force? If our business environment is constantly evolving, so too are the roles of our employees. If we train people up for the tasks that exist now, that training might well be obsolete by the time it is finished. But we can’t train everyone up for everything.

So how can we keep professional development as flexible as we need it to be, without making it too detached to be useful? Maybe the answer lies in developing people as individuals, not as fulfillers of a specific function.

CIPD Conference – answers from within the profession

This week in Manchester, HR professionals are taking the time to explore and debate these kinds of issues at the annual CIPD conference.  It’s great to see themes like employee engagement and behavioural psychology in the workplace being tabled for discussion, and to see structures such as the appraisal system being re-appraised.

More on that next time, once people have had time to listen and think a little. But what about voices from ‘outside’ the HR profession?  How would the business community at large, like to see people developing professionally?

Corporates say we need agile, engaged employees to move forward

Last week speakers at Innovate 2016, a conference showcasing government supported innovation initiatives, continually referenced one specific theme. Innovation-led growth in this country starts, and ends, with people. This idea came up in discussions about future cities and healthcare but also, possibly more surprisingly, in relation to manufacturing.

Change will be the only constant in the years ahead. So the message was clear.  If we don’t take people with us – the ones we are designing products for; the ones in our supply chain; those leading us; or those following us – we can’t hope to evolve in the ways we need to, to boost UK growth. Our employees need to be equipped for constant change, regardless of the specific tasks we ask them to tackle each day.

Outside of government-sponsored programmes this same sentiment reappears. Last month saw the launch of an initiative called Productivity Through People at Lancaster University Management School. This is a 12-month peer-learning programme that has been developed in partnership with BAE Systems, Siemens and Rolls-Royce to directly impact UK productivity in manufacturing. And the overriding themes being talked about were not AI robots or virtual reality training. Instead, sponsors have been keen to demonstrate the power of employee engagement as the fastest route to process efficiency.  The power of asking people how they can work smarter, not harder. Tell people what needs making this week, ask them how it should be done for maximum efficiency. Then leave them to get on with it. After all, they are the specialists.

Develop ‘people’

So professional development cannot be a straight-line trudge up hill. It must be a multi-faceted progression. And yes, we will obviously still need function-led training for employees. But in my view we should supplement this with activities that build the individual.

Let’s help people understand their own capacity for growth and development by helping them achieve things across the whole span of their lives, not just at work. Children don’t just learn maths through maths lessons any more. For years they have learned through topics, because this is a great way to engage their interest. So let’s help employees gain skills and capabilities through a broad range of activities, in and out of their functional role, as a way of building agility in to their overall professional development.

In medicine, we talk about treating the whole patient. In a work context, let’s make sure we are developing whole people.

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