Ongoing Professional Development

I don’t want you to plunge headlong into your first morning coffee with these questions, but how willing are you, really, to keep learning and growing professionally? What value do you place on professional development ? How willing are you to create your own learning opportunities? How prepared are you to use your time, energy and perhaps money, towards your own professional development? Whose responsibility is it, do you think, for your professional development – you or your organisation?

These are questions worth considering. If you and your organisation place a high value on ongoing professional development (OPD), then you have an important part to play in encouraging and supporting staff to value it too. If the reverse is true or that you value it and the organisation doesn’t, or the organisation does and you don’t, then that is likely to create difficulties for staff who wish to grow and develop personally and professionally in your workplace.

Why is OPD so important? At a personal level, it gives exposure to new ideas, ways of doing things and different perspectives. It can be enormously beneficial to have existing viewpoints or ways of working endorsed – to find you are ‘up with the field’, here or overseas. It can be very stimulating to be stretched and challenged by other peoples’ experiences. Essentially, it assists people to be the best they can be in their role and it limits the potential for staleness – which in this context means repeating each year, for years, the same way of working, viewing or approaching issues.

At an organisational level, the benefits can be enormous. It can keep the place energised and moving forward by the introduction of new ideas, views and approaches. It can be a drawcard for potential appointees to know that an organisation values OPD, expects a mutual commitment to it, and will provide opportunities, support and encouragement. It can be beneficial as part of internal quality standards, to have individuals’ update their old qualifications, gain new qualifications or have new experiences, that can then be shared in some way, within the organisation. OPD can encourage individuals to stay within an organisation, especially if the opportunities can be internally and externally sourced.

There are a few difficulties with OPD, I’ve found. My list – and you’ll be able to add to it, I’m sure – begins with attitudinal barriers. I mean individuals who aren’t interested in doing any OPD whatsoever, regardless; individuals who will only do OPD if it’s forced upon them; or only if the organisation pays for it all, or, only if it’s in work time. I mean individuals who take no personal responsibility for their own learning; individuals who don’t believe they need to do a course of study or pursue other learning opportunities, once they have left school or university – regardless of how many years ago that was. I mean individuals who lack interest in anything new, or who have a lack of confidence in themselves and their own abilities. I include also, individuals who have negative, knocking attitudes towards others committed to OPD.

Organisations too, can have ‘attitude’. Places who say they are committed to OPD, yet in practice, provide no encouragement, acknowledgement or practical support for their staff, whatsoever. Places who may allow time to attend on-site or off-site courses or other OPD options, yet make it inordinately difficult for people to do so. Or places which don’t welcome new ideas, new people, or new ways of doing things, so that any spontaneous enthusiasm or potential is soon crushed, knocked or ignored.

So what can one do? I prefer OPD that reflects a smorgasbord of internal and external opportunities. I believe most workplaces are natural learning environments, as most can present opportunities for meaningful, hands-on, tailor-made professional development. These environments can be well utilised, if there is a commitment to do so – by individuals’ ‘acting up’ (no, not misbehaving) in a more senior position; by secondments into project teams. There can be rotation into key roles; preceptoring new staff; project managing a new initiative. Other options can include researching new business opportunities; working as internal coach to staff, teams or project teams; being a trainer or educator, in particular topics.

There are also external options which can be sometimes overlooked – Churchill, ANZAC and Harkness Fellowships, to name but a few. Some provide opportunities for time overseas. Some have very open criteria, creating opportunities for people from all sectors, walks of life and occupational backgrounds, to investigate topics of interest. Sabbaticals too, can be a way of allowing individuals time away from their workplace to pursue research or spend time working in other organisations. There’s always the traditional avenues too – topic specific courses or workshops, tertiary studies and conferences.

So where does it leave us? If organisations truly value OPD, then their staff need to know that and know what is expected of them. The organisation’s infrastructure must also be able to support staff in their OPD endeavours. And individuals? If you are a committed OPDer, great. If you’re not, well, sitting on your laurels or any other flora, might not be the wisest approach to take today. You may be in real danger of being left behind. So ask yourself – when was the last time you undertook professional development and utilised the ideas or experience in your workplace?

First Published in NZBusiness October 2000

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