Professional Development 101: Back to Basics

By Plum

Blog Home

Is your organization kicking off or increasing spend on upskilling talent with professional development?

You’re not alone. Organizations spend about $1,075 per employee on learning & development, and in the past year, spending on external training products and services increased 32.5%.

Whether you’re just kicking off a professional development program or initiative in your team, or you just need a refresher on learning & development essentials, we’re going back to basics in this 3-part development crash course. We’ll cover what makes a professional development program successful, how to provide effective feedback, and how to enable learning & development for your high-potential (HiPo) employees.

This essential guide series was written in collaboration with Industrial/Organizational Psychology Masters students at Central Michigan University, and therefore it aims to provide an Industrial/Organizational (I/O) Psychology perspective to learning & development approaches.

I/O Psychology is the study of human behavior in the workplace, and Fortune 500 companies such as Walmart, Apple, and Amazon have in-house I/O Psychologists that contribute to organizational success by improving facets of talent management, including professional development. This series aims to bring you that same expertise leveraged by the world’s most successful businesses.

So first thing’s first: what exactly is professional development, and how can you ensure that your learning & development initiatives are successful?

Professional Development: Back to Basics

Professional development can be defined as a strategy for identifying, creating, and improving skills in an organization. Professional development programs focus on employees at all levels, with the intention of improving both “soft” and “hard” skills, resulting in improved performance. Soft skills refer to areas of awareness, attitudes, and interpersonal skills, whereas hard skills refer to technically-based skills often directly related to job contexts.

While the skills obtained from professional development varies, the goal is to improve an individual’s ability to guide the organization towards an objective.

Professional development programs are focused on identifying, creating, and improving professional skills and abilities in an organization. These programs often contain the following elements which contribute to their success:

  • Select the right people to develop

  • Ensure that the individual has the foundation in place to build additional skills upon

  • Provide employees with strategies targeted at organizational problems and tied to business needs

  • Provide opportunities to practice and apply skills learned in the program

  • Provide feedback to employees

These programs can be either internal or external to the organization depending on the ability to sponsor and provide appropriate training on targeted skills. The location can be decided by the availability of resources (including people knowledgeable in the appropriate area of interest) within the organization.

External sources of professional development can include universities, or consulting firms with specialized knowledge in the area of interest. Regardless of where the learning comes from, care should be taken to correctly diagnose problems and integrate development programs which aide in solving those problems.

The Benefits of a Professional Development Program

So you’ve got the basics on what professional development looks like, but why should you begin to implement intentional learning & development initiatives in your organization?

The fact of the matter is, professional development programs have positive outcomes for both the individual and the organization. The investment that organizations make in professional development programs is estimated to provide an average of nearly 200% return on investment. Other benefits include:

  • Improved self-efficacy

  • Improved leader performance

  • Enhanced communication

  • Improved emotional intelligence

  • Organizational profits

Professional Development By the Numbers

Professional development by the numbers

Slowiak, J. M. & Lakowske, A. M. (2017) | Aguinis, H., Gottfredson, R. K., & Joo, H. (2012) | DeFranzo, S. E. (2015, July 1) | Day, D. V., & Halpin, S. M. (2001) | Avolio, B. J., Avey, J. B., & Quisenberry, D. (2010)

What Makes a Professional Development Program a Success?

The Way People Learn

A key to making these programs a success has historically been the use of “action-learning,” which means that learning should occur continuously over time with intermittent periods of reflection on findings and what was learned to identify and develop new skills that might be needed.

To make learning more relatable and more easily applied, learning can also be created with experiential opportunities. Experiential opportunities are when employees in the program have the opportunity to apply and practice what they learned in a controlled setting so they can hone their skills.

Time dedicated to learning should also be long enough for effective learning. Longer professional development programs with more frequent contacts has a higher likelihood of effective development.

The Organization and People Who Represent It

Even the best professional development programs can be stopped in their tracks by a company that “talks the talk” but doesn’t “walk the walk.” Organizational leadership should be supportive of the program and the employees who are going through it. Employees should feel that their leaders value the training and are supportive of them applying what they learned in the workplace.

Effective change from development programs is most likely to occur when leaders actively partake in the skills and fundamentals learned by employees in the program. A supportive and active leadership team is key to developing a supportive culture.

Professional development programs are most effective when the organizational culture is supportive of “continuous learning,” where employees are always learning throughout their career. This culture promotes application, reflection, and development of those new skills.

Give an Anchor

Ensure the training has a real-world application. Anchor the training directly to business problems and future advancements where these skills will be directly relatable and helpful. This practice will give employees the opportunity to be ready for the future and give the business a solution that it might be looking for. Also, these employees should be given job assignments, or specialized projects, where they can apply their newly learned skills and grow.

Provide Useful Feedback

Without systems for employees to receive feedback, it is hard for them to be aware of the effectiveness of their new skills. Accurate self-awareness is a way for individuals to guide their own behaviors and development.

Stay tuned in our next blog post, we’ll be digging deeper into the power of providing effective feedback that will amplify your learning & development efforts.