Professional Development Should Be Personal

22nd September 2021

Few change professionals would disagree with the idea that professional development is absolutely crucial.  New ideas, practices and methods emerge, and for a practitioner to stay on top of their game, ongoing development is essential. After all, we’re often defining and designing change that will have an impact on a whole range of stakeholders.  Those stakeholders will likely have the understandable expectation that our knowledge and practices are up to date!

Professional development can take place either formally, through training courses and other types of structured learning, or informally through peer-to-peer learning and other less structured means. Some development activities might lead on to certification—that is to be encouraged but should by no means be the only focus.  While certification is important as it shows a certain level of knowledge or competence, surely the ability to apply knowledge and skills in a real world context is what really matters?  As anyone who has taken a driving test will know, you learn to drive twice: Once to pass your test (the basics) and then once you’ve passed your test you learn how to apply that knowledge in the real world.

When it comes to professional development, there are two common challenges that often get in the way: time and money.  Let’s face it, as change practitioners we’re often overloaded and busy, and it can be hard to find the time to go on a course or to carry out self-directed study.  Budgets are also an issue—gone are the days where companies would gladly send employees on ten day residential courses—increasingly companies are looking to do ‘more with less’. Yet neglecting professional development would be a mistake.

It’s Time To Make Professional Development Personal

When project work is hectic, it’s tempting to put all personal improvement activities on hold.  This might be a perfectly sensible approach in the short term, but very often ‘delay this by a few months’ turns into ‘delay this by a year or more’.  Then all of a sudden five years have slipped by in what seems like a blink of an eye.

This is an area where it’s sometimes necessary to be a little selfish.  Professional development benefits the employer for sure, but it also benefits the practitioner themselves.  If you’ve ever been in a situation where you’ve been so busy you can’t even think about learning something new, then you’ve probably had that slight feeling of stagnation and ‘being stuck’.  That feeling of ‘being stuck’ can affect morale, which in turn can affect performance, which might mean there’s even less opportunity for any kind of formal training and development.  It is best to avoid this doom-loop emerging in the first place, and if it ever does emerge then it’s crucial to get out of it ASAP.

It’s worth examining this perceived issue (a lack of time) in more detail.  Generally, if professional development activities are booked far enough in advance, there should be little excuse to move them. If colleagues, stakeholders and project/product managers are given (say) six month’s notice that a team member will be absent for a few days, then they really ought to be able to plan around it.  Yes, there will be urgent unexpected things that occur the night before. That’s life—but if absence can’t be planned with sufficient notice, then this is surely indicative of a much wider planning issue?

There’s also the question of blending work time with time out of work.  Certainly senior professionals ought to (in my opinion) expect to do at least some professional development activities on their own time. You might read an article like this on your lunch-break, watch an evening webinar, or go to a professional association meeting after work.  These sorts of activities are possible even when the day job is hectic—providing you can still find the energy of course!

Finally, it is worth dispelling the myth that professional development has to be expensive.  It is certainly true that training courses, conferences and other similar activities can be extremely effective and are rarely free.  Yet, even with zero budget or a small budget, there are options.  Some ideas include:

  • Organising a ‘lunch and learn’ session for your team
  • Volunteering to speak at a professional association’s event
  • Researching a topic, then presenting it to your team
  • Writing an article for a journal
  • Reading relevant professional articles and blogs
  • Mentoring or being mentored by a colleague
  • Engaging in online discussion forums/relevant social media groups
  • Listen to podcasts or audiobooks
  • Start a business book club

This list is by no means exhaustive, and there are many other options besides.  However this illustrates that as practitioners we can choose to ‘own’ our professional development.  Time and budget will always be in finite supply, but this shouldn’t stop us from improving!

by Adrian Reed, Business Analysis Expert