Some ideas that are accepted wisdom in HR circles are yet to really permeate out into the wider business context – flexible working, for example, and diversity are concepts observed as much in the breach as in the execution. But there are some ideas that have certainly made the break-through and one of those is the realization that investing in the development of your staff makes good financial sense.
Putting time and money into training employees not only makes them better at their jobs, it also makes them feel more valued, which makes them more engaged and, therefore, productive. Not only this, but it brings down the costs of recruitment by improving your retention rates and it makes recruitment itself easier and cheaper because new hires are willing to work for less when there’s a clear investment in their development to gain from working for you.
I’m summarizing that argument, because I think it’s a fight that has basically been won. However, whilst everyone from C Suite to Chimney Sweep might agree that investing in development is a good idea, what tends to stop the next step (that is, actually investing) is a lack of clear strategy and a poor understanding of what “development” means.
So let’s start with that last point. It’s a topic worthy of an academic dissertation but, briefly, “development” is not directly synonymous with “training”. Development in an employment context is two processes running in parallel:
The first is the employer creating an image of what constitutes the ideal employee in a given role and then moving the real employee towards the ideal.
But the second is employees creating an image of what constitutes their own ideal self and then moving themselves towards that.
I don’t plan to look at either of those ideas in detail in this blog. But it should be fairly obvious that there are going to be conflicts and tension between the employer’s ideal employee and the employee’s ideal self. Where development plans fail is when they don’t take into account the need to contribute to both processes if they want to retain those in whom they invest their time and money.
When it comes to developing your own development plan, then, there are some steps and precautions you can take to maximize your odds of success:
- Define “success”
Development is a strategic objective and, like all objectives, needs a clear definition to understand whether you’re achieving what you have set out to achieve. Line managers need to have the lead on what constitutes an “ideal” version of each role within their direct reports, but there needs to be higher-level input to make sure that each ideal employee is aligned with the company’s overall vision and direction. Equally important, when it comes to aligning the two processes, is the input of the employees in those roles. No one wants to be a mindless job-bot, so if that’s what LMs think they want there needs to be an opportunity for employees to alter that vision to something more self-actualizing.
- Draw the map between “here” and “success”
If you look at any map, if the distance to be travelled is more than a short walk, the chances are that there’s more than one way to get between two points. Which is why the route to successful development needs to be a map not a path. There should be more than one way to get to the end. You need to build in options to double back, switch routes and perhaps even to pause along the way to enjoy the view.
- Don’t fill in all the details
Fill in some. A blank development plan is an invitation to total inaction. But be prepared to leave gaps and encourage managers and employees to fill them in themselves on a case-by-case basis. This will give all the stakeholders a sense of control and ownership of the process and create more points of contact between the ideal employee and the ideal self. It will also keep employees engaged with the journey: either it means that completing a step of their own devising is consciously and deliberately progressing towards the company’s own desire, or it means that an opportunity to progress the ideal self is just one step beyond an obligation to progress the ideal employee. Either way, it brings the two visions closer together and makes them mutually dependent, even if they aren’t actually similar.
- Allocate a budget
Each individual development plan should have an associated cost that adds up how much money the company is prepared to commit to achieving each step, and this cost should be clearly visible to the company, to the manager and to the employee. This will not only help the company to plan its training and development expenditure, but also give managers an insight into how much leeway they may have when it comes to arranging alternative or new opportunities to fill in those gaps; and it will be a clear signal to the employee of how much you are prepared to commit to their development. And this cuts both ways. If, having done your analysis, your planning and your design, you end up seeing a figure that is either insultingly paltry or ludicrously out of proportion to the importance of the role, then you know that you’re either under- or over-committing to the development of that particular employee or post-holder.
The design process itself is not straightforward. Doing this for every role in a company is likely to be time-consuming – especially if it is delegated to a single person who must then understand each individual role, the options and opportunities and the company’s vision for an ideal employee.
To streamline this, delegate as much as possible to managers and employees themselves. The work on researching suitable courses, qualifications, internal and external trainers is best conducted by those who know the work best. Wrangling those into a development plan and costing it is then best done by the managers who will be responsible for those budgets. The role of the HR professional in this, then, is to collate, tidy and oversee the overall structure and to ensure that the guidelines above are followed as closely as they need to be.