Is Your Professional Development Ad Hoc or Planned?

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A 2014 Academic Impressions survey of over 500 higher-ed professionals found that higher education institutions are divided roughly in half in terms of whether professional development is planned and proactive, or ad hoc and reactive. This gave us pause for thought — and it should give you pause, too.

Rethinking Professional Development as a Critical Asset

It’s accepted that your institution will be hiring and developing new faculty and staff as employees retire or move on, but the knowledge and skills they need are shifting significantly.

In Academic Impressions’ paper The Other Higher Ed Bubble, Amit Mrig argued that those institutions that thrive in the years ahead will be those that seek the necessary innovations to improve quality while reducing costs, create new models for delivering education, and align organizational structures and incentives.

One part of the argument that we find especially pertinent is the need to innovate – we can’t expect to thrive, much less survive, by doing the same things, the same way.  Hearing “We’ve always done it that way” may be the best indicator that it’s time to change.  The pressures higher education faces are changing, and so are the skill sets needed to address those pressures. Emerging technologies, shifting student demographics, changes in donor expectations, an evolving regulatory landscape, increased competition from the for-profit sector and other emerging competitors, and new strategic priorities for your institution (such as fostering environmental stewardship and sustainability or cultivating an internationalized campus) – these complex challenges necessitate ongoing development and training for your staff.

These challenges require experimentation, creativity, risk-taking, and a tolerance for trial and error. More profoundly, they require that leaders question long-held assumptions and engage the talent throughout their department in identifying opportunities to adapt to a changing environment.

Besides keeping up with rapidly changing knowledge and skills, the best managers will realize that professional development can be a real asset to shifting the institution’s thinking and actions.

“If you’re thinking of how to maintain the status quo, you’ll quickly fall behind. You can’t settle for “surviving” because change isn’t coming … it’s here.”
Martin Klubeck, University of Notre Dame

What Needs to Guide Your Professional Development Plan

There are three questions every manager in higher education needs to be asking:

  1. How is the work your department does likely to change over the next 5-10 years?
  2. Can you anticipate the skill sets members of your department will need in the future?
  3. What skills are you going to hire for, and what skills are you going to train for?

Our position is that you should hire for basic competencies and for the right fit with your department’s goals and culture. You hire for fit because you can’t train for it.

1. The Work of Your Department is Changing

The changes that are sweeping higher education will mean new roles, new processes and new tasks. You need to build and train the team that can respond to adaptive challenges, and you need to be planning ahead to develop the knowledge base and skills needed to execute your department’s plans and objectives.

Consider these two examples:

  • Suppose an institution is expanding its online education offerings. What skills will be needed? Do you retrain faculty and support staff from within the organization, or hire? How do you prepare for the transition?
  • Suppose the development office is mining data strategically and discovers that its staff need to work on donor stewardship. As the office ramps up this area of focus, how do you train development staff to do so effectively?

2. Anticipating New Skill Sets

As the institution’s needs and strategic direction evolve, so do individual roles and responsibilities. Even looking at the last ten years, there’s a good chance that what was required initially for a given position is no longer the same set of requirements today.  Even if you did hire the mythical “fully qualified” employee, the job will have changed enough that the skills and knowledge she walked through the door with are likely to be deficient at this time.

In other words, the job description your employees were hired under probably no longer match what they do.  And if their responsibilities have changed – how do you know what training they need to be great at what they do? We’re assuming they are good at it — or you would have noticed.

Perhaps not, though. A worker who is expected to perform a task/skill to a certain level will find a way to get it done. We like our jobs. But that doesn’t mean the worker can perform at the optimal level. We want our workforce to be great at what they do.  We want them to continuously improve, be competent and not lose time because they struggle with performing their duties.

Your training dollars should be spent wisely, and you should be developing the professional capabilities of your personnel.

3. Hire or Train?

Job requirements are skills and knowledge which enable you to do the job as it is currently defined. The more diverse your industry, the less likely you will be able to find a new hire who has all of the requisite skills and knowledge to fulfill every facet of the job. This is not a bad thing. Most things can be trained. Instead of trying to get the most “qualified” hire, we recommend you work on getting the best “fit” for your organization. Some organizations use personality indicators or aptitude tests which give a good indication of how well suited the job applicant is for the position, and for your team. If you have the basic skill set and understanding of the career field, specific needs should be easily attained through a professional development program.

By hiring for fit rather than skill, you can bypass common pitfalls of the hiring process:

  • The inflated resume. The employee’s work history can be truthful but still misleading. Take this factor out of the equation.
  • The bad fit. You can hire the most renowned expert in the field and have an epic fail because he doesn’t “fit” in with your existing team or the organization.
  • The non-learner. Even if you could get a good fit and a fully qualified individual, you should also make sure they have an attitude of life-long learning. You want your employees to seek continuous improvement of processes, procedures, policies, and of themselves.

So stop trying to acquire “the perfect hire.” Instead, get a great fit and then train on any missing skills or knowledge. You will save money, time, and frustration in the long run.

Another good reason to have a professional development plan for your department with the current job requirements well-defined is currency. We find most job descriptions; even the ones posted seeking applicants, are woefully out-of-date. The responsibilities (some are no longer required, others have yet to be added), the percentage of times spent on each, and/or the level of ability required has changed. A professional development plan will help you manage the job description and ensure you are looking for the right qualifications.

The Bottom Line

The pace of change in our industry is both exhilarating and frightening; your challenge is to figure out how to keep up with it. To be viable, your people require regular professional development. Even if they walked through the door fully skilled, in six months if they have not received any professional development, chances are they are falling behind.

Professional development has to be planned. It has to be managed and allocated as strategically as any other part of your budget. If you’re not using it to keep up with emerging and evolving roles within your company, you’re going to fall behind. Developing your personnel can’t just be “ad hoc”; it’s a necessity that you have to plan for.