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Professional Development for IT Pros

Ed Tittel and Mary Kyle

Skills learned today may be obsolete or on the way out the door two years from now. To stay competitive and retain marketplace dominance, businesses look for service providers and suppliers who can provide (as well as maintain and support) the latest in innovation and advances. To a large extent, this means you.

To meet the changing needs of clients, suppliers are faced with a dilemma. How do you maintain a well-trained and highly skilled pool of IT professionals? This is especially difficult when employers are faced with the reality that we live in a transitory, mobile society. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), people born between 1957 and 1964 (those at the later end of the baby boom) held about 12 jobs from ages 18 to 48. All this mobility within the workforce makes it increasingly difficult for employers to retain highly motivated and skilled professionals.

One solution is ongoing professional development. Individuals have been seeking certifications, picking up second degrees or looking at other training options for years. What is perhaps newer to this game is an understanding of just who benefits from such training. Professional development is a win-win scenario for everyone – customers, employees and employers – enabling businesses (and the IT professionals who make it all happen behind the scenes) to more quickly meet the needs of customers and provide improved services and products.

Benefits of professional development

Professional development enables employees to hone or update existing skills, develop new skills, and gain expertise, keeping them one step above the competition. Because top IT skills are always in demand, those possessing these skills are often recognized as leaders in the industry by peers, and they may reap substantial financial rewards in the form of increased salaries, bonuses, stock options, promotions and so forth.

Ongoing professional development, particularly as it relates to soft skills, may improve the ability to work and collaborate with others more effectively, transfer positively in our personal lives and improve overall job satisfaction.

What employers can do to foster professional development

Employers see one of the biggest wins by fostering professional development within their own organizations. Think about this: What is an organization's most valuable resource? Its physical assets? Reputation? Customers?

Consider instead that an organization's most valuable resource lies not within the real estate it owns, the individual products or services it sells, or even in its customer list, but in its employees. The people charged with the tasks of making products, providing services and developing solutions represent one of the greatest assets that any business or organization possesses. Wise organizations understand that ongoing professional development directly enhances the value of that asset and creates a corporate culture in which ongoing professional development is not only welcome but encouraged and fostered.

Here are some ways organizations can cultivate ongoing professional development.

  • Adopting an attitude that work and personal growth are integral to each other: Enabling an employee to recognize and overcome inadequacies, ways in which they limit themselves, or actions they take or don't take that prevent them from performing well on the job is an essential part of success.
  • Growing employee skills to fit the job role: Rather than constantly seeking to replace the existing workforce with new talent, organizations should actively seek ways to provide employees with the skills and resources necessary to fit current and projected needs.
  • Making growth opportunities universal for all employees: Too often, training is provided only to a subset of employees (the golden boys and girls), leaving other employees shut out.
  • Ensuring that growth opportunities are continuous and ongoing, not just once in a while: Many employees leave because professional development needs simply aren't being met or even considered.
  • Fostering an environment conducive to creativity and innovation: Employees, especially top talent, want to work on projects that are exciting and cutting-edge, where they feel valued and can think outside the box. Too much bureaucracy and red tape kills creativity and innovation, leading to job dissatisfaction.

When employers foster employee growth, the payoffs can be huge. Professional development ensures that organizations have access to top-notch, highly trained staff. This enables organizations to more quickly respond to changing needs in the marketplace, making strategic decisions and then mobilizing their teams to implement appropriate solutions. A skilled and motivated workforce translates into improved products and services for customers. Perhaps one of the greatest benefits of fostering professional development is retention of top talent, which eliminates the learning curve necessary to onboard new employees and wait long enough for them to become truly productive.

Forms of professional development

Professional development can take many forms. At a minimum, employees (hopefully with the help and support of employers) should create a professional development plan that includes an assessment of where their skills are now and where they need to be (or where you want them to be) in the future.

We recommend including both short-term (six months and one year, for example) and long-term (five to 10 years) career goals in the plan. For each career goal identified, include the steps that must be taken to accomplish that goal, along with a timeline of when those steps might be completed. When goals are clearly defined, it becomes easy to evaluate future opportunities with a simple question: "Does this opportunity promote my goals or not?"

One of the most powerful forms of professional development comes through mentoring programs. These are some common forms of mentoring:

  • Peer mentoring: This is a wonderful development tool for entry-level employers who are new to a job. An organization pairs a new employee with an experienced employee who becomes the go-to person for questions and insights on what it takes to get that job done. Peer mentoring decreases the learning curve exponentially.
  • Career mentoring: A career mentor, also known as a career advisor, is an advocate who advises individuals on how their skills and contributions fit within overall corporate goals.
  • Life mentoring: This type of mentoring may or may not be part of the employee's organization. Life mentoring provides an unbiased sounding board on which to discuss difficult career challenges, and typically focuses on the best path for individual employees (which may not be the best for the organization).

Professional development may also include a variety of activities, including on-the-job training, formal (classroom or instructor-led) or self-guided learning, conference attendance, IT certifications, whitepaper authoring, conference presentations, continuing education credits, self-study materials and so forth. If properly set up and conducted, even periodic performance reviews can contribute to effective career development.

The 70-20-10 rule

The 70-20-10 rule (PDF available here) comes from Morgan McCall, Robert Eichinger and Michael Lombardo of the Center for Creative Leadership. It is a tool that addresses how and where people learn, enabling organizations to design better professional development programs. According to this rule, organizations should keep the following in mind as they design and build development programs:

  • 70 percent: This category implies that 70 percent of a person's learning is internal and based on experience, such as on-the-job training. Employees should be provided with learning opportunities on the job that are challenging and meaningful, and when and as they're needed (just-in-time training).
  • 20 percent: This category means that 20 percent of a person's learning includes activities in which the person interacts with others, such as peer-based learning, mentoring, informal learning and collaboration.
  • 10 percent: This category includes reading and formal training sessions and programs, such as those delivered through learning management systems.

A well-designed professional development program benefits the entire business – customer, employer or employee. The rewards of professional development – improved customer satisfaction, employee retention, improved workforce, flexibility and ability to respond to market changes, for example — are numerous and make such programs well worth the investment of the time and effort to implement and maintain them.

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