Today's job is the start of the rest of your career

The shape of training is changing, and different levels of staff have different priorities. This is where personal development plans come in, writes Philip Schofield
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The Independent Online
Our economy is recovering and skill shortages are on the increase. However, the Industrial Society, which has 10,000 member organisations, claims that the average spent on training each employee has fallen by a fifth since 1993. Every employment sector, and every region except Wales, has seen a cut in average training expenditure.

In its quarterly survey of training and development - Training Trends 14 - the society offers no explanation for this cut. However, it says that although expenditure has fallen, the average time spent on training each employee is expected to remain constant at four days a year. This could suggest more use of internal training and less use of external courses.

Customer service training heads the list of training priorities for the workforce as a whole by a substantial margin. It was cited by 42 per cent of the 504 personnel and training managers surveyed. The next five most important factors, in descending order, were: health and safety, total quality awareness, team building, managing change, and appraisal.

However, the order of priorities was not the same for all levels of staff. Those surveyed thought the top priority for senior managers was managing change (cited by 58 per cent) followed by leadership, appraisal, team building and financial awareness. For other managers appraisal headed the list, followed by managing change, team building, coaching, and leadership.

Many organisations claim that their business is focused on customer service, so it is surprising that customer service is listed only eighth in order of training priorities for both senior and other managers. It is only when we look at training priorities for professional/technical staff and for administrative/clerical staff that customer service tops the list.

These training priorities were probably established through a combination of managers assessing the skills needs of their departments, and from formal staff appraisals which identify the development needs of individuals.

However, two factors are changing the way in which training needs will be identified in future. A growing number of employers are moving away from a climate in which staff are "given training" to one in which staff identify their own training needs and initiate their own development. The other factor arises from the way in which some companies have stripped out layers of management, pushed decision-making down the line, and put a growing proportion of the work in the hands of "project teams" formed to achieve specific aims and then be dissolved.

In this type of organisation, individuals move between projects, working on some as leader, on others as a team member. "Manager" is coming to mean what a person does, how he or she functions in relation to projects and people. Promotion up the ladder is replaced by lateral moves to broaden knowledge and experience. Jobs for life are replaced by short-term contracts and there is growing movement between companies. Employers recognise, in theory at least, that having removed job security, they must help members of staff to develop a portfolio of transferable skills which will make them attractive to other employers when the time comes for them to move on.

These two factors have led a growing number of employers to encourage their staff to write their own personal development plans (PDPs) The authors of a new Institute of Employment Studies (IES) report - Personal Development Plans: Case Studies of Practice - observe that although the idea is not new, "there does seem to have been a rapid increase in the number of large organisations seeking to introduce some kind of PDP scheme. Organisations no longer feel they can take prime responsibility for the careers and development of their employees, and the PDP approach clearly puts the development ball in the employee's court."

Employers vary in the guidance they give to those filling in PDP forms in terms of defining areas for development. Some focus solely on the development needed to perform better in the current job, others extend to the next career step or longer-term career options. A minority take a holistic or person-centred approach and encourage the individual to think as widely as possible about a full range of skills and abilities and not just at the current job or the one beyond.

The report says the issue of focus is very important to how individuals see these schemes, and that they prefer a development planning process which looks at their wider personal aspirations. It continues: "From the employees' perspective it can be seen as a contradiction in terms to be encouraged to think about their own development in their own way, but then be told to concentrate only on their needs in relation to the current job."

The authors note that the processes which feed into PDPs influence the focus. Development centres and development programmes tend to be "person centred" in approach while appraisal tends to focus on the current job or next job step. Although appraisal-based PDPs may be easier to implement for the workforce as a whole, they tend to take a narrow view of development. If appraisal schemes are used, sufficient time should be built into them for discussion of individual development.

The approach presents interesting problems for employers. They cannot make it compulsory. As the report comments: "Being told you must develop yourself and, moreover, must do so by filling in a certain form, is a contradiction in terms." Moreover, if PDPs are available to one's superiors, and taken into account in decisions relating to job filling or succession planning, people are hardly likely to admit weaknesses on their PDPs.

What forms of training and career development do people on PDP schemes want? Training courses featured highly in the companies studied by the IES. However, so too did more unusual forms of development such as job moves, secondments, project work, task forces, work shadowing, coaching, distance learning, and personal development opportunities. If PDP schemes become widespread, the providers of training courses and distance learning packages will not only have to sell themselves to employers, but also to potential delegates.