Without continual growth and progress, such words as improvement, achievement, and success have no meaning. ~ Benjamin Franklin
Every job has a learning curve and everyone learns at their individual pace. There are two forms of learning, passive and active. Passive learners absorb knowledge as it is given to them. Active learners seek out knowledge in order to improve themselves or their situation. Organizations can reflect similar learning characteristics. It is in the best interest of organizations to invest in their employees by engaging them in an active learning environment. It allows an opportunity to foster the desired cultural attitude and skills needed to move toward achieving the organizational vision.
Generally, organizations create professional development plans that are used annually as one part of an employee’s performance review. Throughout the year, individual employees attend seminars, complete online courses, present at conferences, and engage in other professional development activities. The list of accomplishments are documented and placed in the employee’s file never to be seen again. While this method is common, it doesn’t promote collaborative growth or improvement of the organization or allow the employee an opportunity to synthesize and implement the knowledge gained in a way that supports continuous learning, critical thinking, risk taking, and also values employee contributions.
An organization can have a consistent and well-documented employee professional development plan, but if the learning gained is not shared, directed toward organizational improvements, or used to encourage innovation, then what has really been gained?
In higher education, faculty and staff are expected to participate in professional development to maintain currency within their fields of study. This component of individual development is important, but often, only amounts to individual faculty and staff choosing which seminars, conferences, and training to attend based on personal interest or academic background. This approach to self-improvement doesn’t automatically translate to an institutional benefit. This is when professional learning turns professional development on its head and allows the institution to begin engaging as a learning organization.
Professional learning engages [faculty and staff] in collaborative inquiry about a specific issue or problem with the prime aim of changing professional practice so that improved teaching and learning follows. (Learning Wales, 2015)
While professional learning in this context is focused on education, the concept can be applied to business as well. Every organization has room for improvement. The decision is whether to make smart improvement or wait for external conditions to drive change.
Professional learning contrasts with professional development in five ways.
- Active vs. Passive. Professional learning focuses on active engagement in attaining knowledge. It begins with clearly identified issues that engage learning activities directed toward specific goals. The learning activities promote research designed to inform professional practice and develop strategies toward achieving carefully crafted organizational goals and intended results.
Professional development is an exercise of gathering information provided, but lacks opportunities to engage with peers. Professional development tends to be individually driven based on personal interests. Employees are left to analyze the information they have received through a singular perspective and apply relevant information to improve individual practices.
- Long-Term vs. Short Term. Professional learning engages employees to actively research and develop solutions over an extended period of time. Professional learning activities of individuals and groups are regularly monitored to ensure progress towards specific organizational goals. This allows for time to collaborate and discuss research data as it applies to realistic solutions.
Professional development focuses on clearly defined beginnings and endings. Usually, the timeframes are dictated by a seminar, conference, or training activity. Employees, generally, do not engage with the concepts outside of the learning environment. Since this learning tends to be individual, employees are isolated in their knowledge and have limited support in recommending innovative solutions to the institution.
- Collaborative vs. Individualized. Organizational improvements require a variety of input and action. Professional learning creates an environment that encourages equal participation and sharing of ideas aligned toward common goals. In order to achieve the identified goals, it takes a team working together to identify the pros and cons of all proposed solutions. The environment takes into consideration a variety of knowledge, experience, and understanding of research-based best practices before developing a viable proposal.
Professional development often results in isolated interests focused on improvements based on a singular view without full consideration of the bigger picture. An employee may be interested in implementing a solution that meets his or her needs without fully understanding how it would affect other departments or other organizational practices.
- Institutional-Focus vs. Personal-Focus. Professional learning benefits not only the employee, but directs research and self-improvement efforts to increase organizational effectiveness. It provides direction and develops a culture of continuous improvement that results in tangible achievements. The efforts resulting from professional learning activities produce both internal and external satisfaction.
Professional development focuses more on the individual employee’s interests and limits the potential impact this learning can have on achieving the organizational vision. This type of self-contained learning tends to discourage individual responsibility towards contributing to comprehensive organizational improvements.
- Consumer-Focus vs. Employee-Focused. Professional learning focuses on identified issues or challenges that require innovative solutions. Organizations that focus on professional learning take this approach because they understand it is a way to better serve their consumer, whether an educational institution or business corporation. Employees are encouraged to actively participate in research and collaboration in an effort to improve the consumer experience. This approach develops lifetime consumer loyalty and employee satisfaction.
Professional development, given its individual nature, tends to focus more on the self-improvement of each employee without maximizing the organizational benefit. It benefits the organization to be able to boast about the level of knowledge expertise, but fails to translate this learning towards organizational improvement. Then once the employee leaves so does his or her knowledge base.
Professional learning provides organizations with a tangible way to encourage both individual self-improvement and allow further engagement of ideas to support an organization’s vision and better serve the consumer. For higher education, professional learning promotes faculty improvement while striving to develop solutions that better meet the needs of the 21st century learner. Collectively, professional learning benefits the individual and the organization by encouraging active engagement resulting in a shift from individually focused development toward becoming a true learning organization prepared to thrive in rapidly changing times.
How can your organization move towards a professional learning culture?