Ten principles for development

Experience of designing and delivering ‘training’ programmes and courses in higher education (HE) since 2002 leads me to believe that there are some critical differences between ‘learning and development’ (L&D) in the corporate sector and ‘training and development’ within HE.  It is not simply the case of implementing the kinds of L&D programmes and courses that are successful in the corporate sector directly into HEIs – there needs to be considered and considerable adaptation to the context of HE. This has led me to distinguish between 3 levels of training that are relevant for all organisation, especially HE.

Professor Linda Evans raised the problem of the lack of theory in researcher development, and although I do not offer a ‘theory of development’ for HE as such, I do suggest there are some basic principles and rules to follow:

  1. Always design development to the staff profile of your institution.  In HE there are two distinct staff groups: i) the professional services and ii) the research, teaching and mixed portfolio staff – collectively I refer to these staff as ‘academic’.  Whereas the professional services staff profile will resemble the corporate sector i.e. very few managers at the top and the bulk of the workforce dispersed largely at the middle levels and below, on the academic i.e. research, education and mixed staff, side the picture is very different. The academic staff profile may be flatter in non-research intensive institutions, whilst in research intensives, there will be a greater number of staff at the top and the largest single cohort of staff will be early career researchers.  (see diagram below).  This is no moot point – the differing staff profiles profoundly affects the design, delivery and content of all L&D or ‘training and development’.  As the cohorts have contrasting values, ambitions, and ways of organising, managing and doing things – the subtleties of which need to be understood and built into the design.
  2. Always design content and modes of delivery with ‘executives’ in mind and NEVER waste an academic’s time.  As the academic staff profile is dominated by Professors and Associate Professors/senior staff – all of whom are comparable with ‘executives’ in the corporate sector, and everyone else might be consider ‘junior executives’ by virtue of the fact they are all professional people employed at a management level – a key question is: how do executives like their training?  The likely answer is – short and sharp, straight to the point and immediately useful/applicable.  This is why so many would rather use Youtube videos rather than attending hours of face-to-face training sessions. This approach applies to ALL academic staff – not just the senior staff.
  3. Know your audience – do your research and design to meet disciplinary and cohort needs.  In theory, the training needs analysis that underpins all L&D should pick this up but in practice too many developers assume they know what is needed and barely venture beyond the end of their own desks – but in HE, where one of the fundamental practices is research, not to conduct a needs analysis is to commit a fundamental error.  Do not underestimate the impact disciplinary variation can have or even the level of knowledge and need of each cohort of staff, and even doctoral and masters researchers.
  4. Design for the Cohort in Context. Similar to knowing your audience in its disciplinary setting and at the career stages, the best designers also understand the context and the trends within it.  Unlike many corporate settings, HEIs are subject to an extraordinary volume of external influence, so much so that academic staff have been said to have very little allegiance to the organisation currently providing them with a desk and a parking space.  I think the lack of allegiance is frequently exaggerated and much depends on the nature of the HEI, its leadership style and how included staff feel, however, it is clear that development models based entirely on internal concepts of promotion and pathways are only partially (and even minimally) relevant. The most successful development programmes will not only align with internal strategic goals but will also be alert to external influences and priorities – and this is, in my view, one of the major differences with corporate models, in that the context of HE is fast moving and  highly changeable, subject not only to disciplinary priorities, but governmental and international influences and pressures as well. All of which affect how academic staff carry out their roles and which can shift in emphasis very quickly, even annually; for instance, government funders may want public engagement, the next year they talk more of enterprise and then of impact.  All of these activities require slightly different skills sets.
  5. Doctoral researchers and professional services staff will need more face-to-face training or development encounters than other cohorts.  Whereas doctoral researchers and some professional services staff will need introductory information and knowledge acquisition that usually comes best with face-to-face training workshops (although I would never discourage anyone from reading a book or watching a video), the main advantage of bringing people to in training sessions is for confidence building and for them to be reassured that they are not alone with any concerns they may be experiencing.  HE can be a tough, competitive and highly critical environment and which some groups find difficult to navigate – notable vulnerable groups are doctoral researcher and the professional services – especially if the institution harbours ‘traditional’ notions about the relationship between academic staff and the ‘students’ and ‘admin staff’ i.e. they are viewed as (and respond accordingly) like the college servant!
  6. Early career researchers and educationalists need to have their professional skills sets expanded, challenged and stretched, preferably via relevant experiences and mentoring.  They need to begin to  move away from technical skill and know-how towards relationship building and understanding the broader strategic picture and impact of their work.  That is, to build a fuller appreciation of their contribution and greater personal awareness of their future professional development and needs.
  7. Experienced academic staff need to be encouraged to embrace the notion of ‘continuous improvement’ and to move towards sustainable professional development, preferably via coaching. They need to be able to reflect on the impact of their behaviours and attitude, and have their practice challenged in a safe space.
  8. Doctoral researchers, early career researchers and educators, should have the opportunity to ‘test out’ new selves (as per Herminia Ibarra).  This means moving from ‘formal’ to ‘informal’ learning.  This is one of the great advantages HEIs have over the corporate sector – they are abundant with informal learning opportunities for researchers, for instance, Public Engagement, Enterprise, voluntary work, mentoring undergraduates and postgraduates, and teaching. No job outside of academia can provide the range and variety of opportunity that HEIs have to offer.
  9. Cut to the chase and never begin a training session with the abstract or theoretical – always start with where people are and move from practice to theory.  The quickest route to irritation is begin in the abstract and the fastest way to land oneself in difficulty as a trainer/developer/facilitator is to begin with a theory.  First, although it is common in the corporate sector to begin with ‘why are we here today’ or ‘what do you want to get out of this session’ or something similar, this is very likely to grate on a busy academic who can probably think of a dozen reasons why they could be somewhere else and who will be urging you to ‘get on with it’ (we are back to what do busy executives need).  Second, the whole professional purpose of an academic is to critique and inquire into ‘things’ – presenting them with a theory, model or framework early on in a session (which is also commonplace in the corporate sector) is likely to solicit one of their key and expert skills: interrogation.  My advice is to avoid introducing theories etc at the beginning of a session but to begin with where people are and then move them towards theory later – and only then if you are confident you can defend or explain the theory.  Retreating into ‘this is so-and-so’s theory’ will only decrease your authority – because it will seem that you are not able to defend your own work (reminding you that defending and critiquing positions is the life work of academics).
  10. Move mindsets from ‘training courses’ to ‘development’.  I am quite clear that the whole approach towards development is changing in HE (and also the corporate sector).  This means doing development differently, which also necessitates different kinds of developers – notably, people who can broker resources, enable researchers and academic staff to position themselves, and who can operate on the cusp, that they can move agilely and flexibly within and between an institution and the broader context as well.