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Develop yourself: the professional development aspirations of HR and L&D professionals in 2019

This unique research lifts the lid on how those who support workplace learning are developing their own professional skills. HR and L&D professionals have traditionally put the development of others ahead of their own. Our data shows that this is now changing as they start to focus on their own continuous learning.

One thing stands out from our latest ‘Develop Yourself’ survey above everything else and it’s this: a learning culture is still an aspiration for many, rather than a reality. The HR and L&D professionals taking part in our survey expressed a keen desire to develop themselves, to learn new skills and take on new responsibilities at work and many are doing this under their own steam. But, a significant number cited a range of obstacles in their way, with one obstacle in particular cropping up again and again – that their organisational culture does really support learning.    

Yet everyone knows that in order to succeed in today’s fast paced, constantly changing world, organisations need people to learn, learn, learn, all the time. Learning is a necessity, not a nicety, which is why there is so much emphasis now on fostering a learning culture.

What is a learning culture? It’s when the organisational culture encourages and supports continuous learning to happen, learning that takes place in the flow of work, in communication with colleagues and peers, at external events and courses, on internal courses, through self study…. And this thread of learning needs to exist throughout an organisation, for everyone in the organisation, including HR and L&D.

There has been a tendency in the past for HR and L&D professionals to neglect their own development needs because they are so busy tending to the development needs of their customers. However, our survey tells us that HR and L&D are now fully aware of the importance of ongoing self development and realise they cannot let it slip, no matter how busy they are. 

How organisations support the development of HR and L&D professionals

Charts: Q7, Q8

So let’s find out what the key messages are from this latest survey, starting with how supported HR and L&D feel in their development needs.

One of our questions was: ‘To what extent do you feel the organisation you work for helps support your professional development?’ and reassuringly, the majority felt supported to one degree or another. Almost half (48%) said some support was available to them, with 35% saying a lot of support was available to them. However, 16% said there was no support at all.

Following on from that question we asked: ‘How do you think the organisation you are employed by could be better at supporting your professional development?’ This question prompted a whole host of interesting, illuminating answers, ranging from the very positive to very negative. We’ll start with the positives, which went from being happy with the current level of personal professional development to “They really go out of their way to support us”. It’s great to hear that some employers are taking the professional development of their HR and L&D team seriously, fostering that learning culture and providing them with the training and development opportunities they want.

However, many of you said you would like to be given the opportunity to broaden your horizons and learn new skills through stretch assignments and new challenges, with comments such as “Exposure to more leadership challenges” and “Sideways/broadening scope is just as important” and “By not considering progression/development as upward progression only”.

 What emerged very strongly from the responses is that employers and line managers in particular, need to make the time to understand individual learning needs and individual career paths. You want personalised, targeted learning. You want to have a development plan that you have set in conjunction with your manager, one that targets specific needs and specific goals. And you want choice – the choice to choose the learning you need. You want your learning needs to be taken seriously.

This requires employers to ensure time and budgetary constraints don’t get in the way of training: “More budget and funding for staff development,” said some of you. “Help towards funding,” said others. Financial support is a big issue for many of you, as is the time to engage in study and more reflective learning during work hours.

How personal/professional development is changing

Charts: Q9, Q10 

While the survey results show that employers need to do a lot more to make a learning culture a reality, they also show that many of you are taking learning into your own hands. You are creating the opportunities, making time for self study, seeking out appropriate training and funding new qualifications. You are keen to keep developing. When we asked ‘Thinking ahead to the next 12 months, how do you see your approach to developing yourself changing?’, the vast majority (70%) said you will do more development. A fifth (20%) of you said you will do the same development, with 3% planning to do less and 7% being unsure. 

Then we asked you why you thought you would take this approach to developing yourself over the next 12 months. It was clear from the responses that many of you are currently engaged in pursuing further qualifications and accreditations or about to embark on a new qualification. What was also clear was how ambitious many of you are and how realistic you are about the need to keep learning and upskilling. Hence responses such as “Need to improve my skills in order to move on’, and ‘Personal satisfaction and more career opportunities’ and ‘Keen to learn more and grow’ and ‘It is up to the individual to seek training if needed and not blame the organisation for not providing training. I want to be the best I can be’. 

Part of having a learning culture means encouraging self directed learning and our survey tells us that many of you are already proactive, self directed learners. And many of you expect to be boosting your skills and knowledge while doing your day to day work, with on the job learning. That said, a substantial number of you say you need to catch up on learning after a period of little or no self development.

And some of you don’t expect any career development in the near future because of financial constraints and workload pressures. “Business is so busy and no additional staff being recruited, so not time available for me to access personal development,” was one response.

The most effective forms of self-development

Charts: Q11, Q12,  Q14

Fortunately, many of you are easily able to access learning even if lack of budget precludes you from attending paid for courses and events. We asked the survey participants to rate how effective they found a range of development activities on a scale of don’t use, not very effective, somewhat effective or very effective. What emerged is that a lot of personal development occurs informally. Conversations with colleagues was cited by many as an effective development activity – 52% said it is somewhat effective with 39% saying it’s very effective. Talking with other professionals at external organisations is also useful for many – 43% saying that is very effective and 44% somewhat effective.

Coaching/mentoring scored well, with 53% saying it’s very effective, 29% saying it’s somewhat effective, but 14% don’t use it. External websites also score well – 44% say it’s very effective and 50% somewhat effective.

 Top billing, however, goes to external training, which is, of course, a paid for development tool. External training was cited as very effective by 57% of respondents and somewhat effective by 32%. 

Respondents were also asked to name up to three development activities that they planned to do more of over the next year. Again, external training topped the list at 45%, followed by talking with other professionals from external organisations at 35%, coaching or mentoring at 34% and free online training at 30%. Internal resources scored the least well – 7% plan to use internal online resources such as the Intranet and 10% plan to use internal training.

We then asked everyone to reflect back on the preceding year and identify one thing that had been the biggest help in terms of personal development.  A lot of people identified training, with DPG and CIPD courses and workshops being repeatedly mentioned. Self directed learning also emerged as a common theme – self study, reading, own desire to learn, reflection, personal curiosity and focus were all mentioned. For some people, the development came from switching jobs or from organisational change.

Development priorities

Charts: Q15

And thinking ahead again to the next 12 months, what do the survey participants intend to focus on in terms of development? Asked to give up to three answers, there was an interesting and varied mix of answers. A significant number of people said training, with some being more specific and saying CIPD training. There was a strong emphasis on new skills development, including management and leadership skills, influencing and negotiating skills, consultancy and communication, employee engagement and relations and strategic thinking. Coaching and mentoring came up a lot too, plus a handful of people mentioned apprenticeships. It was a broad range of answers, indicating that people are thinking deeply about what skills they need to hone in on.

Tactics for planning and recording personal/professional development at work

Charts: Q17, Q18, Q19

There was a recurrent theme across all of the survey questions and answers and it was the need for planning and skills mapping. HR and L&D realise that it’s no good having goals and aspirations if there isn’t some kind of plan with timescales attached but that doesn’t mean that everyone is drawing up a plan. Far from it – just over half of respondents didn’t have a documented personal development plan for the previous 12 months and just under half did. What about the next 12 months? A good number (43%) already have a personal development plan, 32% don’t have one but intend to write one, 19% would like to have a plan but are not sure how to write one and 5% do not intend to create a plan.

Despite the fact that skills and career development planning and mapping were cited as important by so many respondents throughout the survey, many are falling short – 27% don’t record their personal development, while 26% do it every few months, 12% at least every month, 21% record it when it happens and 14% do it once a year when they have to complete their CPD log or something similar.


These results paint an interesting picture of the career development aspirations and needs of HR and L&D professionals. The good news is that continuous learning and upskilling is a priority. 

But making personal and professional development a reality is harder. Our research shows that HR and L&D will need to seek out, and push for, development opportunities. Sitting back and expecting them to come your way is not a strategy for success.

 Those who are successfully developing themselves are using a mix of informal and formal approaches, from conversations with colleagues and peers in external organisations to attending courses and external training.

Survey respondents are also looking to develop a range of new skills such as leadership skills, influencing and negotiating skills, consultancy and communication, employee engagement and relations and strategic thinking skills. This shows that HR and L&D professionals understand what they need to do to gain more clout in the business. 

There is an area where everyone could improve, however, and that is planning and recording personal development. Without a development plan and monitoring progress against that plan, it will be hard to achieve your skills development goals. This is a critically important part of developing yourself as an HR and L&D professional. 

About this research

Use demographic charts

This report was based on survey responses from 451 HR and L&D professionals. The research was carried out (add period) and by email questionnaire (is that correct?).

Most of the rerspondents were based in the UK (92%) and the majority work in provate companies (67%), followed by public sector organisations (25%) and charities (8%). The respondents were mostly split across HR (47%) and L&D (19%), with others working in management (9%) and organisational development (5%).

The bulk of respondents (44%) had no management responsibilities, whilst 20% were middle managers, 16% senior managers and 13% line managers.


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Siobhán Mac Court

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