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Towards a Model for Professional Development

In: DesignGood ReadsShowing my WorkWhat If Ideas

I just started reading Cathy Moore’s Map It (great, clear writing! enjoying it so far) and I started thinking about the problems I’ve been having so far with helping to create good professional development experiences. I’ve spent a large part of my ID career (nearly every job, in fact) working for organizations that want to create and sell PD courses for people in a particular profession. Previously, I’ve been using a sort of bastardized version of action mapping along with SAM to try and get work done, but lately, I’ve been frustrated because my processes don’t seem to be turning out the quality product that I’m happy with. I pinged Cathy on Twitter and she sent me to her Action Mapping interactive to check if action mapping would work for my current client, which I took and received a “maybe”. So, right now, I’m at a point where I’m looking for a model, a structure, a repeatable process that works for orgs that create professional development to sell. I don’t know the right answer, but I’m doing my thinking out loud.

Defining Professional Development

One of the first things I thought I should do for myself is to try and define professional development. What is it meant to do? The definition I liked most was this:

Professional development can be formal or informal and focuses on improving the knowledge, competence, skill, and effectiveness.

So, what this definition tells me is that there is an element of performance improvement/support in professional development AND there is an element of the “student model,” as Moore terms it, where we would be introducing people to new knowledge. But for organizations focused on selling courses, there isn’t necessarily a KPI (key performance indicator) to measure because they don’t always have access to that kind of data. So it’s a bit more like trying to figure out what kinds of products your customers want to buy, then making those products and trying to keep making them. Of course, we want to have effective learning experiences because we care about results, but we’re also essentially dealing with creating products. So PD seems to be a mix of business and academia and product design and, so far, I haven’t found a model especially for this situation.

What’s different about PD?

Now, the next question might be, why might PD need it’s own development model? Well, based on my own experience, there are several things that are a little different about orgs that want to sell professional development. First, orgs that sell PD are normally focused on the course as the product. The course as a solution is assumed, because the course is the product. Similarly, most PD products aren’t thinking about spaced practice, or follow-up. They are one-and-done. Now, on the one hand, using action mapping, you can sometimes talk with orgs about non-course options that they can still sell or use as marketing, in particular if the part of PD we’re focusing on is disseminating new knowledge. For example:

  • Creating a newsletter
  • Creating an ebook or whitepaper
  • Writing blogposts
  • Creating a website or portal
  • Creating video or vlogs

But on the other hand, I’d expect to be asked (and typically have been asked) to create courses for such an organization because that’s a huge part of their product portfolio. Trying to ask orgs to think about creating and selling non-course options has been difficult. They want to sell courses so they want me to build courses. That’s a little different than thinking about solving a business need. The other thing is that, in my experience, many orgs that sell PD serve a particular profession, such as teachers, lawyers, law enforcement, or doctors. So this is a very broad audience of people, each of whom have a slightly different working environment. Backwards design doesn’t seem to work completely, because we know that performance improvement/performance support shouldn’t focus on that school model, but should recognize that adults come with previous knowledge and experience and what we want to do is to focus on application of knowledge and decisions that lead to increased effectiveness or competence. At the same time, action mapping doesn’t seem to fit entirely either, because it’s hard, if not impossible to nail down a measurable goal where we can say that the course helped to change behavior.

What’s in a Framework?

So I’d like to think about what a framework or development model might be that can handle a situation where:

  • We may want to change attitudes, behaviors, and skills, as well as impart new knowledge
  • We want to sell products to professionals in a variety of contexts; so what we make needs to be products that people want to buy
  • We’re not necessarily thinking about spaced repetition or long-term plans (although perhaps we should be?)
  • We don’t necessarily have contact with our participants over long terms
  • We want products to be self sustaining so many orgs are moving away from synchronous and instructor-led learning experiences and wanting to lean on asynchronous, self-paced learning experiences
  • We don’t measure long term change in attitude, behaviors, or skills beyond perhaps a pre and post assessment

Step 1

The step one for me seems to be to clarify the audience. Often times, any particular course offering is not really for everyone in the profession, but for some subset with common characteristics. For example, a course may be targeted for high school math and science teachers or for lawyers interested in taking on a particular kind of case. So, it seems like the first thing to do is to get everyone on the same page about who, exactly, we’re creating this for. Moore also recommends using personas to help us to not only narrow down the audience but to also begin to investigate where these people would be coming to these courses from. I’ve seen personas and even helped make a simple one but I haven’t been able to actually work that into the process. Still, I have had success helping SMEs and stakeholders narrow down the audience by just asking questions.

Step 2

From there, it seems like the next step is to try and nail down a goal. Moore also mentioned that for situations like this, we might need to get creative with the goal. So, again, instead of trying to get that measurable goal with a KPI, we might need to start asking questions such as “At the end of this course, what might a person expect to be able to do?” or “What might a participant hope to be better at at the end of this course?” So I typically make that the center of my map.

Step 3?

My step 3 has typically been to dive into the tasks identified and try and think more about the challenges that participants should go through, action-mapping style. Sometimes, this step goes very well. Many times, though, especially in my recent experience, and given the nature of PD (see the definition above) instead of being able to move towards on a series of challenges that will help participants practice making decisions and applying knowledge, there tends to be a lot of information design and presentation. And I think that’s what’s been getting me. I have this desire to try and focus on skill building but I can’t because nearly all of the projects really want that information presentation aspect. So, I suppose, what I’m wondering is whether or not I’ve been looking at PD in the wrong light (should I be okay with treating it, in part, like an academic course?) or am I using the wrong process so I’m getting the wrong outcome? I’m also concerned a bit with the fact that most PD-selling orgs to work mostly with one-and-done, in spite of the fact that research seems to suggest that actual behavior change (I’m currently working for an org that focuses on teacher PD and changing teaching behavior is important) only happens when people are reintroduced to and reengage with concepts over a period of time. What do you all think? What’s the right process for creating PD to sell?