How To Encourage Informal Professional Development At Work

In my previous blog post, I wrote about how workers and job seekers likely undervalue the benefits of free online learning and professional development opportunities. Of course, if the impetus for this eLearning trend is based on employer demand for cutting-edge skills, managers in content development and instructional design departments must play a role in facilitating the pursuit of good online learning by staff members. There are simple things you can do as an eLearning manager to promote professional development efforts within your company.

It’s usually not realistic, or even efficient, to commit substantial time and money to have your staff attend conferences and seminars across the country. It’s also not reasonable to expect every employee to engage in significant professional development efforts during their free time when they’re off the clock. But there’s also no rule that says great learning opportunities have to be expensive, time-consuming, or rooted in formal credentials. So here’s the question: What can you do as a manager to encourage staff members to engage in free, informal, and useful professional development activities during work hours? Consider these five ways you can make this a priority in your workplace.

1. Make it an agenda item at staff meetings

If you want to emphasize the value of professional development to your staff members, make the topic an agenda item at weekly staff meetings. It doesn’t have to take up a lot of time in the meeting, but if you plant the seed you may be surprised at how quickly the conversation can grow.

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Make professional development a priority.

Here at Web Courseworks, members of our instructional design, production, and art teams are typically allocated a block of time each week to research topics and learn about emerging trends and best practices in their respective fields. Routine questions about professional development posed by managers during staff meetings have become an avenue to discuss creative solutions to current issues and concerns.

2. When problems arise, use timely research to find solutions

When problems arise during projects, people often tap into the collective wisdom of the Internet to learn about topics and answer questions. These informal searches can easily be re-framed as timely research efforts that feed into the constant refinement of best practices within an organization. It’s easy to fall into the trap of setting best practices in stone, but this can stifle creativity and make it difficult to incorporate new lines of thinking into your established processes.

The better alternative is to recognize your best practice standards as a living, breathing organism capable of growth and improvement. If you run into a problem, don’t be afraid to check whether someone has come up with a great tool or method to help you solve it. The “Google it” approach can produce surprisingly effective results and give rise to great informal professional development opportunities – at least if staff members know where to look for quality answers.

3. Assign team members to follow key websites and eLearning blogs (like this one!)

An image of the networking protocol http and the www letters. Author is Rock1997.

Follow key industry blogs and sites.

If you encourage staff members to search the web for answers, make sure you direct them to valuable resources, such as blog posts by industry experts, articles written by members of the online learning community, and even the massive archives of conference materials at sites like The eLearning Guild. You can coordinate informal professional development activities and reinforce quality control simply by hand-picking the best content sources to fit your needs and asking a staff member to follow that site, blog, or forum. Start by having each team member pick a site to follow from the “Featured” sites on

4. Cultivate a culture of collaboration and sharing

As you promote professional development efforts and integrate research opportunities into work hours, the hope is that great ideas, new design concepts, relevant process changes, etc. will eventually emerge. To ensure that the fruits of this labor nourish the company as a whole and don’t just rot away as good notes written on a forgotten page of a notepad or Word document, you need to facilitate collaboration and information sharing among staff members. This team-building component should develop organically if you support professional development as a problem-solving method and make it an agenda item at staff meetings.

5. Segment specialties and develop specialists

Do you manage a diverse set of employees with specialties that range from art to instructional design to software development and programming? Great! Don’t let this diversity become an impediment to the edification of your staff. Build a stable of specialists by catering to the unique skill and knowledge of each member of your team.

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Use PD to create in-house specialists and boost productivity across departments.

For example, we were able to turn our lingering questions about the finer points of course development with Articulate Storyline into a collaborative research project that tapped into the special talents of our production and ISD departments. More importantly, by actively assigning certain research topics to team members who can directly implement solutions during development, we were able to increase our collective working knowledge and produce effective course content more efficiently.

Are you doing these five things to promote professional development efforts within your department? What insights do you have to offer? Please feel free offer additional tips and other feedback in the comments section below.

Managing eLearning is written by the Blog team at Web Courseworks, which includes Jon Aleckson,  Meri Tunison, and Steve von Horn. Ideas and concepts are originated and final copy reviewed by Jon Aleckson.