Shake up employee training in higher ed

Is professional development stuck in the past at your college or university?

All higher education institutions offer employee training and skill development in some form or another. Workshops. Webinars. Mentoring. Coaching. It’s the same-old same-old—but does it have to be?

Some schools have observed identical practices for decades. But others believe professional development must constantly evolve, just like employee skills do. They are finding new ways to identify skill gaps and to promote learning and development.

Gamifying PD

Five years ago, Oakwood University in Huntsville, Alabama, began surveying students—along with staff and faculty—to identify skill gaps among the school’s workforce, says Prudence Pollard, vice president of research and faculty development.

A cross-functional committee was charged with evaluating all responses to identify the top 10 concerns and recommend related training for the school’s frontline and leadership academies. One skill high on the list was critical thinking, so the frontline academy now delivers such training to employees who work with students, Pollard says.

The university encourages experimentation when it comes to training and development, Pollard says. “We’ve been challenged by our president to not put anything in concrete for too long,” she says, adding that PD must be fluid to accommodate generational preferences.

For example, the school is exploring creative ways to include gamification in its PD activities to appeal to the next wave of workers.

“To be able to manage a workforce effectively, whether it’s at a university or in any other context, you have to be futuristic and vigilant, looking at what the future might bring with generational cohorts.”

Beyond the comfort zone

Joretta Nelson says some schools invite middle directors to participate in the strategic planning process to better understand what skills they need to help the institution reach its goals.

Nelson, co-owner of Credo, a higher education consultancy, says schools such as Maryville University (Missouri), Averett University (Georgia) and Cedar Crest College (Pennsylvania) have been doing this for a few years.

Nelson says some employees may need help seeing the big picture. HR should ask how they plan on serving higher ed as part of annual performance reviews.

“The question should be, ‘How can you be a better leader, maximize your skills, capitalize on ideas, and get more training?’†‰” she says. “It gets them out of their own box to see how they might move beyond.”

Teamwork tips the scales

Several years ago, the University of South Carolina discovered the power of collaboration as a problem-solving and professional development tool.

Its graduate school consulted with the HR team on how to revise its admission process, says Nathan Strong, the school’s director of organizational and professional development.

Graduate directors from 13 of the university’s 16 colleges participated in focus groups to explore roles, skills and responsibilities, resulting in a complete revision of the graduate’s school strategic plan.

Last year, the graduate school appointed a panel to recommend how to improve operations, Strong says. Two graduate school deans from North Carolina State University and University of Mississippi also reviewed the results, revealing process and skill gaps, and offered additional recommendations, such as creating an ombudsman position for graduate students.

The school also operates two parallel leadership development programs—Academy Leadership and Emerging Leaders—that teach a quality and consistent management approach. Strong and a colleague show participants how to map out an action plan, and these informal coaching relationships continue as participants grow their leadership skills. So far, 75 employees have completed both programs.

While professional development at some schools extends beyond traditional classroom or online learning, there is still much left to explore, especially as new generations enter the workforce.

Employee development is critical for any school’s growth and success, so everything should be up for grabs.

Carol Patton is a Las Vegas-based writer who specializes in human resources issues.


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