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Professional Development Planning

Bridging the gap between staff and institute needs

Ruth Ní Bheoláin
Hibernia College, chair of HAQEF
Dr Tony Murphy
Dublin Business School

The key to the success of an institutional framework for professional development (PD) is to find and maintain a balance between staff and institute-level goals. A PD framework is needed that supports staff to fulfil their personal PD needs in tandem with institutional goals. This article offers an approach to PD planning based on a discussion of goal-framing theory and contextualised by the National Forum’s PD Framework.


Institutes of education, at all levels, face ongoing challenges in where to focus resources and effort, and this also applies to professional development (PD) requirements for staff. As with any initiative, PD needs to be in line with, and strive to achieve, the institute’s strategic objectives. While an institute and all staff who teach are likely to agree that the ultimate purpose of PD is to improve the learning environment, the route each would take to achieve that aim may differ. It is important to find a balance between the institute’s and the staff’s needs that gives some flexibility and autonomy to staff members.

During 2019, the HECA Academic and Quality Enhancement Forum (HAQEF) has been engaged in a dialogue on Professional Development (PD). HAQEF comprises representatives of the Higher Education Colleges Association (HECA), many of whom are either responsible for PD in their institutes or can significantly influence decision-making. Those conversations have been driven by the efforts of HAQEF members to engage with the National Forum’s PD Framework (2016) following publication of the National Forum’s 2018 report on a pilot implementation of the Framework with which members of HECA colleges were engaged with.

This article, which is informed by those conversations, offers an approach to PD planning based on a discussion of goal-framing theory and is further contextualised by the National Forum’s PD Framework. It also offers recommendations for interpreting the Framework at institutional level.

Defining professional development

The National PD Framework was developed by the National Forum for the Enhancement of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education to provide guidance for the PD of all staff who teach, and to give direction to other groups involved in planning, developing, and engaging others in PD activities (National Forum, 2016). ‘All staff who teach’ (p. 1) is a purposefully flexible term that is inclusive to all roles involved in facilitating student learning so that the framework may be adapted for use across many roles in education, including both academic and support staff.

The PD Framework defines four types of PD:

  • collaborative and non-accredited
  • unstructured and non-accredited
  • structured and non-accredited

It allows institutes to map out PD against five domains:

  • The Self, which ‘emphasises the personal values, perspectives and emotions that individuals bring to their teaching’ (p. 4) is intended to sit at the centre of all PD activity, emphasising the unique path that all individuals follow in engaging with any type of PD.
  • Professional Identity, Values and Development in Teaching and Learning, which ‘emphasises the importance of the development and self-evaluation of disciplinary/professional identity’ (p. 4).
  • Professional Communication and Dialogue in Teaching and Learning, which emphasises ‘the importance of the excellent, clear and coherent communication skills required for the changing learning environment’ (p. 5).
  • Professional Knowledge and Skills in Teaching and Learning, which emphasises ‘the importance of both disciplinary knowledge and disciplinary approaches to teaching (disciplinary pedagogies), while also drawing on inter-disciplinary experiences and approaches’ (p. 6).
  • Personal and Professional Digital Capacity in Teaching and Learning, which ‘emphasises the importance of personal and professional digital capacity and the application of digital skills and knowledge to professional practice’ (p. 7).

The PD Framework provides both a vocabulary to facilitate conversations about PD and a mechanism to allow higher education institutes (HEIs) and individuals to define, plan, and measure progress of PD.

Identifying the imbalance

The National Forum’s 2018 report on the pilot implementation of the PD Framework acknowledged that participants felt they could start to engage with PD through any one of the five domains. But it also reported that 68% of participants began with the Self domain. During the pilot, participants engaged with all five domains, but again the Self domain saw the most engagement (26%), followed by Professional Identity (21%). The lowest engagement was with the Digital Capacity domain (14%). The pilot suggests a preference among staff who teach for the Self domain of the PD Framework. At first glance this is not surprising, given its central role in the framework.

Figure 1: Professional Development Framework domains
(National Forum, 2016, p. 3)

As part of HAQEF’s conversations in 2019 on the value and role of PD in HECA colleges, and the role of the PD Framework in contextualising those conversations, HAQEF members (n = 7) were surveyed on the perceived individual and institutional benefits and challenges of both PD and the PD Framework.

The institutional benefits of engaging with the PD Framework most reported were the opportunities to improve the overall learning environment through enhanced staff performance and engagement, the sharing of expertise and experience among staff, and the perceived subsequent benefits for the learners that resulted from overall enhancement of the learning environment.

At the institutional level, the challenges of PD planning were perceived as time and cost, where each institute needs to decide which PD activities to support financially and how to appropriately support staff by allocating time to engage in any PD activities. The most significant challenges cited for individuals were having enough time to devote to PD, access to PD activities, and institutional support to participate in PD.

The survey had a small number of respondents, but taken with the report on the PD Framework pilot, there is a suggestion that the priority for the individual is the Self domain and discipline/professional domains, whereas the priority for the institute is improved performance of staff and the effect of an improved learning environment for learners.

Figure 2: Institute/individual perceptions of the National Forum’s Professional Development Framework

Figure 2 shows an interpretation of the potential conflict between individual and institutional priorities, where activities become more financially prohibitive as they move towards accreditation. This is in line with the idea that there is ongoing tension in all organisations between individual motivation and an individual’s motivation to participate in organisational goals (Birkinshaw et al., 2014).

The challenge for those responsible for PD in institutes, then, appears to be how to encourage engagement with PD by bridging the PD priorities of staff and the institute. Another consideration is where an institute’s responsibility lies for facilitating PD of the Self. By definition, this could be considered the individual’s responsibility. Latham (2004) argued that self-motivation is at least as important as motivating others’ behaviour, and that goal-setting provides a structure for self-management without being overly prescriptive – suggesting that development is a dual responsibility between the individual and the institute.

Performance management and professional development

Performance management, which can focus on individual or organisational productivity, has become very topical, with radical development after many years of incremental growth (Collings and McMackin, 2017). A successful strategy of performance management should fit with institutional strategy, culture, and values (ibid.). Setting objectives, giving feedback, and reviewing performance are key elements of performance management that allow institutional priorities to translate into individual performance. Working to achieve specific goals can make staff 16% more productive than if they were to do the same work without such goals (Latham, 2004). Thus, a structured approach allows both staff and the institute to maximise the benefits in the precious time available for these goals.

It makes good organisational sense to move away from traditional modes of performance management towards developmental structures (Cappelli and Tavis, 2016). Staff who work in environments of knowledge generation and dissemination are already deeply motivated by the potential for learning and advancement. Autonomy can be the developmental gift that staff need to grow, with appropriate supporting structures and ongoing feedback.

Rapid innovation and the need to stay current also mean that staff must become agile and keep improving their skills rather than doing things as they have always done them. To this end, it does not make sense to review and reward past performance. Rather, it makes sense for HEIs to focus on growth and training opportunities at individual and institutional level. A growth model provides a structure for employees who need additional support to grow into their potential, and for highly motivated and autonomous employees to continue growing. The value of PD to performance management therefore needs to be considered in the implementation of an institutional PD structure.

The suggestion here is that the challenge for PD planners with limited time and resources becomes how to devise an institutional PD structure that is aligned with the HEI’s strategic objectives, helps performance management, and, most importantly, engages staff by bridging the gap between apparently differing HEI and staff priorities.

The key appears to be to provide an institutional PD structure that will allow staff to work towards PD that is more in line with the institute’s priorities, while retaining autonomy to develop their own foundation. In such a model, each staff member can forge their own path towards PD within the scope of the institutional framework.

Pro-social goals: Aligning individual and institutional priorities

Birkinshaw et al. (2014) queried how organisations can resolve the conflict between individual and organisational goals and the challenges of managing these dual objectives. They use goal-framing theory to provide an insight into how organisations can motivate their staff to work towards common goals. According to goal-framing theory, a person’s major concern at any given moment leads them to prioritise certain aspects of their work over others.

There are different types of individual goals. ‘Hedonic goals’ are goals that staff pursue for individual enjoyment to the detriment of work, which is less satisfying. ‘Gain goals’ are goals that staff pursue to improve their prospects and increase their opportunities, such as a promotion or bonus, to the potential detriment of work, which will not increase their prospects.

In contrast, ‘pro-social goals’ are ones that involve a group working towards a common goal. Pro-social goals create a sense of purpose that transcends individual gain, motivating employees to work towards a common purpose. How, then, do we begin to alter this individual focus and maintain the delicate balance between achieving organisational goals and not compromising individual growth opportunities?

Strategies that successfully find and maintain this balance manage to translate ordinary goals into consistent action. These pro-social goals may be what employees are intrinsically motivated to achieve as individuals. A simple pro-social goal in education could be to Deliver a high-quality learning environment for all staff and students, which can be further defined by the PD Framework domains.

Traditional performance management terminology, such as key performance indicators (KPIs), imply a linear trajectory with a clear beginning and end. But institutes of education in all forms are complex working environments, and aligning individual and institutional goals is not linear. Yet it is important to find ways to measure progress and report that progress in public forums (Birkinshaw et al., 2014). We argue that institutes should move towards metrics that respect the diversity and multiplicity of objectives and perspectives and that give autonomy to employees to find their own PD path while simultaneously contributing to their institute’s mission.

Using the PD Framework, institutes could create consistent mechanisms for guiding and reporting on progress, while allowing staff autonomy in how they reach goals. For example, someone may have a personal goal to increase their network, while an institute may prioritise the need for staff to increase their digital skills. An individual left to their own devices may choose to attend a conference to increase their network; but with this additional institutional priority, they may instead attend a digital skills workshop, where both goals can be achieved. This article suggests that an institutional PD structure that balances individual and institute priorities, as reflected in Figure 3, considers the following aspects:


Figure 3: Institutional PD structure and individual paths

Support Systems

Support systems are crucial to the success of pro-social goals. These systems can be formal, informal, or a combination. These systems and structures reinforce pro-social goals so that they are not driven by individual goals. Individual rewards and incentives also need to be aligned to organisational ones, to move away from individual mindsets.

Formal structures can include ‘counterweights’: formal mechanisms put in place to enforce pro-social goals, such as committees. If a committee is established to champion pro-social goals and their implementation across an institution, it is important that it has enough real influence to hold the institution to account if the purpose of pro-social supporting structures become blurred (e.g., if an enhancement metric begins to be used punitively rather than for growth purposes). Formal structures should be transparent and ensure consistency in how PD is supported throughout the institution. This may include established policy and procedures on budgetary allocations, and should include an established institutional approach to time costs (i.e., how much time an employee can dedicate to PD).

Informal supports can be as simple as ensuring ongoing conversations with staff about goals and providing opportunities for discussion. Using the PD Framework to encourage group reflection on PD could be a semi-formal reinforcing structure, with themed ‘lunch and learn’ events where attendees are rewarded with a free lunch or tea.

Motivation, reward, and incentive

Although in some roles individuals may be motivated by financial rewards, more people tend to have multi-faceted motivations (Latham, 2004). In recent years, traditional performance review culture, which emphasises individual accountability for past results, has been transitioning towards developmental cultures that favour frequent feedback arising naturally in the cycle of work (Cappelli and Tavis, 2016). Staff commitment to goals is highest when they perceive themselves to have a high level of choice in this process.

Performance feedback is often thought of in an employee–line manager relationship, but it can also often be associated with negative feedback and ‘no news is good news’. This type of feedback can be demotivating and ultimately harm performance. Conversely, regular positive communication on performance, formal or informal, can increase motivation.

The PD framework provides the scaffolding for those who work in educational environments to take their formal feedback into their own hands by reflecting on their experiences. Learning how to record PD effectively can also help staff and managers to maintain a formal record of PD, which is useful for both individuals and institutes. It can help ensure that staff are meeting their prescribed goals, identify barriers to participating in PD, and identify individual and institutional gaps and opportunities for growth.

Raison d’être

Birkinshaw et al. (2014) emphasise that front-line staff, such as academics in the classroom, have their raison d’être reinforced positively and organically through their roles. For support staff, it is easier to become disconnected from a higher-order purpose such as contributing to students’ learning environment. Finding ways to tangibly manifest these goals in staff’s day-to-day experience is one way to reinforce and remind them of the institute’s mission: for example, flipped orientation, where students present to staff on their experiences, or videos summarising student feedback delivered by students.


After exploring PD planning from multiple perspectives, including the lens of goal-framing theory, the essential message of this article for educational institutes is as follows: The key to the success of an institutional PD framework is to find and maintain a balance between staff and institute-level goals. In line with goal-framing theory and the inherent pressures of time and workload in education, staff need to feel that their own needs and priorities are being fulfilled in order for them to willingly engage in PD.

In the absence of a consistently articulated institutional strategy and common goals towards PD, staff will naturally gravitate towards fulfilling PD needs in the Self domain almost exclusively. A PD framework is therefore needed that supports staff to fulfil their personal PD needs in tandem with institutional goals. HAQEF will continue these conversations throughout 2019 and 2020 by organising a PD-focused colloquium, developing resources for interpreting and applying the PD Framework at institutional level, and hosting a PD-focused National Forum seminar in April 2020.


Birkinshaw, J., Foss, N.J., and Lindenberg, S. (2014) ‘Combining purpose with profits’, MIT Sloan Management Review, 55(3), 49.

Cappelli, P. and Tavis, A. (2016) ‘The performance management revolution’, Harvard Business Review, 10, 58–67.

Collings, D.G. and McMackin, J. (2017) ‘The five fundamentals of effective performance management’, European Business Review, July–August, 34–38.

Latham, G.P. (2004) ‘The motivational benefits of goal-setting’, Academy of Management Executive, 18, 126–29.

National Forum for the Enhancement of Teaching and Learning (2016) National Professional Development Framework for All Staff Who Teach in Higher Education. Dublin: National Forum.

National Forum for the Enhancement of Teaching and Learning (2018) Ireland’s National Professional Development Framework: Summary Findings from the Initial Implementation. Dublin: National Forum.

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