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Thought Thursdays
Trends in people development are forever changing. What works?


One of the joys of having being in the people development industry – both in South Africa and overseas – for some 43 years has been the experience, at first hand, of trends and patterns that emerge and develop – and sometimes disappear.

The latest development in South Africa is one that has far-reaching implications for sustainability: namely, training and development have become a reactive process. In the past, the training function would identify needs and deliver programmes to meet these needs – identifying specific individuals for training and proactively ensuring that these needs were met. The emerging pattern is for shortcomings in performance to be identified by superiors and for development resources to be made available – often digital materials such as documents, videos and training courses.

Both superiors and subordinates are reporting that the outcomes have been disappointing and that the improvement in performance has often failed to materialise. Historically, analysing the cause of this and developing solutions would have been the function of the organisation developer, but these practitioners have been slowly disappearing in South Africa over the past 15 years.

At a national level, we have a similar pattern of growing unemployment and a skills shortage. How did we get here and what can be done about it?

Here are some influencing factors:

  1. Increasing automation has been the only game in town for the past 20 years. It is a very seductive strategy that reduces costs, makes an organisation less dependent on people and their limitations – and avoids the burden of a restrictive Labour Relations Act. Fuelled by quantum leaps in technology and driven by business process re-engineering, much more is produced with much less. Developing people to deal with the inevitable complexity and to maximise the value of the new systems unfortunately did not happen.
  2. The SETA disaster has redirected processes and resources to outcomes that seldom add value to the individual or the organisation. As a result, training and development have been positioned as a compliance issue rather than a development opportunity.
  3. The perception that the supply of people significantly exceeds demand has resulted in people being viewed as commodities and that if they don't shape up, they can ship out!

As staff often believe that personal development is a priority, this leads to an alienation from the organisation that fails to deliver it.

Exacerbating this situation is an education system that does not adequately equip us with the capacity to learn optimally. When learning resources are made available, there is limited ability to derive value from them.

So what might the solutions be?

  1. Much of what we know and can do has been learned informally from others – sit by Nellie used to be a powerful resource. Nellies can be re-invented as learning champions who have been given the knowledge, skills (technical and educational) and permission to fulfil this function. Their motivation for the additional work that this entails is personal satisfaction and the development of their own careers. In a way, this is what coaching and mentoring sets out to achieve – what is proposed is the same concept on a much bigger scale.
  2. Processes enable people to learn to learn effectively. It is only when information has real meaning that it can be used. This is most effectively achieved in simulations where challenges are given and teams make decisions in response to these, execute them and then measure and reflect on outcomes. It is in the making of decisions and reflection on outcomes that the capacity to learn is developed. An added benefit is an enhanced ability to work with others.
  3. The newly created chief operating officers have a critical role to play in making this all happen. They are the ones who ensure that the organisation delivers on strategic intentions, and people are often the critical success factor.
  4. Developing people rather than replacing them is becoming the strategy and culture of the organisation. This is not only more cost-effective, but reduces the turbulence in the organisation.
  5. There will often be a part of the organisation that is more effective in developing people (often reflected in a lower staff turnover and higher productivity) and there will always be value in learning from this success.
  6. Develop linkages between people development and financial outcomes. The myth that you cannot make these measurements means that people development will always be under-resourced.
  7. Dispel the myth that behaviours cannot be changed. People change their behaviours all the time and in many ways. Everyone wants to be happy and fulfilled – and this is a powerful driver when you link this happiness to the organisation and what it does. People and organisations can learn to be happy and effective.

My most important lesson in my 43-year journey is that once you reposition the development of people as an opportunity to be realised rather than a problem to be solved, the magic quickly follows!​

Ian Clark.jpg

Ian Clark designs and implements education and economic development programmes.  He was the director of the Wits Centre for Developing Business that pioneered socioeconomic development initiatives across the university. He has researched, published and taught entrepreneurship, marketing, people development and strategy, and teaches on USB-ED's New Managers Programme.

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