The symbiosis of personal development and business growth

Executive development is tightly related to business growth, even if the connection is not always obvious
Bevan Rees
Jun 07, 2019

The biological concept of symbiosis is commonly reduced to the notion of two or more organisms living together in a mutually-beneficial way. While this win-win relationship accurately describes one class of symbiosis, mutualism, it excludes two vital variants.

Commensalism is a relationship between two connected organisms in which one grows while the other is unaffected for better or worse. Parasitism describes an arrangement in which one organism lives at the other’s expense.

Depending on the circumstances, the association between an employee and an organisation can feel like any of these three symbioses. When things are well, both the individual and the business feel like they are benefitting from the relationship. When things are sour, one feels disregarded or, even worse, exploited by the other. Mutualistic harmony relies on finding a balance between the needs of the person and the needs of the enterprise.

An organisation’s culture will usually reflect how highly this harmony is valued. So will the business’ approach to learning and development. It is in this arena that friction often emerges between the satisfaction of a company’s learning objectives and an individual employee’s personal development.

Andy Lancaster, Head of Learning and Development Content at CIPD, sees this as natural.

“In most learning and development departments, the primary focus is on what the organisation needs. That’s the reality. We’re looking at constrained budgets, pressures on time, fast-changing environments. Often the imperatives are around what the learning KPIs are, and I think that’s understandable.”

Organisations justifiably focus their investment in employee learning on the skills that will support ongoing business success.

As Denise Sanderson-Estcourt, Learning and OD Lead and HRBP at the Royal College of Physicians points out, “Personal development in relation to the organisation’s growth is about delivery, and to deliver effectively people have to have the skills to do the work that is required of them.”

But human beings are complex creatures. “Quite often, what an organisation needs is not what the individual wants,” says Sanderson-Estcourt. How the organisation responds to this divergence in learning requirements can have a significant impact on employee engagement and motivation.

“There is evidence that people value organisations that value them,” says Lancaster. Support in personal development is a critical aspect of feeling valued. “If you can give people personal development they tend to have a greater commitment to an organisation,” agrees Sanderson-Estcourt, “and they tend to be more engaged in the organisation while they are there.”

However, with the challenges of limited budgets and the rapidly changing nature of work, the workplace and the workforce, how can L&D professionals establish the delicate balance required for organisations and individuals to grow in a symbiotic way?

Experts agree that it requires a change in mindset, within L&D and the broader organisation. Learning and Development needs to help people see beyond the traditional concept of classroom-based training courses. They need to perceive education as something that takes place in the continuous stream of work and life experience.

Lancaster believes that by moving from courses towards integrated resources, employees will be better enabled to learn in the flow of work. Resourcing invites greater autonomy in learning, which is good for business.

“There’s very strong neuroscience and behavioural science theory to show that motivated learners are those that are empowered with some element of self-direction. That kind of self-directed learning is really important. We need to empower learners to take control of their personal development and drive where their careers are going.”

Speaking ahead of the CIPD Festival of Work, Sanderson-Estcourt has the same sentiment: “Individuals have to take ownership. L&D has to help them understand this. It needs to be the echo chamber for what development can be in its broadest sense.”

“But it does still have to contribute to giving them what they need.”

The perception of what employees need is changing. Facilitation will increasingly guide L&D’s approach to personal development. Instead of spoonfeeding content, learning and development professionals need to learn how to curate content in a meaningful way. This goes beyond collecting hyperlinks to TED talks; it requires learning developers to craft learning pathways with curated content that is timely, helpful and accessible to the individual.

This attitude to learning requires a new approach from L&D professionals, but it has the potential to empower them and their learners with greater freedom and engagement.

Sanderson-Estcourt feels L&D “needs to let go a little bit – to not be doing, but to be curating and amplifying.  It’s something about trusting people to do their own thinking and their own learning. I think L&D professionals need to give up the need to have all of the answers.”

In doing so, L&D can lead the way in developing a culture of learning. “We know that high performing cultures are cultures where learning is integral to what is going on,” says Lancaster. In a new CIPD report, Professionalising Learning and Development, 98% of L&D practitioners aspire to develop a positive learning culture. However only 36% report that they have achieved it.

Closing the gap between aspiration and achievement requires that L&D departments are empowered to renegotiate the ways and means of learning. It invites more space, autonomy, flow and responsiveness into the work environment, engendering a learning culture that motivates individuals and accelerates business growth.

Leadership is, as always, key. “I think if we’re passionate about seeing learning cultures develop, leaders must be role models of this,” closes Lancaster. “I think an enlightened leader probably does recognise that learning is core to business performance.”