By Diane M. Calabrese / Published February 2020
To formalize or not? Members of our industry train and mentor employees as an integral part of their commitment to best practices. An individual development plan (IDP) offers an optional way to formalize that ongoing effort.
The decision about whether or not to establish an IDP program rests on factors such as the preferences of the owner/leader and size of the organization. In some sectors, most notably the government, the IDP is ubiquitous.
Go to the USA.gov portal and search for “individual development plan.” On the surface there does not seem to be any federal agency or entity (including military branches) that does not use the IDP.
For large organizations, the IDP does more than allow employees to set goals and document attainment; it also enables employers to more easily verify the skill levels and special training of employees. In our industry, the number of employees in a business may be small enough so that the same goal setting and verification can take place informally.
The near-universal use of the IDP in the federal government does not equate with standardization. Yet, all IDP programs share some general features. For one, they seek to bring structure to the process of continuous learning and improvement.
Form and its Latin root word forma are solidly allied. By formalizing a process, structure is brought to it. Just as informal education can be superior to formal education, however, formalization in itself does not make the IDP a better path. Think of it as one good option.
The U.S. Office of Personnel Management provides a good summary of the rationale for an IDP program at www.opm.gov/WIKI/training/Individual-Development-Plans.ashx. Development of employees is the objective of an IDP; it should not be used as a tool for performance evaluation.
The IDP is methodically prepared. That makes it a bit different from a to-do list jotted on paper. It also spans a longer period of time as most IDP advocates recommend the plan be updated annually.
Anything can be made more complicated than necessary, of course. There are apps that supplant a simple handwritten to-do list. They may be more than are needed to stay on course and get things done.
The IDP serves employee and employer. The employee sets goals that align with the needs of the employer. But the goals first and foremost strengthen the employee, who will become more capable; attainment of goals may lead to a promotion or a change in position. The employer gains a clearer understanding of what the employee’s expectations are.
Moreover, if the employee develops an IDP that lacks correspondence with employment duties, the employer can recognize the split and talk with the employee about a fit. An employee working as a technician who prepares an IDP emphasizing a plan to study law online in every free moment indicates two things: one, they will not be filling open minutes with attention to doing whatever needs to be done at the company; two, they are not interested in training that will enhance their contribution to their workplace.
Samples of IDPs are easy to locate and adapt. The California Department of Human Resources at www.calhr.ca.gov makes sample plans and
educational materials about them available online.
The Individual Development Plan (IDP) Guidebook, published by Washoe County in the state of Nevada, is excellent and available online as an open document at www.washoecounty.us/humanresources/files/hrfiles/Individual_Development_Plan_Guide.pdf. It includes a one-page checklist for ensuring success with an IDP. The checklist includes reminders that on-the-job application of what’s learned and built-in challenges are important.
In the strict sense, an IDP is a development tool for the individual employee. It is tailored—or should be—to the work setting where the employee resides. A career development plan in which the employee sets down long-term objectives is different. But the two plans may overlap.
Similarly, firms that adhere to Lean Six Sigma and other streamlining and goal-setting processes typically subsume some of the features of an IDP into the LEAN certification program. The actual shape an IDP takes can vary greatly and should conform to the ways of doing things at a business.
Some companies take a minimalist approach to documenting plans. Others go into great detail. The IDP should help move people, businesses, and economic sectors forward. So, the challenges to do something more or learn something new must be present in the plans.
Ideas for what to include in IDPs may come from any source. Formal training sessions may reveal a technique or a skill in which some employees would like to become proficient. Individuals at companies that use 360-degree feedback (everyone is evaluated by everyone, essentially, to allow free exchange of strengths and weaknesses) may tap the feedback when completing an IDP.
Other sources for ideas will come from mentors. A mentor may suggest that taking a particular course or going to a seminar would be beneficial. Another source of ideas for IDP inclusion is the experience a team member has when filling in for a colleague. A sales representative may spend some time at the service desk when there’s a need and realize there is some technical issue in which he or she would like to gain expertise.
The idea-generating stage of IDP preparation is generally followed by a meeting with a supervisor. (The IDP must be feasible, so time and cost constraints have to be acknowledged.) Once prepared, the employee has the responsibility to carry through and achieve outcomes (as well as record them). The outcomes may then be evaluated with a supervisor after a set interval, such as a year.
Many employees find it easy to do their work, keep a mental tally of expertise they would like to acquire, and find ways to develop their knowledge and skills all without the creation of an IDP. Other employees would benefit from taking the time to record a few goals.
If owners use IDPs, they can make suggestions to employees on what the employees might consider including in their plans. A contractor that at present does only deck restoration, for example, may be considering adding commercial work in another year. The work would require employees to be ready to use scaffolds and fall protection. Employees could be encouraged to add preparation and needed certifications to their IDPs.
On a parallel path, if an owner plans to add a new venture, the owner can talk with employees about what training or further instruction they would like to have to better equip them for roles in that venture. In this way, the employees can help develop a training program, which could also be part of individual IDPs.
Besides promoting communication between workers and owners, the IDP makes it easier to identify gaps in an employee’s training or knowledge. Easier because the employee often is the one saying, “I wish I knew more about that,” and then the owner does not have to say, “you need to learn this.” The IDP, then, contributes to workplace harmony by softening interactions.
Having an IDP from each employee makes it easier for an employer to schedule time for the development activities. Just the ability to look at the IDPs and sequence learning activities can be a significant assistance to the employer. The employer can also take a critical look at employees’ goals and make certain they fit with future goals for the business.
Another positive generated by the IDP is the discussion its development encourages. Employees may get ideas from each other. Peer-to-peer recommendations can be a significant way to get employees interested in availing themselves of more opportunities to increase expertise.
Potential downsides to using an IDP program exist. For one, the program must be portrayed as the tool it is: a guide to help the employee in his or her development.
The IDP is not a contract. It is not a substitute for mandated OSHA training. It should not be used in a punitive way, and it must comply with employee law that governs a particular business.
On the con side, an employer could get into equity issues if one employee perceives that another was able to spend more for training or travel listed as part of an IDP. (Clear amounts and limits for cost of seminars or other must be established before the IDPs are developed.)
Another potential negative is that some employees may find it stressful to take time to complete an IDP. (One way to get around this is to set aside time when an entire team or part of a team can pause to work on their IDPs.)
It could also be a minus to have team members with 12-month IDPs in hand when the business must make a sudden change in its focus or activity. (It’s best to acknowledge that such changes might unexpectedly occur and IDP activities may have to be postponed.)
Rigidity versus spontaneity and creativity—is that the choice an employer must make in deciding to use or forgo an IDP? No. An employer must simply decide to add a bit of formality to a process that should be going on informally in any case.