Support Says, "New Professional Developments On The Horizon"

Jason Edelstein

By Jason Edelstein
December 23, 2011

A topic that has gotten a lot of discussion recently is professional development. The Town Hall, during performance reviews – everyone in IT Services from the bottom to the top is looking at themselves, at their roles and responsibilities, and the ever-changing pace of technology and IT Services. I’ve questioned my own managers and colleagues about it in some good detail, myself. The recurring question is, “How do we handle all these really tough changes? How can we be more prepared?”

Professional development is a popular answer, and rightly so. It’s a win-win: YOU do something new that you want to do, and in turn, you’re equipped with new skills to help the organization cope with the change and challenges coming its way.

And yet, when I sat down and thought about it, I realized I didn’t know what professional development really meant. Like many concepts, it is one that I’ve found has an intuitive definition… but once you think about it in more detail, it has unexpected implications and can be defined more broadly.

For many employees working in the technology field, professional development directly equates to money spent. They have a strong point: certification classes, conferences, and consultants are rarely free, and some kinds of knowledge aren’t as easy to come by for free. Experts cost money, whether you’re hiring one or trying to become one. Even the time off to learn about new things can cost the organization in other ways – while experts are retooling their own skills, the organization needs to keep things running!

Support is an especially good example of this: support staff need to constantly keep up with new technologies and use patterns, but we can’t all take time off to attend a class. In fact, having even a few members absent from the Service Desk can negatively impact the rapid response our clients depend on. We can fit classes into the “off peak” schedules or cleverly change our staffing models to allow for more flexibility, but we’re not attacking the core of the issue: professional development sometimes competes with the actual profession being practiced. 

So let’s think: how can professional development work as a positive part of the equation?

Challenges, if they’re of the good kind, are one solution. What’s a good challenge? Think of someone who is facing a new technology, one that is outside their expertise. That’s an anxiety-inducing situation to face if you’re alone and the stakes are high! But what if, with the backing of their colleagues and management, that individual is given the responsibility of working toward mastery of that new technology as a part of their job? Failure may be a consequence, but as part of learning, failure is always a possibility. That requires strong trust between everyone involved for the “challenge” to be successful. The rewards for that success are many: someone’s learned something new, broken out of the old “mold” of their job, and is benefitting clients and the organization alike with their new skillset. And if failure is the result, then someone has learned – everyone learns from the failure, moves to a new approach, and starts fresh.

We’ve talked about classes, training, and challenges as part of professional development. But there’s more to it than that. Certain things can’t be taught via any of those methods, at least not efficiently. I’ve found a term for it, and I suspect an anthropology or psychology student somewhere is aware I’m using it: emotional labor. Emotional labor is the idea that an individual in an organization must display certain emotions or emotional behaviors as part of their job. It leads to interesting consequences when you realize emotions are deeply personal things, and it’s very hard to synthetically expect someone to consistently display a given emotion. “Friendly” support representatives, “welcoming” retail store clerks, “calm” project managers… to name a few. Every individual has the ability to feel one way or another, but conjuring that emotion on demand is another thing entirely! As part of a service organization, this type of labor is crucial to our success – and not something you can merely “challenge” individuals to improve upon as part of their jobs or pay to certify them in. People must feel like a part of a coherent culture, a unified group, the “family” of the workplace. It’s another kind of professional development, a kind that relies on the organization as a whole to move in a single direction, to commit to values in a holistic manner. Values can be taught or given as a challenge, but belief in those values isn’t possible to achieve with any one tool alone. In short, this type of development is quite the daunting prospect, one that IT Services is now beginning to work on.

IT Services is changing right now – the message is that we, too, must work to change. How do you think the points I’ve made stack up against your feelings about professional development?

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