How Individual Development Plans Help Close Skill Gaps — and 5 Best Practices to Follow

December 19, 2023 | Reskilling Your Workforce | 9 min read

IDPs don’t box employees in — they open doors. That’s precisely why they can help drive workforce transformation efforts.

Across industries and around the world, employees and their employers are experiencing a skill set upheaval. Game-changing technologies like generative AI are irrevocably altering how people work — in and outside of IT — and organizations are struggling to keep up.

According to the World Economic Forum, 60% of global organizations face skill gaps today. One often underutilized approach to professional development may be able to help close them: individual development plans.

The individual development plan (IDP), also called an individual coaching plan, is a personalized, dynamic approach to employee learning. Working with a coach or other mentor, employees identify concrete professional goals and build strategic, actionable plans to reach them.

It’s worth noting that an IDP is not the same thing as a performance improvement plan (PIP), which aims to help poor performers get up to speed. IDPs, and coaching more broadly, are programs that every employee can benefit from, especially in today’s environment.

In fact, IDPs are particularly well suited for the creative — maybe even dramatic — workforce transformations that many organizations need now. That’s because IDPs don’t box employees into predefined tracks.

Instead, IDPs encourage employees to think big and provide them with the resources and guidance they need to reach those goals. This inventive approach to upskilling and reskilling is precisely what many companies are looking for.

So, why aren’t IDPs more common? For the same reason that many innovative best practices go unadopted: Many organizations simply aren’t sure how to do it.

The Anatomy of an Individual Development Plan

The first step in bringing IDPs to an organization is understanding what an IDP entails. While there are numerous frameworks for developing coaching plans, there are some key components every IDP includes, regardless of methodology.

  • The IDP identifies a clear goal or objective the employee wants to achieve. For example, “I want to become a leader within my department.”
  • The IDP inventories both the employee’s current strengths and opportunities for improvement. An employee who wants to become a leader may already have subject matter expertise, but they may need to work on their communication and people management skills.
  • The IDP establishes action steps the employee will take to reach their goal. For the employee who wants to become a leader in their department, this might entail things like taking management classes and serving in a leadership role on a smaller test project.
  • The IDP sets a clear timeline for reaching the goal and identifies milestones along the way. Our hypothetical employee might aim for a promotion within the year, plus an interim milestone to lead at least one project in the next six months.

Importantly, none of these key details should be imposed on the employee from above. Rather, IDP development should be a collaborative process between the employee, their manager, and their coach.

There are a couple of reasons why employees should help drive IDP creation. First, adult learners tend to be more engaged and motivated when they have a hand in directing their own learning. Second, IDPs are meant to be aspirational rather than prescriptive. Instead of forcing employees into narrow boxes, IDPs should be opening doors.

Ideally, employees will work with both their managers and a coach to create and pursue their IDPs. The coach brings the necessary development expertise to the process, while the manager can provide a critical organizational perspective to help ensure alignment between employee goals and corporate needs.

Plus, managers who get involved with an employee’s IDP signal that they are invested in the employee’s success. That can have a powerful impact on retention and engagement.

While managers may want to take an active role in employee development, many don’t feel equipped to do so. It’s often a good idea to give managers some training of their own so they can more fully participate in the IDP process.

Employees don’t always have access to formal coaching programs. In those cases, organizations can still implement IDPs, with managers fulfilling the coach role. It’s not ideal, but it is doable. Of course, it’s even more critical in these instances that managers receive training on how to develop their employees.

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5 Best Practices for Effective IDPs

Now that we’ve covered what IDPs are, let’s look at how organizations can make the most of them.

1. Focus on Self-Discovery

In the context of workforce transformation, it can be tempting to take a top-down approach to IDPs, mandating that employees prioritize learning the specific skills the company’s talent strategy calls for.

However, the most effective coaches lead employees on a process of self-discovery, with the aim of enabling them to identify their own goals and strategies for growth. Learners who conduct this type of self-analysis tend to be more intrinsically motivated and achieve better learning outcomes. This, in turn, helps drive workforce transformation and organizational performance.

When working with employees to develop IDPs, managers and coaches can encourage self-discovery by asking the right questions. Start by encouraging employees to think aspirationally about where they want to go in their careers. Then, refine this blue-sky thinking into an actionable IDP by asking questions like:

  • Probing questions that get employees thinking deeply about their goals. For example: “What does ‘becoming a leader’ look like to you? What behaviors would you adopt and demonstrate as a leader?”
  • Outcome-oriented questions that help employees tie their goals to specific outcomes. For example, “What benefits will your team gain from your improved leadership capabilities? What benefits will you gain?”
  • Execution-oriented questions that prompt employees to plan the concrete steps they will take to reach their goals. For example, “What’s one thing you can do right away to start showing more leadership in your department?”

2. Tie IDPs to Real-World Outcomes for Both the Employee and the Organization

We mentioned it in the previous tip, but it’s so critical that it deserves its own spot on this list. While IDPs should be aspirational to some degree, they also need to be practical — in the sense that they’re achievable and lead to real benefits.

Linking IDPs to tangible outcomes can motivate employees, as it gives them a reward to focus on. It also helps the organization and employee align their needs so that the IDP serves both.

Let’s turn again to the example of an employee who wants to ascend to a leadership position in their department. The outcomes for the employee are clear: a promotion, a more prestigious title, and probably a salary bump.

This IDP would have benefits for the organization, too. To become a leader, the employee must sharpen skills like team communication, analytical thinking, creative thinking, resilience, and flexibility. Not so coincidentally, these are also some of the most prized core skills among employers today, according to the World Economic Forum.

One way to tie IDPs to real-world outcomes is by helping employees turn their IDPs into a set of connected SMART goals. As a reminder, SMART goals are specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound. Not only do SMART goals explicitly ask employees to define outcomes in the “relevant” phase, but they also make long-term IDPs more approachable by breaking them down into smaller steps with a clear timeframe.

SMART goals also encourage accountability by creating a series of milestones. Employees always know their next step and how it relates to their overarching goal. Mentors and coaches can track progress via these milestones and help employees get back on track if they miss a goal.

3. Opt for a More Dynamic Approach to Development

Annual performance management cycles aren’t terribly effective. In fact, research shows they can even lead to performance decreases.

Smaller, more frequent check-ins can be more useful, especially for IDPs. As mentioned above, employees often break their IDPs into smaller SMART goals to make them more achievable. More frequent check-ins allow managers and coaches to better keep track of these goals.

Managers and coaches can also offer employees feedback and resources in real time. Employees can immediately apply these insights to their situations rather than waiting for a retrospective at the end of the year, by which point it’s too late to course-correct.

As for the cadence of these smaller meetings, that depends on many factors. Employees and their coaches typically meet regularly. Finding time can be difficult for managers, who often have more than just IDPs on their plates. One popular method is for managers to meet with every team member for 30 minutes every month.

To make the most of these smaller performance meetings, employees, coaches, and managers should all come to the table with clear agendas. This helps ensure that everyone’s limited time is used productively.

4. Connect Employees with Multimodal Learning Resources

IDPs are about empowering employees to define and pursue their own development goals. That doesn’t mean managers and coaches can just step back and watch. Rather, managers and coaches can help employees reach their goals by connecting them with the right resources, people, and opportunities.

It’s important to connect employees with a variety of learning resources, from hands-on practice and real-world experiences to books, audiobooks, videos, classroom instruction, and more. Offering various types of resources helps ensure that all learners are supported, no matter their preferences. It also encourages deeper learning. Research shows that training is more effective when it engages multiple senses.

5. Support IDPs with Resources and Recognition

Even with the best of intentions and all the best practices in place, an organization’s IDP program may fail if employees, coaches, and managers don’t have the support they need.

Support mainly comes in two forms. The first is resources. As mentioned above, connecting employees with multimodal learning resources is critical. To do that, coaches and managers themselves need access to said resources. Whether by investing in a learning platform, implementing formal coaching programs for employees, or other means, organizations must ensure that people have the materials they need to drive employee learning.

The second form of support is recognition. Creating, adopting, and following through on an IDP is no easy feat. Employees who reach their goals should be recognized for their efforts. Managers and coaches should also be appreciated for making employee development a priority.

Recognition isn’t just a nice thing to do — it can also help motivate people to adopt their own IDPs.

Transforming the Workforce with IDPs

In the constantly evolving world of work, individual development plans (IDPs) may be a crucial tool for closing pernicious skill gaps. Unlike traditional, one-size-fits-all training programs, IDPs offer a bespoke approach to learning that helps enhance employee skills while aligning individual professional goals with broader organizational mandates for workforce transformation.

At Skillsoft, we know that rolling out individualized coaching for every employee is a lot easier said than done — but we have the tools to help. Our AI-driven skilling platform, Percipio, helps users connect with relevant, personalized learning recommendations based on their career goals and aspirations. Our digital coaching platform brings executive-quality coaching to leaders at every level.