Overcoming Common Issues with IDPs

Overcoming Common Issues with IDPs

Charles Goretsky Charles Goretsky
17 minute read

Employee development has long been demonstrated to add value to both business and talent outcomes—as a constructive driver of critical corporate capabilities and employee engagement as well as retention. While the processes for training, upskilling, and guiding employee development are well-established and widely assumed to be effectively practiced, much concern exists among leaders and experts regarding the true state of these efforts. Addressing common issues with individual development plans (IDPs) falls into the list of such concerns, as they are designed to provide structure and drive continued growth and enhancement of critical employee skills and capabilities.  

As the skill sets of each performer can vary (based on previous education, training, and experience), the traditional focus on IDPs is a natural consideration for learning professionals. They are designed to create a roadmap for employees to enhance their skill sets (and performance) in both the current role and (fit for) potential future roles that match their aspirations and accumulated capabilities.  

Industry research suggests that the IDP is falling short of its potential due to many factors related to its deployment and the company’s learning and development culture, processes, and available resources. For example, one study found that 53% of organizations are not aligning employee IDPs with formal career paths, creating a significant barrier to career development for their staff. As will be seen, many companies fail to leverage this individually tailored tool effectively and thus suffer from employee turnover, dissatisfaction, and lower productivity. Creating a more effective IDP ecosystem that overcomes common issues with IDPs is thus a priority for organizations across industries and organization types.

Defining an individual development plan (IDP)

An individual development plan is a documented plan of action tailored to a specific employee’s professional growth needs. It is designed to capture a pact between an employee and their manager regarding the training and development activities they will undertake to a) fill skill gaps related to their current job and b) prepare them for potential future roles.  

Traditionally completed as part of an annual performance evaluation process, leading practice now calls for companies to manage it as a formal and separate process between managers and their subordinates. Under either scenario, it captures both the employee’s and manager’s assessment of knowledge and skill development opportunities to be addressed in the coming year, the learning program and development experiences they are to engage in to address those gaps, and specific timeframes and measurables that will serve as completion goals. The plan should also consider an employee’s logical or aspirational next-step advancement roles and address those future skill gaps with additional development actions. As will be demonstrated, establishing both a solid process and supporting ecosystem are critical to avoiding common issues with IDPs.

The importance of IDPs 

Despite the well-established rationale for IDPs—personalized growth planning with built-in accountabilities—its current use in organizations is surprisingly limited. Research demonstrates that only 61% of organizations use them to define and drive continued employee development activity. In the face of overwhelming evidence of the value of offering and reinforcing the need for ongoing capability development (to the organization and employees), the lack of corporate support and resourcing is a surprise. The adoption rate of this effective tool is one of the most common issues with IDPs, and the lack of their use leads to more impactful negative talent outcomes.

For example, not only does professional development serve as a source of satisfaction for 58% of surveyed employees, but the lack of it results in a higher likelihood of turnover. In one study, the majority (77%) of employees reported that their willingness to stay with their current employer was based upon improved L&D offerings, and 38% said that they planned on leaving for a company with better programs. Similarly, 74% of employees reported a higher likelihood of taking employment elsewhere if another company offered better educational or career opportunities. Yet another found that a lack of access to development opportunities resulted in 41% of employees being more likely to report a plan to quit.  

What is the most compelling reason for using IDPs? Their ability to serve as motivation for employee ownership and action. As with any other goals, formalizing plans and associating potential rewards acts as a contract that employees are more likely to abide by. The desire for guidance tailored to the individual and their aspirations was demonstrated by a 2020 study by LinkedIn that found that 54% of employees would invest more time in their development if provided specific course recommendations aligned with the achievement of their professional goals. The desire for informed direction on a personalized learning path is on the minds of many employees today. Addressing the common issues of IDPs can drive increased employee motivation and initiative to develop their skills and capabilities.    

A commitment to individual development is a core element of companies with a strong learning culture, as they actively work to engage every employee in continuous learning. Learning cultures have been shown to drive substantial business value and results with those companies generating:

  • 92% higher likelihood of developing novel products and processes
  • 52% higher productivity
  • 56% higher likelihood of being the first to market with products and services
  • 17% more profitability than their peers

Similarly, research by the Association of Talent Development (ATD) found that such companies are five times (5X) more likely to be high performers and twice as high (2X), to say the Learning & Development function directly contributed to the achievement of the organization’s business goals. As a result, addressing the common issues with IDPs should be considered a talent management priority.

Reasons for low use and confidence in IDPs

Reasons for low use and confidence in IDPs         

Executive dissonance with employee expectations

Without top leadership support and advocacy, the adoption and compliance with IDPs will suffer. Interestingly, one study showed that while 84% of employees expect training and upskilling, 51% of executives reported that learning programs are “a waste of time.” Furthermore, many C-Suite leaders feel that training should only be for current role skill enhancement. 68% of those surveyed disagree that their company should provide development for future roles, and only 40% think such development should be used to support internal mobility. There appears to be a clear mismatch between employee expectations of their advancement and those of their top leaders. It indicates a bias toward using learning and development programs to improve individual productivity and performance but not lateral or upward advancement.

Weaknesses in career development opportunities

A second issue is the apparent disconnect between the commonly stated values around employee development and actual movement or advancement. Oft-quoted complaints about ‘having to leave the company to advance’ are borne out in recent research that has 59% of employees stating that their organization “rarely or never” supports their search for roles outside of the department, and 78% reporting their frustration with challenges to advance their careers. Where 63% of employees voice concerns that their employer cares more about productivity than their development, it will come as no surprise that a 2022 McKinsey study showed that 41% of those who quit their jobs did so owing to a lack of career development and upward mobility opportunities.

Manager skill and awareness deficits

Employees today rely more than ever upon their manager as the primary guide for skills and career enhancement direction. In fact, the newer and now dominant Millennial and GenZ working populations expect to have regular and ongoing feedback and development conversations with their direct supervisors. Unfortunately, managers seem ill-equipped (and ill-at-ease) to fulfill those employee expectations and job requirements. A recent Gartner survey found that 45% of managers report a lack of confidence in their ability to develop their subordinates’ skills and avoid those conversations for fear of needing to be an expert in skill and career development. It reports that only 9% of managers' work time is spent in development discussions.

Managers’ hesitancy seems to be borne out by data that supports their actual avoidance of the subject. Only 19% report discussing skill development in their regular check-in meetings with subordinates, 16% inquire about an employee’s aspirations, and only 9% talk about opportunities for advancement.   

Even worse, employees are very direct in assessing their manager's lack of confidence and skill in providing direction, with many (46%) asserting that their managers are incapable of delivering useful and accurate skill development or career guidance. 67% blame their managers for providing bad professional advice that negatively affected their careers, and another 52% say that bad advice impacted their current job performance.  

And companies are struggling to upskill their managers to provide sufficient support. For example, 83% of companies say developing their managers and future leaders is important, yet only 5% have effective leadership development programs. The situation is unlikely to change without the guidance, support, and development of the people closest to and seemingly best positioned to guide the worker's skill and capability development. This is one of the most painfully common issues with IDPs and effective employee development.

Systemic barriers to success

Most experienced HR professionals have heard complaints about using IDPs as a largely bureaucratic exercise from managers and employees alike. Without a clear strategy and aligned resources and processes, the likelihood of success is limited. But the question of ‘who in HR’ owns the process and its outcomes is common, as unlike other HR process areas (e.g., compensation, recruiting, learning & development), there is no typical center of excellence (COE) for this. Complicating matters is that individual development draws upon and naturally integrates with various performance management, learning and development, succession planning, career mobility, and workforce planning processes and initiatives.  

While there are success stories to be found in organizations with well-established cultures of continuous learning, employee mobility, and successful track records of internal promotions, many organizations suffer from a view that development is not realistically tied to appreciable individual growth and advancement. Many of those focus their learning content on efficient but limited live and eLearning programs without including equally effective development programs (formalized coaching, job rotations, mentoring, project assignments, etc.) Person-to-person and experiential opportunities are critical and often overlooked elements of effective skill development for employees, and as they can be embedded in an employee’s daily work activities, they are also cost-efficient delivery mechanisms.

Leaving the development responsibility up to the employee

One of the most common issues with IDPs is that many organizations assume that skill and career development are the employee's responsibility. This leaves them with the task of determining the skills needed for their future success, the skills and capabilities that will be required to meet new company directions and strategies, and for understanding the requirements needed in future roles for which they may (or may not) have overlapping skill sets. While well-featured and -configured HR systems and related processes such as those found in Talent Marketplaces, career development platforms, talent management systems (TMS), and integrated HR Management Systems (HRMS) can provide useful resources and guidance, the onus is too often placed on the employee to know how to access and best leverage those.  

The shortcoming of this model is that it does not leverage the career and industry experience that managers and mentors hold and can use to offer employees guidance. They also have greater insight into the company's strategic directions, future staffing needs, and other functions' and departments' operational requirements. Research demonstrates that 54% of employees work in companies that leave those decisions up to them, leading to a reliance on a poorly prepared workforce to determine the right courses, development opportunities, or advancement aspirations that will make sense for them and the company.

The unfortunate and disappointing result

Those common issues with IDPs represent barriers to successfully implementing targeted and personalized employee development. Sadly, that has driven us to conclude that most employees operate without effective development plans tailored to their backgrounds, current performance shortcomings, and future growth opportunity requirements. Even in organizations with IDPs, completion and compliance rates are relatively low. One study, for example, found that the overall IDP completion rate was only 54%. Furthermore, employee satisfaction with the benefits was even worse, with only 38% of IDP users stating that the template was of value to their skill development and career planning efforts.

What can be done to improve the adoption, use, and effectiveness of IDPs?

Effective IDP Template

1. Create a common-use template for all employees.

While not every employee may be interested in a long-term career plan, the development of skills needed to better perform the current role should be required at a minimum. Documenting these is a starting point to track their progress and motivation to grow and improve their contributions. These should be designed to capture their current role requirements, skill levels, gaps to be addressed, training and development activities aligned with the job requirements, their personal career aspirations (e.g., next logical or desired roles), and the skills gaps to be addressed with specific programs or development activities.

2. Develop a formal structure to drive adoption.

Encourage employee uptake of IDPs by creating an annual process to document them and have conversations with either individual (trained) managers or group efforts led by skill and career development experts (e.g., HR, L&D professionals, or external career coaches). Establish a process that engages managers and/or skilled facilitators/coaches and employees alike. Hold employees and managers accountable for completing the assigned learning and development activities.

3. Adopt a formal change management program.

Establish and communicate a clear rationale, purpose, and value proposition tailored to each of several stakeholder groups to drive awareness, acceptance, and adoption of both the plans and their execution. Educate top leadership about their value to the business (corporate capability development, meeting business objectives, building skills needed to execute future strategies and plans, etc.) and their role as champions, mentors, and role models. Educate managers on the basics and train them to conduct effective discussions and sessions with employees.

4. Create a supporting infrastructure.

Develop automated forms and input mechanisms for employees and managers to enter, review, edit, and update periodically. Identify and develop resources tied to the functional skill sets and competencies required by employees in each department, function, and business unit that managers can easily access and use to guide their subordinates. Provide insights that managers and employees can use to understand the job, skill, and competency requirements (and associated training and development activity resources) for different jobs across the enterprise so that they can develop plans for both their current and future potential roles. Use historical movement (promotion, transfer, etc.) data to illustrate career paths within and across functional and organizational boundaries.

5. Consider the adoption of skills-based talent marketplace technologies.

The deployment of a skills database that enables employees to select and assess the level of expertise of their professional and interpersonal skills has the potential to provide unique insights for employees and the organization equally. Employees can use these to map their current skill levels with the requirements of positions within and across functions, providing more detailed guidance for selecting learning and development activities in their IDPs. Talent marketplace platforms enable managers and employees to post and review new opportunities that can provide access to people and opportunities that might not otherwise be visible with lowered risks of bias.

6. Engage employees and their managers in the process.

Avoid having managers complete IDPs without employee input (or alternatively, employees complete them without manager feedback and input.) Ensure that employee aspirations and preferences are built into the plan to ensure relevance to their goals while providing guidance to clearly establish how those can fit into organizational strategies and objectives. This represents perhaps the cardinal sin among the most common issues with IDPs, as employee engagement and motivation to develop skills is substantially enhanced through personalizing the development activities to their needs and aspirations.

7. Provide guidance, training, and resources to managers.

Ensure line managers have the necessary skills and resources to conduct these conversations and provide suitable direction to their employees. Given the lack of comfort many have, consider identifying those who do and assign them as “master development specialists” or coaches who receive specialized (and ongoing) training and materials to conduct individual or group sessions. Survey employees regularly to assess each manager’s skill and capabilities in this area, use that to upskill those with weaker skills, and reward those who do well.  

Require managers to guide each employee on likely next career steps, with supporting data and insights related to career movement and the associated skills to be developed. Make it measurable using a standard that the manager provides at least 1-2 realistic future roles (that match the employee's skillset and aspirations) within their function and one or more possibilities for roles in other functions with overlapping skills.

8. Be realistic in setting employee expectations.

Perhaps most critically, when helping employees identify likely next roles and the upskilling programs and activities to include in their IDP, provide candid assessments of their opportunities to grow into such a role(s). Consider costs, time requirements, and accessibility to mentors, coaches, and project experiences when identifying development activities to build into the plan. Managing with realistic expectations can reduce employee frustration and set them on a path toward a longer-term vision.

9. Integrate development planning with other talent and business processes. 

Finally, IDPs should be linked with other critical processes to be consistent with and reinforce each other. For example, short-term development needs from the performance evaluation process and those identified in any succession planning process for high potentials (HiPos), managers, and leaders should be brought into the plan. Managers should bring insights from the strategic planning and workforce planning process outputs to inform employee choices around skills to be developed in their current or future roles. To overcome common issues with IDPs and fully leverage their long-term strategic value, communicate and promote the skills that will be needed, are becoming a shortage, or maybe holding the employee back from consideration for other roles.

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