There tends to be a lot of confusion between training and professional development. Most often, those two things are conflated. Other times, people are vaguely aware that they are different things, but they’re just not sure what the distinction is or how to define it.

So first I’ll just make this simple by explaining the difference.

Training is operational. It teaches people how to be competent at their jobs.

Professional development is strategic. It teaches people to excel in areas beyond the status quo. This means acquiring knowledge, skills, and abilities that are widely transferable across a jobs and industries. The learning that happens at this level is often conceptual, and requires the learners to put effort into how to apply the content.

Training gets people to be compliant. Professional development gets them committed.

So, why is it important to make this distinction? For one thing, how you teach in these two areas is very different, so if you’re hiring for training, you should not assume that that person can teach professional development, and vice-versa. A good deal of training could be done internally by subject matter experts, but it’s unlikely those people will have any interest or aptitude in teaching professional development. Also, don’t make the mistake of thinking that just because someone is a subject matter expert that they can teach. It’s a common problem in the workplace, like assuming that someone will be a good supervisor because they’re good at their current job.

Another reason to make the distinction between training and professional development has to do with funding and budgets. If you don’t make the distinction between training and professional development, all funding will just default to training, and professional development will go by the wayside. Because training is necessary to just get the work done right, training will often override any need for strategic growth.

When managers or leaders are asked what they’re doing for professional development, sometimes they will proudly quote some exorbitant dollar figure, but the reality is all that money is just going toward making sure people know how to do their jobs. Little to no investment is being made for continuous learning; that is, teaching people how to be better problem solvers, critical thinkers, and innovators.

Obviously people need to know how to do their jobs, but after that, it is equally important that they continue to learn. In the same way you want a business to continually improve, you also want the people who make that business run to continuously improve, and that’s where professional development comes in. High performers will gravitate toward professional development (after they’ve gone through training) because professional development requires discretionary effort. They want to be better and do better, and they hunger for knowledge.

As I wrote above, training ensures that people are compliant, and compliance is necessary. But when you provide learning opportunities to your people that open their minds and allow them to explore an envision bold new ideas, that’s when they get committed. When people are committed to an organization, and only when they are committed, can great things happen.

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