Unlike career routes available in the past, very few people these days will follow a linear career path – it’s no longer about moving up, but moving around. But if people want to be able to proactively manage their career, and move around dynamically, what does L&D need to do to support this? How we progress in our careers in today’s workplace is markedly different to the path taken even a few years ago; the traditional

‘ladder’ to progress is no longer the route many of us take. Instead it is more like a game of ‘snakes and ladders’ where we move around to go up, and even have to accept that at times we need to slide a few steps backwards in order to progress.

Why the switch?

Our desire to verge away from the beaten track of career progression is influenced by two primary factors: a volatile job market, and a renewed want of job satisfaction.

A Volatile Job Market

For today’s workforce things change so rapidly that we can no longer rely on the ‘job for life’. Many of the formerly essential job roles, such as customer services, have evolved to the point where they are now being automated.

This means that people are having to swiftly up-skill in new areas in order to secure any kind of employment. But while many are concerned about the decline in jobs resulting from automation and the advent of new technologies, it also means a whole host of new roles are constantly being created which people are keen to engage with.

Desire for Job Satisfaction

In addition to the need to frequently reassess and demonstrate ‘worth’ in a volatile job market, and develop new skills in order to meet the changing demands of industry, many individuals are making significant detours in their careers simply because they can, and they feel empowered to follow their passion. In the past it was taken for granted that once in a certain industry, that is where you would stay. But with a growing focus on the need for jobs to be fulfilling in all senses rather than just on a monetary level, individuals are recognising that they have the power to step away from what they currently do, and retrain in a different area completely.

Due to interest in emerging markets, a desire to find more fulfilling occupations and a need to stay ahead of the market and remain employable, individuals are much more fluid in their approach to their careers, and consequently their professional development. This is also being reflected in the wealth of mechanisms that are now available to facilitate professional growth. New resources such as MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses), blogs, webinars, distance learning programmes, and instructional videos are opening the door to a new world of learning opportunities which are in turn facilitating this cross-industry career path that many are taking.

Embracing the change

However as with all forms of change, while some are proactively embracing this new approach, many remain unsure of how to adapt. This is especially true of more senior employees who may be familiar with the linear progression routes, and unsure of how to divert their career path in this new way.

But even those just coming into the world of work, and who may be expected to be pushing for the non-linear approach, may still abide by the old doctrine, if that is the culture they are familiar with. So while there is a lot of change already happening, and much more on the horizon, it is not necessarily something everyone is adequately prepared to manage, and this applies to both individuals working to define their path, and L&D teams (and businesses) aiming to support it. It is also becoming increasingly difficult to adequately plan a development path, as we never really know what we will need to learn next in order to progress. Learning therefore has to be much more reactive and dynamic; what does this mean for professional development?

From an L&D perspective there are a few key issues that need to be considered in order to support this desire for flexibility in career progression: L&D teams need to be prepared to support employees in alternative ways – not just the ‘sensible next step’ as that may not be where they want to go Rethinking talent management and succession planning – people want to move sideways to develop their career, so knowing who you have in the pipeline and who may be keen to take on a lateral move is essential Support people in recognising their strengths so they can better identify where they might be best placed and focus on matching people based on strengths not role or even experience. There are also some wider guiding principles that will influence how both L&D and individuals approach professional development in the future.

The importance of self-directed learning

Self-directed learning is already a growing trend in many organisations, and has emerged partly in response to the need for learners to be more dynamic in their methods. However, this is not to say more work isn’t needed in order to maximise it more effectively, both individuals and organisations need to embrace this trend to a greater degree, and this means taking a proactive approach in developing skills where they are needed, and not relying on others to direct that learning for you.

Sticking to one path could hold you back

More and more it is actually becoming necessary to switch between industries and sectors in order to progress; this may mean changes in role, sector or industry, but it does require change in some form. While there are those who will choose to follow a linear progression path, those holding firmly to this approach are likely to find themselves stagnating rapidly, especially in terms of opportunities for learning.

Progression should focus on individual strengths

Formerly progression revolved around developing specific skills to fit in with the needs of the business, in order to move up the internal chain. However as individuals are now able to move sideways in their progression journey it opens up greater opportunities to undertake roles that capitalise on individual strengths, that naturally align with business requirements rather than having to shoehorn them into place. Additionally these strengths are going to evolve over time, which will perpetuate further opportunities in new areas.

Progress is about learning and expansion not just money

Although money will always be an important element in career decisions, it’s important to note that it is no longer the primary driver for many employees. The focus is now on areas such as recognition, satisfaction, and the opportunity to learn and expand your skill-set rather than just money. Of course if these can be mutually accommodated, no employee will say no, but the fact that many individuals are actively opting for lower paid roles that they feel are more fulfilling, shows that money is not necessarily the end goal.

The death of the linear career path is one of the biggest shifts in the way people work and manage their careers that has occurred in recent times. However it has the potential to bring real and lasting benefits to both businesses and employees; individuals now have a much broader scope for development and work related opportunities, and similarly, businesses will have access to a much larger talent pool. While there is some concern that this flexible and dynamic approach will mean reduced loyalty from employees, this doesn’t need to be the case. As highlighted above one of the main reasons for this shift is the desire to find work that is interesting, fulfilling and that aligns with an individual’s skills and values, and if organisations are able to provide opportunities that match these, then loyalty may even improve as individuals finally find their ‘ideal job’. But this requires individuals and businesses to be willing to take some risks and encourage exploration. One of the main reasons many people stick to a chosen path is because they don’t know what else is out there, and may consequently be wasting their skills due to ignorance of what is available. Therefore in order to make a lateral move, individuals need to take the initiative to explore alternatives to better understand where they can effectively apply their skills. However businesses also need to be willing to provide employees with the opportunity to experience other areas of the business, so that should an employee decide to make a lateral move, it increases the chances that they will do it within the organisation.

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