Report summary: Personal Development Plans: Case Studies of Practice

Personal Development Plans (PDPs) evolved as a particular approach to planning career and skill development activities for individuals within employing organisations. The concept of a PDP is the creation of a clear development action plan for an individual for which the individual takes primary responsibility. Line managers and the HR function often have a supporting role.


Although the idea of Personal Development Planning was not new in the 1990s, there did seem to have been a rapid increase in the number of large organisations seeking to introduce some kind of PDP ‘scheme’. Organisations no longer felt they could take prime responsibility for the future careers and development of their employees, and the PDP approach clearly placed the development ball in the employee’s court. It also fit comfortably with other business processes, which devolved responsibility and expected the commitment of individuals to positive change.

Some key issues arising from the research concerned:

  • scope and content of PDPs
  • the relationship between the focus of PDPs and their links with other processes
  • implementation and support
  • ownership, control and confidentiality
  • impact.

Scope and content of PDPs

The majority of the case studies intended PDPs to be used by all staff, although some only covered managers or ‘white collar’ staff. This was often a function of the length of time the scheme had been in operation and the way in which PDPs were created.

As some of these were expensive, for example development centres and development programmes, it was unlikely that any organisation could afford to use such methods for all staff. Appraisal was the most common means of creating PDPs in organisations that were using the initiative for all staff.

The PDP forms used by the case study organisations varied in the amount of guidance they gave to users in terms of defining areas for development and development actions. Some forms specified the definition of development needs under each of the organisation’s key competences and the expression of development actions under headings such as training, open learning, job moves and coaching. Others had a less structured format.

Nearly all the case study organisations were using competences as a framework to help individuals articulate their development needs. Some were also using a number of other psychometric questionnaires or 360 degree reviews to assist individuals reflect on their current strengths and weaknesses.

Focus of PDPs and process links

A Personal Development Plan can vary considerably in focus. A plan may concentrate purely on development needed to perform better in the current job. It may extend to development required for the next career step. It may take a much more holistic or person-based approach; encouraging the individual to consider their personal effectiveness and a correspondingly wider range of development needs. This issue of focus is very important to how the individual employees perceives their scheme. By and large, employees feel more satisfied by a development planning process which takes their wider personal aspirations on board.

The processes which feed into PDPs tend to have a bearing on focus. Development centres and development programmes tend to be ‘person-centred’ or holistic in approach. Appraisal tends to be more current job or ‘next job step’ based. The expected application of the PDP will also affect its focus. Two case studies linked PDPs with succession planning. This tended to lead to development outcomes couched in terms of desired job moves.

Implementation and support

PDP schemes present two serious challenges in terms of implementation and support. Firstly, a scheme which is intended to apply to all individuals, and often involve all their line managers, requires a major effort of communication and training support to actually reach its intended audience.

The second major challenge is that self-organised learning is not part of the UK tradition. Employees need help in thinking through their own development needs. This may be why individuals find it is easier to complete a PDP in the context of a development centre or as part of a management development programme. Both these activities offer considerable support.

In addition to supporting implementation, support is needed to maintain interest in the scheme and encourage plans to be reviewed and updated. Most of the case study organisations expected line managers to be involved in discussing and actioning PDPs, but it may be unrealistic to expect all the momentum to come from the line at a time when they are often feeling overstretched. Additional support in some of the organisations was provided by mentors or by peer groups in an action learning approach.

Ownership, control, confidentiality

Another set of issues centres on ownership of PDPs and how such information should be used within organisations. Some of the case studies did not know anything about the take up of their scheme, and felt it was not appropriate to do so. Some monitored take up, but did not seek to collect completed PDPs. Some did attempt a degree of control, often originally to get the scheme embedded, but ‘telling’ people to produce a Personal Development Plan is rather a contradiction in terms. This creates problems for schemes which are designed to feed into processes such as job filling and succession planning.

The other problem, with schemes which use the PDP as an input to job applications or succession, is the impact on the confidentiality of the PDP and therefore on the degree of honesty the individual can bring to it.


The impact which the case study organisations wanted to see from Personal Development Planning was predominantly a culture change towards employees feeling responsible for their own development. In some cases attitudinal measures were starting to register such a shift. Other outcomes sought included a more adventurous approach to development methods, often away from courses, to more job-related approaches, including more lateral job moves. The employees and managers participating in the research were mainly enthusiastic about the PDP approach and its link with business development. As always with HR processes, however, few of even this vanguard group had really evaluated their schemes. For some it was still to early to have done so.


  • The key outcomes sought from introducing PDPs — including cultural change — need to be clear to all those involved, and built in at every stage of design and implementation.
  • The introduction of the scheme — whether ‘big bang’ or ‘softly, softly’ — should take account of the target group and the prevailing attitudes to employee development.
  • The process used to generate plans must be realistic in terms of the target group of employees and the level of resources available to the scheme.
  • If PDPs are expected to flow out of appraisal then the design of the appraisal scheme should take this into account by building in sufficient time for discussion of individual development.
  • PDPs which focus solely on skill development for the current job will not be welcomed by many employees. Those which take a broader view of the individual and their future may be more effective in encouraging flexibility and have a higher impact on employees.
  • Frameworks (including competences) and tools to help in self-assessment (ie psychometric tests) can be very valuable in helping employees to think about their PDPs. However, a highly structured PDP form may constrain the user.
  • If the organisation really wants employees to own their development, it will have to achieve a critical balance between encouragement and control.
  • Formal use of PDPs in other processes, such as selection or succession planning, will affect the content and confidentiality of the plans, and therefore should be considered carefully.
  • A PDP scheme will not sell itself or maintain itself. A planned and realistic approach to supporting the scheme is crucial. This has cost implications.

The study

The research was undertaken because of the rise in interest in PDPs, and because relatively little appeared to be known of how such schemes were working in practice. It built on other IES research both into self-development in general, and particular career development processes. The research was undertaken with the support of the IES Research Club, a group of IES subscribers who financed, and often participated in, applied research on employment issues.

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