Best practices in professional development: What educational institutions might have to learn from the business sector

Though it’s generally acknowledged that education theory and practice inform adult learning and professional development activities in all kinds of domains, the connection between education research/best practices and teaching/learning as it occurs in corporate environments is perhaps less explored.  For the purposes of this investigation, I’m interested in finding exemplars of professional learning design and implementation that are taking place outside of K-12 schools and higher education institutions.  How are best practices in education being applied in corporate environments in innovative ways? Conversely, are there novel approaches to professional development (PD) and adult learning activities being used in corporate America that school systems may want to adopt for themselves? 

For starters, it may be helpful to first draw attention to some of the ways PD activities have been found lacking within education circles.  Drawing from content in my July 2021 post, Professional Development & Technology in Higher Education: What’s Working?, I’ll once again highlight the 2014 report put together by the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) working on behalf of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.  For this report, BCG surveyed over 1,300 stakeholders in education (teachers, administrators, instructional coaches, etc.) on topics related to PD (BCG, 2014).  Research suggested that teachers at all levels were overwhelmingly dissatisfied with the majority of PD offerings made available to them.  Reasons cited included: 

  1. A disconnect between classroom observations by administrators and meaningful coaching interactions 
  1. A lack of trust or authority from those leading the PD initiatives 
  1. PD presented as an exercise in compliance instead of a meaningful opportunity for growth 
  1. Lack of opportunity for collaboration with peers  
  1. Lack of choice 
  1. Lack of relevance to immediate needs 

Suggestions for future practice included a decreased dependence on external vendors for PD workshops and increased attention to teacher-driven needs and collaboration time, as well as considerations for leveraging technology to boost collaboration and streamline workloads (BCG, 2014).  So where might we find examples of these suggestions being put into practice? Let us take a moment to see what the business sector has to offer. 

Image Source

One particular company “walking the walk” in PD is creative media powerhouse, Pixar.  Many will know Pixar as the studio behind the world’s first computer-animated feature film, Toy Story (1995), as well as the slew of creative, narratively diverse, visually stunning, and commercially successful animated films it has released in the decades since (Catmull, 2008).  Yet the secret to Pixar’s success, at least according to Pixar executive Ed Catmull, isn’t just having good ideas.  Rather, it’s a commitment to hiring good people and investing in a dynamic, creative, collaborative professional community, supported by meaningful and ongoing professional development.  Pixar has three operating principles which help shape its professional growth and community building (Catmull, 2008): 

  1. Everyone must have the freedom to communicate with anyone 
  • Prioritize professional relationships built on trust 
  • Don’t get too invested in a hierarchical system, especially as it pertains to lines of communication and problem-solving 
  • Make it easy for people to collaborate across departments 
  1. It must be safe for everyone to offer ideas 
  • Regularly share works in progress 
  • Create opportunities for peer review and feedback 
  • Consider collaboration as an essential part of problem-solving and professional growth 
  1. Stay close to innovations happening in the academic community 
  • Encourage attendance to professional conferences, publishing, and sharing work with others as is appropriate to individuals in their particular fields; this stands in contrast to bringing in outside vendors to deliver PD workshops to the whole company in a “one size fits all” approach. 
  • Pixar University: Pixar offers a collection of in-house, online PD courses responsible for training and cross-training people as they develop in their careers.  It also offers an array of optional classes that give people from different disciplines the opportunity to expand their knowledge base and personal growth, while also appreciating the expertise and contributions of others within the organization. 

If we look at the BCG findings and suggestions for future practice, Pixar seems to be doing several things “right.”  They’re providing much of their PD in-house and reducing dependence on external vendors or workshops, they’re cultivating practical avenues for collaboration and peer review, and they’re leveraging technology to provide opportunities for needs- and interest-based training through Pixar University.  They’re also investing in the company culture at large by widening avenues of vertical and horizontal communication and building trust in their workplace community. 

Regardless of the context, whether it be in a school or business environment, creating pathways towards authentic problem solving and practical application are key to effective PD endeavors. Effective adult learning offers opportunities for growth and development within the student’s context, adding value to their life and work, and ultimately giving them new skills, independence, or autonomy (Merriam, 2017).  Adult learners are often interested in “learning how to learn”—in becoming skilled at learning in a range of different situations and through a range of different styles in order to apply that learning in novel situations in their daily lives (Brookfield, 1995).  Consequently, adult learning should often be more problem-centered than subject-centered with a clear “so what” factor in any given learning experience (Merriam, 2017). In other words, pure knowledge transmission is not the substance of effective adult learning (or really any learning for that matter). 

This does not mean that structured courses have no place in PD. Rather, excellent examples can be found where corporations partner with higher education institutions (HEIs) to anchor structured learning experiences within real work-based problems. 

One example of this approach is described by Collis and Margaryan (2004) in relation to the Shell EP corporation, an organization primarily concerned with finding and producing oil and gas.  In this case study, Shell EP (tasked with the professional learning, growth, and ongoing training of over 30,000 employees scattered across 45 countries), began a research partnership with University of Twente, the aims of which were “…to develop, share, and apply state-of-the-art knowledge and experience relating to new forms of learning in the organization, supported by technology” (Collis & Margaryan, 2004).  Using a web-based platform for blended learning developed by the University of Twente, petroleum engineers, petrophysicists, geologists and other technical professionals from various operating units of Shell EP were brought together to collaborate on a specific problem-based PD initiative (Collis & Margaryan, 2004).  In this specific setting, the problem they tackled as part of their PD was a Health Risk Assessment (HRA), a complex task involving the assessment of possible risks to employees and/or the environment where drilling or the handling of delicate chemicals was required. HRA development was previously addressed through a knowledge transfer course model that required no collaboration among colleagues or practical applications. 

In its redesigned format, the HRA assessment was authentically performed as part of the PD course, meaning a potential health hazard was collaboratively identified by a team of coworkers, and a plan to minimize or eliminate the hazard was presented to supervisors. Some of the benefits of this approach included:  

  1. Leveraging technology to mitigate the need for employees to travel or step out of the workplace into a classroom  
  1. Building communication and collaboration skills among coworkers, even from differing fields/departments 
  1. Creating a meaningful final product which could have an immediate impact on workplace strategy, while also being saved in an employee’s personal portfolio as evidence of professional growth (Collis & Margaryan, 2004). 
Image Source:

Tech giant Microsoft offers us another example.  Using a similar model to the one listed above, Microsoft partners with online learning platforms like edX to provide curated professional learning experiences for their employees. In this approach, edX and participating HEIs design the courses and host the self-paced, computer-based learning experiences (including assessments and rubrics, content delivery, course completion, etc.), while Microsoft provides the specialists and integrated expert knowledge which make the course most relevant to the company’s context and industry norms.  Additionally, access to the courses are approved through Microsoft managers such that there is accountability and incentive for employees wanting to expand their professional portfolio. It’s perhaps the best of both worlds when it comes to utilizing the strengths of an external learning designer while still paying particular attention to the needs and interests of the learners within a particular company/context. 

Finally, and by way of concluding these thoughts, I’d like to offer a few final examples/approaches to PD coming out of the business world. Ripplematch, a company that matches early career individuals with prospective job opportunities, interviews, and internships, recently released a curated list of companies which (according to their estimations) offer exceptional professional development programs for their employees (Ripplematch Team, 2021).  In reviewing this list of 27 companies and their various PD enterprises, several themes emerge which reinforce the examples already discussed in this post, as well as the previously noted gaps in PD often found in education. Below you will find my own “Top 10” checklist for PD enterprises, a summary inspired by these examples from the business world: 

  1. PD learning opportunities must be customizable to make sense for individual needs/contexts 
  1. PD activities ought to be curated in-house as much as possible 
  1. PD should help open channels of communication and collaboration between colleagues both horizontally across departments, and vertically between employees, supervisors, and senior leadership. 
  1. PD should help employees better leverage technology in their work environment 
  1. PD opportunities should make space for leadership development 
  1. PD should not be considered extra work on top of established work expectations; PD activities should be embedded into existing work hours and/or should be embedded within appropriate release time 
  1. PD should offer opportunities for collaboration where learners work with each other to accomplish a shared goal 
  1. PD should be problem-based and should produce final products/solutions that are authentically useful to the workplace 
  1. PD should be accessible (often utilizing online platforms) and offered continuously 
  1. PD should allow opportunities to learn from—and be mentored or coached by—experts in the field. 

It’s my opinion that, at the end of the day, PD activities in the business world and in education share the same end in mind: to help adult learners identify goals and learn new skills to help them succeed in their work. And though it’s tempting to assume that the field of education is the ultimate authority on all things teaching and learning, it’s okay to acknowledge that, at least where PD is concerned, schools are usually falling short in their delivery. Consequently, it shouldn’t be taboo to look for exemplars of adult learning practice in other fields; there’s much inspiration and innovation to be found. 


Boston Consulting Group (2014). Teachers know best: Teachers’ views on professional development. Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. 

Brookfield, S. (1995). Adult Learning: An Overview. In A. Tuinjman (Ed.) International Encyclopedia of Education. Pergamon Press. 

Collis, B. & Margaryan, A. (2004). Applying activity theory to computer-supported collaborative learning and work-based activities in corporate settings. Educational Technology Research and Development, 52(4), 38-52. 

Catmull, E. (September, 2008). How Pixar fosters collective creativity. Harvard Business Review. 

Merriam, S. (2017). Adult learning theory: Evolution and future directions. In K. Illeris (Ed.), Contemporary theories of learning: Learning theorists…in their own words (83-96). Routledge.  

Ripplematch Team (May 9, 2021). 27 companies that offer exceptional professional development programs for entry-level employees.  Ripplematch.