Opinion: Bespoke, tailored or off-the-rack? Finding the right professional development platform

By Robert Bowles, Careers and Professional Development Adviser, Royal Society of Chemistry, and Richard Burton, Platform Manager of the Professional Development Programme, Royal Society of Chemistry.

Providing value and differentiation

Continuing Professional Development (CPD) is at the core of any professional membership body’s activities. For their members, good CPD can be the key that helps them differentiate themselves, that unlocks new jobs and opportunities, which opens up new avenues within their current roles and professions, and helps them maintain their proficiency and competency. And for professional bodies it is one of the most important tools they can wield in their mission to uphold the highest professional standards among their members.

Photo courtesy Mantis PR

At the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC), we have continued to step up our CPD offering for members, expanding investment in new resources and provision and the tools with which to deliver them. For the RSC, this investment underpins key strategic agenda such as accreditation, and supports its drive to engage with more members worldwide.

A new platform

As part of our mission to provide the opportunities and tools for the chemical science community to network, exchange knowledge, adapt and thrive, we were looking to replace our legacy CPD tracking system and offer a more advanced CPD platform to benefit our 54,000 members. Seeking to link new and current professional development programmes with existing RSC e-learning content, we required a tool to help our members with planning, tracking and recording all professional development. This includes RSC-provided opportunities and personal activities undertaken at work and beyond. 

Bespoke versus off-the-rack

Like some other large professional bodies, the RSC has in the past been in the position to offer its own bespoke CPD tool. Although this allowed us to produce something which was a straight fit for our requirements, this approach has proved to have downsides. Such a solution is costly to develop, maintain and evolve, requiring an internal team and matching resources, and when new technologies emerge it can be challenging to adapt quickly enough to provide members with an up-to-date experience which fits their expectations.

When selecting a supplier for our new CPD platform we decided to consider a range of options. As well as investigating a bespoke solution, we explored whether a Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) solution could fit our aspirations. SaaS suppliers provide the same platform to multiple customers, with advantages in terms of cost, maintenance, development and community. That said, we knew that a SaaS-based solution would need to be highly tailorable if it was going to meet our requirements and allow us to sidestep the disadvantages of the bespoke option. Choosing between bespoke and SaaS can feel like a binary choice; we were keen to find a way in which we could keep the advantages of both approaches.

Beyond our technical requirements, we also wanted to work with a technology provider who would understand our culture of working in partnership, who would be flexible and open to new ideas, and whose aspirations aligned with the RSC’s mission for its members and for the chemical science community and associated professions.

Tailoring as the happy medium

Through a competitive process we selected Inkpath as our partner to deliver our next-generation CPD platform for RSC members. Inkpath’s approach traces a line between the bespoke and off-the-rack approaches and allowed us to deploy a very highly tailored platform to a first set of RSC members in January 2023. The SaaS-based skills and career development platform provided a flexible framework in which we could deploy a renamed, re-branded, customised platform (RSC Pathfinder) suitable for our membership and yet with all the advantages of a quickly scalable, continually developing SaaS solution.

From rollout to engagement

Our first-year priorities have included rolling out the full functionality to all of our membership and training a group of lead users across the RSC. These will be essential in helping embed RSC Pathfinder use across our organisation. In turn they will shape the future roadmap of content on RSC Pathfinder.

We’ve also taken the time to iron out the inevitable teething issues that come with any rollout of a new system, and we’ve been planning for future development work on the platform to support strategic priorities across the business.

Next year, our focus will change from rollout to engagement, where we will support our lead users to evolve and shape our content. We’ll also begin developments to support revalidation of our professional awards inside the platform.

Consider your approach

When choosing the right professional development platform for your organisation, it’s vital to be clear on your requirements. However great your relationship with your provider may be, it is your responsibility to state what you need and when you need it. Consider functionality wanted in the final product in advance of the project initiation to ensure the platform is doing everything you want it to do from the beginning.

Consider a holistic approach to your professional development programme. How will users track, plan and monitor professional development?  How will users develop their career or make a career change? These questions need to be thought about up front.

Look for ways systems can support professional development and recognition programmes you already run. Ensuring systems integrate and look like they are the same even when they are from different providers is also critical.

Engage colleagues across your business so they feel part of the system you are bringing in and ensure the system provides the value they are looking for. This will enable good change management across your organisation, and the system will become embedded swiftly in business strategy implementation.

Finally, ensure the system supports continual engagement and is not static. It should evolve with time to drive up engagement with your members.

The future – beyond a CPD tracking tool

We are confident that, as the world of CPD evolves, the solution we have implemented with Inkpath will continue to work at the cutting edge and not fall behind, fitting the changing needs of the RSC and its members. In fact, RSC Pathfinder has gone beyond being just a CPD tracking tool. It is the glue and the clarity that will over time pull the RSC’s professional development content and provision together into one centralised space, easily accessible to members.

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