Many organizations make professional development a very private effort involving just the employee and the boss. Why not make it a collective process? Instead of those behind-closed-doors conversations with just two people, or those lunchtime gripe sessions, make it a topic for group conversation involving all employees from the work unit, team, or office.
Get together and create a simple flipchart sheet with three columns titled "Development goals," "What we can share with each other," and "Where we can go for everything else." Use the first column to record people's professional-development goals for, say, the next 12 months. This is much like a needs assessment, but it goes beyond the narrow definition of "needs."
The conversation shifts gears with column two, as people put their heads together to determine how they can help each other. ("You want to learn the new packaging process? I'll be more than happy to show you!") This is a great opportunity to tap the abundance of knowledge and skill that's right there in the room.
In all likelihood, not all the personal-development goals (column 1) will find a match with internal expertise (column 2). So column 3 will prompt the group to figure out what can be done. Perhaps someone knows of an upcoming workshop or a worthwhile book. Someone might even chime in that her best friend's cousin, who's an expert in such- and-such, will be in town a month from now; perhaps he can come over for a brown-bag learning session.
To look further for learning opportunities, the Web works great. Also check with local colleges, training schools, associations, chambers of commerce -- and of course, with your own internal learning champions, if your organization is big enough to have them. Dole out search assignments as a group, then come back together to share and sort through your findings.
When professional development becomes a group initiative, the possibilities multiply in a big way. So does the follow-through.