For such a commonly used phrase, professional development can mean surprisingly different things to different people.

For some, professional development is quite formal – it is arranged by their organisation and their participation is closely monitored. It is little more than attending training courses to learn new and improved ways of doing their jobs.

Some see it as the process of being coached on how best to utilise their skills and improve their output in the workplace. Others see professional development as the act of sitting with a line manager or mentor to discuss their concerns, performance or career ambitions. In truth, professional development is all of these things and more.

It’s easy to see how the breadth of training courses, programmes and schemes available to businesses can make it challenging for them to know exactly which are most relevant and beneficial to their circumstances. For SMEs to truly maximise the impact of their workforce development programmes, it’s important they understand the differences between the three key pillars of professional development: training, coaching and mentoring.

The first pillar

Probably the most widely understood and commonly pursued element of professional development is training, which might be crudely described as the act of giving someone a set of skills or knowledge they do not currently possess. A trainer’s objective is to impart knowledge and empower their subjects with information – it is about laying the foundations for professional development.

Yet as much as arming employees with knowledge is a great start, getting them to apply it to their day-to-day work routine is another matter entirely. How many useful nuggets of information have you scribbled down in workshops or seminars only to forget about them a few hours later? It is this impact upon practice that is key to effective skills development.

The second pillar

Next on the list is mentoring. This plays an equally important role in supporting workplace development and many businesses have their own mentoring schemes in place. Mentors are typically more experienced business people who have ‘been there, done that’ and can pass on their own experience and advice rather than focusing on helping the individual to solve their own problems.

Of course the issue with mentoring is that it is not particularly cost or time effective, especially in the short-term. Lessons learned over months or years spent with a mentor are often priceless, but it is inherently a long-term investment in people, rather than something that will yield tangible results in the immediate future. Mentors are also most effective when working closely with only a few employees, meaning it can be a difficult strategy to employ across larger organisations.

The third pillar

Which brings us on to coaching, an element which is proving increasingly popular with businesses. Great performers in any field, from sport to the arts, use a range of advisers to ensure they remain at the top of their game. In today’s competitive and ever-changing business world, coaching has become a key process to improve performance and develop potential.

Coaching is a well-established development process focused on improving personal growth, effectiveness and performance. Estimates suggest that business coaching is at least a £2 billion industry, growing at a rate of 18% per year - making it one of the fastest-growing industries in the world. The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development reports that 51% of companies “consider coaching as a key part of learning and development” and “crucial to their strategy”.

In Wales, LMW’s research shows organisations investing in coaching have found it to be highly effective in encouraging better performance, especially when used as an extension to training and development programmes.

The beauty of coaching, and where it differs from training and mentoring, is that it is outcome driven. A coach’s role is to produce positive changes in business behaviour in a limited time frame. In short, coaching is the process of taking the knowledge and understanding gleaned from training, and putting it into action in the workplace. This is clearly attractive to small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).

And coaching is for everyone. The world’s greatest sports stars all have coaches and the same is true of some of the world’s finest business people. Many major corporations have in-house coaching operations, which support staff at all levels throughout the organisation.

As firms face up to the demand of managing expenditure against the challenging economic backdrop, SMEs must continue to invest in developing their human capital to drive the economic recovery. Embracing the coaching culture is increasingly proving to be the key to unlocking the potential of a workforce.

By Dr Barrie Kennard is the Chief Executive of Leadership & Management Wales (LMW)