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System Theory Framework: Understanding Career Development from an HRD Perspective

Successful organizations recognize that career development (CD) is a critical growth tool used to capacitate employees and contribute to organizational success. At the same time, can probably agree that shifts in the technological, economic, and political landscape of the world have an impact on the mix of knowledge, skills, abilities, and other qualities (KSAOs) that employees need to possess to accomplish organizational objectives. We can just consider how the COVID-19 pandemic has ‘slingshot’ some corporations to keep up with the pace of technological and knowledge advancements into the 4th Industrial Revolution. Thus, in my experience, the business setting (Workplace 4.0) has become more volatile and disruptive with many organizations going out of business due to increasing competitiveness and demand for flexibility and scarce and critical skills. As human resource development (HRD) professionals and organization leaders, we need to realize that change is required in how we prepare our employees and organizations to respond to these changes (i.e., from contact workspaces to online technology). Apart from training and development, CD is also an essential investment in our human resources, as doing so helps ensure that an adequate supply of people with the right qualifications and experience is available.

The Post-COVID work environment has placed more emphasis on the need for collaboration and alignment of career objectives between the organization, leaders, and employees. As HRD professionals and scholars, we play a crucial role in aligning CD between our organization’s goals and training objectives and employee's specific needs.

To better understand CD, we can look at it through an innovative perspective utilizing the System Theory Framework (STF). The STF welcomes a variety of viewpoints and was the first attempt to present a comprehensive framework for CD using a systems theory philosophy. Nevertheless, it has been overlooked and rarely adopted by HRD scholars and practitioners. The STF consists of key interrelated systems, including the intrapersonal system of the individual, the social system, and the environmental-societal system. We must note that the careers of employees are influenced by these interrelated systems, which could have a major effect on the career planning and management of our organizations.


"The Post-COVID work environment has placed more emphasis on the need for collaboration and alignment of career objectives between the organization, leaders, and employees."


The STF helps us understand that an individual's system includes the influence of various intrapersonal content, such as personality, skills and abilities, gender, and age amongst others that intrinsically affect an individual. Social systems include contextual influences that can externally affect individuals, such as family, friends, peers, workplaces, and educational institutions. The final coherent system, the environmental-social system, includes influences such as geographic location, environment, political decisions, globalization, and labor markets (which COVID also has impacted). As with any system, these important interrelated systems (individual, social, and environmental) do not exist in isolation; instead, they influence each other. The STF helps us understand the processes between these systems and allows us to explain the dynamic nature of interactions within and between systems to ensure better planning and management of employees’ careers.

As HRD professionals, we need to consider not only the different functions/departments (such as training) that form part of the larger system (environmental-larger organization) but also the employee (individual system) when we decide on and implement CD practices. As a result, CD practices could be implemented, integrated, and synchronized perfectly during the planning and management of careers within our organizations.

Patton and McMahon (2015) explained that the above factors bring about a psychological aspect that may also influence employees’ intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. From my experience in a South African context, through inadequate appointments of organizational leaders in key positions, the organization (environmental and social system) contributes to problems in the individual system (of employees at lower levels and the appointed leaders) due to leaders’ lack of KSAOs. Consequently, these leaders and employees may feel that the organization has failed them. For example, appointed leaders may feel they were not properly prepared for their role (as leaders) and thus were set up for failure. Similarly, front-line employees may feel they were provided with incompetent leaders (a barrier created by the environment-society). As HRD professionals, we need to take note that inadequately implemented CD practices by the organization harm employees’ intrinsic and extrinsic motivation to perform certain tasks (such as providing training) effectively.

Reiterating, CD plays a pivotal role in ensuring the effective execution of tasks and responsibilities required to achieve organizational goals. By considering CD from the STF, we improve our ability to select and implement CD practices that align with our employees' intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Additionally, organizational leaders need to involve HRD professionals to scrutinize and provide inputs regarding necessary employment practices that help develop employees. Consequently, HRD professionals can create opportunities to support the development of employees while aligning them with the organization’s goals.

I offer a short list of synchronized and integrated practices to consider in support of CD for your workforce:

· Review and provide clear career paths - to ensure that they are properly tied to tasks, responsibilities, and experiences to support leaders to-come-to a consensus about employees' logical job movements within organizations,

· Promotability ratings - used to measure various dimensions (for example leadership attributes) and consist of an overall rating of an employee’s (potential leader’s) potential for progression,

· Succession planning – integrate promotability ratings with succession planning to identify personnel at lower levels with the potential to be developed for future positions,

· Developmental programs (such as leadership development and mentoring) – integrate and synchronize to strengthen and support succession planning to increase the chances of successful planning and management of employees’ careers.

Dr. Renier Els is a senior lecturer of Human Resource Development in the School of Industrial Psychology and Human Resource Management at the Nort-West University, Potchefstroom, South Africa. Parts of this blog were taken from Els, R.C. & Meyer, H.W. (2022). The role of career development is to ensure effective quality management of training. (Currently under review).


Patton, W. & McMahon, M. (2015). The Systems Theory Framework of career development: 20 years of contribution to theory and practice. Australian Journal of Career Development, 24(3), 141-147.

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