Development Update from Stuart Wilkinson

Stuart Wilkinson, Chair of the PraxisAuril Professional Development Committee

“So can you write down a few thoughts about the year or so that has gone by from the Professional Development perspective?”  How do you capture all that has gone on in a year unlike any other?

Well, it seems all you can do is liberally use words like unprecedented, and grab for the analogies and try and stretch them to fit….  

Looking back the first few months of 2020 was a bit like the end of the first leg of a triathlon… As I’m currently training for one*, it’s the analogy that springs to mind, so apologies to those who have ever done a triathlon, and if you have never even considered one, bear with it. 

By the end of the first leg of a triathlon you have found your rhythm, settled in, and the distance is starting to tick by. For our Professional Development activities that looked like a series of (pretty much) exclusively in-person training sessions, usually at Loughborough. We had honed engaging interactive sessions, sharing best practice from practitioners, with a practical focus on how to get things done.  

I should add at this point that I took on the job of Chairing the PD committee in February 2020.  This was just as our last course in Loughborough was starting, and just as hand washing and the use of hand sanitiser were receiving more attention by everyone than ever before. 

By Easter, along with the rest of the world we had found ourselves uprooted from that familiar and comfortable rhythm and in an instant submerged into a whole new online environment. 

In a triathlon you achieve your aim - getting from A to B - by using the same muscles, just in a different way… We now had to figure out how to use the same principles and ideas for training but in the online environment. And as anyone who has done a triathlon will know, the transition can be very discombobulating. Anyone who has done the bike-run transition knows how your legs feel like jelly and the world seems strange.  

But all of this you will be familiar with, since at the same time you were all contending with this in your own work environments…and just as the PraxisAuril Exec team were contending with going remote and digital themselves. They were also trying to deal with massive uncertainty and unknowns of how this would work out in the events and hospitality industry, and figuring out how to bring activities online, with new tools and new skills required. All the professional development activities we do only happen thanks to the diligence and preparations of the PraxisAuril staff team. So this is a good point to publicly thank them for their efforts in keeping the Professional Development activities moving in trying circumstances for us all.  

After the initial shock of immersion into this new environment, a few brave and courageous volunteers pioneered the way of taking a course online. They reimagined the principles we applied to our face-to-face courses and translated them into our online world: Innovating and experimenting with new ways of delivering the content, and in a different pattern of a series of mini sessions rather than all-day marathons. The culture of continuous improvement we have embedded into our approach over the last 5-10 years stood us in good stead, and as the next course team stepped up to the challenge we were able to pass on the learnings.  Over the year we transitioned a series of our courses online as we experimented and shared learning along the way. We even launched a new course online – our innovative KE leadership course helping to prepare people take their first steps as a leader in Knowledge Exchange.    

Which leads me to my next big Thank-you. Our courses and programmes only run thanks to the volunteer practitioners who give up their time. This year more than any other it is obvious how big an ask that has been. Our volunteers have been grappling with the same pandemic-generated challenges at work and home, on top of their efforts for PraxisAuril. Yet despite that they have stepped up, shown great imagination, creativity and commitment in their efforts to share experience and knowledge with others in the sector. And having explained the challenges of the volunteering role I’d also like to mention how rewarding it is, and I know this from my personal experience as well as those other members of the team. We’d love to hear from anyone who might be interested in working with us like this – there is a lot of support, and fun (yes real fun) along the way.   

Of course, all this effort is for nothing if there aren’t delegates and we are acutely aware it wasn’t easy for them either. They had to manage work life balance at home online, trying to juggle learning with the work and life literally going on around them. This was especially challenging during the periods of home schooling. So we are particularly grateful for our delegates, and their colleagues support, patience, forbearance and feedback as we have tried to adapt to the online world.  

So that is two legs of our triathlon…a phase exclusively in person, and then the sudden change to exclusively online, and so we have the transition to the third leg ahead of us.  

The timing of this, third, transition coincides with a sharpened focus on our sector. The national policy focus on the power of research and of universities to help change our lives for the better, along with the specific developments within higher education around the KEF and KEC, mean that this is an exciting time for KE. Funders acknowledge this and are focusing on showcasing, developing and building capacity in knowledge exchange. Expectations are, commensurately, high.  

The combination of this increasing focus and the whole new array of tools and approaches that both face-to-face and online professional development provide us with, means it is a good time to take stock and transition into a new exciting phase of our professional development activities. Tim Fishlock, PraxisAuril’s Head of Professional and Community Development, will be leading on this and writing more in a forthcoming blog. But suffice to say that our newly relaunched and revised skills framework will be a key foundation in providing a structure for this phase and with a focus on individual skills, knowledge and career pathways for KE. 

So, as we brace ourselves for this next transition and the challenges to come, and as PrA has always been of the community for the community we want to warmly welcome everyone who feels able to play a part in shaping what the next phase looks like.  


Stuart Wilkinson, Chair, Professional Development Committee  

Assistant Director, Innovation and Engagement, University of Oxford  


*we’re delighted to report that Stuart completed his triathlon in impressive time, raising funds for charity in the process.