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Donkin on Work - Human Capital Management

October 2006 – Training the professionals

If you work in corporate management it is quite possible that you may have moved smoothly from grade to grade without ever feeling the need to consider the concept of continuing professional development.

Indeed it is just possible that you may never have heard of the phrase or, if you have, that you dismissed it as some trendy jargon for what most of us call training. In which case, you’d be wrong. Continuing professional development is a distinct concept, rooted in the professions but spreading fast like a kind of training evangelism.

Training providers love CPD because it keeps them in work. Whether everyone else should love it quite so much is debatable.

Firstly let’s be agreed about what it is and what it is trying to do since it often tends to be confused with general training for the workplace. Continuing professional development is post-qualification learning administered by professional bodies to ensure their members retain and develop their skills in line with the changing demands of their jobs.

A recent report by the Institute of Continuing Professional Development* described it as “a fundamental part of the system that underpins and ensures the reliability of the service that professionals offer to the public.”

It has manifested itself in the practice of maintaining professional skills by attending lectures, seminars, reading and attending training courses. Most professional bodies administer simple points systems that measure the amount of CPD work that is being undertaken. Your CPD points are totted up every now and again to monitor the extent to which you are keeping up to date.

But practices are changing so fast in almost every workplace that it makes sense to introduce some formal way of encouraging continuous learning. Problems arise, however, when the system becomes overzealous, pushing forward change that may seem professionally desirable but which fails to acknowledge workplace reality.

Take pharmacy, for example. My wife, a pharmacist for more than 30 years, has been trotting along to lectures and taking various qualifications in line with new requirements in CPD. One of these equips her to consult with patients about their medication. Some pharmacies have created special rooms to hold consultations.

The problem is that many pharmacies today, particularly those attached to doctors’ surgeries, have become pill-dispensing factories, churning out prescriptions at a rate that allows no time for the luxury of consultations. Pharmacists might want to elevate themselves professionally but in reality they are stuck in the trenches on the frontline of medical dispensing.

Another problem is the CPD itself. “I know lots of older pharmacists, women like myself who do locum work, who are turning their backs on CPD. They can’t be bothered with it so they’re going to be lost to the profession,” says my wife.

It is difficult to avoid the impression that much CPD is akin to passing scout badges, surmounting that big hurdle on the day of the test and walking away with your certificate. This is why the best CPD must also account for experience. What price the paper qualification against years spent doing a job in all its intricate detail?

Little wonder that some veteran practitioners are resentful of CPD, railing against taking some qualification that might not make a ha’p’orth of difference to the way they carry out their daily work.

The way that some professional bodies have dealt with this issue is to fudge it. Take the words “obligatory” and “mandatory” attached to CPD learning, depending on the stance of respective professions. To some of us they may amount to the same thing but, for those who administer such programmes, they have different meanings.

In CPD, if a piece of training-related work is described as “obligatory” it means that your professional body would like you to do the work but if you don’t, well nothing is likely to happen to you. If the work is mandatory, then your professional overlords may get tough; but only after long deliberation and many second chances to put things right.

Everyone gets rusty. Long ago I had shorthand training that equipped me on a single day, with a favourable wind at my back, to attain a certificate that said I could write at 100 words a minute. Could I write so quickly today? Not a chance. But if my job depended on it, you bet that I would.

The choices in CPD, however, are rarely so stark. It hates to get tough with backsliders and professional exclusion is rare. As the institute’s report points out: “The ultimate sanction of removal of membership status directly affects the profession’s income stream, so has an inbuilt disincentive.”

Perhaps the biggest criticism that can be levelled at CPD, however, involves the training benefit. How do you measure it? You can attend a seminar, accumulating CPD points, but you could sleep throughout every presentation. After listening to some of these presentations, I would forgive you for doing so.

Providers know there is a captive market for training. The provision of points-related lectures dilutes the incentive to sparkle. It’s money for old rope. In the same way there is little incentive to learn either when you are measured principally on your attendance.

You could read a book or an article and not understand one word. It doesn’t matter. You get the points. All you need do is turn up and get your card stamped. But it is possible that you might have learned more doing your job. So simply totting up the hours spent on courses is a poor measure of job-related learning.

Programme administrators have tried to tackle this issue by relating training more closely to individual needs. Some CPD therefore, now expects a degree of self-assessment, reflecting on what kind of things you need to learn, planning a learning exercise then evaluating the outcome and recording the lesson. If this sounds a bureaucratic process, accounting formally for what people do naturally in work then you begin to understand some of the frustrations endured by today’s professionals.

The Institute of CPD has urged better monitoring and compliance in professional learning. But is this the answer? Do seasoned professionals, steeped in the practical demands of their work, really need to be nannied in this way?

The bravest of them might question whether “new” necessarily means “better”? But the change merchants in every walk of life rarely step back long enough to consider whether what they are proposing is a genuine significant improvement for the common good. If fashion or – too often – the desire to economise demands it, then everyone, it seems must toe the line. To question new practices is to be resistant to change. “New is good,” has become the over-vocal mantra of change that ignores good sense and reason.

If a genuine need to upgrade a professional skill exists, then professionals should be tested on their competence but what should be the sanction for failure? There is little stomach for a testing regime that risks professional revolt and dissention. Ultimately the argument comes down to the role of professional bodies. What are they there for: the members of the profession or those of us who rely on their expertise?

*Regulating Competencies: is CPD Working, is published by the Institute of Continuing Professional development,

©2006 Richard Donkin - all rights reserved