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The Growing Importance of Continuing Professional Development


1 Introduction

There can be few professionals who have been unaffected by the rapid pace of change which has influenced the professions over the past decade. Professionalism relies increasingly on an ability to respond quickly to changing market conditions, to client requirements and to the influences of government policies. We are all being encouraged to embrace change and foster innovation. To adapt to these changes demands new skills. No longer can keeping "up-to-date" be optional; it is increasingly central to professional and organisational success. The response of many professions to this challenge has been to embrace the concept of Continuing Professional Development (CPD).

1.1 The Changing Conditions

The international business environment within which professionals practice has been changing significantly over the past 5-10 years. The worldwide economic recession has had considerable influence on the professions and some of the most significant shifts in business conditions which have occurred during this period are illustrated by Table 1.

Table 1: Some of the Principal Changes in Business Conditions



Demand for services

Over-supply of providers

Advertising-professionals as suppliers of


Marketing - understanding, uncovering and satisfying client


Differentiation in terms of technical expertise

Differentiation in terms of quality and services

Short term opportunism

Medium/long term accountability

Adversarial client relationships

Partnership client relationships

The professional as technical expert

The professional as a technical and business


Investment (in technology and people)

Cost control

In personal terms the impact of many of these changes has been no less profound. During the same period we have seen the following shifts occurring.

Table 2: The Impact of Recent Business Changes on the Individual



Expectation of a "job for life"

Reality no job is "safe"

Develop a single specialist skill

Multiple skills required

Vertical promotion

Horizontal/lateral movement

"Keep your head


"Innovate and take risks"

Single employer (for entire career)

Multiple employers (portfolio of employers)

Careers planned

Plan your own career

Develop a skill during an initial training period

Continuous lifelong


2 The Nature of CPD

The importance of the concept of continuous lifelong learning has been reflected across the professions by the growth of CPD.

A number of different terms are used to describe the generic activity of maintaining and improving professional competence. These range from Continuing Education (CE), Continuing Education and Training (CET), Continuing Professional Education (CPE), Continuing Vocational Training (CVT), to Post Qualification Development (PQD). Increasingly, however, the term Continuing Professional Development (CPD) is becoming accepted as the preferred term and is widely used within the professions.

2.1 What is CPD?

The definition of what constitutes CE, CET, CPD, etc varies across the professions. However, some degree of consensus has been reached and the following two definitions illustrate some of its key features.

CPD is .. the systematic maintenance, improvement and broadening of knowledge and the development of personal qualities necessary for the education of professional and technical duties throughout the practitioner's working life"


CPD is ..the process by which a professional person maintains the quality and relevance of professional services throughout his/her working life"

The key features of effective CPD are that it is:

  1. Continuous - "throughout the practitioner's working life"

  2. Professional/Organisation Focused - "necessary for the execution of professional and technical duties" and related to "maintaining the quality and relevance of professional services"

  3. Broad Based - "knowledge and skills and the development of personal qualities"

  4. Structured - "systematic maintenance, improvement and broadening"

CPD is often, mistakenly, presumed to be restricted to formal off the job training courses, seminars or workshops. Increasingly many professional bodies also recognise the relevance of other modes of learning including

  • Distance and open learning, including CBT (computer based training) and CAL (computer assisted learning)

  • The use of problem oriented approaches to learning including action learning and self managed learning

  • Structured reading

  • Authorship of technical papers

  • Membership of committees within nominated professional institutions

  • Part time teaching commitments

For all of these activities it is possible to specify a time limit to their execution. They can therefore be considered as discrete learning activities with defined start and end points. CPD must also, however, embrace the continuous nature of professional learning. Whilst not normally formally included within the regulation structure for CPD in all professional bodies, the informal continuous learning which takes place within organisations should not be overlooked.

Indeed "development" activities such as:

  • a short term exchange or transfer to a new department

  • a planned short term transfer to work for another senior professional or client

  • expanded responsibilities within your existing role e.g. as the chairman of a task force or working group

  • short/long term secondments or sabbaticals e.g. from a public to private sector organisation

are all very important sources of Continuing Professional Development. Some would argue that the most important influences on a professional's development are these planned or unplanned career interventions. Certainly in larger organisations those staff responsible for human resource management have an important role to perform in ensuring that appropriate opportunities for development are provided. Managing these opportunities is also a critical element of the succession planning process. Figures 1 and 2 summarise the main distinctions between these two forms of learning.

2.2 Why is CPD important?

First, it should be emphasised that the concept of CPD is not new. Effective professionals in all fields have always realised the importance of new knowledge, improved skills and developing personal qualities. In essence CPD is simply part of good professional practice. What is new, however, is the greater importance and relevance of CPD to professional success. A study performed in the UK (Welsh and Woodward, 1989) identified the following six reasons to account for the growing importance of CPD:


It has been estimated that the knowledge gained in some (particularly hi tech) degree courses has an average useful lifespan of about four years. While this will vary according to the discipline, it does nevertheless highlight the increasing need to maintain an active interest in keeping up to date with changing technology, legislation and operational procedures. If, at the same time, professionals have expectations of increased managerial responsibility the need to acquire new skills and knowledge is even more acute.


The development of a more affluent consumer society has also resulted in a better informed and more sophisticated public. One consequence of this trend is that they expect a higher duty of care and level of service from their professional advisors than in the past. Again the skills acquired during an initial training period or during higher/further education may not equip new staff for this role.


The professions are increasingly at much higher risk from claims of negligence than in the past. Professional indemnity (PI) insurance premiums have risen considerably in recent years. CPD may not totally eliminate PI claims, however, if sceptics are worried by the cost of CPD such claims may help emphasise the potential cost of ignorance! Some evidence is also emerging that insurance companies may be willing to reduce slightly PI premiums if a structured CPD programme is available to staff.


One of the primary roles of professional bodies is to safeguard standards of competence. CPD has a key role to play in the communication of agreed standards and in ensuring that members comply with specified procedures.

Quality Management System

The increasing emphasis on quality management systems and the ethos of continuous improvement has also increased the relevance of CPD.

Training and education are key elements of quality assurance processes and of the "Investors In People" (IIP) standard.


The recent recession has re-emphasised the highly competitive nature of modern business. Whether in the private or increasingly the privatised public/state sector, the competitive market edge must be partly or totally focused on client care/service quality and technological innovation. Both demand a high investment in developing people skills if they are to be effective.

3 What is effective CPD?

A number of basic features can be identified which characterise an effective CPD strategy. One useful framework developed by Ashridge Management College (Willie, 1991) distinguishes between the fragmented approach and a more focused approach towards CPD.

3.1 Fragmented approach

In this context training and CPD are characterised as follows. CPD is:

  • not linked to organisational goals

  • seen as a cost, not as an investment

  • focused on training (discontinuous), not development (continuous)

  • unsystematic

  • menu driven, like ordering from a mail catalogue

  • about directive training and knowledge acquisition

  • viewed as unimportant and course attendance is frequently cancelled due to pressure of work or lack of commitment

  • not transferred and learning is rarely implemented back at the office

  • viewed as a reward for good performance

If this perception of training (and CPD) is viewed as the lowest point on the scale, the Ashridge researchers offer three increasingly more sophisticated perceptions of training (and CPD). These are referred to respectively as the Formalised, Focused and Fully Integrated views. A summary of this new perception of effective training (and CPD) would include the following characteristics:

3.2 Focused approach

Training and CPD are:

  • linked both to organisational strategy and individual needs

  • viewed as an investment in human resource management

  • focused on on-the-job development and skills development in addition to knowledge based training

  • evaluated with both pre- and post-course assessment

  • about "learning" as opposed to "training"

  • transferred to action and change in the workplace

  • flexible in application including open, distance and self-development approaches

The changes in the perception of training (and CPD) as outlined in these two contrasting views are not dissimilar to the current state of development of CPD within many professions. The fragmented view is widely held and may help explain the current pre-occupation in many professions with measuring compliance with CPD and the need to demonstrate attendance at specific training events, rather than being concerned with improved performance and increased organisational success, which is the essence of the second view of CPD. The challenge to many professions is to encourage the second approach.

4 CPD and the Development of Professional Competence

The current emphasis in CPD on "compliance monitoring" and measures of input (ie. no of hours), whilst important, does not fully emphasise the importance of performance improvement as the output of the process. To illustrate the point Figure 3 indicates the relationship between CPD and the four stages in the development of competence from an unconscious level of "incompetence", ie. when one is unaware of a need for improvement, through the stages of conscious incompetence (ie. I am now aware of the problem), to being consciously competent (ie. I am now capable, with conscious effort, of performing this task), to being unconsciously capable of performing this task (ie. I am able to operate at this level without conscious effort).

CPD in many cases is focused primarily on developing the link between Stages 2 and 3. (ie. between conscious incompetence and conscious competence). However, this may not necessarily lead to improved performance because:

  1. the initial diagnosis of the perceived CPD need may have been inaccurate (ie. CPD is not focused on a real need), or

  2. the application of the CPD (normally in the form of attendance at a training course) is not applied to the work environment in a planned and structured manner.

As a consequence CPD will not fulfil a real need and will become viewed (as it is in some cases) as an interesting but unnecessary element of professional life.

To overcome these shortcomings further work is necessary in three areas:

  1. The development of review processes (e.g. performance appraisal/career planning reviews) as part of CPD and the development of competence models to assess professional/business capability at typical career stages.

  2. The widening of "Structured CPD" to include 'structured development' opportunities in addition to "structured training". This distinction between formal and more informal modes of learning, has been illustrated previously by Figures 1 and 2.

  3. A clearer assessment of the objectives of CPD and the professional/personal need to which the CPD is related and the manner in which CPD will be evaluated.

5 Implications

5.1 The need to provide clearer links between CPD and organisational strategy

To assist professionals to put in place the processes necessary to link CPD more directly to organisational strategies, it is considered important that the following processes exist in a professional service organisation:

  1. a process for business planning

  2. a procedure for establishing individual objectives and reviewing these objectives (a process often referred to as a performance review/appraisal scheme) and

  3. a system for recording & planning and professional development (sometimes referred to as a Personal Development Plan (PDP).

Apart from the consequential benefits to CPD, these tools are also increasingly important for organisational development and growth. The benefit of emphasising the use of PDPs, for example, will help to encourage the planning of CPD in addition to the recording of the process.

5.2 The need to develop "structured training"

To emphasise further the benefits of CPD it is considered important that work is expended on the production of structured training programmes ideally leading to post-graduate/post-experience qualifications. A number of such initiatives already exist. However, it is felt that additional work needs to be undertaken to provide further links between discrete CPD training events and potential qualification structures. The provision of such linkages will also help provide further focus to CPD activities.

5.3 The need to develop "structured approaches to learning"

Simply performing an existing role efficiently is clearly not appropriate for CPD purposes. What would be effective CPD could be the production of a structured learning plan which leads to demonstrably improved performance to apply a new skill or utilise new knowledge. This plan may, or may not, involve formal "training", e.g. the conventional CPD events. It could, however, involve the provision of evidence based on experience in professional life. To be suitable as CPD evidence this learning would require to be presented in a structured format, possibly based on the concept of a learning contract.

To be acceptable as evidence for CPD purposes practitioners would be required to provide evidence of improved performance in the form of a structured learning contract. The concept of a learning contract is not new and is used in many educational and training circumstances to help people clarify the nature of the changes which they wish to implement and to record the increased capabilities which may follow. The learning contract requires answers to five questions:

  1. where have I been (in relation to this CPD need), ie. what is my previous knowledge base and/or experience?

  2. where am I now (what are my current strengths and weaknesses in relation to the need identified)?

  3. where do I want to be (what level of skill/knowledge do I want to obtain)?

  4. how will I get there (what learning plan/strategy will I adopt)?

  5. ow will I know when I get there (what evidence could I provide to illustrate improved performance)?

Thus practitioners may bring forward evidence based on this concept in part fulfilment of their CPD requirement. The implementation of this more structured approach to learning can also be integrated with the concept of personal development plans (PDPs).

The same concept could be used to improve the existing arrangements relating to "structured reading" and other forms of more informal learning.

5.4 The growing importance of continuing management development

The growth and complexity of organisations, the demands from clients and the pace of change all demand that professionals possess a wider range of skills than in the past. Central to the success of the professions across the world will be the capability to demonstrate enhanced managerial and leadership skills in addition to specialist technical/professional knowledge. Professional success demands that such capabilities are not separate from professional expertise but viewed as complementary, growing in significance as a professional career progresses. Figure 4 illustrates some of the key characteristics of management development.

6 Conclusions

All professionals need to adapt to the rapidly changing environment within which they work. A commitment to CPD is essential to the work of the professional throughout his/her working life.

The concept of lifelong learning which is implicit in CPD should encourage professionals to:

  1. produce personal CPD work plans (personal development plans) which highlight future learning goals

  2. view CPD as a continuous development process which can be satisfied by a balanced and flexible range of formal and informal learning activities, and

  3. ensure CPD activities are concerned primarily with the production of enhanced performance (output) rather than being predominantly concerned with the level of CPD input.

CPD, with its emphasis on reviewing personal capabilities and developing structured action plans to develop existing and new skills, is becoming increasingly important. The processes outlined in this introduction provide a starting point for professionals to review and potentially enhance their existing approaches to continuing professional development.


Welsh L. and Woodward P. 1989. Continuing Professional Development: Towards a National Strategy. Dept. of Education and Science PICKUP Report, Planning Exchange, 51pp.

Willie E. 1991. People Development and Improved Business Performance. Ashridge Management Research Group, HMSO, 89pp

General Principles relating to the Eligibility of Potential Members .for Admission to the Institute of Continuing Professional Development


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