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Learning to learn for the rest of your life

In today’s economy, if your business isn’t learning, then you’re going to fall behind. A business learns as its people learn so the continuous professional development of your workforce is an absolute must. Jason O’Connor explains why “continuing” is the operative word in CPD.

In May, the European Union released a report on continuing professional development (CPD) or, in lay terms, what many refer to as lifelong learning.

The study

The study was carried out in 17 member states, incorporating the feedback of 62 professional registers, boards and associations for a range of liberal professions, including the fields of architecture, engineering, medicine, science and veterinary. The findings made for interesting reading. CPD, the report found, is compulsory for the practice of chosen professions in a relatively low number of cases – 37.7%; indeed only 24.4% of practitioners need CPD to register for their appropriate professional body. However, 75% of participants indicated that CPD is “an ethical duty” for professionals.

Time was when you secured a good job, provided you didn’t slip up, you could expect to work for that company until you retired. If the company was Guinness, once the most prized blue-collar job in the country, you might even get some free stout at the end of the day.

This has all changed. A job is no longer for life. Increasingly, people are now masters of their own destiny in the workplace. They need to be agile and have the ability to up-skill, to change roles if necessary in the organisation. Given the downturn, this imperative has never been greater – many employers have to function with decreased resources, and often require staff to pick up the slack in departments that may have decreased in size, to juggle wider portfolios of work and take on greater responsibility. 

One might take it for granted that a professional – whether they’re accountants or astronauts – would take responsibility for keeping up to speed with new developments in their field. Most do, but it’s important to re-double those efforts.

Ever changing work environment

The work environment has never been so sophisticated. It is increasingly litigious. Customers are more demanding. Staff and employers have to navigate a minefield of regulatory issues. They have to keep pace with new thinking in their field. In the world of accounting, for example, there is an increased demand on staff to keep up to date with changing legislation, most recently with amendments to the Finance Act, to be au fait with newer, upgraded software programmes, to be adept at a range of ancillary business skills, such as sales as marketing.

The world of work is changing. You can see the way it’s changing already, all those changes will get more pronounced. Paradoxically, even though technology is becoming more pivotal in helping staff to do their jobs, there is a greater premium on staff to be good at interpersonal relationships, what is called emotional intelligence – at being sensitive with other people, at handling their own emotion, and relating to other people.

Good emotional intelligence provides the skills to navigate any business meeting – whether that’s a one-on-one between a manager and staff member, a group meeting with prospective clients, in negotiations, or a liaison with third parties like the firm’s legal team or PR advisors.

CPD is an invaluable means to fine-tune both technical nous and social skills like emotional intelligence. It’s a broad-based church, covering certified attendance at conferences, seminars, workshops or courses with a formal structure. It can extend to successful completion of a programme of accredited study. It can be “on the job,” through job development and experience-based learning.

It can be informal, such as private study and reading, which is demonstrable in the workplace, or through the publication of research relating to one’s profession or by preparing and delivering a presentation to colleagues, professional peers or the public via a conference.

It’s important to remember the definition of CPD. It’s not a one-off certificate; it’s not a weekend course for senior managers who are bundled off to a hotel in the countryside and passed, as one eminent CPD advisor put it, through a sheep-dip. Continuing is the operative word.

Rolling concern throughout one’s career

Where once education finished that day you donned the gown and mortarboard, now it is a rolling concern throughout one’s career. Employees, both senior and junior, can expect to top up on their learning throughout their careers. CPD is vital if a person wants to change their role in the organisation and cross into a different area of practice. It helps to build confidence and credibility with colleagues and management. It’s useful for helping one to cope with change by constantly updating one’s skill set.

It must be measured. It should also be tied to company goals. After all, CPD can be a good tool to tie into yearly or six-monthly work appraisals, as it helps to focus achievements through the year. This is a useful tip. One of the most important features of CPD for staff is that they are self-directed. It shouldn’t come from the top down.

It’s a staff member’s responsibility to own and organise their professional development, in consultation with the company’s human resources manager if necessary. CPD feeds into their work-life balance, and the ability and insight to manage one’s professional development is seen as an important strength by employers.

And what about employers? What’s in it for them? Is CPD viable, many might wonder, in today’s business climate, in an environment where many Irish organisations are struggling to operate with tight budgets, where they’re preoccupied with trying to retain current staff numbers?

It’s a valid question. Training and development, amidst organisational spending cutbacks, might be seen as a luxury too far. In fact, the opposite is the case. According to researched conducted by the UK’s Chartered Institute of Personal Development, organisations face bigger costs through losing good staff by not offering development opportunities.

Re-focus is key

The key in recessionary times is to re-focus. Maybe it’s not possible to subsidise staff on illustrious MBA programmes, losing them for chunks of the working week as well as having to foot some or all of the course fees, but it might still be possible to fund shorter courses (in part or fully) or to conduct in-house workshops.

If your training budget is particularly tight this year, try to think outside the box. What about offering to subsidise, say, membership in a local Toastmasters Club? There are 90 of them scattered around the country. They’re an ingenious and enjoyable way to cultivate public-speaking skills, to improve confidence and one’s ability to think on one’s feet.

Doubling up is also a useful strategy. If possible, get managers to bring projects from their workplace to an event where, provided the environment is a safe one, they can brainstorm plans with a group of peers, receiving help, support and advice on the project.

Mentoring is the most cost-effective and possibly the most intelligent way to nurture a company’s talent. It draws on the company’s embedded expertise and fosters better harmony among junior and senior staff.

Interactive experience

More and more, people are reluctant to be passive recipients of training and instruction. They crave an interactive experience; they prefer dialogue over instruction. A mentoring programme is the ideal mechanism for this transfer of corporate knowledge and hard-won business savvy.

Remember: your employees are your company’s greatest asset. In an environment where salary increases and bonuses aren’t so easy to offer, one of the best ways to keep morale high is by creating an organisation that’s renowned for continuing learning.

Jason O’Connor is the Director of Marketing with Accounting Technicians Ireland, the leading professional body for accounting technicians on the island of Ireland. They offer an extensive range of CPD courses in finance, tax and business skills which are open to all business professionals. Further details are available at www.accountingtechniciansireland.ie

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