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Revisiting the validity of CPD – and a new process which might actually work
Remember when there were lots of L&D activities which were geared towards gaining Continuing Professional Development (CPD) points? Primarily targeted at the professions such as lawyers, dentists, pharmacists and the like, there was a brief fashion for CPD processes to be adopted by others as a way of encouraging knowledge updating, ongoing reflection and career development. (If you’re unfamiliar with the practice of CPD, this primer from the CIPD is a pretty good introduction.)
Now CPD always had a bit of an image problem. In many organisations it was reduced to a year end scramble to record anything which could possibly be considered as ‘learning’ to be included against their account. In these cases, measures of activity became converted into targets and as with any system based on measures and targets, Goodhart’s Law applies. Goodhart was a Bank of England Economist at the turn of the 20th century and his famous maxim is usually rendered as “When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure”.
CPD - Measures v targets
We can certainly see this in the realms of people management. Whenever a manager or HR team establishes targets (usually in the form of Key Performance Indicators or KPIs) which individuals must achieve, guess what? They achieve the KPIs. After, all ‘what gets measured gets done’, right?
Well yes, but there are problems here. By applying Goodhart’s Law we can see that changing a measure of what good looks like into a target means that efforts are directed at simply meeting the target rather than sustainably changing behaviour or adopting new practices. In the world of CPD this meant that courses were attended, e-learning modules completed and journals subscribed to, without there being any meaningful impact on day to day to activity. By measuring inputs, the focus was redirected from maintaining competence and improving work performance to counting the numbers of bums on the numbers of seats in a number of training rooms.
With any KPI system – and especially those which are translated into performance targets for individuals - there are two main problems:
First of all, indicators of performance are just that – indicators. They are not the same as real performance and rarely do they effectively describe exactly what good looks like.
Second, some managers don’t give an awful lot of thought to the measures they will convert into targets and therefore they neither drive improved performance nor encourage the desired behaviour. Managers frequently accord importance to those things which are easy to measure rather than taking the time to measure those things which are really important.
Moreover, L&D targets are often perceived to be an unnecessary bureaucratic process imposed by those who are out of touch with life at the sharp end. If you work in HR or L&D, you may recognise this characterisation. It is a description often applied to us by our peers. I would argue that we rarely do much to disprove the validity of this perception.
The pains of CPD
CPD suffers/suffered from both problems. Where it still exists, it is often reduced to a year end box ticking procedure, usually timed to coincide with that equally discredited process, the performance appraisal meeting. What’s more, the processes being measured (and set as targets) are not necessarily the most important or desirable behaviours to deliver the required focus on improving individual skills.
After all, course attendance doesn’t mean you learned anything.
Completing an online module doesn’t mean you remember anything about its contents ten minutes after completing the mandatory end of module quiz.
Attending that conference might only mean you caught up with a few former colleagues while desperately trying to line up another job, preferably in a firm where they don’t have a terrible CPD process!
Does CPD have a future?
Despite these real issues with the way CPD was administered by the hard of thinking, I still mourn its passing. I still think CPD as a process has some value. I still think that asking people to focus on their skills and updating their industry or specialist knowledge is a good thing. I just don’t want it to be reduced to a series of year end targets, where success means attending some courses, regardless of their relevance to current role, future aspirations or development needs.
So here’s my version of a CPD process which might actually work.
- Start with reflection. Ask each employee to write a reflective log/blog about the last time period and their goals for the next time period. They should include in that anything they want to learn about to help them achieve their goals. I think a whole year is far too long to reflect on with any accuracy, so negotiate a shorter period – say 3 months if possible. After the blog has been refined in discussion with the individual’s line manager, publish the blogs on the company intranet or similar.
- Ask each employee to comment on the aspirations, goals and development requirements of others. They could offer suggestions, share experiences and provide appropriate links to sources of support. This will not be easy and will require effort to get people to comment (or, for that matter, log in!) But recruit some people who are more likely to get involved. Make sure some of these are senior managers. Getting some kind of attention from, and dialogue with, a senior person might help drive engagement.
- Use the collective information from the exercise to inform the development of L&D activity. This should not merely be a process of responding to requests. Smart L&D teams will recognise where the aspirations and development needs of employees differ from the strategic, future capability requirements of the organisation and take appropriate action.
- Create campaigns about specific L&D interventions (which, of course, have been designed to address current and future skills gaps). The measurement of the effectiveness of these campaigns will be the degree to which subsequent developmental blogs mention the subject of the campaign.
- Check in with individuals who have participated and publish follow up stories. Emphasise the link between the performance goal and the learning which has taken place.
- Summarise the collective impact of these endeavours. Tell the stories, collect the numbers (but only if they make sense to people - eschew them if they are not robust) and showcase achievements – function, region, team and individual.
- Repeat without falling into the trap of imposing meaningless measurements.
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t monitor or encourage positive engagement with this focus on CPD. Perhaps people in your organisation are given opportunities for advancement – special projects, secondments or promotion. The selection process for these opportunities should be transparently linked to engagement in CPD, especially if it involves promotion to a management or supervisory role. Similarly, performance reviews which result in bonus payments or pay rises, should also take CPD activity into account.
Yes it takes work. Yes, it’s a bit more challenging than simply producing a course menu and monitoring completion reports and quiz scores on the LMS.
What’s is the true potential of CPD?
I’d want it to enable people to take control of their own learning; to engage with the L&D team to help improve their individual and collective performance and to assist planning by individuals to incrementally improve and update their skills.
Without something which does this, the positive change we seek gets washed away by a tidal wave of targets, KPIs and meaningless bureaucracy.
Seven companies share their ROI stories and how they improved performance, changed behaviour and transformed fortunes. This report is important reading for anyone evaluating their company's sales performance and / or considering a skills improvement programme.